In Amour there are many things worth talking about, but three that immediately come to mind are the nature of a happy marriage, the question of casting actors with clear cinematic back stories rehearsing deaths that are unlikely to be too different from their own, and the notion of kammerspiel, of closed form as the film takes place almost exclusively in the one apartment.
Many of the reviews have mentioned the long and contented marriage they see between Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) in Michael Haneke’s film. Catherine Wheatley in Sight and Sound says that the couple are “happy, affectionate, active and content”; Jonathan Romney in the Independent on Sunday believes that they are “deeply at ease in each other’s company and still in love after a lifetime together”, and Roy Grundmann explores interestingly the nature of the couples’ profound love in Senses of Cinema. But is this maybe a little too hastily assumed, and contradicted by certain moments in the film? In the early stages when George and Anne come back from a concert, Riva’s Anne talks about how gentle he is with her and wonders what has got into him. A bit later she tells Georges that in the past he could sometimes be monstrous, though he was also a nice man. Then, quite late on, as he tries feeding Anne while she’s in an advanced stage of incapacitation, and she refuses the food, he slaps her. One wouldn’t want to read too much into these moments, but the idea of a long and happy marriage contains within it tensions the film addresses in subtextual form. After all, there is much here to indicate that Georges isn’t always a warm and reasonable human being. When he promptly fires a nurse who combs Anne’s hair and holds a mirror in front of her face, he is right to find her behaviour unreasonable, but his reaction is hardly itself reasonable. He doesn’t discuss at all with the nurse what she was doing wrong, and since we don’t know what Georges has witnessed, and only ourselves witnessed this moment of tactlessness on the nurse’s part, we might wonder whether the scene between the nurse and Georges isn’t only there to reveal the awfulness of the nurse (her insult before she leaves indicating an odious character), but also something less than wonderful in Georges. As Anthony Quinn says in The Independent, “he coolly and ruthlessly dismisses a nurse who has distressed Anne by holding up a mirror to her face – unpalatable evidence. He berates the woman for “incompetence”, though one wonders if there was more than just a single thoughtless error to account for”. Indeed, it isn’t long afterwards that Georges slaps Anne, and we might wonder whether if passing through his own mind is that he sacked the nurse for a rather more innocuous offence, no matter his own understandable frustration and exhaustion that leads to the slap. As for warmth, how are to take his dealings with their daughter, a woman unsympathetically portrayed by Isabelle Huppert, but someone whose tears on more than one occasion are met by Georges with close to indifference.
However, before moving on let us say a little bit more about that scene with the nurse. It is a moment that we often find in a Haneke film: a scene where our sympathies aren’t so much divided as dislocated – caught in a no-man’s land of ambivalent identification. There is the scene in Hidden where a cyclist careers past Georges and Anne down a one-way street and Georges is right to be annoyed, and wrong in how he approaches the situation. There is the scene in The Piano Teacher where Erika wonders if they should accept a new student who plays extremely well, with Erika dubious after seeing signs of flashiness in the student. She is right in her perception, but how she reacts reveals a great deal about her own troublesome personality. In Code Unknown, Juliette Binoche is verbally attacked by a couple of youths on an underground train and while their attitude is obnoxious, their resentment isn’t entirely misplaced: Binoche is the white bourgeois, and the youths ethnic figures, the type of people Haneke shows not so well treated elsewhere in the film. One doesn’t want to exaggerate this ambivalence – Georges in Hidden is rude, Erika misguided and the youths despicable – but Haneke has the habit of creating situations that contain within them the equivocalness of feeling that makes us wonder not only what is going on in the scene, but what might be going on in the heads of the characters during these moments. Georges’ reaction to the nurse in Amour isn’t straightforward indignation; it contains within it a peremptory attitude that seems far from unique to the moment. When he says that he hopes when she is herself old and frail people will treat her as badly as she has just treated Anne, he says it bitterly. If he had said he wishes that nobody treats her as she treated Anne the point would still have been made, but the sourness removed. The sourness tells us something about Georges, and might make us wonder whether Georges and Anne’s marriage has been so wonderful after all, especially if it produces a daughter that the film seems to expect us to judge, and that might lead us by the end of the film to muse over a wider dysfunction within the family.
Is it fair to say of Georges here that he is a man of principle as readily as love, and how can we differentiate one from the other and understand better the distinctiveness of Haneke’s film, accepting all the time of course that love is the very title of the work? It is also the title of Peter Nadas’s fine novel from 1979, a book about a couple also holed up in an apartment; but where Nadas explores the hallucinatory feeling of the fleeting, of relatively youthful love as passion and impracticality; Haneke explores love with an aging couple who cannot leave the apartment not out of mutual desire, but instead out of the frailty of one and the increasing debilitation of the other that demands the former looks after the latter. The same word, the same title, is used to cover very different emotional states, and this doesn’t in-itself have anything to do with age (Andreas Dresen’s Cloud 9 is a very moving account of late passion), but more with whether love is an act of will or an escape from it. When the male character in Nadas’s book goes to his lover’s apartment he says he wants to leave her, yet can’t extricate himself and gets pulled in once again to their passionate affair, an affair that addresses the problem of the difficulty of dissolution of the ‘I’ but also the desire to lose the self. “The closer she gets to me, the more I lose her, and just as she recedes I lose her for sure; for there is always this Me, always Me, and because of this ubiquitous Me I cannot feel and I cannot know what I am or what She is in reality”. Georges seems the opposite of a man of dissolution, as his wife asks him to promise that he won’t put her back into hospital or send her into a home. Whether it is the nurse he fires, or the daughter he keeps away from her mother, Georges seems nothing if not a character of firm will.
Georges is very much a man of his word, as if the word isn’t so much stronger than the deed, but the source of it. Anne will not be put it into a home because of love, of course, but also and maybe especially because Georges has sworn to her that he won’t. Just as many years before they took their marriage vows, vows to which they’ve clearly held since this is a long marriage that has produced a daughter in at least her forties (played by the fifty seven year old Huppert); so equally now he takes another vow that will mean his wife will stay at home and be looked after by her husband. When Huppert’s Eva debates whether this is best for her mother, Georges is adamant. But equally there is a scene where Eva and her father discuss her husband’s infidelities, and the shame of working in the same company with Geoff (William Shammell) and the women with whom he’s had an affair. She tells this to her father as if not only will she accept such behaviour, but that her father will also. Does her acceptance reflect infidelities on her father’s part? We cannot say, but here is a man capable it seems of harsh judgement that in this instance chooses not to judge at all, a man we’re proposing is someone whose word is solid, but whose actions perhaps haven’t always been. We don’t know exactly what Anne means when she says Georges has been a monster in the past – but it might be the very word that Eva could use towards her own husband after his recent infidelity. As the camera stays behind the chair so that Georges’ face remains half-hidden whilst Eva’s is clearly present in medium shot, so elements of Georges’ personality remain a mystery – no matter a couple of anecdotes he tells in the film about his own childhood.
Criticism is a slippery business and can often lead to a slippery slope – with the writer not so much writing on the film but over it – offering a palimpsest of the work based on tenuous evidence. But isn’t Haneke a filmmaker who demands that we don’t take a film at face value; doesn’t he often say he wants his films to be interpreted more than merely comprehended? Isn’t there a hint of an affair between Anne and a colleague in Hidden, aren’t we left to wonder why Anne has changed her code so that her partner can’t get into the flat at the end of Code Unknown, isn’t Erika’s behaviour in The Piano Teacher an enigma wrapped inside an enigma? Haneke makes films that contain within them the kernel of another film, as if the film we see is but the outer layer of a film that we might possibly glimpse at. There is so much that we don’t know about in Hidden that our instinct is to try and get inside the film and propose another one that is hidden from us: a film that could be about two boys complicit with each other to the detriment of one parent but that ends up with the death of the other one. This isn’t the story the film tells, but it a story one can claim is buried inside the one we are shown. Even in Funny Games, the rewound footage creates the possibility of another film (the revenge drama) that the film then eschews. Can we provocatively propose that Amour is a film about love that contains within it a film with its own fair share of barely concealed hate, or, let’s not exaggerate, coldness? It might be fair for someone to say that Haneke has done no more than create in Trintignant’s character a figure who is warts and all: an occasional monster in the past; a bit curt with the nurse, and so at the end of his tether that the slap he administers to his wife is a coping mechanism against speechless frustration.
All fair and well as Haneke avoids the easy option of a caring character too sympathetically portrayed. But if Haneke is the great filmmaker many of the reviewers claim him to be, surely he must be doing more than offering a corrective to a disease of the week movie, with its sentimentally lovable characters and its lachrymose catharsis? If he is a modern master shouldn’t there be a problematic getting worked through; not only a mainstream expectation countered? Our tentative supposition is that Georges is a man temperamentally set up by Haneke as a cold figure, but then consistently acts (especially after Anne’s second stroke) in a manner conducive to a warm one, and does so to throw upon us the question of what it means to be a loving human being.
Haneke’s work hasn’t been averse to searching out situations where good deeds are called into question by people whose positive actions contain within them behaviour and attitudes making the deed pale next to what we must take as their character. Georges in Hidden might understandably say he wants to look after his family; Benny’s parents in Benny’s Video likewise as they try and cover up the murder their son has committed. In 71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance a family adopts, but in circumstances that indicate a love of media rather than a love of children: they want a young boy in the news rather than the girl lined up. From a certain point of view Georges in Hidden, Benny’s parents and the couple in 71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance care, but not unproblematically so. Is Georges in Amour another such character, someone who fully deserves the praise he receives from the concierge that comments on the wonderful job he’s been doing looking after his wife, and yet remains somehow cold? What, for example, are we to make of that look he offers his wife when she comments on the photo album and the wonder of life? What about the expression on his face when he watches her bathed by the nurse?
Again, we don’t want to exaggerate, and certainly not for the purposes of antithetical thesis mongering: to create an argument for no better reason than to counter accepted doxa. But equally can we believe that is merely what Haneke has done: that he has created a film running contrary to the general approach to sentimentality and aging deaths? To explore further, let us examine the second aspect that we proposed was interesting about the film: the casting. Where Emmanuelle Riva is best known for Hiroshima, mon amour and less obviously so for Leon Morin, Priest, a couple of Georges Franju films, Liberte la nuit by Philippe Garrel, and Three Colours: Blue, for Trintignant there has been And God Created Woman, A Man and a Woman, Les Biches, My Night at Maud’s, The Conformist, and Three Colours: Red. Haneke reckoned that without Trintignant he probably wouldn’t have made the film (Sight and Sound, Dec. 2012), and it resembles his remarks on casting Huppert in The Piano Teacher. The Austin Film Society notes “Haneke’s insistence that Isabelle Huppert would play the part of the Viennese pianist turned teacher.”
There are at least two ways in which to see this desire to cast a particular actor. One lies in their ability, the director’s belief that the actor they cast has thespian qualities not easily replicated and this is chiefly a question of craft. For example if one wanted an actor to project their voice in a certain way, to master speech patterns based on precise diction, or on a nimble ability to work within tight confines without looking clumsy and thus hires somebody with dancing experience, these would be matters of craft. But then there is also the question of persona, especially relevant when casting an actor with an assertive and recognisable back catalogue – an actor with a persona they would unavoidably take into a film. When Haneke cast Huppert in The Piano Teacher, he would surely have known well Huppert’s calculating performances in Chabrol films like Violette Noziere, La Ceremonie and Merci pour le chocolat, would have understood that she is a great actress of the mismatch between thought and deed, and that she had already appeared in a film with a script by the novelist of The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek – Malina.
Here his casting of Trintignant is hardly neutral, and we might think of several of Trintignant’s key roles when watching Amour: My Night at Maud’s, for example, set mainly in the one apartment, and where Trintignant’s character acts out of principle rather than desire as he decides to forgo the sensual Maud for an idee fixe concerning another woman. In The Conformist he betrays a communist professor to the Nazis, while in Les Biches he is part of the power games as he insinuates himself in the life of a couple of bisexual lesbians. In Three Colours: Red he plays the embittered judge, someone whose partner cheated on him as a young man, and who is now the retired figure using advanced audio equipment to eavesdrop on people’s lives. When a filmmaker casts a well-known actor in a role and removes from the character much of the back story that passes for personal history (despite the anecdotes we know very little about Georges, not even his past employment status is clear), is it possible that the viewer will project something of that back story, maybe sub-consciously, onto the character through the actor’s own back catalogue? Does the director often not invite it? If for example Haneke had cast an actor like the late Philippe Noiret or Bruno Ganz (very different types from Trintignant), he wouldn’t only have been accessing the actor’s capacity for sympathy and warmth, but also potentially the sympathy and warmth they have shown in various roles earlier. Noiret in films like Zazie dans le metro, The Watchmaker of St Paul, Three Brothers and Life and Nothing But; Ganz in The American Friend, Wings of Desire, Bread and Tulips and Eternity and a Day. Casting Trintingnant with a cinematic back catalogue possessing little sympathy, removing back story from the character, and inserting a small handful of moments that suggest the less than friendly, means that it isn’t unreasonable for us to respond to the character with some reservation. Now this issue of the actor containing inevitable attributes of character beyond the characterisation is a cinematic point too often lost, but where a character in a novel comes without preconceptions (and in this sense casting a non-professional is closer to characterisation in a novel), in a cinema that utilises name actors this preconception is likely if not inevitable. Would Haneke, who is nothing if not a self-conscious filmmaker interested in making the viewer aware of its various elements, be likely to cast Trintignant innocently?
Equally, this leads us into one of the most ethically troubling elements of the film. Numerous screen actors have been called upon to die in fictional scenarios: in shoot-outs, in falling off-cliffs, caught under the rubble of collapsing buildings, taken out by a meteorite. Most of these deaths are contingent rather than inevitable demises: their likelihood is very small, and few actors find themselves rehearsing what could well be their own end. Even if, say, an actor who gets shot in one film in a drive-by shooting, a couple of years later gets killed in exactly this way, we would hardly claim that he was rehearsing his own death, just that his end was coincidentally the same as the one in the film. But in Amour, Riva’s performance has a strong dimension of a rehearsal. In an interview with Trintignant and Riva, Xan Brooks may amusingly note that, “There’s Riva, waxing lyrical about poetry as she pours out the tea. Here’s Trintignant, twirling his walking stick in one hand and gesticulating with the other; taking issue with this and that. The two look so hale it’s disconcerting”. (Guardian)But their relative good health, at eighty five and eighty one, respectively, is still quite different from casting an actor like Charlize Theron on death row’s door in Monster, or Tom Hanks dying of Aids in Philadelphia. Trintignant and Riva are actors relatively close to the sort of death Riva enacts, even if it is a of course a demise that comes through Georges smothering Anne with a pillow. This is a mercy killing, an act of euthanasia; no matter the exasperated violence in the deed.
Also, this is death shown not as a sudden decline within the context of a narrative elsewhere (how many indie films have a dying parent occasionally visited?), but a work where visiting hours are 24/7. Process has always interested Haneke, and when critics like Nick Pinkerton in Reverse Shot, reviewing Funny Games, accuse him of hectoring and manipulation, they might be missing the point. “The idea is to make a thriller, but a thriller with the hood popped, so we can see the Pistons moving, and watch the mechanisms at work”, says Pinkerton. “And, presumably, so we accomplices can feel rotten about all the onscreen holocausts we’ve been enjoying with little or no spiritual attrition.” Haneke’s approach is often not only to show the workings of cinema, but also the workings of life-actions that film frequently elides. When an intruder invades one’s house there won’t be pulsating music telling you to make a mad dash through the back door; it is probably more likely they will insinuate themselves in your space and leave you feeling very awkward as you try to get rid of them. In Funny Games Haneke understands well the simultaneous fear of social impoliteness and immanent terror: that the minor problem of rudeness actually competes absurdly with the sense that there is a chance that this person might want to kill you. Haneke in Funny Games doesn’t only make the intruder in the house genre self-reflexive, he also domesticises it: he makes the wife’s social politeness as prominent as her fear by attending to every day sounds and objects in her midst.
In Amour, Haneke attends to the process of dying again, but not at the hands of murderers, but where Riva is at the mercy of the way of things. The film incrementally shows a woman falling apart, losing her capacity to walk, to talk, to feed herself. The intruder in the house this time doesn’t take human form (despite an attempted break-in at the beginning), but is the human form: one’s body announcing its own impending death. Just as Haneke wanted to show the process of invaders taking over a house and murdering its inhabitants, so here he wants to show the process of a disease slowly debilitating an individual. If Haneke’s work has a sadistic dimension, we shouldn’t see it only in how he plays with an audience’s expectations in form, but also in his intense approach to content. Here the form serves the content: serves it in the sense that the film blankly stares at deterioration where other films would look away. Do we really need to see Riva as Anne getting up off the toilet with Georges’ help; do we really need to see her naked getting washed by the nurse? For the purposes of Haneke’s sadistic verisimilitude the answer would be yes; and it comes back to our point about Georges being an unsympathetic character. What Haneke works with is a difficult man but shows him in difficult situations, and plays fair by observing both the man’s difficulties of personality and the difficulties of his wife’s deterioration.
This leads us to our final point concerning the filmic space: what is called kammerspiel, a type of cinema originally designed to create intimate dramas for small audiences, but a type of chamber cinema Haneke has adopted for his own ends on a number of occasions: most obviously in his first feature The Seventh Continent, which takes place mainly in the apartment of a family preparing to commit suicide, Funny Games and now Amour. In Amour the film openly explores the details of Anne’s dying, but the space remains slightly hemmed in while it is shared by Georges and Anne. It seems only at the beginning and especially at the end where the film delineates the space, and adds camera movements. At the beginning of the film we see police officers break into the apartment, pass through the flat and unseal the bedroom door that has been taped up. As the officers cup their hands over their faces, the smell is clearly horrendous, and when they get into the bedroom they see a dead body fully clothed on the bed, before the film starts properly, flashing back to the last period of this woman’s life, namely Anne’s. The end of the film takes place not only after Anne’s death, but after her body has been discovered. As Eva wonders round the apartment, she moves through it with all the corporeal confidence of the able-bodied, and also, more intriguingly, the social confidence perhaps of someone who will now own this very apartment. We do not know what has happened to Georges. In the final moment in the film before this epilogue he leaves the apartment with Anne, having hallucinated Anne back to life, and talks to her as if she is still relatively able-bodied herself and doing domestic chores. Was he found dead or half-mad on the streets? We can’t say, but as Eva sits in the chair that usually her father would sit in, so we sense that her parents are no longer alive and the space is hers: there is no indication that the flat is anything now but empty of occupants.
Now we don’t want to over interpret this conclusion, but again, as with the casting of Trintignant and the sparseness of character information, we might be inclined to see Eva as an aloof and manipulative figure. Her few scenes have shown her unsympathetic, with her interest in her mother’s health sometimes seeming secondary to an interest in her own problems. There is a telling and quite manipulative cut with Haneke moving from the frightened Anne in her electric wheelchair, to her in bed with Eva sitting over her discussing Eva’s own problems. Equally, Huppert has on numerous occasions played manipulative characters as we’ve noted: from La Ceremonie to The Piano Teacher to Merci pour la chocolat, and emotionally sadistic ones in certain situations in Loulou, Coup de torchon and Gabrielle. If Amour had been a Chabrol film (as la ceremonie and Merci pour la chocolat were), we wouldn’t be surprised to see a small smile on Huppert’s face: the property is now hers, and the burden of her parents has been removed. Of course this is not a Chabrol film, but Haneke hasn’t been averse to creating characters that function with the pragmatic coldness of a Chabrolian figure, but without the murderous calculations. Benny’s parents don’t want to hurt anyone, but the young girl their son has shot is dead, and their purpose it to protect their son’s future and will manipulate events in any way necessary to keep their son from being punished for the murder. In Hidden, Georges doesn’t murder his half-brother, but his response to the suicide is coldly self-preserving. Is Eva such a figure, or perhaps the opposite: someone who in this closing scene realises the emptiness of her familial life: an only child with her parents gone (parents who seemed to ostracise her in this late stage of their lives, and perhaps earlier also?) and a husband whose philandering we’ve of course earlier been informed about? Then again we might think of recent Huppert films where property has been central: Home, Private Property, The Sea Wall and White Mischief have all been films where Huppert’s characters have defended their living space; here it looks like she does no more than inherit one. In the other films she fought battles that she generally lost; here she gains a flat with no effort at all.
What is Haneke getting at in this ending, and in his restricted use of space throughout the film? The use of Kammerspiel was often utilised for the purposes of psychological claustrophobia, as we find in much German expressionism, as well as in films like Repulsion and The Tenant by Roman Polanski, and here Haneke adopts elements of the subjective that hint at the horror of these earlier works. At one moment Georges listens to Schubert on the CD player and the shot/counter-shot suggests he has conjured Anne up from their recent past: as we see her sitting playing the piano. At another moment, Georges goes out into the hall and finds water everywhere, before waking up with a scream. Both indicate the subjective approach of kammerspiel as cabin fever, with the mind enclosed in a limited space and subsequently expanding beyond the boundaries of common sense. In conjuring Anne up in his imagination near the end, does George not regain his wife but lose his mind? In the closing scene Eva inherits a pristine space, clean, tidy and airy, devoid of the mustiness of age and disease evident through much of the film, and the unbreathable odour of decomposition at the beginning of it.
In an interview with the Austrian Film Commission, Haneke says: “Different generations develop different life concepts depending on their environment. That’s something that happens in every generation. The interesting and sad thing about this is that with each new generation, difficulties in communicating arise. That’s a constant source of potential conflict, and it always represents a departure.” Haneke adds, “the older generation is always the one that departs and is discarded, because the world around it changes to such a degree that it’s unable to deal with it any longer. Of course, I can only make a film about the generation I’m familiar with. It’s a problem that everyone faces at some point, whether in terms of their parents or themselves”. In the earlier Huppert ‘home’ films that we mentioned, she was part of the older generation moving towards obsoleteness; here she is the younger one, and where in Home and The Sea Wall she was the indomitable spirit, here we might be inclined to see her as someone who gets exactly what she fights so hard for in the other recent films, but gets it without a price except perhaps to her conscience.
Are we reading too much into this, and worse, crediting a character with a personality that is more awful than anything we are actually presented with? However, recalling our remark that within Haneke films there is another film fighting to get out, is the film that is trying to escape from Amour one in which Eva is the daughter of a cold man who does his duty just as Eva is the daughter who happens to be doings hers, and her final duty is to inherit the very flat that her mother has died in, the flat that her father walks out of, vacating the facilities and his faculties? Throughout the film Georges sits in the green armchair as he welcomes various guests. But in the closing shot of the film it is Eva who sits in it as we may wonder what exactly might be going on in her mind as she usurps her father’s position in a very literal sense. Haneke’s film is of course very disturbing for its unremitting account of a terminal illness, but it’s as if there is another film about the dynamics of a three way family that the wife’s illness imposes upon and makes the relationship apparently irrelevant. But if we are right to assume that Haneke is not a director who wants us to take his films at face value, what other film can we extract from the one we have just watched, and why does this closing scene with Eva in the apartment possess a mystery that isn’t easy to eradicate? Haneke’s film might have nothing to do with kammerspiel as Polanski couched it, but he can’t quite eradicate the existential unease that sits inside this apartment, and that suggests everyone, in both their body and their home, are, finally, no more than sitting tenants.