In this month’s 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, all the questions were about love.
While most of the queries were boring and predicable—“Do you believe in love at first sight?” “How important is good sex to a successful relationship?”— there was one consideration that caught my eye, and is worth pondering at greater length: “Which marriage vow is the hardest to keep?”
Is it “To always be faithful”? “In sickness and in health”? “For richer and for poorer”? Or perhaps, simply, “For better and for worse”?
In other words, how might we truly take the measure of one’s love for someone else? That is, of course, assuming such a thing can be measured at all.
These impossible questions are the subject of Amour, the amazing new movie by Michael Haneke, which opens in Boston this weekend.
What the film is about—indeed, all that the film is about—is that it’s easy enough for two halves of a marriage to declare their love for one another when they’re young, healthy and relatively carefree. It is the arrival of difficulty, disease and death when the measure of one’s devotion is put to the test.
Amour is the story of Anne and Georges, a long-married couple now in their 80s. After a lifetime of mutual self-sufficiency, Anne suffers a stroke and requires Georges’s support—moral and physical—in ways neither of them is used to or particularly adept at handling.
What makes Amour great—nay, what makes it tolerable—is its understanding that true love, in the context of a long marriage, has very little to do with sex or even romance, and everything to do with commitment, sacrifice and accepting that some things are more important than your own happiness.
In one sequence, we see Georges feeding Anne a glass of water through a straw, which she is no longer able to do herself. Anne is deeply demoralized by having to go about such a basic task in this manner, and George’s own impatience is evident as well.
Georges’s measure of devotion here is proved not by the pleasure he might derive from assisting his wife, but by the obvious agony. Scenes of him helping Anne off the toilet, raising her from bed and cutting up her vegetables make a similar point: He doesn’t particularly enjoy doing any of these things, but his marriage vows demand it.
The movie contains no musical score, no moments of overt melodrama, no yelling and shouting—no “action,” at least by the standards of conventional cinema. Amour is largely a series of long, static shots as the characters carry on their lives as best they know how.
As a movie, Amour would be unbearably tedious were it not so well-acted, well-directed and, well, true. It is dramatic in the sense that life itself is dramatic. It works because we understand why Anne and Georges behave as they do—even if we might have acted differently in a comparable situation.
But then we can’t know such things until they actually happen. People express love in different ways, and there are certain forms we might not notice or appreciate until after the fact. In his first Late Late Show monologue following the death of his father, Craig Ferguson very affectingly recounted the way his father never expressed emotion, but that through four decades of hard work as a postal worker, providing steady support for his wife and kids, “I was never in any doubt that he loved me.”
In its way, Amour is a cautionary tale against entering into a marriage lackadaisically, not taking the commitment seriously and not thinking things through. It is an institution that is not for the fainthearted.
As America grapples with the changing meaning of marriage in today’s society, we have come to recognize that for a time marriage was largely about commitment, but that today it is largely about love.
What Amour suggests above all else is that these two enigmatic concepts are not mutually exclusive. Those traditional marriage vows, as old as the hills, are not a hindrance to true love, but rather are the means to its fullest expression. For better and for worse.