Warning: Spoilers ahead
The clue is in the pigeon. Michael Haneke, the writer and director of the film ‘Amour’ has said that he refuses to explain what the double appearance of the pigeon means.
‘If when I’m asked how the pigeon ended up in my film, I say that it flew in through the window and it flew out through the window.’ But then he likes his films to be ambiguous.
‘Everybody is right.’ he claims. ‘It’s their own interpretation. I try to construct all my films in such a way that each viewer constructs his or her own film.’
All human beings feel obliged to respond to problems with solutions. Death ranks with the best. The carnage that God or nature inflicts on the human race ensures that none of us, to paraphrase Orson Welles, will have a happy ending. Haneke describes the ideal death as the example experienced by the grandmother of his wife. ‘She was 95. She was sitting at a table, surrounded by twenty friends. At one point she said, ‘I feel tired,’ laid her head on the table and died.’ We understand what he means. Death is easier in company, when it is not too early or too late and when there is no time for pain and fear. Never modest about finding solutions, the human race has provided two for death. Glorious battle, as portrayed brilliantly in the film ‘The Wild Bunch’, which provides the illusion of consequence, and love which again provides humans with the continuity that time and death will, if left unattended, destroy. ‘Amour’ is not a Western. Somewhat predictably, the critics in the UK have assumed that Haneke has used his film to remind us about the horrors of death and ageing but also to inspire his audience with the uplifting message that love is ultimately transcendent. The film critic of ‘Time Out’ magazine has stated that the film is about loyalty. Phillip French in ‘The Observer’ has been less inhibited than others and actually repeated the view that all we have to help us endure beyond our death is the love of others. The film has been described as heartfelt and humane. If they observe horror in the film it is merely how ageing reduces comfort and significance or, the word from before, consequence.
Nobody can deny those interpretations. Many will find the film difficult to experience but ultimately uplifting. They will respond to how a charming and successful couple with refined tastes and manners has been reduced by age and circumstance. They will think of the title and believe it reaffirms the redemptive powers of love. Haneke is right. If that is their interpretation then fine.
The notion that only love can transcend death is an eternal truth. But Haneke is an original and it appears strange that he would settle for repeating a theme that has dominated the work of others, even if it is profound and essential. We know that his opinion of bourgeois self-delusion and hypocrisy is scathing. He will also tease the audience by having glamorous actors play people whom he insists we need to regard as self-serving and flawed. This was achieved in his thriller ‘Hidden’. It takes a while for the audience to realize that the charming man and wife are actually the villains in the movie.
Of course, there is no reason why a talented film maker cannot change his sensibilities and produce a movie that is sympathetic to a refined middle class couple. ‘Amour’, though, has too many inconsistencies if it is merely understood as the end of a love story between two endearingly worthwhile people. In the film, love does not conquer decline and death. The intervention by Trintignant is very different. When Terence Davies re-made the Terence Rattigan play ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ he added an anachronistic line about love being a willingness to clean the backside of your debilitated husband. It is not. Some people can handle that level of intimacy and some cannot but to assume that the difference between these people is the existence of love in a relationship is an error. A person may be passionate about their spouse but still lack compassion or the necessary sensibility. Some people are able to become intimate with strangers, either as prostitutes or in care homes working with the elderly. Many of us are horrified by both professions, neither of which offers career prospects. Davies is a film maker who is driven by his emotions. Haneke is much more intellectual.
Love is not inevitably redemptive or virtuous. Norman Bates in ‘Psycho’ loved his mother and anybody who can carry a skeleton down to the cellar every time the door-bell rings would have been more than capable of attending to the ablutions the
rest of us would rather avoid. Norman intrudes here because ‘Amour’ resembles the great Hitchcock classic, ‘Psycho’. It has all the ingredients. Bates, this time is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Presumably because he has bunions he wears trainers instead of slippers as he shuffles awkwardly around the flat. This makes him sinister rather than endearing. The Janet Leigh character reappears as the cleaner that Trintignant dismisses abruptly in a scene that is much more ambiguous than the critics have acknowledged. And the detective, this time, is the daughter who is prevented from seeing her mother by the father. As in ‘Psycho,’ the intruders believe that they will only know the truth when they see the mother. Most important of all, we have the elegant Parisian flat, where rooms lead into one another, posing as the old house. In the film, the flat is given a lot of attention and it exists as a character. The final shot of the film is the daughter, Isabelle Huppert, alone in the empty home. She is looking for memories perhaps but she may be pondering a mystery much more mundane than how our own lives dwarf us so we expire as pre-prepared corpses. True, this is implied in the composition of the film because we are obliged to watch Trintignant care for his deteriorating wife. His daughter may, though, simply be wondering about why her father behaved so strangely.
Those who see the couple as ideal will be astonished that ‘Psycho’ has been invoked in this review but they should remember the opening scene and the couple on the bus who do not speak to each other. The tragedy for the hero in the film is that the wife who is shrunk by her two strokes impedes on the memories that fulfilled his love. He has a solution but it is unpredictable and dramatic. He only discovers it when the pigeon arrives. Not the first time but the second when he catches the pigeon by smothering it in a blanket. We also have the small matter of the brown tape that is used to seal the doors. Like Norman Bates, the hero in ‘Amour’ does everything that he can to keep his woman in her place so his own love can prevail.
Haneke is not the first director to not be concerned about an audience misunderstanding his film. ‘Amour’ lets an audience mislead itself. It is more than ambiguous. It is two films in one and either can be enjoyed. Alfred Hitchcock had the same ambition with ‘Psycho’. Nothing appealed to him more than terrifying an audience with a film that he found amusing. The impact of death on the gifted and blessed is upsetting. But the latest film by Haneke is much darker than that.
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Another really interesting and thought provoking piece. I have not seen this film yet but have watched ‘Psycho’ many times and am intrigued by Howard’s connections. I also am now very keen to see ‘Amour’ as from the critiques I have read, none has picked up on the ‘Psycho’ connection.
Thanks for the “heads up” on this film I will make a point of seeing it soon as the subject matter intrigues me. I am not a great fan of horror films as a rule and was interested that Howard suggests Hitchcock finds his horror films amusing which is similar to my own reaction to horror films. However horror films by their very nature deal with death and strange to say as I get older it is a subject I think and ponder about far more easily than when I was young. I suppose it is a question of accepting the inevitable. Once I have seen the film I will come back and add some more comments.
Your brilliant insight to film and other media astound me and much appreciated. My unfortunate feeble mind envies your interpretations since my mind seems to be lead by the heart. The heart cannot be trusted; therefore, my interpretations are limited to seeing the subtle romance in films like Unforgiven, and the final films of Rocky and Rambo, rather than grasping the director’s commentary on society. Perhaps, it’s selective interpretation since the Hollywood majority is liberal and often conflicts with my own political worldview and taints the escape I seek. Most times I prefer to get lost in the fantasy and watch as if I’m riding a roller coaster.