Once again, Michael Haneke gives us a story about Georges and Anne, the bourgeois couple that, in various incarnations, has populated his films since the 1980s. (1) In Amour (2012) they are two dignified octogenarians who live in a spacious Paris apartment, enjoying their autumnal lives as music lovers and patrons of the piano arts. Amour’s couple stands in sharp contrast to the Georges and Anne of Haneke’s earlier films, most of who suffer from various forms of alienation that, in Haneke’s universe, are characterized by a condition of “glaciation.” Having been married for most of their adult lives, their relationship continues to be determined by warmth, intimacy, and honesty. Yet Haneke’s portrayal of their mellow love that, somewhat surpisingly, is just as sustained and detailed as his previous studies of violence and dysfunction, is put to the test by an illness that Anne suffers not long into the film and that leaves her gradually but ineluctably incapacitated. It is this test of their love—and even more, the radical mutation their love undergoes when put to this test—on which Amour pivots.
When Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), nearly two hours into the film, suffocates his wife (Emanuelle Riva) with a pillow, he acts because witnessing her suffer without being able to provide her relief and without the chance of her getting better has become intolerable to him. But as in many of Haneke’s films, Georges’s reaction constitutes little more than what I have elsewhere termed the symptom layer of Haneke’s films—the referencing of certain socio-cultural reaction formations ranging from bourgeois malaise to parental guilt and filial corruption. (2) The depiction of these symptoms enables Haneke to get at deeper issues that are frequently ethical-philosophical in nature. The ethical dilemma that is at the heart of Amour does not simply revolve around the pros and cons of euthanasia—that is, around a choice between life and death. (3) Haneke submits the more provocative claim that such a choice, even when fueled by radical compassion and even in the arena of romantic love, is never completely altruistic. Indeed, as becomes evident in the course of the narrative, it emerges as something that can rather be described as selfishness incarnate. By killing his wife, Georges not only ends her suffering (as would be the conventional justification for euthanasia), but he also brings her fully into his personal realm, turning her into an idealized image. (4)
Thus, there are really two dimensions of this story: there is the film’s treatment of euthanasia, which, somewhat predictably, it refuses to come out against, lavishing considerable attention on depicting a degenerative illness’s degrading effects on the afflicted and on the loved ones. And then there is the film’s arguably more interesting exploration of love. Not only does Haneke ask whether murder becomes acceptable when it constitutes the seal of a radical love. Focusing on the shift that takes place within Georges who, when forced to part with the real Anne, begins to create his own version of her, Haneke also asks whether true love can be anything but murder. This exploration of love is interesting for its ethical and philosophical implications. Georges’s selfish love for Anne acquires a subversive quality because it constitutes a triumphant assertion of phantasy over our increasingly inhumane reality (the latter has been the topic of many Haneke films). But before arriving at this argument, we must first take a detour through French film history.
No doubt, Amour is a moral tale, but the film is not interested in conventional morality. Its focus is on the nexus of thoughts and emotions and how these motivate our actions. Addressing this area would seem to take us into the domain of psychology, but such a path can be misleading. Psychological representation has its own set of cinematic conventions, towards which Haneke has always been rather skeptical. The film’s particular take on the moral tale becomes clearer when we compare it to the moral tales of French New Wave filmmaker Eric Rohmer. (5) As Rohmer explains, the conte moral does not pivot on characters’ actions, but on their inner conflicts and on how characters rationalize their motivations that arise from these conflicts. (6) It has been noted that Rohmer’s films, like many examples of the Nouvelle Vague, are filled with dialogue in which the protagonists verbalize their feelings, perceptions, and mental states. (7) Haneke’s new film harkens back to this pattern. We encounter Georges and Anne in their shared existence—which is to say, in conversation—and the reason why this existence, after all these years, still seems worth sharing is because Haneke depicts their conversations to be at once intimate and distracted. They do of course take each other for granted, but not completely, not so much that it would prevent them from addressing each other with purpose and joy, which keeps their conversations meaningful even when they seem to lapse into the quotidian. In other words, while their marriage has endured half a century or more, Georges and Anne’s relationship can suitably be compared to the French New Wave’s tales of romantic love because there is still a spark–and a little bit of mystery–between them.
The first attack that Anne suffers is all the more dramatic because it disrupts precisely one such conversation between them, instantly placing in jeopardy the very intimacy that suffuses the quotidian nature of their chat. Many of their subsequent exchanges are marked by the challenge of bridging an ever-widening distance between them, which is created not only by Anne’s growing incapacitation, but also by the increasing conflict of motivations. Anne wants to die but is not allowed to do so. Georges insists on keeping her alive, but his own moral principles begin to clash with his love and compassion for his wife. The wish to release her from her suffering is growing inside him, but when he finally acts on it, this act is hardly premeditated, transpiring, as it does, in the spur of the moment. At the same time, the act has an existentialist character, as Georges is perfectly aware of the fact that he cannot hope to find anyone able or willing to legitimize what he did—not even his wife. Anne looks at Georges with eyes that seem to beg him to kill her, but Georges, not the least because he senses Anne’s desire, takes pains to avoid any conversation with her about this topic. Amour carefully withholds any evidence of an explicitly established consensus between the couple about euthanasia. And in the end, it shows Anne twitching and flailing under the pillow—how could she not?—like anyone who is being suffocated.
What is existentialist about Georges’s killing of Anne is that, intended as an act of love, it startlingly foregrounds that love, even when it is at its most intimately transitive, is an utterly solitary affair. It may be shaped far less than commonly assumed by mutuality and shared experience, which are often coincidental; instead, we may be forced to characterize it as nothing more than a private sensation sparked by an attitude towards the other—an attitude that ultimately eludes verification and lasting confirmation. The more Georges is separated from Anne by her advancing lifelessness, the more intimate grows his love to her—and also the more speculative.
In Rohmer’s Moral Tales, speculation is the daily bread of lovers, whose deliberations consistently outpace their actions. But in Haneke’s film, too, the action that does take place is the result of a comprehensive mental projection, which revolves around Georges’s ruminations about Anne and his love for her. These ruminations can be placed into a cultural tradition to which the critic James Monaco has already related Rohmer’s Moral Tales—the medieval tradition of amours courtoises (courtly love), which may be characterized as an at once passionate and woeful meditation about the other sex. (8) Its passive, internalized form (l’amour désoeuvrement) causes Rohmer’s male protagonists to romantically obsess, mostly by themselves or from afar, about the object of their adoration. Haneke pays homage to Rohmer in his own way—that is, by systematically perverting some of the principal features of this formula. Passivity is already perversely enforced on the couple through Anne’s paralysis, and the more it advances, the more it comes to dictate the couple’s exchanges. Anne could always count on her husband’s little compliments (early on in the film, he confesses to her how smitten he was with her during their concert attendance). But her illness has put an end to that. Now, Georges is consumed with worrying about her declining health and how to organize proper care for her. As verbal exchanges become increasingly difficult to conduct, dialogue becomes more fragmented and one-sided, and much of their intimacy is generated by the exchange of glances. Anne’s illness gradually perverts Georges’s position of romantic courtier. The shell of ill health that now surrounds her leaves him with little but guess work and projection as to the nature of her sentiments. Because in the ritual of courtly love the man’s romantic obsession with his coy mistress is stoked by her unavailability, his thoughts culminate in the crowning, all-consuming fantasy of the embrace. (9) As Anne’s long-time husband, Georges has of course been able to enjoy all variants of this embrace of Anne, but as Anne’s increasingly catatonic state makes it less and less possible for her to reciprocate his affection, the concept of the embrace becomes once again a fantasy—or more accurately, it is split between a romantic ideal and a perverted reality consisting of the physically and mentally challenging routine of nursing a severely ill person.
As would be expected of a Haneke film, Amour does not spare us this side of their love. We get to witness in painstaking detail Georges’s awkward and clumsy attempts at propping up his wife in bed, helping her walk, lifting her off the toilet, or turning her from one side to the other in bed to change her diapers, all of which he performs ardently, while full well recognizing the danger of becoming paralyzed himself by the pall of hopelessness and the tyranny of fear. This fear stands in ironic—one might say, perfidious—contrast to that befalling the classic courtier. The latter, as is evident, for example, in Andrew Marvell’s metaphysical poem, To His Coy Mistress, finds himself in a race against time. Hearing “Times winged chariot hurrying near,” he anxiously tries to persuade his lady to yield to him, as life is too short. Urging her to seize the day, he polemically dismisses love unbound by time by describing it through metaphors of glacially slow organic growth (“My vegetable love should grow, vaster than empires and more slow.”) For Georges, the situation is ironically inversed. The glacial threat he faces is the classic Haneke scenario of glaciation, except that it threatens to impose itself on the couple externally by illness. For Georges, time’s winged chariot is not hurrying nearly fast enough. Anne’s suffering is prolonged, and he is condemned to witnessing it without being able to help her. And the notion of a healthy vegetable love that Marvell’s poem deftly juxtaposes to a vision of the beloved lying in her grave and being eaten by worms before turning to dust in Haneke’s film is threatened to be subsumed by this vision of decay, as Anne vegetates between life and death.
Now, Amour would not be a Haneke film if it did not introduce the potential for change into this scenario of perfidiousness. At issue, however, is not the machinery of melodrama. Rather, as is typical of Haneke’s work, a slight shift inserts itself into Anne and Georges’s undignified and dehumanizing reality, a shift that may harbour radical change—even though, and this is likewise typical of Haneke’s work, this change may itself be rather perfidious. The fact is that Anne’s condition, precisely because it is so gruesome to witness and gruelling for the both of them to endure, acts as a perverse inspiration for Georges, causing him to love his wife differently and, ultimately, to radically redefine love itself. We all love by internalizing a version of the other person, and this version is what remains with us when the other person is completely subsumed by their externality, that is, by death. What Georges is battling is his growing impulse to help this process along—to terminate Anne’s non-dignified lifelessness so as to let her life pass into him. This may be regarded as merciful, but it is also clearly selfish. The turning point in this process is, of course, the suffocation with the pillow—which, from the perspective of courtly love, may be regarded as the most consequential repurposing of the romantic embrace—its highest instantiation. As an act of brutality that ranks among the bluntest in Haneke’s canon, Georges’s deed stands in contrast to the passivity of Rohmer’s Moral Tales. But as the culmination of a romantic process of projection, it proceeds according to the same logic while, at the same time, offering a radically new perspective on the implications of the concept of love.
To understand these implications, it is important to consider how Amour, not unlike other Haneke films, underscores its representation of ethical conflicts by juxtaposing sets of contrasting images and image categories. The result is an open-ended hermeneutic that stimulates discussion and partly accounts for the lasting impact of Haneke’s films. In films such as Benny’s Video (1992) and Caché (2005), these images belong to certain pictorial genres such as drawings, posters, or videos, all of which align (often polemically) with certain values or connotations. At other times, however, they tend to be more enigmatic and immaterial, as they appear to designate subjective modes of perception. And while they thus become associated with particular protagonists, they also become hermeneutically unmoored and develop a meta-existence (consider the brightly lit river boat in Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989) or the slaughtered chicken in Caché). This is also the case in Amour, where Haneke deploys two particular images to designate contrasting subjective perceptions of Anne. The first, which reflects the perspective of Georges and Anne’s daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), of the nurses, and initially even of Georges himself, defines Anne as a deformed spectacle of suffering. The second perception is the one that Georges gradually develops in the course of the film and that eventually takes over his view of Anne. It rejects all that the first image is about and instead, one might say, it focuses on the beauty of her humanity. But even that is not quite accurate, for what the second image constitutes is a rejection of external reality. It is a purely mental image and, as such, is shaped by how Georges remembers Anne and by everything she has meant to him.
What helps the film rhetorically juxtapose these two subjective perceptions of Anne is that it aligns each with a more concrete image. The subjectivity that perceives Anne only as a diseased person is neatly encapsulated by the image of the nurse callously holding up a mirror to Anne after having combed her hair. This infantilizing gesture enrages Georges so much that he fires the nurse. But when he does so, it is not only to spare Anne any further cruelties that tend to ensue from this limited, overdetermined way of perceiving her (he does something similar by trying to prevent their daughter from getting a look at her severely bedridden mother). Perhaps more importantly, his firing of the nurse also marks his private resolution to let go for himself of the diseased Anne, who can no longer be saved, and to welcome the new Anne by prioritizing his very own perception of her. But representing this perception is rather tricky, as the very notion of a subjective idealization would seem to resist being rendered into concrete, external form. The concrete image that Haneke chooses—a pigeon that Georges finds walking around in his apartment—is thus less a metaphor of Georges’s subjective perception of Anne than it is an allegory of Georges’s very mode of perceiving. In other words, what is being referenced here is the category of fantasy as such, which is now given priority over reality. Allegorical though it may be, this concrete image of the pigeon boasts several genealogies ranging from proverbs (though translation issues are central here) (10) to the territory the film keeps returning us to—the annals of French film history. In this regard, we recall that French cinema has over the century repeatedly de-emphasized straight realism. The surrealists, for example, had a penchant for sending animals through the frame whose presence instantly defamiliarized the scenario. (And while a pigeon in the hallway is no way near as implausible as a cow lying in a bed, the reason for the pigeon in Amour is ultimately just to underscore the film’s championing of fantasy over the stultifying confines of reality). In addition, given that the film shows us Anne “magically” returning to Georges’s world after having been killed by him, we are also reminded of magic realism’s convention of blurring life and death by making the dead reappear to the living.
The pigeon, which comes to the killer in “cine-poetic” manner, namely by entering the frame through the shaft of light provided by the air well, poetically suggests that the forces of fantasy that stir within Georges are helping him defeat the terror that comes with worrying about his wife, a terror that we see expressed in Georges’s nightmares. Once he decides to fight this terror, he is freed from the nightmare vision of walking the dark, flooded hallway outside his apartment. Now the film shows him re-entering his own space, whereupon he finds the pigeon. By the last third of the film, then, a process is underway by which Georges—very gradually and quietly, begins to bring Anne inside him.
It is only at first glance that the process of bringing the other inside oneself appears to be a unilateral one in the film. The process that unfolds within Georges does, in fact, have a counterpart that has Anne internalize Georges—and while the film identifies Anne’s process of internalization, in contrast to Georges’s, as part of her illness, it carries a certain heuristic value that leads the couple to make a crucial correction to the dynamics of their relationship. As Anne becomes frail and bedridden, she increasingly depends on Georges’s assistance. But his worries and his new set of tasks as a caregiver all but eclipse Georges romantic feelings towards Anne which leads to the fact that she can no longer experience him as the romantic suitor he was at the beginning of the film. To her, his role is now reduced to that of a nurse who, by constantly administering help, partakes in her infantilization (Georges’s angry response to the nurse’s treatment of Anne is thus also stoked by guilt about his own behaviour.) The only thing left to do for Anne is to take it all in—and quite literally so: the care that she receives puts her in the classic position that unites infants and the ill—which is the position that forces the subject to become a powerless object being penetrated by the caregiver’s instruments (needles and thermometers, forks and spoons) regardless of her own consent, but always “for her own good.” She rebels by refusing food, but Georges, arguing that she will die if she does not eat and that it is his care that keeps her out of the hospital, forces the spoon inside her mouth—to which she responds by spitefully spitting the food back out at him.
The act of vomiting has held special significance in Haneke’s work before. We are reminded of a scene in La pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001), in which Erika throws up after performing fellatio on her would-be suitor, Walter. At first glance, both scenes seem to have little in common, but they are, in fact, guided by the same logic. Both must be linked to the oppressive presence of a caregiver that locks the cared-for person into an object position not only materially but also linguistically. Neither Erika nor Anne is able to have any relationships outside of her dependency on the caregiver. Erika’s vomiting, as Jean Wyatt points out in her illuminating article on The Piano Teacher, indicates not her disgust at Walter or the act she performs with him, but the fact that, even when she is with Walter, her sexual satisfaction is confined to self-referentiality. Her vomiting is the signifier of her jouissance, which is essentially auto-erotic and to which she is condemned because she is not, as it were, her own person, but an extension of her mother and, thus, subject to her mother’s jouissance. (11) Anne used to inhabit the position of autonomous, other-directed subject (the very position denied to Erika) capable of having a romantic relationship. But her illness has imposed on the couple a situation similar to that of Erika and her mother. Similar to their relationship, Georges and Anne’s is played out within the isolated space of their apartment, which deprives them of any forum for measuring desirability in relation to the outside world. (It was at the concert rather than within their apartment that Georges had found Anne desirable). Anne’s vomiting is a diabolical rehearsal of the radically limited options available to the infant/infirm. Both on a practical level and as psycho-sexual subjects forced to define themselves against a maternal Other, infants and the infirm, are condemned to oscillating between taking it in and spitting it out.
The situation seems hopeless, but just as in The Piano Teacher, the logic of events turns on itself in a way that does not propose a radical rejection of this logic but, as it were, a radical passage through the logic, which allows the subject to come out the other end by successfully entering/appropriating the symbolic. In the case of the Piano Teacher, it is Erika’s self-stabbing (following Walter’s rape of her) that, even though once again self-damaging, dislodges Walter from the position that ultimately determines meaning. In Amour, the paralyzed, bedridden Anne lacks any physical power to impact her own body, and yet, she is able to communicate to Georges the unbearability of her object status–or, more accurately, her state of oscillating between subject and object. Precisely because it stands in such sharp contrast to what Anne used to represent to Georges in the past, her vomiting constitutes an act of rebellion. Reproachfully asking him, “is this what has become of us?” it mobilizes a reservoir of memories, a lifetime of shared experiences. What it imparts on Georges is the need to act the only way in which his action can genuinely make a difference—which is by reassuming his position of lover.
Shortly before the killing takes place, there is a scene that shows Georges and Anne involved in what is their last intimate exchange. They appear to be sharing memories, but it is impossible to understand what exactly they are discussing that gives them so much pleasure (music, perhaps, or possibly even an anecdote about a sexual experience they have shared). Similar to the ending of Caché, where we only see but do not hear the two sons having a verbal exchange, the scene is deliberately written so as to keep us from making out the contents of the exchange. (12) As much as it keeps us guessing, the scene has a subtle charge to it, as the couple’s intimacy is suffused with a tinge of libidinal energy. What this scene importantly conveys, then, is that Georges here no longer assumes the position of caregiver. He has, in fact, assumed the position of lover, and very much comes across like one, in the way he is gently humouring his wife, while caressing her and whispering to her.
It may not be coincidental that the very last story that Georges tells Anne—the story that directly leads to his seizing the pillow and killing his wife—recounts a childhood anecdote about him being sick and his mother being prohibited from attending to him. In this episode the maternal position is characterized not by supreme power over the child but by the opposite: she is powerless, as she remains restricted to looking at her child through the glass window of a hospital ward. This helplessness is an aspect of the mother position that Georges is forced to inhabit towards the sick Anne. What the film does, then, is to represent the degrading nature of her illness and its impact on their relationship through its figuration of mothering as a dysfunctional dyad—that is, as something that is at once stiflingly powerful and completely powerless. The reason Georges is able to break through that glass barrier in his relation to Anne is precisely by abandoning both aspects of the mother position and acting as a lover instead. The result is that Anne is released from life not through conventional Samaritan ways but by something that is more akin to a crime of passion—an impulsive act that has a certain Sadean undercurrent, as if it were also the couple’s last time of having sex. But precisely because the couple is not having sex, it appears that Haneke wants to demonstrate that jouissance—the intensely solitary experience of the shattering of the self—is as central to a broadened definition of love as it is to the sexual act. This suggests that Haneke, rather than drawing on a treatment of love to justify the act of killing, explores how one might use the act of killing to illuminate the concept of love.
If love is defined from the perspective of bourgeois, patriarchal ideology—whose teleological notion of coming (and staying) together is something that mainstream cinema inscribes into its romance plots to structure spectatorial desire (13)—Amour may be said to subvert this notion of love by virtue of the ironic overlap in the film between communion and separation, and between desire and jouissance. Clearly, Haneke has no intentions of telling a conventional love story—nor is he inclined, however, to dismiss love as irreversibly corrupted by bourgeois values. In contrast to The Piano Teacher, whose narrative systematically cancels out love through an oscillation between jouissance and desire that plays out as a comedy of errors and missed encounters, Haneke’s new film does seem to want to give love a chance. Amour does not carry its title as a badge of sarcasm. The film’s ironic inversions and perversions of love leave the narrative in fragments that, rather than producing the effect of unadulterated negativity, retain a certain ambiguity, a space for speculation and hypothesizing. However, at issue is not the question whether the romantic couple’s threat of separation can somehow be averted—clearly, it cannot—but how the concept of coupledom may be rethought to explore new forms of affect and togetherness. Haneke here ventures into fraught territory that positions his exploration of love somewhere between the superficial idealism of a transcendental unison in death (a variant of the popular romance plot) and the more intricate and systematic idealism that informs philosophical explorations of civilization’s mythical, archaic origins.
Going back to the scene of Georges and Anne’s cryptic conversation that constitutes their last intimate exchange, we note that, while it is evident that Georges at this point has abandoned his position of controlling mother/nurse and reassumed his position of lover, we do not know exactly how and when this change came about. It must have happened after Anne threw up to his face, for her reaction constitutes a direct protest against the oppressive connotations of mothering/nursing. It is not, however, that Anne’s reaction moves Georges to abandon all care of Anne. Rather, it makes him jettison what designates the mother a signifier of oppression as well as passivity and retain what is of significance about the mother—her functioning as a link to an ancient matrix that points to the subject’s archaic origins and, as such, the subjects existence free from fear. (14) At issue is a concept of Eden that has been a point of reference from antiquity to modernity, from the Greek myth of Arcadia to Romanticism’s notion of the pastoral and to German idealist philosophy’s referencing of civilization’s prehistoric state signifying humankind’s harmony with nature. This notion of an Edenic state looms large in Haneke’s work, where it is figured as a mythological or fictional state that is directly referenced in the titles of some of his films and/or alluded to by various placeholders. Its prominence must be read as testimony to Haneke’s abiding interest in the concept of utopia, in relation to which he places many of his central characters, even if the connection may be rendered abstract or oblique.
In Amour, it is ultimately Georges himself who constitutes the link between this state of utopia and his wife, but the film’s setting, an haute bourgeois apartment filled with music, books, and art, already provides clues for its existence. Directly after the film has reached a kind of low point with the scene in which Anne spits out her food, Haneke takes time to insert a passage featuring some of the paintings from their apartment up close. These are not famous masterworks but the kind of pastoral scenes that adorn bourgeois households. Yet, in their depiction of the pastoral, they reference the promise that art has held for Georges and Anne: to enable a glimpse of above-mentioned utopia, to be assured of its presence even if it is kept out of reach, its promise remaining abstract and unfulfilled. Haneke has repeatedly incurred charges of elitism for setting his films in the haute bourgeois milieu. This is somewhat puzzling, since it is the bourgeoisie that has served him time and again with examples of human dysfunction. Haneke frequently takes us inside bourgeois households to show how high art (or what the bourgeoisie designates as high art) is nothing more than a status symbol or, at best, a tonic used by the middle class to assuage their fears. Amour, too, shows art—and music in particular—running the gamut of functions. For Georges and Anne’s daughter, Eva, classical music is less an art form than the foundation for her bourgeois existence (her husband is a successful concert pianist). Like Haneke’s other glaciated subjects, Eva only knows how to appreciate art as an external object, something that functions as yet another fetish—which the film indicates by showing her crying near the piano, whose idle state foregrounds its potentially banal dimension of being a lifeless, strictly technical machine.
For Eva’s father, by contrast, art comes to assume a different function. The crisis brought on by his wife’s illness gradually makes Georges reject art’s object status and, instead, inspires him to enact art’s own mimetic principles in their self-contradictory nature. We see him listening to Anne playing the piano, but we realize that this is his personal reverie when a hand movement of his identifies the stereo equipment as the actual source for the music. As if to actively rehearse the pastoral’s function as a signifier of loss, Georges’s flipping of the switch adumbrates the killing, but in a specific way: by rejecting art’s consoling function, Georges, so the film suggests, actually foregrounds its utopian potential, which will eventually enable him to insert himself as a synecdochic link between his wife and the pastoral.
As already indicated in the discussion of the scene featuring the pigeon, Amour ascribes considerable significance to the role of fantasy—and it does so specifically when it deliberates the question of a possible return to an archaic utopia. Fantasy is not simply a space that marks the individual’s personal freedom. It is the conceptual opposite of the glaciated world of technocratic functionality—or, in other words, of reality. Notwithstanding Amour’s anchoring in French film history and philosophy, the film’s engagement with the concept of fantasy testifies to Haneke’s ongoing engagement with German critical theory. More specifically, Amour’s treatment of fantasy resonates with the concept of fantasy formulated by Herbert Marcuse in his revisionist psychoanalytic reading of the principles of modern capitalism, in particular the reality principle and the performance principle. (15) In their embodiment of tyrannical modernity, both principles keep late capitalist subjects from entering a harmonious relation with their innermost desires. While Georges’s killing of Anne surely functions as a release from the indignities of medical life support that come with the crushing reality of infirmity, for Georges it also gives Anne a new lease on life on the level of fantasy. When Anne reappears to Georges in their apartment after he has killed her, it may seem that Haneke veers dangerously close towards the realm of kitsch. One is initially reminded of the tradition of magic realism in which the dead reappear to the living as family ghosts, assuming the function of a Greek chorus of sorts. Ultimately, however, this is not how Anne functions at the end of Amour. Nor would it be correct to claim that she appears to Georges as a ghost. In the visual economy of the film, her appearance comes at a price—which is that Georges himself has to part with reality. Or, more accurately, that we as spectators have to part with Georges.
As Marcuse points out with reference to Adorno, fantasy has its own reality. Outside of the human mind it can be conveyed by only one medium—art. Placing fantasy in proper relation to reality, which involves balancing subjectivity and objectivity, is one of the main challenges that art is up against. Rather than becoming an instrument for the mere representation of fantasies, art, so as to retain a measure of integrity, must remain rooted in reality—it must be held accountable in and by the real. As such, it must not misrepresent fantasy as freedom (this would be an illusion), but must define fantasy in terms of a double negative—as what Adorno has called the negation of unfreedom. However, due to what Adorno has characterized as art’s compulsory commitment to form, artistic images inevitably acquire a certain sheen or semblance that makes their mimesis err on the side of illusory freedom, thus keeping them from genuinely expressing unfreedom. (16) In this sense, art is always threatened to become an instrument for the expression of banalities.
With Amour, Haneke attempts to withstand this threat. The way he has conceived the film’s ending indicates his intention to visualize Georges’s love for his wife without banalizing the reality of her death. Thus, rather than allowing the world of fantasy and the world of reality to exist side by side the way we encounter it in magic realism, Haneke “subtracts” Georges from reality by permitting him to follow his wife out the door. There is no indication that the film intends us to read Georges’s escape as a suicide; it is not as though he literally follows his wife into Nirvana. What the film does is release Georges into an altogether different dimension, one into which it cannot follow him. Hence, in aesthetic terms, the couple’s exiting their apartment is not intended as a conventional release into freedom. Declaring their love and their existence as ultimately unrepresentable, Haneke attempts at expressing the negation of unfreedom by deliberately constructing an aesthetic aporia. Whether this effort is fully successful will, of course, remain subject to debate. Marcuse goes on to say about the dilemma of mimesis that, as artistic form reconciles with content, art becomes pleasurable even as it may be “difficult.” While Haneke withdraws Georges and Anne from the world of the film, he does allow them to withdraw together. It cannot be denied that this move, even as it defies various shadings of realism, ends up complying with rather than violating romance plots’ engendering of specatorial desire for the plot itself. In the eyes of some, this feature may move Amour ever so slightly into the vicinity of kitsch. For others, who wish to put it in more conciliatory terms, it characterizes what is now being called Haneke’s “late” phase. However, it is just as possible that Georges and Anne’s highly specific in-between status may continue to intrigue philosophers. The couple belongs neither to the living nor the dead (a category in which I would include ghosts) and, just as importantly, neither would they seem to belong to one and the same ontological category, which is what makes their co/existence so aporetic. The best way to characterize their status is to say that the latter is simply the result of the radical enactment of their love. If one resists dismissing the couple’s depiction at film’s end as a mere whim or gimmick, one may have to face the task of investigating it as an ontological crisis—a crisis that, while it is played out in the realm of cinematic representation, may touch those who view the image. In other words, at issue is a crisis of belonging that also involves us spectators. I suspect that this, if anything, is what will keep philosophers interested in Amour.
- An earlier, much shorter, German-language version of this review was published in Kolik.film, Special Issue 18, October 2012
- Roy Grundmann, “Between Adorno and Lyotard: Michael Haneke’s Aesthetic of Fragmentation,” in Roy Grundmann ed., A Companion to Michael Haneke (Malden, Mass., and Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 379.
- Haneke treated the question of euthanasia in his made-for-TV film, Fraulein (1986) and explored the question of suicide in his first theatrical release, The Seventh Continent (1989). For an overview of Haneke’s career and discussion of his television films, see Roy Grundmann, “Haneke’s Anachronism,” in Roy Grundmann ed., A Companion to Michael Haneke (Malden, Mass., and Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 1-50.
- Nevertheless, one might think of Georges’s act of killing his wife as a form of activism. By that I do not mean the altruistic liberal humanist agenda of promoting specifically defined forms of euthanasia. I think of activism in a more structural way–the killing is juridically not justifiable, nor does it constitute a step within a systematic, if alternative, politics. It is an instance of transgression, albeit one that makes an impact.
- Fifty years ago, Rohmer helped co-found Les Films du Losange, the very company that co-produced Amour and that is also closely associated with the history of the French New Wave. It has already been widely acknowledged that Amour’s two main actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva, provide key intertextual links to the halcyon days of the French New Wave. Though the part of Anne was not written for Riva but for French actress Annie Girardot (who, was too frail to play the part by the time the film was cast), Riva’s casting resonates with memories of her part in Alain Resnais’s fragmented love story Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), which likewise explored questions of ethics through what is a deliberately simple love story. Trintignant evokes memories of two films in particular—Claude Lelouche’s Un homme et une femme (1966), a love story in which both lovers are widowed and share memories of their deceased spouses, and Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1968), directed by Rohmer, in which he plays a man, whose decision to marry an ingénue conflicts with his interest in a sexually more experienced woman.
- James Monaco, The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 292-293.
- ibid., 294.
- ibid, 294.
- Since Georges’s interaction with the pigeon leads to him catching it and holding it in his hand, one might be tempted to compare this episode with the saying that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Yet, since this proverb essentially advises us to be less ambitious in our visions, to strive for what is feasible rather than becoming too idealistic, it seems to contradict what is really happening with Georges. The connection becomes clearer, however, when one considers the German version of the proverb, which states that a sparrow in the hand is better than a dove on the roof (Besser den Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach.). With the German connotation in mind, it is easier to see how the film might partake in the proverb’s imagery after all, if only to set up the proverb’s petty logic as that against which Georges rebels by idealizing Anne. It is precisely the dove (or pigeon) of the proverb’s German version that defines Georges’s spirit, not the bird in the hand of the English version, and the fact that it actually comes down from the roof to visit him can be read as a sign that his reorientation towards fantasy and idealism does not go unrewarded. Since he ends up catching the pigeon, one might even say he succeeds in actually transforming the dove on the roof into a bird in the hand, but lest one is tempted to read this transformation as an indication of humanity’s tendency to domesticate dreams by turning them into dull realities, we mustn’t forget that Georges decides to free the pigeon again.
- Jean Wyatt, “Jouissance and Desire in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher,” American Imago 62.4 (2006), 453-482. Following Jacques Lacan, Wyatt explains that maternal desire, which is based on lack and signifies the woman’s interests in things other than her child, is crucial for making the child advance to the state of the symbolic and, thus, become a full person, because it forces the child to recognize that the child is not the mother’s closest and sole object of desire. In Erika’s case, however, there is no female desire (as we find out from Jelinek’s novel more so than from Haneke’s adaptation, it is through her own positioning within patriarchy that Erika’s mother seems to have few interests of her own). There is only maternal jouissance—which constitutes the limit of the mother’s despotic channelling of interests onto her daughter, which keeps her from coming into her own. As Wyatt explains: “Maternal jouissance as it begins to emerge in Haneke’s film combines two senses of the verb jouir (to enjoy): jouir in the usual Lacanian sense—that is, the unrestrained expression of drive energies; and jouirin the legal sense—having the right to the use, without restriction, of another’s property (Žižek 2003, 61). As the mother enacts it, maternal jouissance combines the unconstrained expression of violent love and violent rage with a sense of entitlement to the use of the child’s body and psyche, without limitation. There is no recognition of a boundary between self and other” .
- While this technique appears to constitute a kind of teasing of the viewer that seems overly didactic, it should be recalled that Haneke comes from the theatre, where dialogue and conversation function according to slightly different principles. The theatre’s spatial determinants require dialogue to be spoken loudly and clearly enough for it to be heard by spectators sitting in the back rows of the auditorium. This means that any dialogue spoken on stage that is not decodable by the audience is apriori endowed with a different function altogether. Frequently, what is foregrounded by characters mumbling or whispering on stage is the gestural significance of the conversation. In other words, it is more distracting and counterproductive to try to understand what is not meant to be understood than it is to appreciate the fact that characters are engaging in conversation in the first place, and to focus on the mode, mood, and atmosphere in which this conversation takes place, and at what point in the drama/narrative it occurs.
- Wyatt argues that the solitary status of jouissance is “the antithesis of romantic love, which is of course based on the belief that only the beloved can complete the self.” In The Piano Teacher, Erika’s convulsive jouissance not only foils the attempts of her would-be suitor, Walter, but also frustrates any spectatorial desire for the development, against all odds, of a romantic narrative involving Erika and Walter as a couple (466-467).
- Wyatt, with reference to The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960. Trans. Dennis Porter. New York: Norton, 1992, points out that “Erika’s dilemma is that ‘the prehistoric Other that it is impossible to forget’ (Lacan, 1959-1960, 71) is not just a relic of an archaic maternal matrix, but the primal mother herself, who exists not as a phantom remnant of the past but as an insistent presence in Erika’s contemporary reality.”
- Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. (New York: Vintage Books, 1955) see especially Chapter 7, “Phantasy and Utopia,” pp. 127-143.
- Marcuse formulates it this way: “As aesthetic phenomenon, the critical function of art is self-defeating. The very commitment of art to form vitiates the negation of unfreedom in art. In order to be negated, unfreedom must be represented in the work of art with the semblance of reality. This element of semblance (show, Schein) necessarily subjects the represented reality to aesthetic standards and thus deprives it of its terror.” (Marcuse, 1955, 131)