Saturday, February 2, 2013

End of the road

Scott MacDonald’s review of Michael Haneke’s Amour on the Toronto Standard website, dissenting from the general high regard for the film (and presumably from its several high-profile Oscar nominations) provides an interesting way into thinking about it. Seeing the film as “essentially a horror movie” made by a director with “no interest in love, nor a capacity for it,” he sums up his thoughts like this: “I kept thinking of other, better end-of-life films like Away From Her … all of which are clear-eyed and utterly devoid of sentiment, yet somehow manage to avoid nihilism. They find moments of grace, even transcendence, amid the suffering, whereas Haneke insists that grace and transcendence are illusions for chumps. Amour is a work of art only if you believe that art and misanthropy are compatible.”

Grace and transcendence

I like MacDonald’s writing quite a bit, but I think he’s wrong here, albeit in the way that only someone thoughtful can be. In insisting that Haneke’s rejection of “grace and transcendence” (whatever that means, really) constitutes some kind of de facto weakness, he essentially appeals to some canonic model of how one should treat death, one in which the event will always be at least partly redeemed by what it leaves behind, by the fact that we would collectively assess it (clear-eyed, and without sentiment) as a “good” way to have died. A death, implicitly, belongs only in part to the dying person, and also as much or more to the rest of us. And this, I think, is exactly what Haneke means to diagnose and reject. If his film is in any sense a horror movie, then the horror is us and our interventions and prescriptions, our so-called ethics and applied humanity, all of it rooted, more broadly, in our disregard for culture and contemplation, for what would constitute a full life in the first place (this, admittedly, being theoretically open to attack as a classically “bourgeois” perspective).

The film observes Georges and Anne, a long-married couple presumably in their 80’s (the actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, are both in that decade), living in a large Parisian apartment filled with the marks of their time together. As the film begins, the police break down a door; they find Anne dead on a bed, flowers arranged around her; Georges is missing. From there the film goes back , showing the couple attending a concert by a former pupil of Anne’s; the following day she experiences her first symptom of what becomes her final illness, and compels Georges to become a caregiver.

Sense of siege

Haneke has always been preoccupied by themes of invasion: I wrote of him before that he’s a “stern taskmaster, sometimes giving the sense that he intends his films as strong medicine for our fuzzyheaded engagement with history, culture and the world.” His best known film Funny Games is a violent drama about a bourgeois family disrupted by thugs, designed both to masterfully push your easy-response buttons and to shame you at your capitulation. His last film The White Ribbon, which like Amour won the top prize at the Cannes festival, depicts a small German village in 1917 that starts to experience an unsettling series of strange accidents, tragedies and brutalities; some of them explicable, others not; the film brilliantly evokes the tangle of perspectives, from certainty (even if hypocritical and manufactured) to despairing, that underlie war, or indeed any national purpose. I recently rewatched his early film The Seventh Continent, about a family that systematically destroys its home and then itself, seemingly overcome by an imbalance that whatever its precise nature, will only proliferate as consumerism and globalization escalate.

From the start, Amour conveys a similar sense of siege. When the couple returns from that concert, it seems someone has tried to break into the apartment; later, Georges has a nightmare about being lured into the corridor and mugged. But the intrusions are also much subtler. Several times, Anne asks Georges to stop watching her, and Georges is offended by their daughter’s shallow protestations that there must be a better way of dealing with things. At one point he fires a nurse, supposedly for incompetence, but from what we’re shown, the woman’s real transgression is in treating Anne like just another old woman who you handle with baby talk; that is, denying the specificity of her identity.

Haneke is very sparing in what he shows us of that identity, and that of their marriage – a few photographs, and passing remarks, such as a comment of Anne’s about how Georges is a “monster” sometimes - and he emphasizes our ignorance of them as much as our trivial knowledge, for instance in a brief montage of the paintings on their walls, evoking the meanings they must hold for the couple while emphatically withholding those meanings from us. But all of that hardly amounts to having “no interest in love.” The whole point, it seems to me, is that a love (or whatever it might be) that sustains an intertwined life for so long, and especially a life that’s not merely functional and morose, is created by and belongs entirely to its participants, inherently beyond the knowledge of others.

Bit of a nuisance

From the very start, the film emphasizes itself as an aesthetic construction – the opening shot of the police breaking down the door has a “curtain-up” quality, and Anne has clearly been “posed” where she lies. Near the end, when a pigeon enters the apartment for the second time in the film, it’s the final manifestation of that theme of being pierced from without, but what’s equally as significant is that Haneke chooses to show Georges writing about it afterwards. Death is going to happen to all of us, no matter what, and it’s our right to view it either as a matter of grace and transcendence or just as an inevitable wretchedness, and to shape and record it as we choose, unmediated by uninvited interventions, whether physical or ideological.

Looked at in this way, I found the film much less oppressive and depressing than some commentators have. It’s a mesmerizing viewing experience, composed with such specific weight that you suspect it’ll hold itself in your mind for much longer than most films do, even good ones. And of course, as everyone says, the performances are fairly spellbinding. It’s rather revealing, and darkly amusing, to reflect on Trintignant’s remark in a recent Film Comment interview that while he adores Isabelle Huppert, who plays their daughter, “I like Emmanuelle less: she is magnificent in the film, but she was a bit of a nuisance.” It’s hard to imagine a seasoned American actor dropping all the standard mush, let alone unprompted, to throw a dart at his venerable co-star. But it seems the perfect manifestation of the deep, perturbing truth of Haneke’s film – how all art, like all death, must find its own way.

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