If you aren't in the mood for the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation and for some crazy reason the idea of zombies lusting after live girls is unappealing to you, allow me to offer a piece of advice for your Valentine's Day movie-going plans: In spite of its romantically inclined title, do not under any circumstances take your date to see "Amour. "You might see the title and think "'Amour' means 'love' in French! It must be romantic!" But no, you would be wrong. Yes, Michael Haneke's film is about love, but it's hardly romantic (at least, not in the traditional sense). "Amour" is a film that forces us to confront what love means when it reaches its naturally preordained conclusion: death.
First up, let's be honest for a moment: Valentine's Day is basically a holiday invented by greeting card companies so that couples feel obligated to buy each other gifts while single people hate themselves. It celebrates the ideas of love and romance on the most superficial levels. It's chocolates, roses, wine, candles and, if you're lucky, maybe a little heavy petting. It's all of the nice things without any of the hardships involved in a real relationship. Nick Cassavetes' 2004 film "The Notebook" serves as a good example of the Valentine's Day kind of love.
If you're unfamiliar with the ruthlessly romantic teen fantasia that is "The Notebook," here's a quick summary: an elderly gentleman, Duke (James Garner), tells his elderly companion suffering from Alzheimer's, Allie (Gena Rowlands), the story of how a young couple (played by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams) fell in love many years ago. Spoiler alert: Duke turns out to be the young man in his story and Allie is the woman, and he hopes that by retelling the story Allie will eventually remember their shared past. By a Hollywood twist of fate, Allie does indeed come to remember everything, and that very same night both Duke and Allie die peacefully in bed, meaning that they will never have to be without each other.
The film mostly glosses over Allie's condition in favor of depicting the healing powers of their love, which is apparently so strong that not even death can break their bond. "The Notebook" offers a scenario that's guaranteed to leave even the most jaded of eyes sopping wet with tears. It's sentimental, heart-tugging romantic wish fulfillment, and it's completely unrealistic.
"Amour" is kind of like "The Notebook" if you took out all the stuff with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams making out in the rain and spent two hours watching Gena Rowlands' character slowly die while James Garner stands by helplessly. Haneke's film is a more realistic take on what happens to couples at the end of life, and it is ridiculously depressing. But despite how difficult the viewing experience may be, the film shows us what true devotion really looks like.
Movies usually tell us stories of how romances begin, how they are cut short or how they crumble as two people begin to hate each other, but rarely does a film focus exclusively on the ending of a happy couple's relationship in the way that "Amour" does. There are no extended flashbacks to happier times; only passing memories that fade away when a record stops playing. Life marches inevitably forward.
Like in "The Notebook," the female half of the couple, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), is suffering from a debilitating condition that will eventually lead to her death (not really a spoiler, since the film opens with the discovery of her body), while the husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), provides care for her. In many painful long takes, Haneke makes us watch Georges slowly move Anne from her wheelchair by himself, feed her when she can't feed herself, assist her in the bathroom and slowly come to terms with the fact that the woman he loves is disappearing from his life.
As difficult as it is for Georges to take care of Anne, he never once considers giving up on her. When Anne eventually refuses to eat anymore, Georges exclaims that she will die if she doesn't. When it becomes clear that this is what she wants, he slaps her, providing one of the film's most shocking moments. Georges doesn't react in violence out of hate, but rather because he can't bear to let her go. "Amour" makes us question just what an act of love is: whether it's dutifully caring for someone even as they lose the will to live, or allowing their lives to end as an act of mercy.
"Amour" lacks the bold romantic gestures of most films about love, but it's not a film completely devoid of warmth. It's ultimately the small moments that say the most about the couple's relationship: the daily routines, the constant reminders to fix things, the shared memories of the past. In one scene, Georges tells Anne a story about his youth that she has never heard before. The moment is poignant in that she discovers something new about him even after six decades together, but also incredibly sad as we realize that there will never be enough time for us to know everything about the person we love.
"Amour" reminds us that love is not chocolates and wine and roses and romantic letters and epic kisses in the rain. Love is being by the side of someone as their body deteriorates, feeding them when they can't feed themselves, trying to understand their words when they can no longer speak and carrying out their final wishes when the time comes. This is what's in store for many couples who reach their final years together, and it's also the last thing you want to remind your date if you take him or her to see "Amour" on Valentine's Day.
Good luck getting laid after that!