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The Ultimate Date Movie

Amour (2012), written and directed by Michael Haneke —

You are sitting at breakfast with your partner of fifty or so years and suddenly notice she is staring blankly not at you (perhaps nothing new) and then her cereal begins to dribble from the corner of her mouth. A stream of urine runs down the chair leg to the floor. You speak, even loudly, but there is no response. Death has come to join you for breakfast, insinuating itself between your tea and the morning news, interrupting the habitual comfort of daily routine. This death is not violent or abrupt, it is like a very long sonata which has begun and must play out.

Michael Haneke approaches his aged couple, George and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) with formal tenderness, as though he the poet has taken on the role of Death and is both silent actor and polite (but acute) observer of the proceedings. We begin at the end, with the discovery by the authorities of the well-dressed but stinking corpse of Anne lying in state in the taped off bedroom of the very comfortable Parisian flat which she and George inhabited. It is treated as a crime scene, which indeed it is, for a murder has taken place, but one that we, the audience, forgive. Haneke himself appears neutral on this matter of forgiveness and leaves us in an ethical limbo.

Early in the film, we are insinuated into the proceedings, subtly, by way of a tableau of an audience in a concert hall, their blank faces staring straight at camera–the stage–basking in a light too bright to be an actual concert hall, their stillness eery, the shot held just long enough to get our attention, producing a flicker of anxiety. They are us, the living, clueless about our end, although we know dimly that it will come for us too, we just ignore this fact. The faces of Haneke’s concert audience reflect the relative comfort of that state, watching as though in anticipation of a piece of music, when in fact what is being watched is time running out. It is the anxiety of the bardo, the state of always-slipping-out-from-under that we must hasten to cover over, the scent of decay that we must mask, scrub clean, or seal in. We become insistent on comforts in order to avoid the sort of discomfiture that is primary to our being.

George and Anne arrive home from the concert to find their flat has been broken into. Nothing has been taken, but it will be, for the invader was of course the Dark One, come for Anne.

The next morning Anne is taken down by a stroke. She survives an operation that leaves her disabled, then her health quickly declines and her mind gradually fades away. George’s caregiving is by turns heroic, heart-breaking, and desperate. There is help, visiting nurses, but they see Anne as an old lady with a stroke, not the vibrant woman she was. Anne’s nurses are fearsomely insensitive creatures, who secretly prey on the weakness of patients helpless to defend themselves.

The film is elegantly staffed with a minimum of characters, but Eva (played brilliantly by Isabella Huppert), the estranged daughter, comes home to roost in a most awkward fashion: harsh, selfish and officious; she has the good intentions to sweep in and dispose of the suffering she sees with brute efficiency. George will have none of this, and resists allowing Eva to have any contact with Anne, as though wishing to protect the two women from one another, or to keep his wife to himself. We must surmise that there is a painful history here. Yet, this film again exerts its quiescent power, posing questions without allowing us the comfort of an answer. Why indeed is George so resistant to Eva’s coming around? And why has Eva stayed away? The couple, whom we saw in a social, very public context at the beginning of the story, are revealed as quite isolated, save some kind but nosy neighbors who help by bringing groceries, to whom George is minimally friendly. One young man, Anne’s former piano student now a successful concert pianist, comes to see Anne in her wheelchair-bound state, but the visit is deeply uncomfortable.

We return to the title of the film, Amour, and, knowing what we know of Haneke’s filmography, this is not a feel-good movie about compassion and heroism and the power of love. Amour…roll the title around for what it conjures…romantic love, the love of a couple swept up in an exclusive embrace, a little cabin just made for two, finding private burrows of time for the pursuit of lovemaking, the rapture of having one another for ever after. Not the wedding, but the honeymoon; not the childbearing years when the relationship is pelted by the assaults of countless others, but the after party of later life, the OTHER honeymoon, when the couple lean against one another so as not to fall down, when no one else is interested in the bad back, the false teeth, the heart problems, the hearing loss, but this one soul who has remained a loyal companion, until death takes them apart. George and Anne are the final phase of what begins with dates, with making out, with the trivial quarrels of couple-ness. The children have become as forgotten as the parents in this world of parallel lives. The death that is the story of Amour is grinningly silent as a Memento Mori. It has in its sights the 20-somethings holding hands and hunkering down into their secret comfy warrens for a long life of  marital bliss. All such dual lives must come to an end.

The isolation of George and Anne, of which we would think nothing were this a love story about a young couple, has a much deeper significance here…it isn’t just a comment on how we live in a culture that ignores the old, although that is indeed part of what Haneke is saying. This is a particularly lonely death, not a death surrounded by family members, church friends, or neighbors. Certainly the sort of death shown here is not unique…many people die alone or with only one or two other close caregivers or loved ones…but it is a choice Haneke has made in order to illustrate a peculiarly contemporary development, the entirely secular death, the death governed by bourgeois principles of ethical rationalism. In the world of this film, there is the good, the loyal, the sweetness of sharing secrets and memories set against the grim reality of Anne, pleading and pitiful in her infirmity, moaning ‘Mal, mal, mal’ (‘Sick, sick, sick”…or ‘hurts, hurts, hurts’)…which sounds disconcertingly like she is crying for her mother. There is no mention of an afterlife, a heaven, a hell, angels, eternal soul or transcendence. There is no theorizing about a tunnel with a light at the end…no spiritualism, no prayers, no priests–just love: “Amour”, the valorization of one person by another and the comfort and consolation it provides, for a time. Only the couple, the lovers, can illustrate the piercing irony of this isolation. There is a failure of this system of the isolated couple, a breakdown of romance which is a darkly logical inversion of its beginning. George, trying hard to be patient and caring, slowly dissolves into the madness of grief. Ultimately, after a tender scene where he tells her a story about a childhood trauma which calms one of her fits of crying “Mal”, he smothers her with a pillow. Pet owners almost always euthanize their pets when they see that the animal is in pain and at the end of life. Why is there any problem with doing this to people? Especially when they become so difficult to care for, when they have lost their dignity, their usefulness, their minds and their functionality. What is life without the ability to fix your spouse a cup of coffee?

Haneke like any good poet, simply walks us down the path of his narrative, and leaves us at the end to ponder these questions ourselves. However tender-hearted Amour appears, it is the tough-minded story of love and of a murder, which appears on the surface to be forgivable, only because Haneke has presented the murderer with such genuine compassion. Despite the compassionate treatment of his characters, there is most definitely at play a critique of the underlying “humanism” by which the act is carried out. The bourgeois, however refined, cultured, and kindly, is at heart materialistic, utilitarian and pragmatic. Given this paradigm, it makes perfect sense that life really ends somewhere before the end, once a being cannot stand up or shit in the right place, or recognize the faces of the family. This leaves the dying person at mercy of a thin veneer of tenderness and virtue, based on the residue of love, a love which seems indestructibly strong but in actuality is based on highly conditional factors. Humanism, the guiding ethic, dictates the idea of humane treatment, but “humane treatment” sanctions euthanasia, “mercy” killing, a gnarly ethical issue, currently at play in the debate over assisted suicide. One of the reasons it is complex is that the killing of another being is almost always done with ambiguous motivation. We the mercy killers are willing to endure responsibility for another person’s death, in order to spare them the final suffering. George had broken down and simply could not take anymore. Was it Anne’s suffering he could not bear? Was he heartbroken that she had been destroyed by illness before his eyes? Could he not not bear to see her suffering or his  own? Was it because Death had inserted itself into their bed of wedded bliss, that he was frustrated and angry to the point of despair? Is putting an end to one’s own suffering a sufficient reason to end a loved one’s life?

The Memento Mori tradition juxtaposes Death with vanity, beauty and indulgence, and Amour inserts itself into the marketplace as just such a wild card. It is a much beloved film by the critics, for it pretends to pass no judgment, and appears to be a mature and gentle tale of an excruciating end. There is an amusing post on Amour’s Facebook page that reads “Amour????? Haneke always has to do covered or uncovered violence… Amour???? Is that irony?” Yes, and this is the way irony is supposed to be done, cool and discreet, like the lick of a snake.

 

Comments

  1. Guy Zimmerman says:

    This is a sensitive and persuasive assessment, and the writing is beautiful. I have a feeling there will be a few additional viewers for the film in Los Angeles (me among them), and this can only be a good thing…Thanks for writing it!

    All best,
    GZ

  2. Amour was one of the most relentlessly depressing stories I have ever sat through (Though many in the audience at the showing I attended chose to leave early, I recklessly stayed for the finish). The acting was wonderful, the obvious love between the two main characters was heartwarming, but what reason is there for an audience to endure the hopelessness all the way to the bitter end? It reminded me in one way of “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” It took several days to regain one’s will to live.

  3. This is a wonderful piece. It has everything: beautiful writing, beautiful thinking, unpredictability, going ‘under’ the film to ask the key questions, circling around to make connections — just terrific!
    Janet

  4. I have been married to my high school sweetheart for 30 years. I have watched this film several times. I am drawn to it because the way George loves Anne reminds me of how I love my wife. I am always touched by his love for her despite her deteriorating condition. In sickness and in health. He did. I have had the experience of having to change bed pans and clean and dress the wounds of my young wife after she was hit by a car in 1985. The love and tender patience on display after Anne has her stroke is heartwarming. Although the end may be cruel in ways and at the same time compassionate, I think it likely speaks in different ways to all who see it. I saw the love I feel for my wife in the way George loved Anne while she was still with him. The end is difficult to watch but I keep coming back for more.

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