© 2013 by James Clark
A film calling itself “Love,” (Amour) can disarm, simply by that trope, any comprehensive notice of shortfall in its protagonists. If the latter are a cute old couple in distress, played by much revered actors, any critical edge tends to melt away completely. A foreground that seems to convey incontestable soundness, while actually concealing the film’s truth, is a compositional standby of the films of Robert Bresson, whose work our auteur, Michael Haneke, cherishes. So it is, when the husband, Georges, listening in their salon to his invalid wife, Anne, exuding long-suffering irony in reading from the unlearned domain of her horoscope for that day—“Shake off the rust…Get your mojo back…”—curls his lecture-fluent lip and complicitly pronounces, “Nonsense!” we must constrain confirming upon his liberal-humanist contempt for mojo that conquest over emotive carnality he and his ilk have celebrated again and again.
Anyone who has with his wits about him come to grips with Bresson will know that figures resorting to canny cleverness and ascetic pursuits tend to become the makings of road kill once his cameras and scenarios begin to roll. Haneke is far from the only filmmaker to become possessed by the monumental trompe l’oeil of world history. David Lynch struggled long and hard to produce a debut film, Eraserhead, whereby a chronic Grad Student and his guardian angel range themselves against a donkey fetus. At the opposite pole from Haneke’s multiply-honored and presently in question film, there is another entry from 2012, paying homage to Lynch and serving up a cast of characters not nearly as respectable as Georges and Anne, namely, Lee Daniel’s much maligned pisser, The Paperboy.
So it is, that after a brief initial scene where Anne’s rotting corpse is finally dealt with at the sealed-up bedroom by emergency service workers covering their noses, we go into the flashback constituting the film, beginning with Anne and Georges attending a piano recital of classical music (performed off-camera to allow the jarring version of Schubert to exude an atmosphere for the culturati on camera, seated in a tony concert hall on the Champs Elysees, befitting cultural royalty—just as in Bresson’s films Mozart, Monteverdi and Bach would ring fanfares for what seemed to be heaven-sent worthies). Rather than any sign of being moved by the spare compositional efforts of Schubert, there is a fast forward to polite applause, and then there is a quick cut to a backstage scrum of performance insiders, including our protagonists (drawn by the evening’s soloist), making rounds within precincts secured by mastery of technique and its leverage within the classical music business in its high premium upon university discipline. Seemingly underlining the canny factors of this moment of celebration, Anne and Georges ride the bus home, discover their apartment has been broken into and Georges seems bound to observe about the burglary, “It doesn’t look very professional.” Staying in the sightlines of technical proficiency, Anne recalls a case where burglars broke into a penthouse by drilling through the roof. George immediately confirms, “That was a professional job.” She declares she’d “die of fright” if such a rude invasion were to occur while she was in bed, and he, as if some monkeys had got in, unnerving the memsahib, rallies her with, “Don’t let it spoil your good [and are we to imply, rare?] mood.” After bracing himself with a drink, he, politeness incarnate, floats the double tribute, “You look beautiful,” and (apropos of the young man who had given Schubert a sharply percussive ride and given Anne a tepid buss, eliciting from her praise for his glissandi), “He did you proud.”
That there was no answer to his gambit about the concert directs our attention to the wider question of what role music plays in their supposedly music-mad life, music being—not that you have to be reminded—an elicitation to passionate gratifications, riches that would, in particular, provide a centerpiece of resilience were serious illness to obtrude. (For a story about a musical family, is it not remarkable that the opening and closing credits roll by with funereal silence?) There is about this pair a reservoir of mathematical sedateness and professional pacing; but, moreover, there is the instinctive gentility (easily mistaken for gentleness) of well-bred bourgeois-intellectuals having basked all their life in urbane careerist manoeuvres which included a pattern of alert self-effacement (easily mistaken for generosity of spirit). The actors Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant bring to their roles nuances of expressive charm to display the register, also characteristic of the products of good schooling, of being suffused with a mutant of problematic sensitivity. At the first sign of insistent disaster—Anne blanking out, staring (unseeingly) into space at the breakfast table—Georges runs by her the familiar Gallic formula admitting to mortality—“Coo coo”—he might have used on students only half awake after a night of partying. That getting nowhere (along with a cold cloth applied to her temples and neck), he rushes to dress for a trip to enlist medical science to resolve the mystery, only to hear her stirring again. During the crisis he had evinced poised affection—“Sweetheart, please…Look at me…What’s wrong?”—and, now relieved but puzzled, he goes after her for spoiling his good mood. Are you playing a prank on me? Are you completely mad?” Affronted by his testiness, she first explains, “I don’t understand… What did happen in actual fact? You want to torture me…Please leave me alone!” Just prior to the conspicuous inertia, they had discussed a dependable contractor apropos of their damaged door; and Anne had recounted, within the same banal preoccupation with offsetting wear and tear, the nightmarish incompetence befalling acquaintances whose toilet was blocked for three days. Theirs is a solid urban home; but its lack of invention leaves it open to doldrums calling out for fresh energies.
Anne requiring surgery where the mathematical odds (5% failure rate) seem to foretell passing with flying colors, the unthinkable happens and she’s wheeled in disrepair through that repaired doorway, parked in her wheelchair facing a wall while Georges attends to paying the attendants who brought her home. This, now sullen, figure, who could only think to praise the “glissandi” [quick and nimble motions up and down the keyboard] of her former student’s surgery upon Schubert, settles into the unaccustomed horror of unsuccessful candidate, whereby two visitors unwittingly elucidate the contours of her stasis. First, there is Eve, their middle-aged daughter, member of a viable professional string quartet, whose patter runs to the group’s tour sites and the financial consequences of which, her husband’s most recent philandering with the young violist of their cash cow, and her adult son’s following in the family footsteps, giving a recital that even impressed his hard to please father. Her phrasing to characterize the boy—“doing his own thing” and “tranquil but persevering”—introduces tinctures of that dreaded mojo, perhaps one reason for him and his father being constantly “at loggerheads.”
The second caller is Alexandre, the soloist from the early moments, who pays a surprise visit in order to thank his mentors in a more formally correct way. (His gesture includes a bouquet for his former teacher.) Anne having unsuccessfully attempted suicide the day before (Georges being away at a funeral, his subsequent account of it to her being larded with ridicule and contempt for all and sundry), Alexandre’s gambit, “…a bad time?…” was, as usual, note-perfect. But Georges has no trouble reciting, “What a nice surprise! Come in…” And, after leaving the young front-runner alone in the salon, not so fully at ease with its towers of books and elderly clutter, he wheels Anne forward and there is a moment of unaccustomed stage fright for the Young Lion. He mutters something about their “great contribution” and then quietly gasps out, “What happened?” Georges posing the formulaic, “It happens with age,” he proposes another subject; and Anne, managing a fixed grin, goes on to hit the correct notes, “We were so thrilled by your concert. I’m proud of you…” Expertly linking to the young man’s disarray (he’d also forgotten to bring his latest CD), she trots out the reminiscence of making him, as a twelve-year-old virtuoso, squirm when putting him behind the 8-ball to perform one of Beethoven’s Bagatelles (“Trifles”), calling for lightness of touch. He politely concurs that she was pretty tough; and, then, needing to recover the high ground, he lets them know, “My life revolves around Schubert these days,” rattling off—like Eve—music events as business trips, to London, Copenhagen and the like. Anne, needing to hear less of his voice, asks him to play the score that caused him grief as a boy, and it (perhaps predictably) bites him again—he blustering, “I haven’t played it in years… I don’t know if I remember it…” But, true to the caste they all occupy, he politely makes his way to the piano, loosens up with some glissandi, and machine guns a version of the intro, at which there is a cut to Anne, now provided with a motorized chair, having a go with its spins, lunges and capacity to menace—in jest—others. A bagatelle is a musical form with emphasis upon playfulness, upon capturing the rich dynamics of the simple play of sensuous eventuation. Alexandre may have been perfect for Beethoven’s hard assertiveness, but, like Anne caught up in her machine and its joy stick, could he ever get to the mesmerizing heart of play? (Is there, on the other hand, the faintest of tracings of a long-inoperative intuition about joy?) Later that night, she listens from her bed as Georges woodenly covers a few bars on the piano and then halts, caught up in the emptiness of his bid. “What’s wrong?” she asks (as if the music, even though compromised, has touched her); and there is no answer. Then there is a cut to a young cleaning lady, noisily lunging with a vengeance in vacuum cleaning the carpet under the piano—the last of a line of producers of sound for pay.
On Anne’s arrival from the hospital, the sensual factors of her disease and surgical treatment obtrude no more than the sensual factors of their affection (love) for music and for each other. Eve had cited the day when, as a very young girl, she had heard her mother and father making love and been assured by this that they would always be together (as if this had to be the best case scenario for both of them). “I’m so pleased to have you back,” is Georges’—considering the circumstances—oddly muted occupancy of the moment. “Me, too,” she goes. From out of this vacuum comes Anne’s brittle pronouncement concerning entitlement to be spared the horoscopic gaucheries (and horrors—Georges remarks upon her life-long fear of hospitals) of medical technology. (Apparently it’s fair game to carve up musical compositions, but an outrage to subject her to such ministrations.) “Promise me,” she demands, her anger, her hatred of carnal life suffusing her voice and eyes. “Never take me back to the hospital!” Georges quietly (trying to quieten her) murmurs, “What can I say?” “Say nothing!” is how she wraps up the interview. Later that evening she in bed about to read a bio (not to listen to recordings) of conductor (and antiquarian and performance technique stickler), Nikolaus Harnoncourt, she feels some sense of things going her way, and chirps, “I can look after myself… Don’t feel guilty.” (And what, we are cued thereby to ask, would she see as something he might feel guilty about?) “I don’t,” he assures her. “That’s good,” she grants him, more in the mood of resignation than relief. In this way she rounds off her first day of an anxious new regime, where control of the variables is, for her, unusually slight.
With Eve, before Anne’s being released from what she regards as the unmitigated hell of the hospital, Georges reveals his own, more subtle, variation of steely self-gratification. “It’s [the medical crisis] all rather exciting… I’m staying up later…” Thus, as he goes on to remind her, “We’ve always coped [a great gloss on their relation to art],” he’s out of retirement inasmuch as he can regain the spotlight of his hyper-measurement working days, as a model of humanistic virtue. There is a moment when the concierge of their building—M. Mery—after bringing in a bundle of the groceries he’s been commissioned to deal with, pauses before going out, to tell Georges, “My wife and I have been very impressed by the way you are managing. Hat’s off!” Georges, undemonstratively pleased, replies, “Thank you.”
He is, surely, back at the payoff centre of his halcyon days; but this time being in over his head carries a ferocious sting. There is a motif, running throughout the ticking time bomb of the narrative, wherein Georges lifts her from her chair, the bed or the toilet to place her elsewhere and, knees locked together, they enact a cramped little dance, igniting the earthy, kinetic graces they underestimated in music and in every other facet of their lives. (Hence mojo striking them as a contemptible absurdity.) Their lifetime regime of timorously small correctness (as profitably dovetailing with conventional clichés), in contrast to errant venturesomeness generally shunned and ridiculed (and, of course, not profitable), comes a cropper in attempting to dally with death.
Anne, as mentioned, soon descends into suicidal depression and the ravages of her stroke soon reduce her to incoherence, incontinence and infantile wailing. For all the oblivion and shambles of her daughter’s life—one day she sits by Anne’s bed droning on about being burned by investing in a real estate bubble and resorting to rental lodgings—Eve (an unwise offspring of a pair of presumably sterling gods), perhaps because she has continually been exposed to an abyss, is not slow to cast serious doubts upon the wisdom of her father’s satisfied martyrdom. (On an earlier visit she had shown disbelief that at the present level of medical technology nothing more could be done.) “She’s talking gibberish! It’s not OK!” Unused to getting bad grades, Georges thinks to have the perfect basis for a reread. “She’s not going into a hospital. I promised her.” In this scene, the optics could come down to a tenured stalwart being harried by a flakey grad student; but it is Georges’ rather smug defiance in face of the younger woman’s sincerity which is remarkable. Her husband onhand, but seemingly without credibility, merely asks him to consider if this is not “too much for you.” Georges indignantly asserts, “Alright you two! It’s so easy for you to come in here and say the right things. She’s not going to a hospice. Your mother will continue to decline, lucid once in a while, and she will die.” It is clear to them and to us that he feels he’s great heartedly dealing with hard truths (and hard heroics) which undistinguished beings are too puny to appreciate.
There is a fascinating variant of that confrontation, during a brief period when Georges opts for two shifts of nurses coming in for a few hours three days a week. The additional nurse—not very unlike the regular one in being a robust, working class individual—would keep up a patter while vigorously combing Anne’s hair [not very mindful of her patient’s distress in the process of unknotting the tangles], along lines of we’re going to make you pretty, “…so everyone can admire you…” Georges observes one such episode which includes the nurse’s fetching a mirror to show her how “pretty” she looks. [“Isn’t she beautiful?”] Anne, aghast, twists her head away from the reflection. Georges immediately fires the girl for being sadistic, and pronounces, “I heartily wish someone will treat you the way you treat helpless creatures.” In addition to “Fuck you!” the nurse has something else to say about Georges, the acute ambiguity of her bedside manner giving it some weight. “You’re a mean old man. I pity you.”
However objectionable that bedside manner might in fact have been (or half-been), Georges soon evinces an even larger failing of personal and professional integrity. The scene in question is framed by two aspects giving us a glimpse of the privileged and venturesome nature of the protagonists’ childhood. Early on, Anne asks to see her albums of family photos and Georges rather peevishly rouses himself from the lunch table and makes his way there and back by way of the stiff, arthritic limp that clouds his motions. We see a young girl in a blooming surround, her eyes full of the spirit of bagatelles. Anne says, “It’s beautiful.” Georges asks, “What?” Her (surprising) answer—“Life.” Georges’ instalment comes in two parts, he resorting to a wide range of diverting anecdotes in the course of dutifully fulfilling her wish. The first is a recollection of, while still a very young boy, falling madly in love with an actress in a movie he sees with his grandfather. The latter teases him for his unguarded infatuation. “I remember intense embarrassment. I couldn’t stop crying.” (Anne teases him in turn, and also gives us some cues to attend to: “You’re not going to ruin your image?”/ “What image?”/ “You’re a monster, sometimes.” This almost imperceptible rejoinder to a driving force in their life should be considered along with another exchange, perhaps illuminating her complicity in that dark direction. She makes gentle fun of the earnestness of Georges as a young academic, and he goes along with this drollery: “Yes. I was very uptight.” Touching his hand, she assures him, “It was nice…” But another take on this ascetic domination would be her angry demand, “Turn it off!” on hearing Alexandre’s CD, as brought to her by the frigid pacesetter.) The second of Georges’ recollections comes at a point of the decline when she is in no condition to offer witty retorts. In fact, she repeatedly screams, “Hurts!” and as he strokes her hand he asks her to try to be quiet in order to hear his story. She calms down and he brings forth a boy slightly older than the fragile lover of the beautiful actress. As a ten year old (needing some toughening up), he’s sent to a summer camp held in an old castle, chateau (a factor further touching the scenario with a soft-hearted Beast [Monster] and the Beauty linked to him in a great venture of mutual invention). This little Georges was already in the mold of a hater of sports, physical exertion, and those with an earthy bent; and therefore the routine of 6 a.m. swims in a lake fed by a frigid mountain stream was far from his liking. (“I was never very sporty.”) Also bugging him was the non-stop stream of activities (“Keeping us on the move all day…”), designed, as he thought, to stanch any early eroticism amongst the squirts. (We can imagine that by that time they needn’t have worried about Georges.) Also rubbing him the wrong way was the rice pudding on the breakfast menu. “You can’t leave [to go into dreaded perpetual motion] until you finish,” he’s told. As a result he sends his mother a postcard covered with stars, a prearranged code to convey extreme distaste, an odd and perhaps revealing choice of imagery, inasmuch as stars tend to be implicated in ecstatic discovery. Topping off the joyless vacation was his contracting diphtheria and being put into an isolation ward in face of which his mother could only see him through a glass barrier.
From out of that tale of embarking upon steadfast suppression of sensuality, he smothers her with a large pillow. In the midst of Anne’s nightmarish symptoms, Georges has a nightmare of his own, which those viewers familiar with Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped should be galvanized by. One night he hears a sound in the hall, opens the apartment door, bringing him face-to-face with construction features of the stairwell, tellingly featuring slats of wooden beams with wide spaces in between—like the door the protagonist, Fontaine, had painstakingly ripped apart in his bid for a freedom the consummateness of which eludes him. He tensely treads the hallway—as Fontaine had been wont to do, in order to plan his escape—and then imagines being grabbed from behind, at which he screams and wakes up in his bed. That chimerical adventure going nowhere devolves to the spate of horrific distemper coming to pass a bit later at that same bedroom and its wider setting.
Georges’ long-term befuddlement now pathological, the film’s denouement absorbs exciting and playable irony from factors parallel to it, in A Man Escaped. Fontaine had ardently consulted the little barred window of his cell, in order to taste some fresh and wide-open spaces and to communicate with others for the sake of a difficult but cogent communion. There are windows at Georges’ and Anne’s tony (and dowdy) central Paris digs; but the only uses they find in them are, first of all, a place for Anne’s attempting to jump to her death; and, secondly, a place for George to smoke a cigarette while waiting to help her from the toilet. (Eve stands at a window, the only moment showing the urban activity outside, to try to recover from the claustrophobic farce her parents have embarked upon.) One other introduction to a window is the boundless whimsy of two visits through an open casement by a pigeon. On the first occasion, with their regime still making a bit of sense, Georges—ever the rescuer of “helpless creatures”—gently shoos it back outside. After sealing up Anne’s resting place, there is a second invasion; and this time he goes after it with a blanket, looking a bit like a matador addressing a tiny opponent, he finally corners it, nets it with the blanket, takes it up in his arms and goes through a fascinating oscillation between wringing its neck and caressing it. In his note to be found after he’s made his deranged (and probably fatal) breakaway, he asserts, “A pigeon came in [for the second time—dropping by to cheer him up]. I caught it. But I let it go.” A grandstanding phony to the end.
Georges imagines Anne inviting him to accompany her on an outing—their first together since the night on the Champs Elysees. The woman introducing that recital promised a “spectacle,” a bit odd where the focus would seem to involve music first and foremost. Georges and Anne did get down to making a spectacle of themselves; but the beauty of this film, its rich and deep disclosure of the difficulty of playfulness, graces their violent errancy with a strange, quixotic charm. Similarly, Eve, at the very end revisiting the apartment after all the dust has settled, provides this long, tough haul with a trace of “tranquility and perseverance.” For the first time, with this seemingly reflection-averse and love-deficient figure now the lady of the house, its landscape paintings, with emphasis upon verdant energies and glorious, wide-open spaces, make their bids as needed and heeded art. The sad ironies of this moment would be a palpable but hardly transparent and not at all triumphant ingredient of her silent anticipation.