I finally got up the courage to go and see Michael Haneke’s new film Amour after it returned to our local Picturehouse for a brief run this week. It’s about an elderly married couple who are suddenly forced to confront the imminence of bodily decay and death. George (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers in their eighties living in an elegant Parisian apartment. One day Anne has a brief blackout that turns out to be a stroke which leaves her partially paralysed. As Anne’s physical incapacity increases she develops dementia and becomes increasingly reliant on her elderly husband. I watched the film at a Silver Screen presentation for the over-60s, and I guess every member of the audience was thinking: this is what lies in wait down the road in ten, twenty, thirty years if we’re lucky.
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
Haneke has built a reputation for directing bleak and disturbing films with a distinctly austere style. His films include The Piano Teacher, The Hour of the Wolf, Hidden, and The White Ribbon – all of them intense, challenging and deeply serious works. Haneke has been quoted as saying:
My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.
So in Amour, it would seem, he has set out to challenge the Hollywood consensus that prefers to avoid the difficult subject of ageing and death. He told the New York Times earlier this year that the film flowed from his belief that it is ‘a task of dramatic art to confront us with things that in the entertainment industry are usually swept under the carpet’.
Well, that ambition has certainly been met here. Old age remains the great taboo of cinema, with only a very few films daring to tackle the topic seriously, among them Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Kurosawa’s Living, and Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Haneke’s film doesn’t have the warmth and humanity of those great films, but is, nevertheless, a remarkable work. In the words of Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw this is film-making ‘at the highest pitch of intelligence and insight’, raised out of the ordinary by the breathtaking, utterly convincing performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The latter gives an unflinching portrayal of Anne’s loss of physical and mental competence, and her rage at her increasing incapacity and dependence on her husband.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
After a period of hospitalization after her first stroke Anne extracts from George a promise that he will never allow her to return to hospital. From a life of comfortable retirement – happy, affectionate, active and content – they both must adapt to transformed circumstances. Haneke portrays Anne’s deterioration with a neutral, blank gaze as she steadily loses control of her limbs, her bladder, and her mind. As Anne becomes increasingly difficult to manage – refusing to eat or drink – her husband’s patience is tested to the limit.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.
But the love that has bound this couple to one another – the amour of the film’s title – is never in doubt: we sense it in gestures, glances, shared memories and music. As several critics have noted, after a post-credits scene at a music concert, the film never leaves the couple’s apartment, and this has the effect of intensifying the sense of two people whose love for one another draws them ever more tightly into the physical and emotional space of rooms that, holding their books, photographs, music and paintings, contain their shared lives. This sense of isolated personal space is heightened by Darius Khondji’s cinematography which echoes interiors by Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi.
This is sharply reinforced by the fact that the film begins with the police breaking down the door to their apartment, a scene shot from inside the apartment that evokes a powerful sense of intrusion on private and personal space. The couple’s withdrawal into their own shared agony is underlined by awkward encounters with visitors from the outside – their daughter (Isabelle Huppert), the building concierge, one of Anne’s former music students, and an uncaring nurse.
In all of this there is no trace of overstatement or sentiment. George keeps his promise not to allow Anne to return to hospital or a nursing home. Anne becomes increasingly unwilling to receive visitors, to let them see her in her worsening condition. This story of love, face to face with death, is also a story of existential isolation.
Haneke seems to be exploring the nature of the love which George and Anne have for each other. While George’s love for Anne means that he accedes to her wish to remain at home, he slowly becomes painfully aware that living is becoming, for her, an unbearable burden. As it draws to a close and George takes sudden, shocking action, the film forces us to think about the nature of love and how love might be expressed in these circumstances.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
There are shocking moments in Haneke’s film. When Anne, seemingly intent on ending her own life, refuses food and water and George manages to force some water past her lips, she spits the water back into his face and George slaps her in the face, hard. And finally, in a moment of love, pity and despair, he kills her in her bed, suffocating her with a pillow.
There is a mystery, too. At the start of the film, when the police break into the apartment and find Anne laid out on her bed surrounded by flowers, there is no sign of George. But a window is open. Earlier we have seen how he prepared his wife’s body, and we have seen him capture a pigeon that flies in through the open window. He writes a letter in which he says he let the pigeon go, though we never see him do it. Alone in the apartment, from his bed he hears the sound of running water. He gets up and finds Anne is there, washing dishes in the kitchen. She puts on her coat and reminds him to take his as she opens the door of the apartment and they leave the apartment together.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
[Philip Larkin, ‘Aubade’]