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‘Amour’: The Family Plot

As we handed over our tickets to see Michael Haneke’s Oscar-nominated “Amour,” the ticket-taker said, “Theater is on your right. Enjoy!” My companion, who had already seen the story of an increasingly isolated old man trying to care for his beloved, degenerating wife, mused that this was perhaps not the most appropriate exhortation. Maybe something more like, “It’s theater five. Endure!”

“Amour” is a totally compelling, emotionally devastating movie, in which Haneke’s technical trademarks support his overall theme. It’s an extremely painful movie to watch and it’s by far the greatest of the three Haneke films I’ve watched so far. Spoilers etc. under the cut.

From the movie’s opening we can guess pretty well what must have happened. Firefighters break into an apartment, their hands coming up to their faces to guard against the smell, and break through a door blocked off by packing tape to find an old woman’s corpse lying on her bed, carefully dressed and holding a small bouquet. It’s the packing tape, really, which provides the explanation.

We then go back in time to see Anne and her husband Georges enjoy a night at the concert hall (with foreboding Haneke shots of the audience) and return home, quietly happy with one another. In the morning, over breakfast, Anne enters a frighteningly unresponsive state. Victor Morton wrote beautifully about how this scene plays out, using the sound of water running from the tap to convey emotion, theme, and plot.

The problem is something to do with her carotid, if I recall correctly, and the surgery intended to correct it fails. Anne begins to fall apart. She becomes paralyzed on one side; she begins to lose her mental faculties, and is reduced to crying out in incoherent misery as she’s bathed and spitting out food and water as her husband tries to hand-feed her. The moments of joy and marital harmony grow rarer and more diminished: Anne chases Georges in her mechanized wheelchair, Anne ekes out a few off-key words from a children’s song and Georges sings it to her. By the end even these comforts are denied to them.

Meanwhile a series of people ask him if there’s anything they can do to help. He says no, because what else do people mostly say? He doesn’t want to be a burden, and in fact one of my companions noted, after the movie, that there’s a fierce pride in the way Georges and Anne fight over this concept of “being a burden.” Georges wants the privilege of being burdened by her, and she wants the privilege of not being a burden. (St. Aelred knew that burdening others is part of the work of love.) Both of them want to be selfless in a way which reads more like self-sufficiency, independence, even power. In one of these unfinished fights Anne says she wants to die.

Much later, in one of the most devastating scenes I’ve seen in a long time, Georges tells Anne a story (including the line, “You have to sit here and eat until it’s finished,” which is a fairly blunt parallel to their situation). And then he smothers her.

And so a lot of people (left; right) have viewed “Amour” as a brief for euthanasia. This strikes me as totally wrong.

First of all, if the movie convinces the audience of anything it’s probably, “I should move closer to Mom and Dad.” The couple’s daughter tries to get her father to send her mother to a hospital or a home; he won’t, because Anne vehemently refuses that idea, and so his daughter leaves him to his task. She’s frustrated by him but then again, she doesn’t help. She doesn’t insist on helping.

Second, the daughter says something which helps fit “Amour” in with Haneke’s other work, and helps fit the concert-audience shot into the rest of the movie. “What’s going to happen?” she asks in exasperation. And her father answers, “What’s going to happen is what has happened up until now.” The daughter wants some kind of resolution, a plot: a way of transforming this into a story of decision and triumph rather than a story of endurance, abject acceptance, suffering. And when her father eventually reaches the same point, the only way he can give his narrative a shape and an end is through violence. That violence is no more glorified, I think, than the narrative-creating violence in “Funny Games.”

The movie makes Georges’ action understandable. (It also shows that his mind is deteriorating along with Anne’s.) That isn’t the same as justifying him. Even Haneke’s long, long shots, in which the camera holds steady for what seems like an eternity, feel like a kind of protest against the unwillingness to endure. He won’t let us just montage right on through the hard parts.

I don’t mean to imply that the movie is a brief against euthanasia either. It’s a portrait, not an allegory. But there are lots of ways this could have been an immoral movie or a cheap one (if the late scene with the pigeon had gone differently, for example), and instead it’s a searing film, which takes place in a moral universe I recognize.

about the author

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications. She is working on a book on vocation for gay Catholics. Her email is [email protected] and she can be found on Twitter at @evetushnet.

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