Several years ago I wrote what I consider the only good song I’ve ever produced. “Ounce of Life” was the title, and the chorus went like this:
I’ll hold on
To your love
Till every ounce of life is gone.
The story behind the song is simple and compelling, like I imagine it is for most songs. According to a friend of my ex-wife, her grandmother awoke one morning, went about the usual morning business, then made breakfast for herself and her husband. When she returned to the bedroom, breakfast tray in hand, she discovered her husband motionless and unresponsive. After a few panicky moments, she was forced to realize he was dead. Grandmother then did something poetic.
She curled beside her husband and held him until all the warmth left his body.
Michael Haneke’s devastating film Amour returned me to the psychic place I lived when I wrote that song. His take on the enduring power of love—and the sacrifices one must make to restore the dignity of their beloved—is harsh, unrelenting, but ultimately human. Haneke forces us to watch two people die over two hours, and provides us no comfort, no trite platitudes, no release.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignent) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are a happily married octogenarian couple. They are retired teachers enjoying their golden years together, attending concerts of former pupils, and living vicariously through the drama of their daughter’s globetrotting life. Then tragedy hits: Anne suffers a stroke. Georges becomes her caretaker, and has to deal with the blessing and burden of nursing her.
This plot is far from complex. It has an inevitability which only adds to Haneke’s despairing tone. We know from the breathtaking opening shot Anne will be paid tribute in death, positioned in peaceful repose and surrounded by simple, yet beautiful white flowers. So, with each brutal moment Georges feeds her, or tries to help her rehab, we are fully aware death is coming. The only thing to ease its arrival is the titular power of love.
And what a love it is. The love Georges and Anne share is among that most real, honest, and touching I’ve ever encountered in a film. The performances of Trintignent and Riva never slide into caricature or sentiment, as lesser actors might be inclined to do with such raw material. Riva in particular is remarkably bold, revealing Anne’s feisty spirit in her most despondent moments. One which resonates most with me involves Georges trying to encourage Anne to drink water from a sipper cup after her second stroke. He finally manages to force her, but Anne refuses to swallow, eventually spitting the water into his face. Helpless, incontinent, paralyzed, and mute, she chooses dehydration and possible death over the hell she is in, and rejects her husband’s selfish attempts to keep her alive. But Georges is helpless, too, as incapable of helping her as he is incapable of watching her die – so he slaps her across the face before collapsing against her, begging for forgiveness. Listening to his tear-stained pleas brought me to tears myself.
The beauty, yet most disheartening element, of Haneke’s ode is recognizing the fate of Georges and Anne is the fate of us all. The hourglass is tipping its scales against us, and there is no stopping it. While most mainstream Hollywood films fill their frames with people dying in blazes of glory, Haneke reminds us of a bitter truth. Most of us will die ignoble deaths, shit staining our diapers, drool percolating in the corners of our mouth, all the while at the mercy of those we love the most. We live to die, Amour constantly reminds us, from its elegiac piano score to the mausoleum-inspired décor of Georges and Anne’s home.
But this reality is tempered by love, of course. It is only love that redeems Georges and Anne and brings nobility to their suffering. It is the only force in the world that has the chance to make meaning of the meaningless. It is love that compels a man to honor his wife in those vulnerable, dying embers of her life, and love that draws a woman into one final embrace with her dead husband. Love and death are all we have, Haneke whispers in the film’s closing moments.
So let’s hold onto those we love, until every ounce of life is gone.