Sunday 10 March 2013

Love in the Shadows

I didn’t watch this year’s Oscar ceremony; I very rarely watch it any other year; the hype and the razzmatazz is just too much for me, no matter how much I love cinema.  I knew that Daniel Day-Lewis had won best actor for his performance in Lincoln, but that’s really about it.  So far as the general field is concerned, I had seen BraveAnna Karenina and Django Unchained.  I also saw The Beasts of the Southern Wild recently, though I can’t say I was hugely impressed by this confused and misdirected piece of cinematic hype.  What I had not seen - what I had not even heard of - was a French movie called Amour, which won the Academy Award for the best foreign film. 
Thanks to another blogger I finally caught up with this movie.  I am so glad that I did.  It’s a marvel, an intelligent, thoughtful, perceptive and well-crafted piece of cinema.  It’s a movie for grown-ups, different in every way from the usual hyperactive adolescent nonsense that English-language producers largely prefer.  I was on the point of writing that I don’t think a movie like Amour could ever have been made in the Anglo-Saxon orbit – it simply would not have attracted sufficient commercial support – when it occurred to me that in some ways it resembles Iris, the 2001 biopic about the novelist Irish Murdoch.  Amour deals with the same themes of love and loss as Iris, though in a far less glossy manner.
Written and directed by the Austrian film-maker Michael Haneke, Amour, by coincidence, is the second movie of his that I’ve seen within a fairly short space of time.  The first was Das weiße Band – The White Ribbon – a German language film shown recently on the BBC’s catch up service.  This concerns a rural community in Germany on the eve of the First World War, a place beset by a growing sense of menace.  The menace is also present in Amour; the menace here is death, an opponent that wins every battle, though often victory is claimed slowly, claimed, moreover, with sadistic relish. 
Amour – Love – is a story of disentanglement, of a relationship being slowly unwoven after a life-time; it’s about the disintegration, if anything, of love and of life.  It’s a story set in the twilight days of Anne and Georges Laurent, two elderly former music teachers, wonderfully played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant.  The action takes place mostly in their well-appointed Parisian apartment, which here serves the purpose of a theatre. 
The movie begins, pre-credits, with the police breaking in to the apartment, there to discover the body of an elderly woman, her head surrounded with flowers.  Then it’s a journey back into the recent past, starting, post credits, with an elderly couple attending a piano recital.  Afterwards they return to their apartment, a sanctuary replete with objects and haunted by memories, only to discover that the door has been damaged in an attempted break-in by some unknown stranger.  Puzzled and unsettled, they arrange to have the door fixed, but the stranger, in a sense, never really goes away.  Something cold and unsympathetic has entered their lives and made a home.
It’s almost impossible to review this film without writing one big spoiler.  But what is important is not so much the story of Anne’s descent into debilitating dementia, the outcome of successive strokes, and Georges’ attempts to cope – a simple enough tale in itself – as the sparkling personal interplay between the two characters.  Everyone else seems like an intruder, even their own daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert).  The old couple now live in the midst of lengthening shadows.  Is love enough?  No, it is not.  For Georges it is replaced by fear, as he sees Anne slip through his fingers like sand, with nothing substantial to hang on to.  This is a chamber piece with no music, only the sounds of silence, sounds arising from the shadows. 
In the dead of night Georges hears the doorbell.  He opens but there is nobody there.  Walking down the hall, he finds that he is wadding ever deeper in water.  A hand clamps over his mouth from behind; his eyes fill with panic and fear.  He is drowning.  Then he wakes.  It’s only a nightmare.  But it’s not.  He is being suffocated by Anne’s decline.  
The suffocation serves as a metaphor, but it also prefigures Anne’s final demise - Georges smothers her with a pillow.  But this is no mercy killing; there is nothing premeditated about it; he kills her in a rush of passion, angered by her refusal to eat.  We are left to assume that Georges own death follows, but with the mystery now complete we simply do not know; he is just no longer there.  The apartment and its shadows are left to Eva
I read an article by one Peter Saunders describing Amour as a “dangerously seductive piece of pro-euthanasia propaganda.”  He goes on to compare it to Ich Klage An – I Accuse -, a movie made in 1941 under the auspices of Josef Goebbels, intended to make the public more supportive of the Nazi state’s euthanasia programme.  There is even a hint at the end that Amour deserves to be banned, just as Ich Klage An was by the Allies after the War.
I find it difficult to cope with this kind of fearful stupidity, the assumption that movies must inevitably carry some message or other, some generalised desiderata that we are all meant to absorb uncritically, that our emotions, childlike in their innocence, can be corrupted and manipulated by ‘propaganda’. 
Amour is no more an argument for euthanasia than it is an advertisement for book-lined Parisian apartments.  It’s a story, that’s all; a story of two particular people and their particular existential anguish.  Other people could have produced another story, another director might have told the tale differently, with less poignancy and less restraint than Haneke.  He does it so well, asking some of the hardest questions of all, chiefly what is the right way to behave when faced with huge and personal changes in one’s life?  I certainly do not know the answer.  More than that, I do not think there is an answer.  We come to life’s dilemmas, each and everyone of us, in our own unique ways; we find our own paths, even in the midst of loneliness and despair.  In the end love may not be enough but at least it makes life worth living, even in the lengthening shadows. 
Time has transfigures them into 
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.


  1. Wonderful review Ana!
    I saw this movie and I thought it was really sad and I understand why the title is "Amour". I am also very surprised with the thought of anyone wanting to have this movie banned as its simply about life and what most of us will have to deal with when our time comes.
    On a tiny side note: I did feel George smothering his wife's face into a pillow was more of a mercy killing :( as the woman's eyes was begging to be set free.
    Just my own thoughts as I probably would feel the same if it were me in her shoes.
    Its a strong movie for sure yet very realistic to life's trials.

    1. Thanks, Angie. Maybe you are right on the mercy killing point; she had certainly tried and failed to commit suicide earlier. I just felt that Georges's action was rushed and spontaneous, rather than thought-out and pre-planned. There was no indication by word or thought that he had considered this as a possible course of action. I've a feeling that the ambiguity was deliberate here, allowing you to jump in one direction and me in the other.

  2. S, I got your Facebook message. Don't worry your identity is safe with me! I will reply in the morning. There are too many love-hungry guys at this time of night. :-) What I thought I would do is write a specific article, directing myself to the subject you have raised.