Monday, February 25, 2013


     Since posting Consolation Twenty-Five on the Newtown massacre, I've seen the French movie "Amour" (winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film) by filmmaker Michael Haneke and decided to review it as Consolation Twenty-Six.  All the reviews I've seen agree the film is first-rate.  They find it a complex, non-judgmental, Rohrshach-test-like handling of harsh material  -- the murder of the female octogenarian in a long and happy marriage by her husband after she's crippled by a stroke.  I agree that interpreting the film depends, like a Rorhshach test, on what the viewer brings to it and that in it Haneke does not make a single, simple statement.
     Yet intentionally or not, he's created in "Amour" what for someone like me, an atheistic materialist myself approaching eighty and an experienced hospice volunteer, must be seen as a devastating cautionary tale on how not to prepare for old age and death.  First of all, the couple has no advance plans for dealing with what happens:  all they do is improvise within the framework of an unrealistic self-sufficiency that their highly civilized lifestyle has accustomed them to.  Second, they disastrously overestimate their ability to cope with what happens:  both are mentally and physically unequal to the task.  Finally, their response to what happens turns into a horror show of geriatric ignorance, derangement, and unintended cruelty:  from their cocoon of wealth and refinement they metamorphose into perpetrators of needless suffering.
     My discussion of these three themes will follow a brief plot summary.  "Amour" opens with the discovery by authorities of a decomposing corpse on a bed sprinkled with flowers and sealed with tape in an upscale Paris apartment.  The corpse is Anne's, the film's main female character, who's then introduced months earlier at a piano recital where she and her husband Georges hear a former student of her play.
     Home from the recital, they find their apartment burglarized, and some time later Georges discovers Anne sitting next to him in bed staring blankly into space.  At breakfast she again stares, and her inability to pour coffee shows she's had a stroke.  This leads to unsuccessful carotid-artery surgery that leaves her paralyzed on her right side but initially able to think and speak clearly.  Always afraid of doctors, she makes Georges promise never to institutionalize her again.
     Her condition worsens.  When the former student drops by, she pretends to be fine, but soon after that she has to get an invalid scooter, then falls out of bed, and eventually begins wetting herself.  Georges' efforts to rehabilitate her -- bending her legs, walking her around, and so on -- are well-meant but futile.  He has a nightmare of answering their doorbell and, finding no one, wandering out into their now-ruined and flooded front hall and being grabbed from behind by a hand that seals off his mouth and nose.  He wakes up screaming but in several visits from Eva, their daughter, refuses to admit how badly things have deteriorated.  Eva discovers it for herself when she tries talking to her mother, who can barely speak.
     Shocked, Eva tries with her American husband Geoff, also a pianist, to intervene, but Georges insists he and Anne can do better in their apartment than in a nursing home or hospice.  He does agree to hire nurses to help now and then and is shown trying to make Anne eat as she brokenly talks about her long-dead mother at a concert.  She's now in constant pain and cries out when moved or touched, for which Georges fires one of the nurses, who retorts she's done a good job and that he's a mean and pitiable old prick.  Shaken, Georges retreats to the salon and for the first time smokes there.
     This erosion of standards is underscored when he slaps Anne for spitting out water he begs her to drink, a harshness juxtaposed ironically against shots of their romantic landscape paintings.  Georges locks Eva out of Anne's bedroom on her next visit, denies they're in trouble, and makes Eva cry by finally letting her see Anne.  The downward spiral ends with Georges suffocating Anne, laying her on the bed in a dress, sprinkling her with flowers, sealing the room with tape, and hallucinating that they leave the apartment together.  Eva's finally shown in the apartment alone after Anne's body's been removed.  Georges' fate is left unexplained.
     The first theme mentioned earlier -- how disastrously unprepared the couple is for Anne's stroke and how ineptly they improvise responses to it -- appears in the opening scene when Georges' tape is ripped off the bedroom door and the windows are thrown open to air out the stench of Anne's corpse.  The tape and the flowers Georges sprinkles on Anne are part of his hasty and unhinged effort at once to hide and memorialize her death.  Throughout "Amour," both he and she are unrealistic.  They both insist on staying in the apartment, she maintaining she's fine, he they're coping well.  The tape is one of the film's many images of masking reality under futile coverings.
     Their tendency to hide facts both from themselves and others is linked to the art they perform and collect.  We first see them as members of a large, well-dressed audience facing the camera in mathematical rows and reacting with puppet-like conventionality to the recital they're hearing.  The sea of faces (at first viewing we've no idea which are theirs) listens and applauds in unison.  This ritualistic response to an artistic presentation helps define them and their values.  As performing artists and teachers and parents of artists, Anne and Georges are solid citizens of this cultural community, and their mutual civility and wittiness throughout demonstrates their commitment to its values.
     Its worldview emerges from "Amour" as strenuously polite, artful, and non-ideological.  Anne and Georges never discuss philosophy or religion, nor does anyone else.  The film focusses entirely on their re-creation (they're performers rather than composers) of music and on their consumption of other kinds of high art.  Their life together has itself become a kind of art work, with enough income to provide them everything they think they need to grow old and die together gracefully.
     "Amour" in no way argues that their artistic worldview causes the catastrophe.  It only suggests, gently, that art helps devotees like Anne and George evade and deny mortality.  It encourages them to believe, as Anne and Georges seem to, that the sensitivity and self-confidence that made them successful artists will make them die well.
In this they resemble the affluent and successful people around them in the recital audience.  Representing the core values of people like Georges and Anne, the sea of semi-identical faces suggests that their view of death -- it must never intrude on polite society, must be ignored, and must finally be met with the ease and self-assurance of successful people like Anne and Georges -- underlies their kind of civilization.
     This leads in the middle part of the film to the second theme -- Georges' and Anne's heartrending inability to cope with her breakdown.  At her homecoming from the hospital, he can barely move her from the wheelchair into her living room chair.  Then when he tells her he's sorry about what's happened, she says "me too" and makes him promise never to move her out of the apartment.  Her fear of such a move equals her incredulity at what's happened.  Often she interprets his efforts to help her as misplaced pity.  At one point he finds her helpless on the hall floor and at another on the bedroom floor because she won't accept her debility.
     She doesn't want outsiders like her son-in-law Geoff to see her, and when her former student from the recital drops by, she dresses up and then scolds him for what she interprets as his dismay at how she looks.  Meanwhile, Georges has the nightmare echoing his own fears and self-doubts despite his insistence to Eva and others that he and Anne are doing well.  After she wets herself, Anne angrily wheels her new motor scooter around the front hall and strands herself in a corner, exposing how scared and upset she too is.
     In the next scene, she's in bed barely able to speak and brokenly warns Eva, who's visiting, against selling the house.  When Eva asks what house, Anne answers dementedly "grandmother's."  Eva at once brings Geoff to help intervene, but Georges will have none of it.  When Geoff asks about a nursing home or hospice, Georges retorts that he and Anne will do fine in the apartment.  Eva's questioning of their home-care setup does lead in the next scene to a new nurse showing Georges how to change Anne's diapers.  He needs far more help than that.
     I found this to be a key section of "Amour."  It shows that Anne, having fallen off a neurological cliff, is no longer in control of herself, though indirectly, of course, she still controls Georges.  His refusal to move her from the apartment fulfills his earlier promise: he knows how much she hates medical reality, and while he's having second thoughts about their situation, as shown by his hiring the new nurse, he nonetheless rejects what's plainly needed.  I found his paralysis in face of his snowballing problems heartbreaking.
     Worse, he doesn't seem to know that dying people lose their need for food and water as their bodily systems shut down.  At one point, feeding Anne till she turns away, he wrongly interprets her refusal as a rejection of him and the will to live.  Later he slaps her for spitting out water, again mistakenly interpreting it as a spiteful act of will.
     Furthermore, neither he nor the nurses seem to realize Anne's reached a state where her body is painfully sensitive to physical contact.  When a nurse brushes her hair, she cries "mal" ("hurts"), and at other times she's clearly in pain even when not touched.  Another nurse dismisses her cries as senile "mama"s or as babble.  Their inexpertise or callousness is underscored by the fact they never give her pain medicine.
     In fact, so inept and unskillful does most of Anne's care seem that I question the quality of the medical staff she and Georges are using.  The nurses are very much a mixed bag, and behind them looms a physician whose surgery on Anne failed when 95% of such operations succeed.  While not proof of incompetence, when seen in light of his regular visits to Anne yet failure to intervene, the statistic suggests he's hardly top-notch.  Moreover, having such a staff is another sign of the insouciance and carelessness with which Georges and Anne have approached old age.  They've anticipated neither the negatives of what might hit them medically nor the positives of their access as French citizens to one of the best medical systems in the world.  Their wealth alone guarantees them medical care of the highest quality.  Yet they seem clueless about how to get such care, which Anne has preemptively rejected anyway.
     They pay a high price for their fecklessness.  The horror show of geriatric ignorance, derangement, and cruelty that is the film's third and most important theme reaches its stunning climax when Georges suddenly smothers Anne with a pillow after telling her an unhappy story of his own boyhood.  He tells the story gently and lovingly, stroking her hands, and she stops crying "mal" and is calm and trusting by the time he finishes.  To kill her so abruptly and brutally, at such a tender moment, was for me conclusive evidence of how crazy he's become.  Whether his act is premeditated or a sudden impulse is unclear, but everything to this point suggests he wants Anne to live, a fact that magnifies the grotesquerie of his murderous attack.
     It is above all a grotesque parody of sexual intercourse.  Pinning her down as if maddened by lust, Georges relentlessly rides Anne's thrusts and struggles with thrusts and struggles of his own and finally collapses on her in post-orgasmic-like exhaustion as her legs also shudder with pseudo-orgasmic death convulsions.  Yet this is not the connubial, sexual amour they've always shared.  It may be a mercy-killing amour through which Georges hopes to free Anne, like the pigeons he frees from the apartment, or it may be a self-amour with which to rid himself of Anne.
     However interpreted, the harsh fact of the murder, apparently unsought by its victim, is haunting.  That the film is complex, ambiguous, and many-layered is undeniable.  But equally undeniable is the insanity, needlessness, and irony of Georges' final act of "caregiving."  For Anne's and his own good, he should have put her in a well-run nursing home or hospice where he could have stayed with or often visited her and where she'd have gotten expert care.  Instead, he mires himself in a morass of hit-or-miss amateurism that destroys them both.
     Anne's dementia is more obvious than his, but by the end they're both deranged.  After she first wets herself, he hallucinates that she's playing their piano, and when he's killed her and sprinkled her with flowers he hallucinates that they leave the apartment together.  He's also shown writing a coldly witty letter (suicide note?) after the murder.  Unshaven, he lies in bed surrounded by litter and cigarette butts.  Their world of high culture has collapsed in madness.
     Haneke's stance is not religious.  There's no religiosity in "Amour" whatsoever.  Instead, there's a complex, questioning awareness of the human repugnance to death and the consequences of that repugnance for two privileged and successful representatives of modern European civilization.  Anne's and Georges' tragedy is the tragedy we will all suffer, that of our mortality.  The couple's failure to anticipate and prepare intelligently for it is, I think, the major focus of "Amour."

1 comment:

  1. This is not a response to this specific consolation, but having been a regular reader for some time, I was moved to respond to Consolation 27 because it crystallized my intuitions about Dr. Vitzthum’s brand of atheism. I think an extract I recently read of a soon to be posthumously published book, Religion Without God by atheist Ronald Dworkin, who died Feb. 14, triggered a recognition of the actual concrete foundation for my own (fairly amorphous) atheism, and helped me understand why I have been drawn into reading Dr. Vitzthum’s Consolations.
    In the excerpt from the book’s first chapter, published in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Dworkin comments upon the “religious” habits of mind typical of many well known atheists throughout history, including Shelley and Einstein, and comes up with his concept of “religious atheism,” which, apparently, his book will argue is NOT an oxymoron. Dworkin comes up with two key criteria for what constitutes a “religious attitude,” both of them based upon the individual’s foundational acceptance of “the full independent reality of value.” The first affirms that human life has “objective meaning or importance”—each of us has a responsibility to try and live well and accept ethical responsibilities to ourselves as well as towards others. The second affirms that “nature” (the universe and all its parts) has intrinsic value and wonder. He calls these the biological and biographical assertions of “inherent value.”
    None of this, for Dworkin, requires the existence of God. I guess for some atheists the “dicey” part might be the potentially “specious” foundational assumption that value is real and fundamental—“just as real as trees or pain.” Dworkin argues that this assumption in no way requires “metaphysical” support, since we test and affirm our value judgments on the basis of experiment and observation, just as we do our scientific claims about the universe, the existence of which even scientists cannot indubitably “certify.”
    (One ultimate aim of Dworkin’s book appears to be to support an argument that the notion of “religious atheism” can help bridge the divide in our culture between theists, who think we need a God to support TRUE values, and atheists who, according to his theory, need no God as the source of value. He thinks theists and atheists could mutually embrace one another’s convictions regarding the two HUGE value commitments that he thinks constitute Religious Atheism—the meaning of human life and the value and wonder of nature. I actually don’t think that this “bridging of the divide” would be greatly facilitated by wider cultural recognition of the “religious atheist,” for reasons he himself acknowledges.
    But just the same I still think the way Dworkin conceives of the religious atheist is crucial (I guess because I could find in his argument a clear reflection of my own heretofore amorphous convictions!), and also a resounding echo of what I have been reading in Vitzthum’s consolations. Of course Vitzthum believes in the value of human life, or he would not be spending so many hours contemplating how humans can deal with the crisis of death or about the significance of the full bodied convict at his hour of death. And, of course, he repeatedly and joyfully consoles us regarding the opportunity that awaits us all to merge our elements with the “cosmic wilderness” of the awesome universe. Because of these two ultimate value commitments, he strikes me as Dworkin’s consummate “religious atheist.)
    So I guess I am just wondering, Dr. Vitzthum, what do you think of Dworkin’s concept of “religious atheism.” (The full book is to be published by Harvard UP later this year.) JH