Amour is not an easy film, and it’s certainly not for anyone who’s afraid of ageing, let alone anyone nurturing fantasies of immortality. Written and directed by the hard-edged Michael Haneke, it’s about a loving, companiable couple in their early eighties, played by two veterans of the French new wave: Emmanuelle Riva (Alain Resnais’ classic Hiroshima Mon Amour) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman). And it’s about what happens when she has a stroke — a relatively minor one — and then another, devastating one…
I saw it at a small private screening, and thought it beautiful — quietly courageous, uncommonly real, and truly loving in a way that goes so far beyond Hollywood stereotypes as to make them hollow caricatures of humanity. So I was quite dismayed when others there called it depressing. It was too long, they said. It made them uncomfortable. It dwelled too much on the small details of life. It took far too long it took to arrive at its inevitable denouement.
All these things were part of what made me admire the movie so. And why I went home convinced that it would win no awards.
What a delight to be so very wrong! Though I didn’t yet know it, Amour had already won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and was now being talked about as the front-runner for the best foreign-film Oscar (thus the private screening copy) — talk that ramped up this past weekend when it won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for best picture of 2012. The Oscars might actually redeem themselves this year.
But what’s stuck with me ever since I saw the movie — and the reason I’ll see it again — is one seemingly simple detail in the couple’s everyday life:
Whenever one does something for the other, even something as minor as putting a cup of coffee on the table or taking the empty cup to the sink, the other says “Merci.”
That’s it — a simple thank you. Said not automatically, but not with great stress either. Said quietly, but appreciatively. “You mean it was polite,” someone said. But no, that was not at all what I meant. This was far more than mere politeness (I grew up in England, so I know how shallow politeness can be): this was courteous. Real courtesy: an acknowledgment of the other’s existence — of the small kindnesses and fond accommodations that make up the couple’s daily life together. It was, in a beautiful phrase I heard over the dinner table just last night, part of “the rhythm of connection.”
The word is said, in its quiet, companiable way, many times before the second stroke deprives the wife of speech. So it hovers in the air, unsaid, when she can no longer speak. In the end, when her husband finally brings himself to do what he knows she wants him to do, I found myself saying thank you for her.
I don’t want to act the spoiler, so I won’t spell it out for you. Enough to say that yes, death can be a courtesy all its own. And as it happened, I thought “Yes, that’s real love.”