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NPR Arts & Life

Why 'Amour' Is Sad, But Not Depressing

Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Haneke's <em>Amour</em>.
Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Haneke's <em>Amour</em>.

The first voices I heard about Michael Haneke's Amour were essentially in complete agreement: beautiful, brilliant, almost unbearably depressing. Having seen it, I'm not sure I agree with that last part.

The film follows a married couple, former music teachers, who live in a Paris apartment, and whose pleasant life of concerts and breakfasts is disrupted when the wife (Emmanuelle Riva) suffers a series of strokes and the husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) becomes her caregiver. In a sense, the story really is that simple: it is about a woman who is losing more and more of herself and dying, and the film promises from the very outset that she will die, that this is the story of how she will die, and that you will watch her die.

There's no question that it's devastatingly hard to watch in places. It is unambiguously about terrible suffering, both on her part and on her husband's part. It's enormously sad. But is it depressing?

There's a reason that, of all the things this story could be called, it's called Amour. Film titles aren't chosen at random, and this one is there in particular to recast this story not as a story about suffering and dying but as a story about love. Not at all the typical Hollywood story of love, in which there is dancing and kissing and good times. By the time we meet this couple, Georges and Anne, they have had most, if not all, of their good times. This is a story about the fact that feeling love — forming attachments to other people to this degree — has rewards and it has risks, and that plainly, one of the risks is that something like this can happen to you. This is suffering that follows directly from love; that would not exist without it. For both of them, it would be so much easier if they loved each other even a tiny bit less. You could read into it certain suggestions that hospitals are also bad at caring for the dying, but the majority of the massive hurt here was going to happen anyway; it is failing health plus love.

This, coming into a love story for the hard part, isn't terribly common. It's unsettling, of course, to be reminded that some version of this — of at least some of this — lies in store for a lot of people, whether they're the one who needs care or the one who gives care or both.

But while this is a story about suffering, it's also a story about almost boundless grace. These are people, both of them, who try valiantly — valiantly — to balance their own needs with each other's needs. Every move they make is dictated by their understanding that this is not his fate or her fate; it is their jointfate, both because that is what they promised and because they are grown together like vines and there is no way to untangle now.

The movies I find depressing are the ones about suffering that isn't needed. They're about the infliction of pain unnecessarily. They're about human weakness and unkindness and the limitations on the compassion of which people are capable. They are about, at least in part, the absence of grace. The Hunger Games? That's depressing. Or The Master, with its acknowledgement that vulnerable people will always be pulled along paths that cause them grief. The Queen Of Versailles, a documentary about obscene wealth and emotionless climbing, is depressing. Compliance, The House I Live In, even Looper — those are depressing. (And all of them, by the way, are in their own ways wonderful and well worth seeing.)

Amour is just sad — perhaps the saddest movie of the year, but sad is all it is. It's about the less-frequently-filmed side of the fundamental bargain that most people cannot avoid: The closer you get to other people, the more limitless your love for them, the more you potentially are going to experience agony, and sometimes it will in fact be this bad. If you narrow your focus on Georges and Anne to the events of the film, it really does make their story seem miserable. But if you accept the film's suggestion that they have lived happily together, raising a daughter and playing the piano and drinking tea at the table, it's a beautiful story anyway. The ending is indeed almost unbearably sad, but the whole story as it's reflected in everything that happens here? Not really.

And ultimately, what I walked out with was enormous respect — almost reverence — for the fact that this can happen, it can end this way, or in a thousand other ways that are also agonizingly difficult — and we do it anyway. People get married, have kids, make dear friends, get close, and know that at the end, the best-case scenario if it works out exactly the way you hope it will is that somebody dies at the end. Preferably not like this, preferably without so much pain and waiting, but somehow. And we do it anyway. In fact, if Georges and Anne could do it over, they'd do it exactly the same way.

This is a story about the things we have to put out of our minds when we decide to fall in love, or we'd never do it. It's a story about nature at its cruelest, but people at their most selfless. Sad? Yes. Bleak? No.

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