Reflection of age-old Amour is touching and tear-jerking
Remember Love Story? This 1970 film told the tale of Jennifer (Ali McGraw), a beautiful girl from the poorer side of town who fell in love with wealthy Oliver (Ryan O'Neal) and married him (against the wishes of his family), only then to be diagnosed with a terminal illness that robbed them of a life together.
Its tag line was 'Love means never having to say you're sorry' and it reduced cinema audiences to tears.
Film Society's next film – Amour – is Love Story for our times. Here though, instead of a couple of beautiful young things with their whole lives before them, we have an elderly couple nearing the end of theirs. Love Story nearly drowned in gloop: Amour is as free of the stuff as it is possible to be.
Seeing as it's directed by Michael Haneke, who explores human relationships in his films with clinical honesty, this is no surprise. What is a surprise is that Haneke's film is a real love story – tender, truthful and moving – and infinitely believable.
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It is set in Paris, in the apartment of Georges and Anne (played by veteran actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), both former musicians with rich, creative lives individually and together, now making the most of their retirement.
Theirs is a rock-solid relationship marked by small touches of intimacy – on their return from a concert given by a former pupil for example, Georges tells Anne how pretty she looks, a comment she accepts almost unconcernedly – and they are still very much in love. One day during breakfast, Anne appears to freeze, going into a trance-like state. When she revives, she has no memory of what has happened and dismisses Georges' concerns as though he has made it all up.
This is just a precursor to Anne having another much more significant episode – clearly a stroke. Before losing her powers of speech, she begs Georges not to put her in a home or hospital: and as we already know of Georges' devotion to her, he honours that request.
Like King Lear, who described the agony of his existence as like being 'bound upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears do scald like molten lead', and in spite of his own advancing age and declining strength, Georges must carry this obligation through to its inevitable conclusion.
He knows – we know – Anne will not recover. He knows – we know – he will pay a heavy price. Eva, their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) attempts to persuade Georges to change his mind, do the practical thing and get help. Nurses are employed but both are dismissed – the second after she is discovered to be mistreating Anne. Georges decides that there is no-one better able to care for his wife than himself and nowhere better for her to be than in her home, where the final acts of the story take place.
Trintignant and Riva play this perfectly. Their physical acting is as eloquent as the lines they speak. It's little wonder that Riva's performance was recognised by BAFTA and the Oscars.
Michael Haneke's films are often thought of as threatening and lacking in compassion. It's true that he frequently explores the harsher aspects of human nature and many may not take to this forensic examination of the realities of getting old.
You also may not like the film or the controversial way it ends. But what makes Amour so powerful (and why I describe it as Love Story for the time) is that it doesn't set out to provoke an emotional response or provide easy answers.
It has the courage to let us watch what happens, become immersed in the story and engage with the characters. It wants to show us what is going to happen to many of us, asking timely questions about our attitudes towards ageing and death.
It makes us feel deeply for both Georges and Anne. If there isn't a tear in your eye at the end, you have a heart of stone.
Amour (12a): showing at The Venue, October 4, 7.30pm
Also at The Venue
From Up On Poppy Hill (U): Family Film Club, October 5, 2.30pm. Animation from Studio Ghibli.
What Maisie Knew (15): October 5th 7.30 and October 9, 2.30pm. Most enjoyable family drama starring Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore.
In Which We Serve (U): October 7, 7.30pm (History on Film Season). Classic British Second World War film from Noel Coward.
The Act of Killing (15): October 9, 7.30pm. Surrealist documentary from Thailand.