By Uma Anyar
“Amour” challenges us to consider the toughest decision two lifelong partners would ever have to make. For example, if a loved one asked us, would we be capable of merciful euthanasia? And, that question leads to others. What is more important – our personal needs or the needs of our mate? This emotionally challenging film is about real love, not romance. Anyone who has been blessed with a long and happy marriage dreads the loss of their life partner more than they fear dying themselves. Director, Michael Haneke, decided to make “Amour” after his ninety-two year old aunt asked for an assisted death to end her suffering. He is a courageous filmmaker because he has dared to look at a loving and long lasting marriage and present the ultimate challenge of enduring love.
We have all seen so many cinematic love stories and contrived sex scenes that we don’t quite know how to process a film like “Amour”, which explores the dreadful cost required of those who have loved one person deeply for a lifetime. If the price of a great love is its unbearable loss, then death is the only cure, and perhaps, we should be grateful for that. Haneke’s “Amour” gives us an undaunted portrayal of the terrible process of dying by concentrating on the final weeks of a cultured octogenarian French couple as they come to terms with the end. And, in case you forgot, Haneke will remind you that “there’s no such thing as a happy ending”. There are far more dramatic love stories than this one but there is no film that has done such an excellent job of portraying this painful experience in such an authentic way.
“There is no such thing as a happy ending.” Dorothy Parker
The film opens with French police breaking down an apartment door and entering a bedroom where we see the dignified corpse of an old woman in a simple black dress surrounded by wilted flowers. Ostensibly, the body has started to decompose and one of the dark-suited officials covers his nose and mouth as he makes his way through this domestic death scene, opening one window after another. I, too, held my breath – in anticipation of the story that led to this outcome. Haneke is a philosopher artist. He wants to remind us that all of our stories end in death. And, it is the story that matters.
It is in a filled concert hall that we enter the world of Anne and Georges, an aged but capable and cultured couple who have spent their lives together as music teachers. The camera, which feels like it is set center stage, shows us an audience waiting for a performance to begin. It scans the audience and discovers Anne and Georges amidst all those strangers. It is a brilliant strategy that sets us up perfectly for their story. The camera never cuts to the pianist, as one would expect it to do but remains steadily on the audience. It is a subtle perturbation to our expectations. For a brief moment it feels as if one audience is watching another. Is Haneke implying something about the nature of audiences? Something about how we are both observers and participants? Isn’t this what we do in real life? Do we not watch and tell stories about ourselves to ourselves and to others? Aren’t we all spinning reality into existence in an unaware sort of way everyday of our lives? An audience is a collection of individuals gathered for a performance. But this unassuming scene is also a postmodern deconstruction of the illusion of film and its ability to reproduce reality.
“Amour”’s strength is that it is about old age told from the point of view of old people. Anne and Georges are not cute or charming or cranky oldsters who still have something heart warming to learn about themselves or life or others. No Hollywood sentimentality enters their Parisian apartment. Instead, we watch two of the most impressive and brave actors of our time performing a script that is undoubtedly close to home, as both actors are in their mid-eighties. Anne is played by Emmanuelle Riva (“Hiroshima Mon Amour”, 1959) and Georges by Jean-Louis Trintignant (“A Man and a Woman”, 1966). At age 85, Riva was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, and won that title at the 2013 Bafta Awards.
“Amour” is about a marriage that is tested when Anne suddenly has a small, silent stroke at the breakfast table while her husband, not noticing, putters about with the saltshaker. Dread hits as you watch Anne stare into thin air as Georges waves his hand in front of her blank eyes. We recall that the night the couple returned from the piano recital to discover their door lock tampered with, implying that intruders might have entered their private sanctuary. Now, the intruder is not someone from the outside but something from the inside. Anne’s stroke has ushered in another terror that many of us may have to face – serious illness, disability or other health issues that may burden our families. The process of aging distances parents from their grown children. Georges’ daughter, Eve (Isabelle Huppert), insists on offering silly and useless advice then returns to her world of consuming normality and protective busyness. It is clear that Georges finds his daughter more of a hindrance than a help. Dying is not a family matter even if family is involved. It is very personal. Love is not about how you feel about your partner but about what you do for your partner. Youth is about reaching into the future that is always ahead of you while old age is about maintaining what you have for as long as possible. I admire Haneke’s films because they feel like parables in which the daily life of ordinary people are meaningful and even mysterious.
He is not a magical realist filmmaker but he does not eschew the fantastical from this movie. At one point, after Anne’s death, we watch her washing plates in the kitchen. When Georges enters the room, he does not ask her how is it possible that she is washing dish es if she is already dead. Everything is just the way it was before she had a stroke. “I’m almost ready,” she says and he puts on his shoes as they they are going out. Always a gentleman, Georges helps Anne on with her coat. It is the most matter-of-fact scenes and one of the most significant. Anne pauses at the door and gently reminds him to bring his coat. As they leave the apartment, we realize that Anne and George’s souls are leaving this world and, that they are leaving together. we do not know how Georges died but we know that Death did not part them.
With tears running down my cheeks… I cheered them on.
In recent years, the seventy-two year- old Austrian filmmaker (right) has been honored at the Cannes film festival with two Palm D’Or awards: one for “The White Ribbon” (2009) and one for “Amour” (2012). The latter received an Oscar for best foreign film in 2013, not bad for a Director who thinks it is an “artist’s duty to step on people’s toes.” Haneke does not think filmmaking is about entertainment and deplores the commodification of violence in mainstream movies.
But he resists the idea that he is making what some have called “message films”. Haneke decided to make “Amour” after his ninety-two year old aunt asked for an assisted death to end her suffering. He wanted to make a film about common middle class death in our modern era, a time when, for many people, mainstream religion offers only cold comfort while needlessly sanctifying suffering.
Haneke wrote the script after Jean-Louis Trintignant agreed to star in it. “I wrote it with Trintignant in mind,” he said. Both Riva and Trintignant admire Haneke’s work and consider “Amour” their finest achievement as actors. Michael Haneke is a controversial director. Some actors and critics have placed Haneke in the pantheon of cinematic gods with Bergman and Fellini; other’s vilify him and abhor his work. Is that because he breaks societal taboos and refuses to conform to popular tastes? There was concern that a film which endorses euthanasia would be too controversial but Haneke did not back down.
“My American distributor thought that the film might provoke hefty debate; but that’s exactly what films are supposed to do.”
Uma Anyar is the pen name of Tamarra Kaida, a photographer who has published, Ogoh-Ogoh: Balinese Monsters in 2011 with Sarita Newson and Tremors from the Faultline in 1989. Tamarra collaborated with Pulitzer Prize poet Rita Dove on The Other Side of the House in 1988, a poetry and collotype photography book. She has participated in more than 100 photography exhibitions. Her photographs are in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The George Eastman House Museum in Rochester NY., Center for Creative Photography Tucson, Az., The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia among others.
She was a professor of art photography in The School of Art at Arizona State University, in Tempe, Arizona, USA from 1979-2004.
Tamarra retired from university teaching in 2004 and moved to Ubud, Bali in order to live a more balanced, slower paced lifestyle and spend more time with her husband, Paul.
She took the name Uma Anyar (means ‘new rice field and new beginnings in Balinese) as her pen name and wrote short stories and worked on a novel. In 2009, Asia Literary Review published the short story Angry Ghosts. Uma Anyar has been writing book reviews for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival column in The Bali Advertiser since 2005. She started writing film reviews for Inspired Bali in 2013. She loves movies, books, photographs and creating beautiful, unique environments. www.umaanyarwriter.wordpress.com