Selfish Humanism, by David Bax
It seems the consensus is that Amour is an uncharacteristically humanistic film for director Michael Haneke. He showcases people at their most vulnerable and at their most gallant and he does so with none of the stridency that marks his other works. Still, it would be incorrect to say that he passes no judgment on the characters herein. He studies them with a frankness that will be recognizable to those familiar with his oeuvre and he comes away with the understanding that, even when we seem to be at our best, we may act from a place that is less than altruistic. The real surprise from the usually unforgiving Haneke is that he concludes that that’s not a bad thing.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) have been married a long time. They are now retired and in their eighties, enjoying a quiet life in one another’s company. One morning, during breakfast, Anne begins displaying some troubling behavior. Soon, her condition worsens, she has multiple strokes and Georges commits himself to taking care of her in their home. There is occasional assistance from a hired nurse and a number of not entirely helpful visits from the couple’s daughter (Isabelle Huppert) but it is essentially just Anne and Georges, one wasting away while the other becomes further and further invested in his wife’s well-being.
Clearly, it’s not a light-hearted couple of hours. Haneke kicks things off with a jarring, bracing scene that is reminiscent of a horror film. For this opening alone, it is worth experiencing the movie nice and loud. From that point on, even as we relax into a mundane domesticity, the film’s unsettling introduction hangs like a ghastly sword of Damocles.
Huppert, as daughter Eva, only has a handful of brief scenes but it’s not until she shows up that the thematic pieces begin to arrange themselves. Eva is, of course, sad for her mother. It grieves Eva to see her bedridden, mute and largely immobile. She wants to spend time with Anne before she dies. Yet she is insistent that all of this take place on her own timetable. She has, it seems, set aside time in her busy day to grieve. It makes her appear cold and – since we’re mostly seeing the character through her father’s eyes – offputtingly childish for a woman her age. Haneke is far from content to stop the finger-pointing there, though. He allows these moments to linger long enough that we start to reflect on what would be the proper way to grieve, if one even exists. We soon realize that Eva is not out of the ordinary, that grief benefits none but the griever. It is an inherently self-centered act.
Almost immediately, we see a similar type of behavior in Anne. She begins refusing to eat or drink the things that Georges puts into her mouth. It may literally be, as the saying goes, her funeral but it is also a bit disrespectful to the emotional state of Georges, the person who is more invested in her life than anyone else. Still, he carries on, managing to strike a balance between her stubbornness and the things she needs to stay alive.
So we are left with Georges. Trintignant has more time on screen and more dialogue than any other person in the movie and so we end up placing most of our sympathies with him. Yet a question begins to nag. If Anne, an intelligent adult, doesn’t want the food or water that will keep her alive, for whose benefit is Georges acting when he persists in feeding her? The honest truth is that he wants her to live because he doesn’t want to face the pain of losing her. He is, in his own way, behaving selfishly.
Thanks both to Haneke’s placid and gentle camera and, especially, to the subdued, realistic and hugely revealing performances by Trintignant, Riva and Huppert, we feel no animosity for these people and their selfishness. We see their love for one another and we recognizable their behaviors in ourselves. We, perhaps, even come to love them a bit. So it is that we empathize with Georges when, despite being a good person, he loses his temper with his daughter or the nurse. The person he loves the most is slipping away from him and he has no control over it. This leads us to the film’s finest scene and perhaps the single finest scene in any film this year. A pigeon comes in through the window of the flat Georges and Anne share. This has happened before but, this time, Georges’ goal is not just to shoo it back out the way it entered. He wordlessly decides that he will catch it and let it go on his own terms. The shuffling dance he does to corner the bird becomes the ritual of an old man asserting that he is not beaten and that he will continue to hold domain over his home, his territory, his little piece of the world.
So Amour is a positive and, yes, humanistic film about selfishness. Finally, though, it is also about dignity. We demand it for ourselves and for the ones we love. In both cases, we do it because it makes us feel good. There’s nothing wrong with that.