Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Without Music: Amour & the Morality Of Love

As of March 1, I posted additional material I realized was missing from the original post; sorry!
One doesn't have to know that Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuella Riva) are music teachers to understand how strange the absence of music in the opening credits is; by the closing credits, when there is no music, the viewer understands why Oscar nominated director Michael Heneke conspicuously left out the music: the music is the flavor of love, and love without music, it appears, is no longer love. Winner of Best Foreign Language Film, and nominated for both Best Picture and Best Actress, Amour demonstrates what happens to an aging couple after the wife suffers from deteriorating medical conditions. (As always, this post contains spoilers, so if you prefer not to know what happens before seeing the film, please stop reading now; thank you!).
Numerous pieces "play" an important role in the film, and here they are: Impromptu opus 90 - no1, by Franz Schubert,
Impromptu opus 90 - no3, Schubert,  Bagatelle opus 126 - no2, by Beethoven, Prélude Choral: Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, by Johann Sebastian Bach/Ferruccio Busoni.
The film presents important, but potentially controversial issues so if you are going to watch the film with someone, you might want to make sure it's a good selection. I was expecting to be the youngest person in the audience, but there were lots of "younger" people there, not very many who could be classified as senior citizens, actually, and that might be due to the subject matter.In the opening scene, we see the ending: police break into the flat of Georges and Anne, finding doors taped shut with packaging tape, no sign of Georges or the nurses; police wear masks and anxiously try to get windows open, clearing the air before them by waving their hands and so we understand the stench filling the room: then we see why. A door is forced open and there is Anne, dead and decaying, no one having any idea she has been that way. With a navy blue dress on, a Crucifix lies upon her chest, a bouquet of flowers in her hand and flowers strewn around her on the bed. What's the point of starting with the ending? So we can pick up on the signs as the story reveals itself and we can see the moment the characters break.
Arriving at the concert performance of a former pupil, I originally made the observation that at the theater, in the image above, there is a poster advertising the The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a ghost story. So the question is, are there ghosts in Amour? Yes, from the burglar when they arrive home after to the show, to the slow "disappearance" of Anne as her illnesses progress, and the "appearance" of Georges the monster, the background poster offers an interesting angle from which to understand the events of the narrative.
So, structurally, the movie opens with a break-in (by the police), then—after Georges and Anne return from the theater—there is another break-in, someone having used a screwdriver to force the lock on their flat door, and they discuss it. Georges comes home after Pierre's funeral and finds Anne on the floor beneath a window she had tried to close against the rain outside but she fell instead. Later, after Anne's condition has been worsening, Georges has a nightmare. All four incidents are related symbolically, for example, after the door of their flat has been damaged, Anne tells Georges of someone telling her about someone who broke into someone else's flat through the attic, cutting out all the valuable paintings from their frames and stealing them then we later see close-ups of all the paintings spread throughout Georges' and Anne's flat: the heavy impressionism and anonymous figures, some with no defining characteristics at all. These aren't valuable paintings in terms of monetary worth, but just like the photo albums Anne flips through at the table, they are valuable for the memories they contain of how they acquired the painting, the sentimental value, in other words, but those paintings have now been stolen, just like the ones mentioned earlier, because Anne can't remember anything about them, so that value has been stolen from Georges and Anne and so the paintings have been stolen from them.
Director Michael Haneke and Jean-Louis Trintignant who portrays Georges.  Like Life Of Pi, Amour incorporates Mandelbrot sets, a story-within-a-story narrative device, and the film wants us to know that it knows what it's doing. During one scene in the salon, Georges sits in his chair and just above the crowded shelves is a set of Russian dolls, the type where there is a big one, and a smaller, identical one inside that, and a smaller, identical one inside that, etc. This is the perfect example of a Mandelbrot set, one I have often used in other posts, because it demonstrates how the same story (like the features of the Russian dolls) are repeated on varying scales throughout the narrative: the break-ins, for example, and the stories Georges tells Anne throughout the film. The purpose of employing this device, as in Life Of Pi, is that it shows us, it doesn't just settle for telling us, what is happening to Georges and Anne, and the film isn't going to show us just one way of understanding what is happening to their marriage and relationship, but several ways, so we understand what is happening to them, and we can understand ourselves. Georges asks Anne, when she expresses that she no longer wants to live, for her to put herself in his shoes, and what she would do if he had come down with her condition, but Georges is also asking us, the audience, to put ourselves in his shoes, and that's what art does, make us think what we would do if we were in the position of the characters, because art's duty is to expand our knowledge of ourselves, our deepest self, to offer a ground to encounter our self where we don't encounter that self elsewhere in life, but must engage if we are to become full, mature human beings.
What's so ingenious about the film is the use of a break-in to introduce a third person between the relationship of Georges and Anne, because Anne basically becomes someone Georges doesn't recognize as his wife and that's the explanation of him killing her, then her “appearing” towards the end, doing dishes and them walking out of the apartment together: Georges got his wife back. The break-in happening before Anne starts showing symptoms of her condition is the “third person” starting to reveal herself in their lives, the Anne who doesn't want to live anymore, the Anne who can't speak, wets her bed, has to be bathed by someone else, has to have a diaper, refuses to eat or drink, Anne who has become a defenseless child is the third person in their marriage, the third person in their love. Now that we know who “broke into” their apartment, we can understand Georges' dream.
 We could say that Georges has three “dreams”: first, the dream he has when he hears the door bell ringing and he goes into the hallway filling with water; secondly, his “daydream” when we see him sitting in the salon, watching Anne play piano, then he turns and stops the CD and she disappears and, lastly, after he has killed Anne but he hears her in the kitchen washing the dishes and they leave the flat together. The film chooses the timing of these alternate realities” well because just as Anne slips into an alternate reality where she is a child again, so Georges slips into an alternate reality of the past because his own childishness is coming through. For example, when Anne starts moaning while Georges shaves, he goes and tells her a story about being a child at camp, because that story he tells her reflects how he views taking care of Anne, like the rice pudding he doesn't want to eat, he doesn't want to care for her anymore and he kills Anne because “Anne” (the new, intruder “Anne”) has killed his love, his wife. It's of further interest that Eva mentions coming home and hearing them make love and being reassured that they would always be together because they loved each other; the “music” they made in the bedroom together has ceased (the music we don't hear in the beginning and ending credits) and love making in bed has been replaced by death struggles and groans of life slipping away.
We don't realize it's a dream until he wakes up in bed, but Georges hears someone ringing at the door; when he goes to open it, no one is there. He steps outside and there is scaffolding, as if someone has been working outside their flat (this is an important detail we will discuss later); Georges calls out but no one answers, so he turns down a hallway and he's ankle-deep in water; just as he realizes something is wrong, an anonymous hand reaches around from behind him and covers his mouth and he wakes up beside Anne. The hand covering his mouth is that of an older person, and we can specify that it's Anne hand because we do to others what they have done to us (we tend not to follow the Golden Rule of doing to others as we would like to have done unto us, rather, we reciprocate what they have done), so when—towards the end—Georges suffocates Anne, it's because, in this dream, we are seeing “someone” (the person Anne has becomes/digressed to being) suffocating Georges by covering his mouth. The water is the flood waters that cause drowning, in other words, Georges is slowly drowning just as Anne is slowly disappearing. Now that we understand Georges' dream, we can understand what the pigeon getting into the house symbolizes.
 Just as the eyes are the windows of the soul, so windows can symbolize either the soul or the interior reflection of the soul (because glass of the window panes “reflect” just as characters will be by windows or look out of windows at key moments in art, because it shows the audience how that character is taking something in or letting something go). When Georges returns from Pierre's funeral, he finds Anne on the floor beneath an open window and it's raining outside. Anne's glum expression of embarrassment that she fell trying to close the window, and that Georges has to pick her up, reveals to the audience more about Anne—even as she's trying to hide/deny all her emotions and thoughts—because the open window that Anne could not against the rain shows us the “sad” or “depressing” thoughts the rain symbolizes (maybe the same water filling the hallway in Georges' dream?) that are “flooding” Anne's soul because she isn't strong enough to close the window; this interpretation is validated as Georges tells Anne about Pierre's depressing funeral and she interprets Georges to say she doesn't want to go on anymore. In the discussion about the pigeon, which flies in through the window and which Georges releases at the window, the symbolic nature of what a window is and how the narrative employs it must be incorporated into the reading.
Almost always, a bird will symbolize either the Holy Spirit (because the Third Person of the Trinity has manifested Himself as a bird throughout Scripture) or a metaphor for the soul. We could construct a reading with the soul, especially the second time the pigeon gets into the house, because it's with the blanket Anne was using when she first came home from the hospital in a wheelchair that Georges captures the bird, tying Anne and the bird together (the way recurring items connect symbolic occurrences in Life Of Pi), so the second time the pigeon enters the flat, we could interpret the bird as Anne's soul since the blanket is tied to Anne all ready; that doesn't fit in with the first time Georges sees the bird, so that reading doesn't really work as a strategy because it fails to account for all the occurrences of this specific motif. Rather, understanding the pigeon as the Holy Spirit is strengthened as a interpretative strategy when we consider the window the bird flies in through, the Crucifix Georges lays upon Anne's dead body and the scaffolding outside the flat in Georges' dream.There is a total of three birds in the film: the first time a pigeon enters the flat and George gets it out; the second time a pigeon enters the flat and George captures it using the plaid blanket wrapped around Ann when she returns home from the hospital and the drawing of the bird on the shelf in their salon (and one of the only pictures in their salon that doesn't get a close-up in the montage of art in their home, but is seen almost every time anyone exits or enters the salon). 
The third bird of the film pictured here on the shelf. Eva (Isabella Hubbert) plays an important role in the film. When we first meet her, she provides a litany of her husband Geoff's (William Shimell) infidelities against her within the music ensemble to which they belong and how she always takes him back. Her father Georges asks her if she loves Geoff and she replies yes, rather unsure, then the two of them later come to visit Anne and Georges. What does this mean? The lengths to which we have to go for love. Personally, I would not tolerate my husband's unfaithfulness, I would do much better at caring for a sick spouse, but the point the film is seeking to make is the very nature of love--when at its deepest moments--is the absence of music, the absence of joy and happiness, even the very absence of love; instead, the greatest moments of love are moments of silence, moments of pain and suffering, moments of forgiveness, that's amour.
If we take the bird to be the Holy Spirit, and--as usual--the house (in this case, the apartment they live in) to be symbolic of the soul, then it demonstrates that, spiritually, Anne's illness has come upon Anne and Georges so both of them can grow in saintliness and holiness; this contributes an interesting understanding to the scaffolding we saw outside the apartment in Georges' dream when he steps out, demonstrating that God is "working" on the soul, (please remember the Scripture about Jesus knocking on the door and coming into a person's home--read: the soul--and that could be applied here).  However, this interpretation also colors the entire film: has God "broken into" the soul of Georges and Anne? Was God the unknown hand who covered Georges mouth in his dream (please remember that the Holy Spirit appeard as the Hand writing on the wall in the Book of Daniel)? Georges views the pigeon who enters the apartment as a pest to be rid of, is that how he views God?
Morally, what does the film say about end of life issues and deteriorating health and the obligations of spouses and family members to a person who, even if they want to die, lives on in spite of “being a burden” and dominating the lives of those who are still healthy? Amour, like all art, will re-enforce that which a person all ready believes. If you think a person should die/has a right to die if their “quality” of life goes down, you will site incidents in the story to support your belief, because there are plenty of them to support that position; if you are like myself, and believe that each of those incidents are trials to expand Georges' love for Anne and Anne's discovery of her inviolable dignity as a human being, regardless of the condition of her physical and mental health, there are plenty of examples to support that as well. If you disagree with me in my moral position, you might easily say, “But you aren't in Georges' or Anne's position, and it would be different if you were suffering that yourself or responsible for someone who is enduring that condition,” but the truth is, I all ready am, two different people in my life who I take care of are in similar conditions and are extremely trying. On every level, it's incredibly difficult, every single minute, but without this opportunity God has provided for me to become a better person, I would remain the self-centered, childish, arrogant monster I had always been, rather like Georges.
 What, if any, evidence does Amour offer in support of my position? Two examples will suffice in addition to that which we have all ready discussed. First, after Georges tells Anne the story about having been to the movie and he saw a “schmaltzy romance,” Anne mentions that she won't let it ruin his image in old age and Georges asks, “What image?” to which Anne replies that Georges is a monster, but he is also generous. We see a plethora of examples of Georges being generous with Anne, and the landlords, but we also see Georges being a monster when he suffocates Anne, which leads us to the second example, the nurse he dismisses, because of her treatment of Anne. One could say, and the film invites people to say so, that because Anne herself mentions wanting to die, Georges performs a mercy killing, as the case is made in Million Dollar Baby, which compares Maggie (Hilary Swank) to a dog being put down. If one views humans as animals, that there is no difference between a person and a dog—and there are certainly plenty of those people—this is a perfectly acceptable understanding of the film. We know Georges can be a monster, and we know, by the film's own standards, that abuse of the elderly and helpless is unacceptable, as in the case of the nurse who is dismissed, so this substantiates—for me, who all ready holds this position—that “mercy killing,” and euthanasia is still murder, plain and simple.
We can't really make any concluding comments about a film like this, because it stays with us, rather like the passages of favorite pieces of music, but it asks us a question which reveals our whole, individual philosophies in life: is silence the lack of sound, or is silence its own sound? We want music in our lives, we don't want the silence, but it's in the silence that we hear God. Georges makes fun of Pierre's secretary playing The Beatles song Yesterday at the funeral, yet that's exactly what Georges does, not only when he plays a CD and imagines it to be Anne playing (the way she was yesterday) but also at the end when he daydreams she is washing the dishes and they leave the flat together, because he longs for the past, not the climaxing end with the quivering notes signifying that a master is playing the song, but only a repeating of what has come before.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner