Amour is Haneke’s warmest film. Take that with as much irony as you find in it, but it seems to me a significant departure for a director whose work was hitherto primarily concerned with social dysfunction. Das weiße Band (2009) is unique in its way – it is in black and white, and historical – but it ultimately boils down to Haneke’s preferred theme: the violence both repressed and provoked by bourgeois civilization. Indeed, Das weiße Band is perhaps my least favourite of Haneke’s films, precisely because it deals with a provincial town before the First World War. The film either comes off as clumsily historical (vicious kids = roots of European fascism) or clumsily allegorical (a Church! a Father!) and as such is too remote from the pathologies of late capitalism that Haneke otherwise skewers passim.
Of course, death is also a social issue. If it weren’t Amour wouldn’t be provocative. Haneke is as distanced and objective as ever in portraying the physical deterioration brought by age and terminal illness. In this sense, the film is founded upon breaking a taboo. Yet, the nature of that taboo is quite complex. Amour is no simple memento mori. It does not try, against La Rochefoucauld, to look at death with a steady eye. Rather, the focus is unrelentingly upon degeneration and the way in which ideals bound up with personhood are affected by the physical fading of a person’s body. The emotional drama of Amour does not arise from foreknowledge of our own death, but from the death – or, more accurately, the gradual disappearance – of another. It is about age and the process of dying, about what comes just before Death, hypostatized as the black sun from which we turn our gaze. Death itself is not a taboo subject, but dying is.
Amour’s existence is thus a socially provocative act. This fact perhaps gave Haneke more room to work in a different register than before, less obviously social. As a result, bourgeois hypocrisy and repression are very understated. Georges and Anne, retired piano teachers, are in many ways paragons of Parisian cultural capital: their apartment is lined with books, music and paintings; they attend concerts and have connections in the musical world; they (albeit justifiably) have a grand piano. Yet, Haneke’s aim is not – as it so clearly was in films from Der siebente Kontinent (1989) through to Caché (2005) – to upturn civilization, revealing barbarism. Barbarism shows through of its own accord in a couple of places, most obviously in the misfired goodwill gesture of a former pupil, but our sympathies remain throughout with the elderly couple. Unilateral sympathy is, by itself, a new quality in a Haneke film. More fundamentally, however, Anne’s suffering in Amour has a natural, rather than social, cause, and this is what really sets the film apart from Haneke’s previous works.
I’d like to consider a couple of scenes that illustrate Amour’s depiction of the complex relationship between love and dying. Towards the end of the film, Anne – by now totally incapacitated and moaning periodically with pain – refuses to drink. Georges slaps her. It is a crucial moment, the first point at which he fails to treat her with dignity. Georges’ violent act is paradoxical in nature: he wants Anne to drink so he does not lose the person he loves, yet in doing so he is anything but loving, and fails to recognize Anne’s own claim to leave her misery behind. However, whilst love can in many cases lead to ‘paradoxically’ selfish behaviour, this case is more nuanced, in that it implicates Anne’s identity as a person. Anne has, for a long time now, been handled. It is implied that, mentally, she is totally sound to the end, but by this time, spitting water is about the only act she can perform. Anne is not even capable of reacting to Georges. After he slaps her, a silence ensues, and Georges apologizes.
The power of the scene lies in Anne’s paralysis. Georges’ apology goes some way to restoring her dignity – it recognizes her once more as the person she used to be – yet, the ground for this apology is the silence that precedes it, encompassing the realization that Anne is totally helpless and hence, irreversibly, not that person. She is no longer capable of mutually recognizing (in Hegel’s sense) others; she cannot actively participate in the reciprocal relations that give rise to the concepts of personhood. Thus, Anne can in no way win her dignity back by reacting to Georges’ slap. Rather, dignity must be bestowed upon her, given in response to the very condition that threatens it – her paralysis. This is not the conceptual structure of love, but of faith. I am compelled to believe precisely because it is absurd; Georges must treat Anne with dignity precisely because she is on the point of losing it. Amour thus brings to light an important aspect of love: it is bound up with faith in the other.
I found the scene that follows this to be by far the most affecting in the film. It appears in the English version of the screenplay as follows:
SCENE 51 – INT. APARTMENT – DAY
The various paintings hanging in the apartment. Without their frames. Like views on various realities. SILENCE. Sometimes, the REMOTE sound of TRAFFIC in the distance.
We look at the indistinct details of figures in a landscape. The paintings are not remarkable, but they are a respite, showing us scenes where fate is settled, an Arcadian escape from the tyranny of time. It’s a glimpse of what will happen when it’s all over, which is to say: nothing.
This might sound good at the end of a review, but I find it unconvincing, both internally, and within the logic of the film. Cole is right that the paintings provide a respite: rhythmically, they’re a relief from the pain of the previous scene. But he sees them as an image of the restful nothingness Anne, by this point, desires. Whilst there’s an important identification to be made between paradise and nothingness understood as relief, this is only half the story. Cole understands the pictures as an attempt to represent nothingness – to stare at death, as it were – and in doing so loses the ambiguity through which they also point to life. With that, their pathos goes as well.
Firstly, let’s consider what Haneke is trying to achieve in Amour. As I said earlier, the film is not about death as such, but dying. It is unflinchingly realistic and anything but an abstract reflection on death itself. Haneke’s approach admits what should, in fact, be obvious about death: it does not belong to our phenomenal consciousness in any way and thus ultimately exceeds conception, let alone representation. Is it fair to say, given this approach, that the pictures really offer a “glimpse” of nothingness? This would imply that the film is working on a level of conceptual abstraction that I think is quite far from its actual aesthetic. By contrast, consider a different approach to representing death: subtraction. Whilst death lies outside experience, we can asymptotically tend towards it by removing more and more elements, representing the fading of experience as we gradually approach the lowest limit of what Barthes terms “writing degree zero”. Beckett is a master at fixing his gaze upon death in this way, not only in Malone Dies (1951), but also in a play like Rockaby (1980), where language ‘winds down’ along with the damped oscillation of the speaker’s chair, emptying itself of meaning through repetition and, ultimately, silence. In the light of Haneke’s quite different aesthetic procedures, it just doesn’t seem likely that he was attempting to give us a glimpse of death.
Even if I’m not convinced Haneke was trying to do this, how cogent is Cole’s point on its own terms? It is true that eternity, when it is understood as timelessness rather than infinite duration, can be conflated with nothingness. Nonetheless, this would be an argument for claiming that any stationary representation is on some level an image of death, an attempt to “glimpse” nothingness. Of course, reflecting on the temporality of artworks could well “tease us out of thought” in this way, and there’s something particular about the timelessness of Arcadian fantasies that distinguishes them from, say, portraits. (Note, however, that Haneke describes the pictures only as “views on various realities”. It just so happens that such scenes crop up frequently in cheap C19th art, and it’s debatable as to whether the pictures are all suitably Arcadian to fit Cole’s logic.) Yet, to turn to perhaps the greatest reflection on the subject, I think it’s significant that Keats, describing the Grecian urn, sees death not in the work’s own stillness, but in its ideality and endurance, it’s capacity to outlast us. The presence of death in the final stanza is then projected back into the timeless stillness the poem so beautifully describes, but this is the point: the urn becomes an ambiguous object, the “happy pipes” both genuinely happy and an eerie glimpse of life outside time (viz., death). This argument – that Arcadian timeless images are glimpses of death – only works if you accept the corollary that they are glimpses of life as well. Cole’s reading is thus reductive and one-sided, lacking in Keatsian negative capability.
The pathos of the paintings derives from their ambiguous function, and the way in which they are also a (very limited) index of life. They are not only a locus for peace / nothingness / timelessness, but also a sign of what is being lost with death. This strange fashion of forsaking is virtuosic in its avoidance of sentimentality, and results from the constraints that Haneke has set up for himself. After the first scene, Amour takes place exclusively in Georges and Anne’s apartment. Objects within that apartment are hence the only means of representing anything outside of it. Whilst there are scenes of Anne flicking through a photo album, to display a photomontage would be saccharine and, critically, connected to specifically personal memory. Anne is not just losing her memories here but life itself, represented by these somewhat innocuous landscapes and the figures (especially, I think, by the dog) in them. Hence “views on various realities”: anything but this, though this, sadly, is all that is left. The pictures offer no true escape, but are instead an image of life from the point of view of death. This is underlined by the perpetual hum of traffic, which serves to accentuate the contrast between the ‘dying’ zone of the apartment and, well, everything that it is leaving behind. The sequence of pictures, coming as it does after Georges slaps Anne, is like another confrontation with the brutal reality that love/faith must work against: none of this will be any more. The full force of the two scenes depends on their appearing together.
Amour thus thinks about the relation between love, dying and faith in an extremely subtle way – subtler than Cole lets on – and ultimately suggests that love involves a faith-like leap. The film courts nihilism but offers little flickers of (absurd) redemption. In this way, the greater the degeneration and loss, the more love can assert itself. This kind of paradoxical interpretation also lends itself to the film’s climactic scene, in which Georges tells Anne a story before finally giving in and stifling her with a pillow. Anne is once more moaning with pain and the story is intended to comfort her. On the surface, it comes off as totally misdirected:
It’s all right… it’s all right… I’m here… everything’s fine… we’ll… Hold on, I’ll tell you a story… but you must be quiet, I can’t talk too loud, it wears me out… Here we go: when I was little… well, I wasn’t as little as all that… it was toward the end of primary school, so I was about ten, Dad and Mom sent me to a holiday camp. They thought it would do me good to spend the summer with kids my own age… We were lodged in an old castle in the midst of a magnificent wooded landscape… I think it was in the Auvergne… I don’t know… in any case it was the opposite of what I’d expected… We had to get up at 6 and go for a morning swim. Not far from the castle, there was a pond fed by an icy mountain stream. We entered it running, in a double file. You know, I was never very sporty. They had a program to keep us on the go all day, probably to nip any potential pubescent impulses in the bud… But the worst thing was the food. The third day after our arrival, there was rice pudding for lunch. I hate rice pudding. We sat at long tables in a huge hall. I didn’t want to eat the stuff and the housemaster said to me: You won’t get up until you’ve cleared your plate. So after the meal everybody left the room, and I remained seated, in tears. I had made a secret pact with Mom. I was to send her a postcard every week. If I was pleased with the place I was to draw some flowers on it, or if not, some stars. She kept the card; it was covered all over in stars. After three hours, I was allowed to leave the table. I went up to my room, got into bed and had a fever of 42 degrees. It was diphtheria. They took me to the nearest hospital where I was put in an isolation ward, which meant that Mom, when she came to visit me, could only wave at me through a window. At some point I lost that postcard. It’s a pity. (pp.63-4)
This skirts meaninglessness, but only in the final two sentences: the story went nowhere, there is nothing to show for it, and nothing more to say. In the face of this, it is tempting to suggest that Georges has nothing left to do but kill Anne, the story’s failure being a sign that things can go no further. And yet, this moment of complete despair occurs only with the loss of the postcard and the absence of a climax. Georges’ tale of deprivation and sadness still served its purpose: Anne is comforted and has stopped moaning by this point. What is more, despite the hospital window separating him from her, Georges’ mother did come. The postcard does not matter, as the act of love endures, both in the face of, but also as a result of, senselessness and suffering. Just as Keats’ urn rapidly alternates between showing beauty and death, Amour is faintly warmed by the flickering, throughout Haneke’s frank portrayal of her final illness, of Georges’ love for, and faith in, Anne.