Reading the Book of Living with Michael Haneke’s Amour

Reading the Book of Living with Michael Haneke’s Amour

~~At this cinema in a Boston suburb, where I have seen scores of films over more than two decades, the audience looks educated, mostly professional, receptive to foreign films with subtitles and gloomy subjects of the sort Michael Haneke is known to favor.  It is the first show of the day, the one that usually attracts the cinema diehards. Like me—ageing and still seemingly infatuated with cinema—they too must have a sense of foreboding, uncertainty, perhaps even failure of nerve. Amour is a film, we have been told, about an old woman dying, and a man taking care of her. A simple, everyday story, really, but Haneke is an artist reputed for the violence of his work, the chill of his visual surfaces, the cruelty of his approach. Friends have warned me not to see it if I’m in a melancholic mood, to immediately see a funny movie afterwards, and so on. The list of anti-Amour prescriptions is long.

~~We’re also here, all of us fifty people or so, by choice, propelled, I would think, by a particular kind of love for cinema, by cinephilia. Susan Sontag, who coined the term, has written: “For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.”   Judging by the appearance of those in the ticket line, many of us are cinephiles, people who stepped into adulthood in the 1960s.   We went to the cinema to read life, to learn to live a certain way, with a certain sensibility. Afterwards, we talked at length about what we had just seen, analyzing, recalling, judging, but most of all absorbing what we watched, even trying to re-shape our lives in the images and words of the screen.

Now, decades later, in the fullness of time, we are here, standing in line again, this time to read the book of death and dying. Our love for cinema has come full circle it seems, as have our lives.  When we were young, we wanted to know how to live, how to love. Now, we are always, it seems, ready for another wake.

Here we are, in the ticket line, waiting.

~~After 127 minutes, Amour’s screen turns dark as unexpectedly as it had started. The film had begun with a break-in into the apartment of Anne (played by Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintingnant), an aging couple who return from a piano recital to enter a space that has been violated by a robbery. They return, only to leave it again at the very end of the film, just before their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) turns the lock and walks into a home now emptied of human breath and presence.

Invasion brackets the duration of the film and frames its limits. But more than that, it casts us too in a dual, even contradictory role: We, too, are invaders, voyeurs into the most intimate, the most unspeakable, of human experiences—dying. We are observers, implicated in the drama that has unfolded in front of our eyes. For who among us has not lost a person they have loved, or at least been devoted to, has not cared for a dying person?

~~We get up slowly and head toward the exit. There’s an eerie quiet in the corridor, even among those who are here with their companions. I am struck by the surrounding silence. No one is talking because Amour is really about the unspeakable, or more accurately, it is the unspeakable freed from the chatter of sentimentality and the glitter of false hope, leaving us inarticulate in its wake. But we are condemned to speak–to each other or to ourselves; we are condemned to create meaning through the thick of a subject that can erase meaning, a subject whose finality and irreversibility neutralizes the best of our efforts.

~~The braid of love and death is the stuff of drama, and often the slide into melodrama; it is also the stuff of Amour. At breakfast one morning, Georges looks at Anne whose face has suddenly become inert, the life taken out of it. “Anne?” he pleads, but she has already entered another world, has become another. The rest is coping, stumbling, making do, failing, occasionally making light of the whole ordeal and trying to get through the anomaly which life has thrown at this literate couple of musicians. It is no accident that Haneke has chosen to make his aging couple musicians, for the practice of music—as participant and as listener—is, as George Steiner has said, the luminous example of “transcendent possibility.” Music itself is an entirely self-referential system that cannot be translated into words but is, paradoxically, intertwined with large human passions common to us all.   In Amour, even music (Anne is an accomplished pianist) crashes against the wretchedness of dying, the finality of death. The film has no musical score though music—and its absence– is intertwined with the lives of Anne and Georges.

~~The encounter with death and dying is our common denominator. It’s always like that—a phone call, ominous numbers on a medical test, a black spot on an MRI, a tightness in the chest, an excruciating muscle contraction, a moment of physical lockdown, a sudden blank stare back. We’re never prepared for the split second in which we come to realize that a person we have loved has become a stranger, a patient, when his face suddenly becomes ashen, the eyes inert. We’re never prepared for being thrust into the role of the one who has to care for the dying person. There’s a reason why the word caregiver falls so awkwardly on the tongue; it’s a patched-up word, improvised and always falling short of what we imagine we should do for the other person. Anne? Georges’ voice is tremulous, at the edge of a crack, its underside a plea. More than anything else, he wants an assuring answer, a glimmer of hope, and we hope against hope that the film will not take us where it is fated to take us.

~~ In Anne and Georges we see ourselves though we may sometimes avert our gaze from the screen. But Haneke puts all sorts of obstacles in this path, in our predisposition to identify with the characters and their misfortune; he is skeptical, at best, of empathy, and he is careful in the way he invites us to compassion. He seems to loathe the banalities, the platitudes, the falsehoods that inhabit the domains of love and death. He reminds us that difficulty is the fuel of interpretation. And Amour is a difficult film not only because it is disturbing to watch the human body in gradual and merciless degeneration but because what we know of this couple is only the surface of their lives, only what they will show the world, what they will reveal through the curtains of dignity and obligation. Dignity, because in the end, dying is a matter of going through it and yet trying to put a brave face, as Anne tries to do with her student who pays her a visit or when she is in Georges’ arms as he tries to move her, put her on the toilet seat, to take her back to the wheelchair. Obligation, because for all their love of music and books, for all their years together and the troubles of any marriage, in the end, when the end is near, love is eclipsed by obligation, by the daily task of feeding, cleaning, clothing the loved one who is dying—and for keeping the one promise which Anne extracts out of Georges. There are, to be sure, moments of nobility, even magnanimity in the way we carry out our obligations, but obligation is also cruel, even heartless, to itself and to the dying person. It erases everything in its path.

~~To die in our own homes, among the weave of our memories, the objects of our attentions and irritations—that is the secret wish of us all. To die at home also means that the home, the common ground of Anne and Georges’ many years together, takes on a dour, funerary quality; the activities that used to animate it are now sources of drudgery, awkwardness, and sheer fatigue. The music that sustained their lives is for the most part silent, except as memory and as legacy, as past and future.

Paris is reduced to rooms, corridors, a bathroom, a living room where a regal piano sits orphaned, a bedroom and a common bed that offers only the howl of nightmares, and a kitchen where so much of daily, even mundane, living has taken place, and where Georges first met the stranger. Anne?

~~ Haneke likes to embed opaqueness into his films, likes to make us aware of the limits of explanation. He structures Amour along the path of the dying woman’s deterioration and her caregiver’s gradual depletion. But this path is disrupted by scenes and incidents that seem to lack an organic connection to the downward spiral of the story. One of these scenes involves George’s struggle with a bird that has perched itself on the windowsill of the apartment. It is an enigmatic scene that comes out of nowhere, like death announcing its arrival. It’s also a long scene which ends with Georges giving the bird its wings and letting it fly again. Could it be that art, like death, is a kind of gift, a gift that we unpack at our own risk, pace, but most of all through the particularities of our own lives? It’s a gift that can set us, too, free if we can free ourselves from the habits engrained in us over decades of seeing death and dying made obscene by the commercial peddlers of emotions, made sentimental and vulgar by the ways in which death is packaged and sold for cheap consumption and instant reassurance. Could it be that the scene of the bird’s flight is a pause, a tribute to the art of film-making?

~~Haneke is a film-maker of another order, and Amour is really like no other film, sparse, parsimonious, the weight of stuff lifted off its back to reveal the decaying viscera of its central characters. For on the screen, we are observers of the surface of this couple’s life. We know little of their past, save an album which Anne leafs through, stopping at a particular photograph, making a comment, turning the pages; save for a passing remark that she makes about Georges being a monster sometimes; save for Eva’s evocation of the sounds she heard when her parents made love. Only these residues of a common life: only these and the absent music which seems to hover over the apartment, which comes to Georges now not as a sweet memory but as a kind of assault that must be stopped, turned off, and the idyllic landscape paintings that are more like intruders than organic parts of the story. Dying flattens everything, ambushes perspective, and throws us back on ourselves and our memories of parents, friends, lovers dying. And we–caring for them as well as we can and must, rubbing vinegar on their legs, helping them shave only hours before the end, twining our fingers with theirs, and when it is all over, placing our palms on their eyelids and closing them to the world. We try.

~~All we know of Georges and Anne, all we see is what we are shown in the present– the love, its lighter moments and the depth of its commitments, even solidarity, but also its weathered quality, its wear and tear, its oldness. The old love differently perhaps, if their love had not been numbed by habit or cynicism or indifference or fatigue. In young love, lovers must love or die. In Amour, Anne must die, Georges must watch his wife die, but this couple must also love; the dice have been cast and the world has suddenly shrunk to this apartment, this man and woman, this seal of fate. Milan Kundera has written that “the first rehearsal for life is life itself.” So, too, with death—for Anne, whose death has been foretold, but more so for Georges who will care for her and shepherd her to the end, if he can.

~~ What are our obligations to the dying, our obligations as persons on whom the role of caregiver has been thrust, but also as spectators in the movie theatre? What are our obligations to ourselves as we walk the path of life in the shadow of our mutability? Amour skirts around these questions, never offering answers except to say that we are, in the end, our obligations, as unfashionable at this may sound these days. After that initial plea, Georges too becomes, slowly and painfully, his obligations–his personality erased, his habits suppressed, even his love of art and music reduced to fragments he cannot bear to recover through memory. Haneke is known for his ambiguous endings that have tortured his spectators and filled the screens of the internet with solutions to his puzzles, but Amour’s end, couched in the metaphor of flight, is far from ambiguous. Anne beckons Georges to step out of the door with her, and their action seems not only natural but logical and ordinary, as though they’re going out for the night, perhaps going to that concert with which the film began. Georges, depleted of energy and life force, responds to her invitation because his obligations have come to their end. He is a mere shadow, bereft of purpose and content, a ghost. Paradoxically, it is Anne who frees him, who takes him with her out of the hell-hole that their beautiful apartment has become.

~~ The quiet persists long after everyone has gone to their car and is heading home. A light snow has begun to fall.

Each death snatches a piece of our being, closes another chamber of the heart. We may talk the talk about love and compassion, we may find the silver lining in the drudgery of doing this day in and day out for days on end; we may even be lifted by the misfortune, begin new lives after long mourning. None of these outcomes is silly or inconsequential; the death of the beloved changes us, can change us radically and for the better sometimes, but it is obligation, the sister of love, which gets us through the night, the groans of pain, the pleas for an end to this humiliation. And obligation stems from the promise that Georges makes to Anne, and the unspoken pact that we—wide-eyes cinephiles still– once made with art in its glory days of the 1960s and 70s, when we entered the space of the cinema, concert hall, or museum, and began to read the book of living.~~