Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
Oscar Wins: Best Foreign Language Film (France – Michael Haneke)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva), Best Director (Michael Haneke), Best Original Screenplay (Michael Haneke)
SUMMARY: In Paris, authorities break into an apartment, clued in by an odd smell. Inside, they find a room sealed shut with packing tape; when they also break through this door, they find the body of Anne Laurent (Emmanuelle Riva) laying in bed, surrounded by flowers. The action then flashes back. Anne and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are both former piano teachers, not retired. They are both in their eighties, but aside from the usual wear of age, seem to be in good health. The morning after they attend a concert of one of Anne’s former students, Anne has a stroke in the kitchen. Georges does not realize what is happening: they are sitting at the table when Anne suddenly stops responding to his questions. She does not fall over or indicate that anything is wrong, and several minutes later begins talking as if nothing has happened. She does not remember the episode, which makes Georges wonder if she is playing a joke on him. However, when Anne tries to pour herself a cup of tea, she completely misses the cup. Georges takes Anne to the hospital, where they learn that she has a blockage in her carotid artery. Surgery on such cases is successful 95% of the time, but unfortunately Anne becomes part of the 5% failure cases. The failed surgery also leaves her with a paralyzed right side, meaning she must use a wheelchair. Anne has always been afraid of doctors, and after returning home from the hospital she makes Georges promise that he will never put her into another one. Georges becomes Anne’s full-time caretaker, helping her get in and out of bed and the wheelchair, preparing meals, and even helping her use the restroom. This puts a strain on both of them; Anne hates that she needs so much help, and Georges gets annoyed by the amount of help his wife now needs. Anne tells him that she doesn’t want to keep living, due to the effect her condition has on both of them.
One day, the couple is unexpectedly visited by Alexandre, the same former student whose concert they attended. Despite her earlier depression, Anne gets up and dressed, and has a good talk and visit with Alexandre. Not long after, she has a second stroke, which greatly affects her mental state. She is often incoherent and not lucid, and her physical condition deteriorates. Georges continues to take care of her, but he also hires a nurse to come in three days a week. Despite the urgings of the couple’s daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), he refuses to put Anne in a home or a hospital/hospice, saying that he intends to keep his promise. The nurse helps, bathing Anne and showing Georges how to do things like change her diaper, but Georges decides to hire a second nurse, to work in shifts with the first. He also has to learn to cope with the new effects of Anne’s condition, like her tendency to moan the same word over and over for hours on end (which he is told by the nurse is just a reflex, not an actual reference to her condition). Not long after hiring the second nurse, Georges fires her for mistreating Anne. By now, he is aware of what will happen to Anne, and has come to terms with his role. He does speech therapy with her, and eases her ramblings by telling her stories and talking to her. After telling her one such story, he uses a pillow to smother Anne. He then goes out and returns with fresh flowers, which he washes and cuts in the kitchen. He picks out a dress for Anne and begins writing a letter, then tapes up the bedroom. As he is working on the letter, a pigeon flies into the house; George caches and releases it, then notes the event in the letter. Some time later, he wakes up to a noise in the kitchen; when he gets up, he finds Anne washing dishes. She tells him that she is almost ready to leave. After both put on their coats and shoes, Georges follows Anne out of the apartment. The film then returns to the present, when Eva enters the apartment and walking slowly through the quiet rooms.
MY TAKE: I have always thought old couples are often the epitome of true love: they support each other, without question or complaint, when they become frail or sick. My great-grandparents, who were married for 77 years, always held hands when they were together: I think it was both out of affection and for stability. I’ve seen a lot of other examples like this, where one spouse helps the other get up and down and in and out of cars without complaint. That, for me, is taking your vows seriously: for better or worse, they stick with each other. That’s what this movie is about. Anne and Georges are both in their eighties, and are in pretty good shape for their age when Anne suddenly has a stroke. After this, their lives, and relationship, changes dramatically. Obviously, neither of them expected what happened, and neither is too happy about it: Anne resents the loss of her independence, and the fact that Georges has to help her do the most basic (and probably embarrassing) things; he resents that he has to help her all the time. I don’t think that this is a reflection on his feelings for Anne, but rather the natural result of a serious life adjustment: he knows he has to help her, but wishes life could go back to the way it was before. Ultimately, it seems like he gets over this, particularly when he realizes that the end is coming. He seems to be less irritable, and spends a lot of time talking to Anne, even if she doesn’t understand or respond. I was a little surprised that he ultimately smothered her, but I can sort of understand: who wants to watch their loved one, particularly someone they’ve been married to for that long, suffer? I’m not condoning it, but I can see his point of view. Given the ending of the film, I’m also starting to wonder if he wasn’t going a little insane too. He seals up Anne’s body in their bedroom, and then seems to have a hallucination about Anne. The interpretation of this is left open: in my opinion, he’s already died and is symbolically following Anne into the afterlife, or is delusional, and is actually walking out of the apartment to some unknown place. Whatever happens, he clearly also dies. It’s a really bittersweet movie, because you see how much love is in the relationship, but they both end up deceased.
Fun fact: Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for Best Actress at the age of 85, making her the oldest nominee in Oscar history.
RATING: Very moving.