Ever since I saw Benny’s Video back in 1993 I’ve been a big fan of Michael Haneke. No matter what subject he deals with, he always manages to portray it with a quite amazing degree of realism. This is partly due to his style of filmmaking – long shots with little camera movement, few close-ups and very little music – and partly due to the realistic scripts and the excellent performances he manages to get from his actors, which always emphasise everyday realism at the expense of dramatic effect. His style is often referred to as ‘clinical’, but the result is something approaching a picture of life as it really is. With his films, more than with those of any other director, it’s easy to forget you’re just watching actors performing a script, and you can’t help getting the very uncomfortable feeling that whatever is happening to the people on the screen (generally nothing very pleasant) could just as easily happen to you. This was as true of Amour as it was of Benny’s Video, Le temps du Loup or Funny Games, and in this case the realism benefited further from the truly amazing performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who are totally convincing as a couple who’ve been together for most of their lives. Every other aspect of the story was handled with equal realism, and Isabelle Huppert was also brilliant as their daughter.
The main subject of the film, as suggested by the title, is the love between these two people, and how it develops and changes as the world they’ve made for themselves gradually approaches its inevitable dissolution. They know each other perfectly and are each so certain of the other’s love that they have no need of signs. Their love doesn’t have to be expressed, they just know it’s there. Some of the people writing on IMDb didn’t see this, and said they found the couple ‘cold’, ‘distant’ and ‘unconnected’ just because we never see them holding hands, kissing or calling each other ‘darling’. I think those people must have spent so much of their lives watching sentimental Hollywood love stories that they’re incapable of recognising the real thing when they see it.
— SPOILER WARNING !!! —
Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…
As her condition gets worse their love is put ever more to the test, but it is not found wanting. For a long time, in fact, his love for her prevents him from doing what she wants, i.e. letting her die, as he can’t face the prospect of life without her. In the end, though, he accepts that she has to go, and (at least, it’s very strongly implied) he decides that once she’s gone he won’t continue living himself.
Even though this film is much more about love and human relationships than about the ethics of euthanasia (if you’re looking for an intelligent and well-made film on that subject, I’d recommend Valeria Golino’s Miele), the question does raise its head in no uncertain manner. Quite early on in the film, when Anne realises that there’s no hope and that things are only going to get worse, she tells Georges that she sees no reason to carry on living, but he doesn’t want to listen. She doesn’t insist, and they don’t talk about it seriously. She generally seems resigned to the fact that she will soon be dead, but he has much more difficulty coming to terms with the idea, and so the details still don’t get talked about. By the time she seems to have definitely decided she’s had more than enough, she’s no longer capable of expressing her wish in words, but she makes it clear enough by refusing to eat or drink anything. But still Georges insists that she must keep on living, mainly because he can’t face the prospect of life without her. Is he being selfish? Perhaps, but it’s a selfishness inspired by his love for her. It’s been pretty obvious for a long time that she’s suffering badly and wants nothing more than to die, when at a certain point he finally accepts that it can’t go on any longer, and suddenly, without warning and without any goodbyes, he puts her out of her misery by suffocating her with a pillow. Apparently this isn’t a very pleasant way to die, and we see her struggling as he holds her down.
I found myself wondering how anyone could watch this film and still be opposed to euthanasia. I mean, given that Anne was going to die fairly soon anyway, and she wanted to die sooner rather than later, it could all have been arranged in a much more pleasant and civilised manner. Why on earth can’t people just accept the fact that they’re going to die, that everyone is going to die, and that there’s really no reason to go through a lot of suffering just to hang onto something vaguely resembling life for another few days, weeks or months? Why can’t they just talk about it normally, and when the person concerned decides that the time has come, provide the means to end it all as peacefully and pleasantly as possible? Why do people so often treat their dogs and cats better than their relatives or patients when it comes to the end of life? The real underlying reason, I’m absolutely certain, has less to do with the practical and legal difficulties and the possibility of abuse than with the pervasive influence of religion: the idea that suicide and the taking of life are wrong under any circumstances and will be rewarded with eternal damnation, that your life doesn’t belong to you and that only God has the right to decide when your time is up. Even in countries where the majority are not religious believers and the church and state are theoretically separate, such ideas run deep in the human psyche and in the norms of society, to the extent that euthanasia, assisted suicide and often even suicide itself are still against the law almost everywhere. And what could justify the idea that it’s OK to put a dog out of its misery while a human being has to carry on suffering? Only the idea that a dog and a human being are in some way essentially different, for instance that we have a soul and eternal life while a dog doesn’t, or that a dog and a human being are on this earth for different purposes. Let those who believe such things live according to their beliefs, by all means, but how dare they impose their irrational, ‘supernatural’ mumbo-jumbo on the rest of us?! Anyway, this is supposed to be about the film Amour and it’s rapidly turning into a general rant about euthanasia, so let’s get back to the subject at hand… But not before I say that there are better ways to end the life of a loved one, and that what we see in this film shouldn’t have to happen.
Every Michael Haneke film leaves certain aspects of the story – usually the ending – to our own interpretation and imagination, and this one is no exception. After Anne has died and Georges has laid her out on the bed, we see him sealing the doors of the bedroom with tape. He then writes a long letter, after which he hears Anne washing the dishes in the kitchen, finds her as she was before her illness, and leaves the house with her. My interpretation, and seemingly that of most people, is that he’s died and they’re together again, but it’s actually far from clear. When the emergency services open the flat at the start of the film, they seem to find only one body. The writing of the letter implies that he kills himself, but if he had the means to do so (sleeping pills, for instance) in the house, wouldn’t he have given them to his wife rather than suffocating her? Not if his action was totally spontaneous, the result of a sudden desperate frustration, as it indeed appears to be. And if he plans on killing himself shortly after his wife’s death, why does he seal up the room? Does he perhaps die of natural causes? He’s certainly been looking ever older and ever more tired and weak as the film progresses.
Another small mystery is the significance of the pigeon. Is it just supposed to show us how lonely and isolated Georges is, or does it have a deeper meaning? Someone writing on IMDb said that mythologically pigeons are supposed to carry the souls of the dead up to heaven, and his interpretation was that the pigeon in this film has come for Anne’s soul, as it’s time for her to die. The first time it arrives Georges won’t accept this, and chases the pigeon out of the house, but the second time he lets it stay. That particular myth didn’t sound familiar to me and I haven’t been able to find any reference to it in Wikipedia, so maybe we’ll have to make do with something more mundane. And anyway, why should the pigeon be significant? Is everything significant in real life? In any case, there was more than enough in this film to think about afterwards. All in all, I found this to be one of Michael Haneke’s better films: a small masterpiece, which I definitely want to see again.
|actors||Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert|
|seen||21/02/2015, on DVD|