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Returning from a piano concerto, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) comments to his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) about the scuff marks on the lock to their beautiful high-ceilinged Paris apartment. They’re screwdriver marks. Someone has tried to break in. He dismisses the would-be thieves as amateurs, not professionals, but for the rest of the movie this feeling of imminent invasion and theft never goes away. It always feels like someone or something is about to come through the door because something is. The movie is about the most professional thief of all. The one we can’t keep out. The one who, in the end, takes everything.
If most movies lie to us or ply us with wish-fulfillment fantasies (we are handsome, good and victorious), the movies of German writer-director Michael Haneke do the opposite: they lay bare, in the starkest way, our greatest fears: We are not safe (“Funny Games”), we are not good (“The White Ribbon”), we have no privacy (“Caché”). Plus we have no idea what’s going on (all of the above).
With “Amour,” he focuses on our greatest fear: We are going to die. And death, when it comes, won’t be easy and it won’t be pretty.
Hurts hurts hurts
The above concert, performed by Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), a former student of Anne’s who is now internationally acclaimed, is the first and last time we see Georges and Anne outside their apartment. The next morning during breakfast, in the midst of casual conversation, Anne suddenly stops talking and stares into space. Georges can’t get a reaction out of her. She’s upright but not there. He puts a towel to her face and neck. He returns to the bedroom to change out of his pajamas to get help. Then he hears the water in the kitchen stop running. It’s Anne. She’s back but doesn’t remember being gone.
We get medical terminology. Something stopping the flow of blood somewhere. People arrive, help out, including Georges and Anna’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), and the concierge and her husband, and then workmen installing a medical bed. When we next see Anne she’s in a wheelchair. She’s having trouble moving. A stroke? Is it just her right side? Yes and yes. “Please, never take me back to the hospital,” she tells her husband. He promises. “Don’t feel guilty,” she tells him. “I don’t feel guilty,” he responds, confused.
He helps her with her physical therapy. He tells her stories about his youth. He reluctantly goes to the funeral of a friend, Pierre, but, in the reporting, criticizes the event: the eulogy was bad, the music chosen, “Yesterday” by the Beatles, was maudlin and provoked laughter from the young, the urn stood on a stand meant for a coffin. Anne doesn’t want to hear any of this. I suppose Georges is her Michael Haneke, telling her unpalatable truths. “You’re a monster sometimes,” she tells him, “but very kind.” Haneke shows us monsters. The kindness we get here is new.
Anne’s former student, Alexandre, turns up, initially full of himself, and Anne is happy to see him but he’s obviously shocked by Anne’s state. Days later, when he sends along his latest CD, the note talks of “the beautiful and sad moment” of his visit. Anne’s face closes off. During his visit, she’d requested a number, and he’d filled the room with beauty. Now she tells Georges to turn off his CD. His visit, I’m sure, was a high moment for her, and now it’s tarnished by the word “sad.” She doesn’t want pity. She wants to maintain a certain level of dignity. But time keeps slipping in and stealing things.
She wets the bed. Eva visits again, this time with her British husband, Geoff (William Shimell), and by now, Anne, bedridden, can only speak gibberish. Apparently there was a second stroke. She has to wear a diaper. She’s fed mush. Wasn’t it just a few scenes ago where she was eating dinner with her husband in the kitchen? Steak and vegetables? At that time, her world seemed narrowed but now that moment feels full of possibility. One thinks of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych.” The world keeps shrinking and shrinking. Time keeps taking and taking. Anne is Georges’ whole life now. He hires one nurse, then another. The second one is incompetent, obtuse in her cruelty. She brushes Anne’s hair too hard, then forces her to look into mirrors she doesn’t want to look into. Georges fires her. She doesn’t get it. Georges explains. She refuses to see it. She calls Georges names. “You’re a mean old man,” she says. More Beatles.
George tries to feed Anne but she’s obstinate and angry. “If you don’t drink, you will die,” he says. “Do you want that?” She does. He forces water on her. She spits it out and he slaps her. Both are horrified by what they’ve become.
She moans a lot. “Money for concert,” she says at one point, remembering, no doubt, something from childhood. “Hurts, hurts, hurts,” she says more often. He returns to her bedside, pats her hand to calm her, tells her another story. She calms down. Then he grabs a pillow and against her struggles smothers her to death. It’s not just what she wants, it’s what we want, too. Make it fucking end.
What nightmares may come
We actually watch the entire movie waiting for the moment of death. In the beginning, before the concert, we see the police and concierge break down the door to her bedroom, where Anne lies, as if in state, on a bed amid flowers. Her face is slightly shrunken and the men hold handkerchiefs to their noses and open the windows. Otherwise the place is empty. As a result, throughout the film, we’re wondering how it gets to that point. Why does Georges leave her this way? And where does he go?
He drifts. After Anne’s death, he gets flowers. He prepares her. He seals up her bedroom. Pigeons often get into their apartment and he works to shoo them out but now we watch him close the window on one pigeon and trap it with a blanket. We assume the worst (it’s Haneke) but he simply strokes it beneath the blanket. He’s lonely. At least that’s how I read it.
When he leaves the apartment, at Anne’s urging, is that the moment of his own death (she returns to get him) or the moment when delusion trumps reality? Is he dead in the apartment or does he wander the street, perhaps to die there, or to be found and put in a hospital, where he’ll die, amid the tubes and the diapers and the slow closing off of the world? This is kindler, gentler Haneke (that pigeon wouldn’t have survived in “The White Ribbon”), but he still leaves us with questions. He doesn’t round off his ending. It’s as frayed as ever.
In the theater lobby afterwards, with everyone trying to exhale and live again, a woman in her sixties turned to me. “I have two words for that movie,” she said. “Assisted suicide.” I nodded, paused. “I have four words for that movie,” I said. “I need a drink.”
Neither her two words nor my four words relieved the horror. On the walk home I saw a little girl, 5 maybe, skipping in an alleyway between her parents, and wanted to yell at her. “Don’t you know what’s going to HAPPEN?!? The awful fate that awaits you!?! Yes, YOU!” Is this what it’s like being Michael Haneke? How does he sleep? What nightmares does he have? Or does he put them on the screen for the rest of us and sleep like a baby? Many people see me as a cynic, a grump, a curmudgeon before my time; but compared to Haneke I feel like the most wide-eyed Pollyanna that ever skipped the earth.
The dude’s a cold genius, but there’s little warmth and not much beauty in his vision. I think of Bill Cunningham’s line from last year’s documentary: He who seeks beauty will find it. Where is the beauty in Haneke’s vision? Where is the joy? Surely there’s joy. Once in a while?
If this is “Amour,” and I get why it is, please, Michael Haneke, don’t show us “Haine.”
February 9, 2013
© 2013 Erik Lundegaard