Not a common occurrence.
But, God bless him, this brave fellow is leading discussions of 2012’s Oscar-nominated films in a class held at his church. And he’s stumbled onto a film that is proving more complicated than others. In fact, he’s encountered some rather intense condemnation of that film from fellow Christians.
The film is Michael Haneke’s film Amour.
Amour is a challenging movie for most American moviegoers. For one thing, “foreign language films” are a hard sell in America. It isn’t just the subtitles, it’s the lack of familiar faces and voices. For another thing, Amour is a film about an elderly couple who rarely set foot outside of their apartment. So we can assume that we won’t see the stuff of box office blockbusters here.
But the Oscars have given Amour a shot at Best Picture, so dutiful consumers will feel compelled to sample it. And my new friend wanted to be prepared for a post-viewing discussion
I assured him that the Christian condemnations of this film don’t make any sense to me at all. To attack Amour as “immoral” and “empty” because of something that happens near the end of the film would be like attacking Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as immoral because of what the characters do at the climax. It would be like condemning Spielberg’s Lincoln because government officials engage in some questionable tactics to win votes.
On the contrary, there are many reasons to admire and celebrate Amour, from the exquisite performances to the intriguing script to the way Haneke provokes us with visual information in both the foreground and the background of every scene.
And yes, even the ending is a triumph. Shocking? Probably. Depressing? Yes. The biggest downer in Oscar history? Pretty close. But a devastating ending like this one can be a vivid picture of the wages of sin, a vision of what happens when people lose hope and reject grace.
In this review, I’ll begin by describing the premise, and offering some reasons as to why I think you should see Amour at least once, if not twice.
Then, in Part Two, I’ll go into details that are rife with spoilers. So, if you don’t want anything spoiled for you, stick with Part One. Part Two deals specifically with the film’s most jolting events.
It begins — and don’t let this detail slip past you — with policemen breaking into a Paris apartment that has been sealed shut from the inside with thick tape. After they’ve smashed the door down, they find a distressing scene. It suggests that something strange and horrible has happened.
A moment later, they open the windows. This place needs some air.
The rest of the movie takes us back to the events that led to such a sad spectacle. And by the end, you too will need some air.
The story is brought to life inside that handsome but boxy apartment, where the walls are crowded with bookshelves, elegantly framed images from family histories, and fine paintings of blustery and bleak landcapes. The place reeks of culture. It’s a little bit suffocating, actually.
The elderly couple that lives in this insulated world, surrounded by evidence of their education and refined taste, are Georges and Anne. They’re both music teachers with a passion for excellence and elegance.
They are played by two extraordinary actors. The legendary Jean-Louis Trintingant — most famous in America for his role as the judge in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red — plays Georges. (Why isn’t his performance getting award attention in the U.S.?) Anne is played by the magisterial Emmanuelle Riva, which is appropriate, as Anne herself is magisterial and proud of it. (Riva is pulling off quite a feat here, playing a woman whose mind and body are failing her… just like she did more than 20 years ago in Kieslowksi’s Three Colors: Blue!)
We attend a recital with them, where one of Anne’s former piano students performs. Anne is treated there like royalty, and she does not seem averse to such treatment.
The next day, in their breakfast nook, their world turns upside down. As Anne and George converse with obvious affection, Anne suddenly… well, let’s just say her condition takes a turn for the worse.
George, caught by surprise, is bewildered. So is she.
Soon, Anne will undergo surgery. And in the aftermath, their days of carrying themselves with ease and dignity and sophistication will come to an end. They will face some of love’s greatest hardships. They will have to cope with the embarrassments, the inconvenience, the vulnerability, the dependence, the messiness, the difficulties of daily caretaking rituals.
Hardships like this await many if not most of us. Some of us may already have experience with such trials. They tend to bring out the best and the worst in people. We learn a lot about ourselves when we are reminded how fragile, how helpless we are against the forces of time.
And so Amour, as simple as the film seems to be, is actually about a lot of very serious matters. Moviegoers, if they’re the sort who like to”chew” their movies instead of swallowing them whole, are likely to find themselves wrestling some discomforting questions afterward. They may ask themselves what, in the face of such distress, they really believe. Will their faith be a source of comfort and hope for them in such circumstances? How will they respond if they are asked to care for their elders, or if they themselves require such care?
The movie can also prompt us to reconsider the nature of our own amour. What shape does our love for others take? Whom — or what — do we truly love? And what do we love about them? Would we still be so devoted and admiring if they lost their fragile grace, their attractive appearance, their sophistication?
Perhaps it will prompt us to consider how much security we find in our surroundings, in our education, in our capacity to present ourselves to the world the way we want to.
Ultimately, I find myself troubled by the thought of being so helpless, so dependent on others. How would I endure a decline like Anne’s? How much patience and faithfulness would I demonstrate if my own wife were to require such attention?
I’m also intrigued by the film’s provocations on the subject of community. What role should children play in honoring and helping their mother and father? What about neighbors and friends? Do we love them with enough humility and honesty to let them into our sufferings, and to accept help and concern from them?
Amour is about all of these things: Haneke is an extremely meticulous filmmaker. No conversation, no set decoration, no event is incidental. In his work, as disturbing as it may be, things mean things.
You can dismiss this movie because you don’t like what you see, because you witnessed something horrible. Along those lines, you could condemn Romeo and Juliet because the story leads characters toward suicide, or you could curse Citizen Kane because it’s about an egomaniac.
Or you could step back and study the story, tease out why these events have been portrayed, consider how this film overlaps with the themes of the filmmaker’s previous works, and see that these stories offer us a mix of the inspiring, the upsetting, and the tragic. And you can learn from what you’ve seen.
Amour is not a “message movie.” It is intentionally provocative, giving us questions instead of answers. It is up to us to talk about it, scene by scene, and tease out those implications.
That is always, after all, Haneke’s hope for his audience. This exchange occurred a few years ago in a Filmmaker interview:
Filmmaker: … Would it be preferable for you to see a Hollywood cinema that is much more responsible in regards to violence?
Haneke: Of course. Cinema could be an artform, can be an artform… it’s very rare. If it is art, it is automatically responsible. A film has to be a dialogue, not a monologue — a dialogue to provoke in the viewer his own thoughts, his own feelings. And if a film is a dialogue then it’s a good film; if it’s not a dialogue, it’s a bad film. It’s very easy.
So, while I know that the film may be too disturbing for some, this is my testimony: I found Amour to be extremely well-crafted, rewarding… artful. I couldn’t care less about whether it wins Oscars or not, but I’m glad that it was nominated because that unlikely event has brought an ambitious and exquisitely crafted film to the attention of American audiences. (They’ll give the Oscar to a film that distorts the details of history to flatter Americans and — specifically — Hollywood itself. But I can almost guarantee that they’ll remember the experience of Amour more vividly than the movie that wins the big award.)
A lot of people really hate horror movies. I’m troubled by them, but as I’ve written elsewhere, I value good horror movies very highly. And Amour would now rate highly on a list of my favorite horror movies. It’s certainly upsetting. But that is its strength.
Now, on to the spoilers.
Amour is drawing criticism as a “culture of death” movie, a film that condones Georges’ violent act in the last part of the movie.
What does he do? He kills his wife with a pillow when her misery becomes too unbearable.
This has led some religious-press reviewers to say that the film “recommends death over distress. Murder over misery.” One reviewer points out some similarities between Amour and a Nazi propaganda film. Yikes — that’s a distressing claim. (But I can play that game too. There are far, far more similarities between The Passion of the Christ and The Last Temptation of Christ. Should we thus assume that convey the same things?)
Update: Barbara Nicolosi, Executive Director of the Galileo Studio at Azusa Pacific University and founder of the Act One screenwriting program, wrote “… somebody needs to get the director to own up. It would be implausible to suggest that Amour just happened to get all the main beats of the Nazi film.”
So, accepting the challenge, Steven Greydanus, longtime film critic for Christianity Today and The National Catholic Register, and the critic I have come to trust most in my two decades of film-reviewing, saw both films. What was his conclusion? “I’ve now seen both Amour and the Nazi film in question. Any suggestion of one being a ‘perfect twin’ of the other, or of the two films matching ‘beat for beat,’ is beyond wrong, it is simply indefensible.”
Whatever the accusers argue, I find no evidence in the movie that Michael Haneke is honoring or recommending Georges’ rash and violent act. In fact, Haneke has said repeatedly in interviews that this is not a message movie, but a work of art, and thus it is meant to deal with questions, not answers. The movie I saw supports this.
Further, the film is filled with events, lines of dialogue, and symbols that prepare us to see this act as a catastrophe and a terrible failure.
What is more — to portray the killing of Anne as heroic would run in direct contradiction to the rest of Haneke’s body of work. I’ll get back to the point in a few moments.
But wait… the film’s title is Amour! Doesn’t that mean the director wants us to interpret the murder of Anne as an act of love and mercy?
I don’t think so. Even if Georges thinks that he is behaving in a loving way, that doesn’t mean the movie wants us to agree with him. Romeo and Juliet killed themselves for love — but somehow I’ve never believed that Shakespeare was glorifying suicide or “recommending death over distress.”
In another 2012 movie, Zero Dark Thirty, we see U.S. forces use all kinds of power, including torture, to catch Osama bin Laden. Some moviegoers cheer at the end. But those watching closely see that the film is not a celebration. The final shot of the movie asks a question: What have we gained by all of this effort? Does the end justify the means? What does a life set on violent justice do to the heart and soul of the obsessed?
I think Amour is the exact opposite of what its accusers claim. While I don’t think it is a “message” movie, I do think that its questions ask us to consider what “diseases” led to this total breakdown in love and judgment. I think it’s ultimately a film that bends us in the direction of wisdom, a film that stands as a corrective to a misguided worldview. It shows us the terror of what happens when we live in isolation, when we deny our vulnerability, when we embrace death. Like Lars von Trier, Haneke may be rather subversive in his methods — he usually is — but I admire his commitment to exposing the corruption and denial that can so easily poison the lives of the well-to-do.
Here are ten reasons why I will defend the film against its accusers:
The titles of Haneke’s films.
Code Unknown, my favorite of Haneke’s films, is meant make us curious, to wonder what “code” we’re talking about. Ultimately, it encourages us to notice how human beings are failing to understand each other across boundaries of nationality, race, gender, and generation.
Cache (Hidden) is similarly ambiguous. What is hidden? It could be a lot of things by the end of that disturbing film.
Consider Funny Games, an Austrian thriller that Haneke made in 1997, then remade as an American thriller in 2007. Are the events in the film funny games? Hardly. The mischief is violent and horrifying.
Time of the Wolf, well, that is a very mysterious title.
So, let’s not just accept that the movie is a depiction of true love because Amour is the title. In fact, I’d argue that Haneke’s history inclines us to wrestle with the title: Is this true love? Do we see any real love in this story, and if so, where? Is Georges a wonderfully loving man? “You can be a monster sometimes,” his wife tells him.
How much “amour” is Georges demonstrating when he slaps his wife in the face for refusing to drink some water? It’s a moment that sets us up for a moment when he snaps later in the film, and does something even more violent.2.
The themes that Michael Haneke always explores.
In most of Haneke’s movies, chaos breaks in and upsets the lives of civilized and sophisticated and well-educated people. In desperation, they find themselves stripped down to somewhat beastly behavior. And that behavior is always horrifying, always a product of fear and self-interest.
This is the focus on Haneke’s whole career: How “good” are we, really? How do we respond when hardship comes? Where does our hope really lie?
In an interview with Elizabeth Day at The Guardian, Haneke said:
There is just as much evil in all of us as there is good. … We’re all continuously guilty, even if we’re not doing it intentionally to be evil. Here we are sitting in luxury hotels, living it up on the the backs of others in the third world. We all have a guilty conscience, but we do very little about it.
Thus, we might expect Amour to be about how good people are reduced to doing evil… even as they are persuaded it’s all for love.
The suggestion of lost faith.
When trouble comes to Georges and Anne, Georges cannot bring himself to finish playing a Bach chorale.
Here are some of the words for that piece: “I call on you, I beseech you, Lord Jesus Christ, in my deep distress.”
Georges’ faith gives him no comfort in his distress. He can’t even play the music.
Later, a pigeon flutters into the apartment. We could see this as a random incident. Or we could trust that we’re in the hands of an artist who knows what the visitation of a dove-like bird would suggest. And what does Georges do with the bird? He either releases (as he claims in his letter) or he kills it. Either way, he has rejected what appears to be a symbol of grace. (Thanks to my Angus and Victor for prompting me to think that part through more carefully.)
What would you expect to see happen after a character’s faith fails? Acts of sublime love? Or acts of fear and despair?
The emphasis on “presentation,” on “keeping up appearances,” on having a good image.
If we are to interpret the film as a declaration instead of a question, well… where is Anne’s “amour”?
Anne’s behavior toward her husband is less than inspiring. She is rarely shown giving any appreciation for his assistance. His affection for her does not give her any motivation to struggle or stay alive.
If Amour is supposed to show us the behavior of true love, why is Anne so cold toward Georges as she declines?
I think there is a great deal to be said about the nature of Anne’s decline and her attitude about it. She doesn’t want to be seen as anything less than eloquent, regal, dignified, magisterial. Note the prominence of this question: “You’re not going to ruin your image in old age, are you?” There’s more emphasis on maintaining a charade than on affirming the truth.
What is Georges’ reaction to finding that their apartment was almost broken into and burglarized? “It doesn’t look very professional.” He even judges criminals by their sophistication. And he’s eager to get the lock fixed because of how it looks. Later, listening to a fine musical performance by one of Anne’s former students, he doesn’t praise the pianist — he says, “He did you proud” (meaning Anne).
In another scene, they express contempt for how another family allowed their toilet to remain clogged for three days. Oh, the horror! Does the clogged toilet remind them of themselves…suppressing what they cannot manage, stifling whatever is discomforting or ugly?
Their dedication to the appearance of sophistication and control seems increasingly pathological. Anne cannot bear to be seen as a person who isn’t regal and in control. But all of their experience, culture, and education — signified by all of those bookshelves and pictures — gives them no help. Their safe apartment becomes a prison, and eventually a tomb. They cannot bear to let anyone, even their own daughter, see Anne in her feeble state.
Why, if this is supposed to be an admirable portrait of love, do Georges and Anne take such drastic measures to hide the truth of their failing condition from others?
If this couple is a picture of love… what are we to understand that they love?
All of the alarming interruptions.
The film frequently depicts beautiful things being cut off in the middle. Those demonstrations create a rising sense of anxiety.
I found the interrupted performances of beautiful music, in a movie that makes us desperate for grace, increasingly painful.
This underlines, for me, the tragedy — not the triumph — of what occurs at the end. The interruption of a beautiful piano solo is a foretelling of what Georges will eventually do. He will cut short the beauty of his own tender care for his wife.
The suggestion that Anne’s decline isn’t the only decline happening here.
In Amour, Haneke constantly emphasizes the couple’s surroundings: their books, their educated state, their modest wealth, their family history and cultural heritage (so many framed photos!).
I’m not quite convinced of this point, but I have a notion that this film is also about something much larger that end-of-life issues. Perhaps it’s about how a way of life, a history, is dying, and all anybody will do is sigh, express sadness, and then let it continue.
In fact, the movie I thought about most while I was watching Amour was one of my favorites: Olivier Assayas’s film Summer Hours. Both films ask us to consider what responsibility one generation has to honor, care for, and engage with previous generations. Both ask us what love requires of us in such difficult and transitional chapters of our lives. Assayas’s film shows us characters who respond in a variety of ways, some hopeful and some despairing. In Haneke’s film, we are shown what can happen when weak and fearful people are left to carry their burdens on their own. Again: It’s a tragedy.
The architecture and art.
Georges and Anne live in a boxed-in house in a boxed-in world. As the film progresses, Haneke cultivates an increasing sense of claustrophobia, of suffocation. But it is not inescapable. By sealing themselves in, Georges and Anne have brought this on themselves.
The art on their walls? Bleak, stormy landscapes in which the light shines in a world out of reach.
For all of their education and sophistication, they are inmates in a cell of their own making. And in the cell of their worldview, they seal off acknowledgement of trouble, failure, and weakness.
Thus, even though the music is beautiful, Georges cannot endure it.
Did you miss it? Georges’ action to end Anne’s life leads him to kill himself.
That is why I hope people will remember the opening shot of the film.
Perhaps it’s because he’s losing his mind, perhaps it’s because he has a vision in which his wife asks him to follow her. Whatever the case, after Georges has killed his wife, his own life is over. He can’t go on. I find it undeniable that he has killed himself at the end, by starvation or some other method.
Why else would he seal up the house from the inside?
(Recommendation: If you want to make a “pro-euthanasia propaganda film,” lie to the audience and tell them that the “mercy killing” will bring about peace and happiness. Don’t have the people who carry out the killing lose all meaning in their lives and then turn their murderous hands against themselves.)
Earlier in the film, when Anne is very sick, their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) visits, and Georges has locked the bedroom door. Eva will not tolerate being forcefully separated from her mother, so Georges unlocks the door and calls his behavior “silly.” It is silly… but he will do something much more ridiculous later in sealing up the whole place against family, friends, neighbors, and the authorities, making the house a tomb.
Georges loses his way, just like Clint Eastwood’s character in Million Dollar Baby — the man who ends the life of a suffering loved one, and then walks off into the darkness, filled with despair. I like that comparison, because both films present a horrible act as a horrible, soul-killing act while still allowing us to understand why someone would, in a moment of weakness, make that choice. They both invite us to feel compassion for someone lost in the dark. (For an even clearer depiction of that soul-death, read the short story that inspired Million Dollar Baby.)
In view of this conclusion, Amour is the very definition of “tragedy.”
Eva, the daughter.
The daughter of Georges and Anne is a very important character. In fact, the film’s last shot is not of Georges, not of Anne, not of the policemen… but of Eva.
Earlier, when she came to visit, she saw her mother in a devastated condition, and she was overwhelmed, almost incapable of touching her. Georges talked about how impossible it would be for Eva to come home and help care for her, and Eva did not argue with him.
Still, shouldn’t a child make a concerted effort to participate in caring for a failing parent?
Eva’s life is full of travels and prestige and special treatment, as she works with her husband, an accomplished musician. And yet, even Eva’s marriage is an important detail. Her husband is unfaithful to her, yet she remains with him, putting on a brave face. Does she still love him? She hesitates to answer that question. She will stay with him even though he is making terrible decisions, for the sake of… what? The appearance of things?
Is this a mirror of her parents’ marriage? Her father follows her mother around, but her mother is fixed upon something else.
The film’s closing moment is full of unsettling questions: Where was Eva during those last days? How much happened here during her long absence? How might things have been different if she had participated in her mother’s care?
Haneke’s past suggestions about Nazis.
Finally, let’s address the implication — made by one prominent voice in Christian media — that Amour may be inspired by a Nazi movie because of a few similarities.
If Haneke had meant for Amour to serve the same purpose as that served by a Nazi propaganda film, well… that would be very surprising. Instead of leaping to scandalous conclusions, instead of casting premature and damning judgment, let’s consider the evidence…
Haneke’s last movie, The White Ribbon, which won prestigious awards around the world in circles famously averse to Nazi ideals, was a film about the evils that led to the rise of Nazism in Germany. He showed a small village in Germany right before the first World War, in which children were persecuted and betrayed and abused by authority figures. Some of the villains were men who betrayed the Gospel they claimed to represent.
The children in The White Ribbon were damaged in such horrible ways that their hearts became inclined toward extremism. They would grow up, the film implied, to embrace Hitler’s vision. Instead of merely treating the Nazis as comic book villains, this was a serious investigation of the forces that cultivated the problem… the kind of study that can help us do more than merely speak the words “Never again.”
Speaking about The White Ribbon, Haneke told Elizabeth Day at The Guardian:
It’s not a coincidence that I chose this period of time in which to present the story. … This is the Nazi generation, but I didn’t want the film to be reduced to this example, to this specific model. I could do a film about modern-day Iran and ask the same question: how does fanaticism start? … That’s the core of the film. In places where people are suffering, they become very receptive to ideology because they’re looking for something to clutch hold of, a straw that will take them out of that misery. … The less intelligent I am, the more easily I follow someone who is going to give me the answers.
But wait, there’s more.
Haneke also spoke about how his mother, as a young girl, dated a young SS officer. “[S]he didn’t really know what was going on – she just liked the uniform,” he explains. “When he told her about the things that he did, she was disgusted and broke up with him.”
Somehow I just don’t see Haneke as a likely fan of Nazi propaganda.
If there is a direct connection between Amour and a Nazi movie (I may be wrong, but I’m not at all convinced that there is a connection), then I must conclude that Haneke meant to answer Nazi propaganda, not honor it.
Amour, like The White Ribbon and his previous films, works like this: It exposes the evils that lead to horrors and crimes. It is not a celebration of those horrors.
Why would he suddenly become a simple-minded filmmaker who romanticizes a violent act, when his whole career has been spent doing the opposite? Haneke has quite a reputation in the filmmaking world, because he is the farthest thing from sentimental in his methods.
No, I think that any observant reading Amour — one that reads the signs within the film, and the signs in the author’s larger body of work — will find this film’s horrifying events leading them to meaningful conclusions about the deceptive influence of pride and the destructive consequences of living outside of community. Education and money are not evil in and of themselves, but when they become factors that distance us from relationships with family and community, they do as much harm as good.
So, in conclusion…
A friend of mine said that Amour didn’t teach him anything about life or love that he hadn’t known two hours earlier. And I’ve heard others says, “I don’t need to see a movie like this to learn that aging sucks and death is awful.”
If that was all that Amour had to offer, well, I would agree.
But I value films like this differently.
I find that spending time with art that gives my mind, my emotions, and my conscience some healthy exercise, enriches my life tremendously.
For you, Amour may or may not lead to any grand epiphanies or revelations. But I’ve never seen a film that took me on a journey quite like this one. I may have thought about aging, about health care, about how I would like to be treated in my last days, and about how I would deal with the disintegration of loved ones. But experiencing scenarios like this through the gift of art is something that mere speculation cannot equal.
So, in the end, is Amour properly titled? Is this a love story?
I’d say yes.
I’m not saying that Georges’ violent act is an act of great love. Hell, no. (And I use the “h” word very, very deliberately there.) I think Georges’ violence is a failure. It is an act of weakness… just like the moment when he slapped Anne in the face.
But were his acts of violence brought on by the hardships of love? Of course they were.
Every day, every hour, there are people around the world wondering about whether or not to end somebody’s suffering because they cannot bear to witness suffering. We feel impulses like this when we see an animal writhing in pain from an irreparable injury.
Once, when I was a small child, I saw a cat slash open a bird’s breast. I ran outside. The cat clearly meant to torture the bird, tearing it apart piece by piece. I chased the cat away. Then, seeing that the bird’s innards were exposed, I killed the bird with one swift stroke. Did I feel no love for the bird? I acted because I love birds, and because I could not bear to let that suffering continue. It was a traumatic and horrible experience.
But with human beings in misery, the situation is different. It is the glory of the human spirit that we can overcome our fears, bear up under incredible misery, and be revived and restored after incredible suffering. Many recover from their misery. Many, given the proper help and love, are able to find further joy and meaning in their life despite excruciating pain. I find acts like suicide and euthanasia to be devastating failures of imagination and faith, acts born of weakness and and fear. I have a hard time imagining a scenario in which ending someone else’s life would be a wise thing to do.
Still, shouldn’t we strive to feel some compassion for people who act out of a weak and immature form of love? I think so. For people who commit such acts, I’d avoid climbing up into a pulpit, aiming an accusatory finger, and shouting “Nazis!” I’d refrain from responding with vitriol and condemnation, the way some do. Rather, I’d suggest praying “God, forgive them… they know not what they do.”
Hollywood’s favorite way to condemn a character is to make that character a Nazi sympathizer. (See American Beauty, which turned a political conservative into a wife-beater, a chid abuser, a hater of homosexuals, a closet homosexual… and, as if that wasn’t enough, a collector of Nazi paraphernalia.) Christians can use the same tactic, by punishing those who offend them by painting them as Nazis or Nazi-sympathizers.
And so I wish my new friend, the Anglican priest, the best as he leads his discussion of Amour.
By the way, he didn’t find Amour to be a pro-euthanasia movie either. I hope he can guide his discussion group past knee-jerk reactions and condemnation to consider all of the signs that the movie gives us.
When movies scare us, shock us, and discomfort us so that we will wrestle with difficult issues, let’s show the art — and the artist — some respect. Even if we think the filmmaker might have questionable motives, let’s proceed with caution, conscience, and grace. God forbid we try to crush the life within that art by suffocating it with condemnation.