The Subtlety of Loss

Film review of Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (France, 2012)

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Georges: “Please. Don’t feel guilty. What if this were me?”

If you believe film should be an experience that illuminates, probes, and reflects life, “Amour” is the greatest film of 2012. Michael Haneke, once again gracefully unconcerned with entertaining and pleasing the audience, allows the film to exist as an experience rather than a spectacle. Consequently, the film is like life: it’s not often satisfying, it meanders, it’s ambiguous, it’s beautiful, it’s both divisive and unifying, and it will break your heart.

As the narrative begins, we find ourselves in a theater. In one extended wide shot, we observe the patrons finding their seats, collectively forming an audience. The lights dim. The audience is asked to silence their mobile phones. Hushed anticipation pervades the space. Intermittently, someone coughs, sniffles, or rustles. Then, someone coughs, sniffles, or rustles in the seat behind you, and the cinematic architecture of reflection Haneke has crafted is illuminated. Haneke engages us in this uncanny mirror experience to prime us for “Amour”: It’s a film about life and death, and, as such, you’re required to give yourself entirely to an experience of painful—but necessary—reflection.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, in an Oscar-worthy performance) are elderly and retired. We know all we need to know about their past: they’ve had fulfilling, passionate careers in music, and now they live in a labyrinthine apartment in Paris, which—save for the first scene at the concert—is the only setting of the film. One morning, at breakfast, Anne seems to black out. Georges, who at first thinks Anne is playing a practical joke, soon learns that he’s witnessed the precipice of a very long decline. Anne is going to die, and George’s inner strength and devotion to her will be tested as he endeavors to help her do it.

Two weeks before I saw “Amour,” my own grandmother died. The day before she died, I lay with her in bed as her body and mind shut down. Like Anne, my grandmother knew she was going to die, but what she didn’t know were the excruciating “how’s”: how long the process would take, or how much she would suffer. The first time Anne speaks of her death, it’s in the form of an order. It’s directed at Georges, and it clearly states never to take her back to the hospital. That’s exactly the order my grandmother gave. “Amour” and life fused in that moment, and, cognizant of why we bother to create art at all, I gave myself entirely to the film.

In a long history of writers and artists struggling with “the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death (Italo Calvino),” Haneke brings us a masterpiece that’s glaringly new and vital. “Amour” is a harrowing portrait of senescence that breathes with you. It asks all the hard questions about life, death, and love in between. As the landscape of Georges and Anne’s lives shifts to uncover new meanings of intimacy, empathy, and coping, we’re shifting, too. From “Cache” and “The White Ribbon,” we knew Haneke had the requisite audacity to tackle raw themes cinematically, but what we learn from “Amour” is that he has mastered the ability for which all filmmakers strive: the art of making the specific the universal.

Haneke achieves this through subtlety. It reigns throughout his oeuvre, but it peaks in “Amour.” When a self-centered, cold, detached middle-aged woman comes to visit the apartment, we observe a long, detailed conversation about Anne’s health. Not only until Georges, speaking to the woman, refers to Anne as “your mother,” do we realize we’ve met the couple’s only child, Eva (Isabelle Huppert). Haneke employs this kind of subtlety to an effect that humanizes the characters and circumvents the maudlin. Some critics have mistaken Haneke’s subtlety for sterility, or have interpreted it as circumlocution in fleshing out the narrative and relationship within. These answers, however, seem to be too easy; only a lethargic audience unwilling to engage with the film entirely would complain of too little. The space Haneke gives us to let “Amour” marinate is what makes it so uncomfortable to watch, but ultimately so rewarding. Haneke doesn’t shy from depicting Anne’s loss of dignity; we’re there with Georges. We watch Anne circle back to childhood as language disintegrates and she rapid-fires through memory circuits, uttering “Mommy,” struggling for coherence in expression, then reverting to echolalia. We experience Georges’ frustration as he explains to his daughter that second opinions are no longer relevant, and that there’s no better way to do this than what’s currently being done. We sit with Georges in the white light of his apartment, in the long takes, in the wide shots, and we absorb and internalize because Haneke has given us the gift of space.

In fact, the most poignant moment of the film could have been the most maudlin in other, less subtle, hands. Suspended in a silence that becomes increasingly their reality, Anne and Georges sit at the table. Anne then asks Georges for the photo album. He’s apprehensive—perhaps afraid of the maudlin himself—but ultimately retrieves it. Anne is mesmerized by this photographic narrative of her life. She flips through. “It’s beautiful,” she says, finally. “What?” says Georges. Anne: “Life. So long.” This is devastating for us, because, during the silence Haneke afforded us while Anne peruses the album, we’ve been imagining our own life and its many stages, trials, tribulations, desires, and loves. We’ve been flipping through our own photo albums, contemplating our own mortality, wondering if life really is that long, or if it will feel that way when we’re 85, and whether we’ll ever be ready to let it go.

My grandmother stopped answering the phone when she learned her death was imminent. Members of family and extended family had previously deemed her, in jest, the yenta (Yiddish: old gossip), as the home phone was her principal accessory in her later years. Yet suddenly she wouldn’t return a single call; she failed even to pick up the phone to speak with her closest friend of eighty years, who would not be able to visit. Though faraway friends and relatives oscillated between confusion and indignation, no one in the immediate family asked her for reasons. We knew why. “Your concern is of no use to me,” Georges tells his daughter after being admonished for failing to return her frantic calls. Death, in old age, is a quiet guest. You have to sit with it; you accept it into your home, first in the form of a hospital bed or a wheelchair, then in other, more insidious forms, such as a gradual loss of appetite. To maintain grace and strength in the face of mortality, you can’t be harried with sympathy and condolence. The world, having been a very large place while you were living in it, turns insular. When Heidegger wrote, “death is in each case mine,” he meant that death is the only thing in life that a person must face alone. It is the loneliest thing in the world, and both my grandmother and Georges accepted it that way. Haneke has crafted an indelible experience. In “Amour,” we interact with the loneliest truth of life, but we emerge from the theater feeling less alone for having lived.

In her last coherent moments, Anne turns to engage with her inner life, which she, as everyone, must reconcile with human existence. This is depicted in long insert shots of historical paintings and landscapes hanging in the couple’s apartment. It is also depicted in a moment late at night when, in quiet desperation and restrained fear, Anne asks Georges to bring her a book. Up until the very night she died, my grandmother was reading. Just as books inaugurate the child into the world and its history, books guide the elderly through their voyage out of it.

After Anne dies, a pigeon flies into the house. Georges’ insular world has been invaded, and he stares at the pigeon as if it were a foreign object. Eventually, he decides to do away with it, and what ensues is the physical manifestation of the struggle to concede to Anne’s death. In the end, he lets the pigeon go.

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