Mortality as Villain: Amour

Every week or so, Sook-Yin Lee and Adam Litovitz have a movie date. Then they talk about the movie. Discussed this week: Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.

SOOK-YIN: When I found out that Michael Haneke, the Austrian filmmaker known for his bleak and disturbing portrayals of human brutality, had made a new movie that left the audience sobbing at Cannes, I thought: “Good gosh, is he going soft on us, exploring a couple in love for a lifetime and their unfortunate passing?” But, Amour is definitely not Away From Her.

ADAM: He’s not known for showing his characters weeping. They’re more likely to talk about stories from their childhood that made them weep, or sit austerely in an audience watching solo classical piano performances.

SOOK-YIN: My expectation that this would be the Haneke hankie movie was totally thwarted. I didn’t grab a single tissue because there were no tears. Amour shows an unrelenting, slow deterioration to the death. It’s not the weep fest of Love Story. It’s an unsentimental portrait of a body decaying.

ADAM: I wouldn’t say it’s utterly without sentiment. The injection of wishful thinking dream-sequences, of his wife playing piano, or the nightmares—it’s still so swept away in the fantasy experience of coupledom, in a hermetically-sealed, immaculate apartment of the sort that we saw in Eyes Wide Shut, which also dealt with a couple’s arcane world. This feels old-fashioned. The couple has young, Schubert-obsessed piano students showing up in black turtlenecks, presenting them with white flowers, and writing them romantic thank-you letters. It doesn’t feel of this time, yet they’re struggling with CD technology. It has a bizarre quality.

SOOK-YIN: It’s Michael Haneke’s strange style of romanticism. It’s not a documentary in the palliative care ward, but he is trying to be unsentimental, with a locked-off camera taking a single shot in real time of a paralyzed woman going to the bathroom. There are no quick cuts. He forces you to stick with a difficult situation for a long time.

ADAM: He still uses jarring juxtapositions between two shots. He’ll have the Anne character [Emmanuelle Riva] suffering, and then cut to a friendly neighbor bringing over a case of Evian water, an ever-present substance in the film.

SOOK-YIN: This is a look at a couple that’s been together forever. They’ve been young and grown old together. Anne ends up falling prey to dementia and paralysis, and has to undergo the painful and humiliating course of death, with her husband Georges [Jean-Louis Trintignant] as her constant companion and primary caregiver. In the past, Haneke’s movies have had layers of symbolic meaning. Though he makes some interesting cinematic choices, it’s all surface here. He tells the story through action. At times I was reminded of comedian Tim Conway’s white-haired orchestra conductor, a character who moves in tiny, excruciatingly slow steps to his podium.

ADAM: Sometimes it reminded me of Pina Bausch’s tanztheatre, watching the elderly couple slowly move around the room, as he tries to carry her to and from wheelchairs, toilets, and electronic beds. About the absence of symbolism—Amour works as a simple story about a couple suffering the humiliation of aging, deterioration, and utter inability.

But there are Haneke-like touches, for instance, Anne’s description of Georges as both monstrous and very kind. There’s the recurring idea that he has a monstrous side, like when he slaps her in the face, or when he corners a bird that’s flown into their apartment and takes pride in capturing it. The movie’s playing with the idea of what it is to be loving. Is violence and the end of suffering, which is a kind of violence, part of love? How do kindness and monstrosity coexist?

Apartment as Mausoleum

SOOK-YIN: As Anne reminisces through a photo album, she says “it’s beautiful this long life.” But, we watch her go through these horrible situations. To me, the symbolism in the film was pretty obvious.

ADAM: Yeah, if you have a bird it’ll portend things.

SOOK-YIN: Those flourishes are asides. I think Haneke was wise to depict the story as he did, in painstaking struggle: seeing her try to stand up, and seeing her bathed by an attending nurse, and not liking it. She screams out “mal” because it hurts,” but it also sounds like “mom.”

ADAM: Those touches of symbolism, or whatever you call it, do come through. Even in the things that she does manage to utter. At one point, the three things she manages to say are “mom,” “no dress,” and “for concert.” There’s the sense that these small things are teasing out meaning, while restricting it because of the straightforwardness of the story.

SOOK-YIN: When our bodies shut down, we are reduced to primal word association. My sister was in a terrible car accident and sustained a head injury. She woke up from a coma, unable to walk or talk. She only remembered the most basic gestures like brushing her teeth. She would reach for her toothbrush but she couldn’t grab it, and would make a gesture as if she was brushing with just her hand in the air. All she would say when I pushed her wheelchair was, “Let’s go.”

These are rudimentary words and movements that our body returns to when it’s shutting down. Most of the movie is told from the point of view of Georges, who’s also struggling with his body. There’s a shot of him trying to put his sweater on and it takes so long. That expansive struggle in silence with something so innocuous speaks volumes, more than any juxtapositions or symbols you can add as a filmmaker.

ADAM: It’s interesting how close the aesthetics of a beautiful apartment are to a mausoleum or a crypt. It’s like Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” a beautiful, open sanctuary that’s also a sealed entombment that offers nothing, inevitably, but death. We can see the books disappearing and the technology becoming outmoded. As immaculately curated as this apartment is, it’s already in a state of decline.

SOOK-YIN: The couple live in a beautiful apartment, very French and tasteful. The hallways are wide enough for Anne to move around in her wheelchair. It’s the ideal place to die in.

ADAM: Georges tells two lengthy stories to his wife. One is about going to see a movie as a young man and crying at it, later telling the story to a stranger. Another story he tells also involves lots of tears, as he details a bout of childhood diphtheria. Yet, during all the suffering he goes through in the film, we never see him crying. For some reason, he’s constantly compelled to tell stories about himself crying. What’s going on there with the emotions?

Tears spoken of, but not shed

SOOK-YIN: In a Haneke movie, volatile things occur, horrible decisions are made, and pain is bludgeoned upon people. Yet, they rarely have emotional reactions to what’s happening. Georges resorts to storytelling to try to distract Anne, to hush her up like a child when she’s upset. What was significant about Georges’ story about crying at a movie he saw is that he can’t remember the particulars of the movie itself, but he’ll never forget the emotion it stirred in him. The recollection of emotion is clearer than the events of his past. When we see Anne dying, we’re uncertain what memories are retained from her life. Maybe Haneke’s saying that through analysis and the retelling of our story we try to compartmentalize and keep uncomfortable emotions away.

ADAM: A counterpoint to Georges—in the way I’ve provisionally schematized it—is Eva [Isabelle Huppert], the couple’s daughter, the effusive character. She’s constantly crying and visibly reacting onscreen to her mother’s suffering. But when you see her actually talking to her mother, she’s often just describing personal finances, real estate, classified ads—which I consider a semiotician’s wet dream version of “insignificance,” small fragments of practical information ostensibly without emotional import. But Eva’s the most emotional one on-screen, in terms of tear quantity.

SOOK-YIN: It’s a common reaction. I remember being in the neuro ward after my sister’s car accident. The woman on the bed next to her was in a strait jacket, an accident victim who was a shell of her former self. Her eyes were popping out of her head, and she was in a great deal of pain and anguish. Her family would visit and tell her how great she looked, constantly talking about what they were up to, in an attempt to normalize the situation. People behave strangely when they’re unable to cope with awful things they can’t control. But in your private moments, you still feel those emotions.

ADAM: I’m wondering about how the idea of monstrousness pops up in the movie. I’m thinking about the scene where Georges fires a caregiver. We haven’t been given the context to know if it’s justified—if she was a terrible employee.

SOOK-YIN: It was clear to me that she was terrible.

ADAM: Because she was grooming Anne, and putting mirrors in front of her face?

SOOK-YIN: Anne’s hair was her prized possession. She’s got freakin’ great hair—like Gena Rowlands. As she deteriorates, it becomes oily and ragged. Georges hires a hairdresser to come in once a week, but we see her brushing it very harshly, and when Anne screams, she ignores her and forces her to look at her reflection. This is not good care.

ADAM: We can all complain about a lousy nurse or two who have treated a loved one. Going back to the mirror on Anne’s suffering—this film also poses the question of what is the value of depicting suffering. What do we have to gain by bearing witness to it? What kinds of depictions of suffering are of value?

SOOK-YIN: Haneke simply dramatizes a slow suffering, like the Stations of the Cross. Anne regresses to become an inconsolable child, constantly screaming and moaning, and Georges has had enough. At one point, he’s pressed to his limit and strikes his wife. We see how difficult it is to take care. We see a woman who doesn’t want to be alive, forced to live, because Georges can’t bear to see her go. It’s a conundrum. That’s what I found interesting about the movie. By the end of it, I was thinking that life is long and beautiful, but sometimes you just gotta fold ‘em. I was with Anne: “Just let me die, will ya?” Haneke tries to bring us through the experience of it—to realize that this grasp for eternal life, and eternal love is futile. At the end, you probably want to die.

Mortality plays the bad guy

SOOK-YIN: When we first see them, they’re the embodiment of the well-educated elderly French couple with good taste. Everything’s seemingly perfect in their lives.

ADAM: Patrons of the arts. Lovers of art.

SOOK-YIN: They live in a beautiful apartment. They love one another. And they wear good clothes. I hope that when I’m in my eighties I look as good as them. But I get a sense as well that some unspoken tension has always been a part of their relationship. They’re the kind of couple that sits for hours reading the newspaper together, but doesn’t necessarily talk. There’s love there, but I sense a restraint, a kind of repressed sophistication.

The story stabs away at the cracks in their veneer. Sometimes I felt oppressed being in that apartment with them—the passive aggressive communication through inference, silence, and looks. As she’s dying what they say is the opposite of what they feel. She’s suffering and can’t even say, “I’m dying.” They’re in denial. Like, “it’s okay honey, I’ve got you this motorized wheelchair.”

In a movie like Haneke’s Funny Games, there’s a clear antagonist, someone out to kill you. In this movie, the couple is surrounded by loving people who want to help. Their daughter is consumed by her own real estate worries, but obviously loves her parents. There’s no tangible bad guy other than mortality itself.

ADAM: These people are caring and giving in every possible way, but there’s still a sense of the couple being hermetically-sealed in the apartment, and the characters are each trapped in their own fantasies. Georges cuts off flower petals to adorn Anne’s body, and imagines her in all these dream sequences. It reminds me of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, which I just watched last week. It involves a husband being led away from his perfect family towards a temptress, who winds up being a ghost. Later, when his wife dies, she reappears as a ghost to torment him and lead him back on his path to hard work and righteousness. There’s always a phantasmagoric dimension to relationships between couples. As honest as they are in caring for each other, there’s ultimately a type of separation. There’s a need to strangle the bird.

SOOK-YIN: They’re lovers at a deep, soul level, but there comes a point where two is not one. We see her full of pride in a piano student who’s forged a successful career. But, as she declines physically, she couldn’t care less. She turns off his music. There comes a point where all you care about is yourself and your own feelings.

The title of the movie is Amour. We not only see her die in the presence of her lover, but we see her detach mentally and spiritually from him. Perhaps that’s what love is as well. You won’t necessarily die in a death-embrace, and you might end up on your own journey away from the one you love.