I don’t know if only I notice it, but in the times I’ve been at The Power Plant mall, I often witness a particular scene that makes me sad and a bit troubled.
The mall seems to have, compared to other shopping centers, more very elderly people—residents of the nearby posh condominiums that circle it—strolling around, many in wheelchairs pushed by caretakers or nurses, but more often by their uniformed domestic help.
Obviously having lived very financially successful lives, they have however either a sad or an empty look in their eyes, as anybody would be, I guess, when not only the body but the mind, like everything else in this universe, gives way to the laws of entropy.
I myself witnessed such melancholy denouement of a beautiful human life, when my mother’s nearly 90 years gradually took its toll, her mind slowly having gaps that there were times when she couldn’t recognize me.
A particularly sad scene I witnessed at the mall was one elderly gentleman on a wheelchair, at least a septuagenarian, at the True Value hardware supermarket, who insisted on buying an electric drill but was dissuaded from doing so by the two domestic help accompanying him, who were ridiculing him that he wouldn’t ever be able to use it. This gentleman probably was a CEO of some huge corporation, the thought flashed in my mind, and now his help was telling him what he could or couldn’t do.
It’s a phase in our lives all of us will have to go through, unless some disease or accident or assassin (mercifully?) blocks our way there. Old age. Very old age when we can’t take care of ourselves. And horror of horrors, when our mind starts to be dreamy and to flicker the way a candle does when its wax fuel is nearly consumed.
These thoughts are depressing. How do the poor or even middle class people go through the last leg of their trip on this earth, especially if some dread disease hits them? How will I feel if I can no longer read and write a column, when I reach that stage?
Very old age is probably one of the last taboos that isn’t discussed much. Those really there—in the midst of that last phase—are unable to tell us “mainstream” humans enjoying the sunlight of vigorous life what it’s like to be there. Filipinos even tend to romanticize that phase with movie and Sustagen-kind of commercial scene of happy children playing around lolo and lola, as if they were immortals.
Quite surprisingly, a “reportage” of that last trip in everyone’s life, even if fictionalized, comes from the movie world, in the film, which on the surface is inappropriately titled “Amour” (“love” in French), a French-language film, brilliantly directed and written by renowned Austrian director Michael Haneke.
Amour made waves in the movie world, but we here unfortunately weren’t much aware of it. It won the Palme d’Or, the highest prize in the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year. It was nominated and was a strong contender for Oscar Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director. The leading lady, Emmanuelle Riva, was also nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. That’s a record: at 85, she is the oldest nominee for that prize. The movie was nominated in ten categories, in the 38th César Awards winning in five, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress.
All these accolades for a movie that involves two characters, and takes place entirely (with the exception of a five-minute scene in a concert hall) within the elderly couple’s chic Paris apartment, filled with all the fixtures indicating the elegant, cultured life of books and music they have lived.
In a few brief scenes, the movie portrays the kind of lives we idealize old couples to be having in the twilight of their lives: a night at the concert (here, in the movies, or with grandchildren), reading in a book-filled sala, a quiet breakfast as the morning sunlight fills the room.
But reality more often isn’t like that. Anne, the wife, is hit with a series of strokes. Her hospitalization seems to have been such a nightmare for her, that she exacts a promise from her husband Georges—in what would be a portent of the movie’s ending—never to bring her back to the hospital.
Apparently in her effort to remind her of better times, she suddenly asks her husband while they’re having breakfast to fetch their photo album. It is such a poignant scene as the camera pans their wrinkled faces and then the photos in the album when they were young. “C’est belle, la vie,” she says plaintively. Despite every thing, this life, it’s beautiful.
She slips into dementia, and Georges’ face is one of panic and horror when he first realizes it. Georges is suddenly thrown into solitariness, and their once bright apartment becomes a cold cell, even a sepulcher at the end of the movie. Director Hanke’s genius is in his depiction of human routines that become an ordeal for an elderly sick person: going to the toilet, having a bath, even just climbing to bed.
As if in a heroic effort impressed on the viewer that this isn’t a movie but reality, Anne’s sagging breasts are shown for a few seconds, as she cries in pain while being bathed by a nurse. And then a scene flashes in which Georges sees Anne elegantly playing their grand piano with some classical piece.
The couple and then the husband become utterly alone, and taking care of Anne consists entirely of Georges’ life. Their daughter is distraught over her mother’s condition and demands that her father bring her to a hospice to be “properly” taken care of. He asks her, if she really cares so much for her mother, if she’d like her to move in with her so she can take care of her. Her most probable response isn’t shown.
So profoundly sad is a scene in which Georges tries to spoon-feed Anne with some baby-food kind of goo. After he succeeds on the third try, she spits it out though like a defiant toddler that Georges loses his temper and slaps her.
There is a brilliant, and profound unexpected twist to the movie though, which I won’t give away.
It’s no wonder that usually cynical American movie critics raved about “Amour.” One critic described it as an “unblinking meditation on life’s last act.” A New York Times critic acclaimed it as “a masterpiece about life, death and everything in between.”
It is a depressing movie, one that you should see in the morning rather than in the evening. The sad note it strikes lingers on for a few days.
But as many of the most depressing movies do—“Never Let Me Go” based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel is a recent example for me—“Amour” somehow strangely makes you feel so happy, and thankful that you’re alive, still far, at least today, from being in that phase of life Georges and Anne are.
With the title director-writer Hanke chooses for his movie, he seems to be also saying: Aging sucks but love saves.
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