“Amour” Is Hard Stuff…

Romeo and JulietteLast week was all about love – but sometimes love isn’t easy to watch or talk about. Great art is great because it taps into universal truth, but sometimes the truth, even as it is revealed in art, is hard to digest.

Over the last 10 days I’ve seen the following performances: Romeo and Juliette, the ballet, Rigoletto live from the Metropolitan Opera in HD, and Amour, the Oscar-winning Austrian film starring Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. In spite of the fact that Valentine’s Day fell in there somewhere, it’s not a lineup that promotes optimism about love. All three stories are about love that ends badly. Valentine’s Day we celebrate love with red roses and chocolates but real life isn’t always roses and chocolates.

I saw the three performances in the order listed and that happenstance sequencing is interesting in its timeline of love. Romeo and Juliette is a story of first love and families in conflict. Rigoletto is about a father’s love for his daughter and his efforts to protect her from the lecherous Duke, and Amour is a voyeuristic, unvarnished look at a French couple’s love at the end of life.

The Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliette, danced to the music of Prokofiev, is all about love. I’m not a big fan of Prokofiev’s score for the ballet. I like the lyrical, romantic Tchaikovsky version more, and I was imprinted by the Fonteyn/Nureyev pairing with the Tchaikovsky which I saw in San Francisco in the 1970’s. Nevertheless, Prokofiev, like Bernstein (West Side Story) captures the conflict with his punctuated dissonance without undermining the love story. This PNB production is magical. The sets are spare, abstract, geometric shapes, and the balcony scene is set on a long narrow ramp that rose up between these shaped backdrops. Like other R & J’s it is soft focused and romantic, all pastel colorings, and a clean almost clinical staging. It’s hard to see it as a tragedy but, after all, Shakespeare’s title is The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet, whether it’s acted, danced, or sung, whether it’s the classic play or even the pop-rock Dire Straits song, is overwhelmingly set as a virginal romance with a tragic ending.

Verdi’s Rigoletto is different. Except for the music it’s not romantic but it is a love story that ends up with a twisted unexpected ending. In a botched effort to protect his daughter, Gilda, from the lecherous Duke of Mantua, Gilda, besotted by the Duke, decides to sacrifice herself to save her father and in a case of mistaken identity is killed. Nothing in opera is ever simple and the Met’s new production of Rigoletto, like Romeo and Juliette has been “updated.” Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer has set the opera in 1960’s Las Vegas, with the Duke’s entourage based on Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Hard to believe but true. And… it works if you’re not wedded to the original setting in 1500’s Mantua. The music is memorable and romantic, even if the update is a stretch and the end tragic.

On the other hand, there is nothing romantic about Amour. It is an unflinching look at George and Anne Laurent, a pair of retired piano teachers dealing with the indignities of old age. Over the course of the film Anne suffers two strokes and a botched operation and in the process extracts a promise from George that he will not send her back to the hospital or to a nursing home. The camera rarely leaves the couple except when their distracted, slightly annoyed and irritated daughter visits and urges him to put Anne in a nursing home. The daughter clearly cares but prattles on about her own problems not wanting to personally deal with or face the truth of her parents’ situation.

I think we all fantasize or at least naively hope that we and those that we love will pass quietly in our sleep and that everything will be in order and no mess will be left to clean up. It’s a fantasy. My wife is a consultant in senior healthcare and she reminds me frequently that the end of life is not pretty and that my intransigence about assisted living and nursing homes is all about the fantasy. I’m one of those in denial.

Amour is haunting. It’s hard to watch and impossible to forget. I’m sure my children won’t see it and would be bored if they did. They are like the Laurent’s daughter. They have their own lives, their own children, their own problems, and they don’t want to face the truth or deal with it when we, their parents, come to the very end. The truth is that we are close to that end. At 75 I know that my life and Marilynn’s will end sometime in the next 20 years but I don’t want to think about it. I hope it’s a quality 20 years and that we die in our sleep without pain. More fantasy. More denial.

We don’t want to burden our children or even talk to them about it, but the reality is that eventually our children will be pulled into the mess at the end. In earlier times families were involved in all phases of their integrated lives and there was an expectation that they would step up for each other including the messy parts at the end. I’d like to think that is still true, but I think it’s an extension of the fantasy.

Go see Amourif you want a reality check.


  1. Jack,
    Nice picture of you and Marilynn at the top of your blog.

    Re the movie “Amour,” my sister wrote that it was wonderful, but depressing. Hearing that I went into automatic mode in deciding not to see it, even knowing nothing more about it. I get my daily allotment of depression every day from the newspaper. Why volunteer for more? And if it’s a case of missing out on a fine artistic effort – there’s no shortage of that to be had elsewhere. For example, I’m currently reading a volume of Aldous Huxley’s letters and what with his wit and his hobnobbing with everyone who was ever anyone in the first half of the 20th century – that’s enough aesthetic stimulation for a lifetime.

    Curmudgeonly yours,

  2. Hi Jack,

    Really interesting. Want to re-read when I have more time. We’ve een here about 5 days. Talk about love. Every time we come there’s more. As for Amour, as you say, pretty hard going and horribly endlessly haunting. But your life sounds good. Better than that. To more.

    Bonne continuation and merce for the blog,


  3. Ahhh now I know. I too was wondering who that was in the photo. Of course it’s you and M. Thank Walt for me. When do you head for Viet Nam? How will you find time?

    Btw, we did the aging parent/s thing in spades. I mean the really awful part. We aren’t in denial. Who could be after going through that three times? Still, I vote for dying in my sleep after a long day of something delicious that’s been a microcosm of the best parts of a long life.

    Does Doug have a child? Or poetic license?


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