By Carl Kozlowski
From the moment we are born, we begin the process of dying. It’s a sad fact we try to tune out for the first six decades or so of our lives, wishing and hoping we could just stay happy forever, and, when the time comes, be able to slip away quickly and peacefully.
But, of course, dying is rarely that simple. All too often, death comes after weeks, months, even years of intense suffering. And in Amour, this year’s Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language film and a nominee for five Academy Awards, writer/director Michael Haneke offers perhaps the most harrowing example of drawn-out death ever depicted on film.
Haneke paints a powerful and stark portrait of an almost completely isolated elderly Parisian couple: Georges, the husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant), cares for his wife, Anne (Oscar nominee Emanuelle Riva), who is slipping further into paralysis and the grip of Alzheimer’s disease. Amour has already won the most prestigious film award on the planet, the Palme d’Or of the Cannes Film Festival, and it has also accomplished the rare feat of being nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Film at this year’s upcoming Oscars. Yet, the film has drawn its fair share of controversy for its treatment of the topic of euthanasia.
The movie opens in abrupt fashion, with a battery of police busting into an apartment that has apparently been sealed off for days. Once inside, they find the body of Anne, laid on a bed and surrounded by flower petals.
From there, it is revealed she had been a vibrant person a mere year or so before, attending a classical music concert with Georges and enjoying some saucy banter with him on their return home. But she suddenly fades out completely in the midst of their conversation, and when she regains her composure, she has no recollection of her blackout.
A visit to the doctor reveals memory loss that will inevitably grow worse. Since Anne is afraid of doctors, she makes Georges promise never to put her in a hospital. And with that loaded, portentous request, their long, sad nightmare begins.
Georges has to spend every waking moment caring for Anne, whose right side is now completely paralyzed, forcing her to use a wheelchair. She then becomes bedridden, shocking their only daughter (Isabelle Huppert) when she pays a rare visit from another city.
Amour is a well-acted film that captures in frightening detail the bleak and hopeless setting of an apartment whose tenants are largely forgotten. The story’s depiction of Georges caring for Anne—feeding and bathing her, helping exercise her withered limbs and telling stories to distract her—depicts a lifelong love at its most profound.
(SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this paragraph if you intend to see the film.)
But out of nowhere, the film loses all that with a sudden and shocking scene in which Georges takes Anne’s life. Some might see it as the only way to end her physical and mental anguish and the emotional hell he’s become trapped in. Others, however, may view the act with utter moral contempt. Haneke, it’s clear to see, considers this the only way out of their mutual suffering.
End-of-life issues are hot topics and fair game for dramatic and moral exploration, especially now, an era in which life spans keep getting longer as health care costs soar.
As a matter of full disclosure, I’m a practicing Catholic whose church leadership comes down strongly against euthanasia. I’m also a person who believes all aspects of life are fair game for cinematic depiction. But I also believe art should seek to seek to uplift, illuminate and provide a sense of transcendence for its patrons. It is on this level that I have a fundamental problem with Amour.
In considering the film’s intended meaning, it is all but impossible to analyze it without considering the past works of Haneke. Those films, ranging from The Piano Teacher and Cache to two versions of his particularly twisted Funny Games and The White Ribbon, have earned him a reputation as a filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from bleak depictions of humanity. Many of these works feature implied or fully shown sequences of psychological or physical torture, and wind up with stark endings intended to unsettle or disturb the viewer.
So even as Haneke surprised many critics by creating a largely gentle film in Amour, I have to wonder whether he is playing his own “funny game” on audiences by making them think that they’re seeing a tale of true love that is, in fact, a tale of sadness and despair. Yes, tragic situations can happen as one nears death, but Haneke stacks the deck so hard against this couple—giving Anne a combination of seemingly endless maladies and leaving Georges with no way to get outside help because of his promise—that its depiction of euthanasia appears as the only logical solution.
As Obamacare goes into effect over the next few years, providing more and hopefully smarter options for Americans from birth through old age, such suffering will hopefully lessen. The elderly deserve better than the world depicted in Amour, and audiences, I believe, deserve a filmmaker who points the way to a better solution as well.