Michael Haneke's "Amour" and the music of time

A thought-provoking portrayal of the realities of nursing a partner in deteriorating health.

Amour (12A)
Michael Haneke

Anyone purchasing the soundtrack to Michael Haneke’s Amour before seeing the film would get a comically misleading impression of the director’s use of music. It isn’t that the album’s track listing is incorrect. There is indeed Schubert and a selection of Beethoven’s Bagatelles. But every piece included in Amour is curtailed after only a few seconds by an abrupt cut, or by someone saying: “Switch it off.” (An early title for the picture was The Music Stops.) The sense of pleasure thwarted is overwhelming and appropriate for a film in which a woman’s means of communication are stemmed, her life foreshortened, after she suffers a stroke.

Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who is in her eighties, is sitting at the kitchen table when she experiences a break in perception. One moment she and her husband, Georges (Jean- Louis Trintignant), are talking, the next she is gazing at him uncomprehendingly; it’s as though she too has been switched off. Following surgery, she is left paralysed in one side of her body. “It will go steadily downhill for a while,” Georges tells their adult daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert). “And then it will be over.”

Like Georges, Haneke is not someone to whom you’d turn if you wanted the truth broken gently. He lacks, shall we say, a certain bedside manner. The cruelty of the world he depicts is not tempered by reassurances; his is a form of tough love. The White Ribbon (village plagued by unattributable acts of violence), The Piano Teacher (woman terrorised by her mother performs degrading, self-harming acts), Benny’s Video (parents cover up a murder committed by their desensitised son) – each of these films would lose their air of appalled horror if Haneke didn’t mourn implicitly the sufferings and shortcomings on show.

Amour is different. Haneke is no less stringent now as a film-maker – a quick browse through a photograph album is the nearest Georges and Anne get to a soft-focus montage of marriage highlights. But his emphasis in Amour is on love and loyalty as positive counterpoints to mortal tortures. Even when the couple bristle at one another, or Georges loses his temper, the tension illuminates the capacious dimensions of their life together – the depth and breadth of their marriage. Partly this is the result of putting performers as profound as Riva and Trintignant in front of the camera. To whom can you look for actorly eloquence if not the woman who shouldered much of the emotional weight of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), and the man who embodied refrigerated rage in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970)? We believe in their long marriage not only because they are superb actors working from a note-perfect screenplay; there is also a lifetime’s tenacity shining through Trintignant’s husk-like face, a well of memories in Riva’s eyes. In a film frugal with music, everything still depends on this duet.

Music has always been central to Haneke, whether he has used it to terrorise (the screeching death-metal audible to us, but not to the sweetly smiling family on screen, at the start of Funny Games) or hasn’t used it at all (Hidden, his most admired film, is so unsettling partly because it includes no music whatsoever). It is in every way pivotal to Amour. Georges and Anne are retired music teachers who share an elegantly sombre Parisian apartment, shot with respectful warmth by the cinematographer Darius Khondji. The piano in their study is played only twice (once in a hallucination or memory). In its big close-up, there is noise rather than music emanating from its vicinity: the piano simply stands there while the cleaner vacuums around its legs. It is no more able to participate in the action of the scene than the paralysed Anne can object to having her hair brushed roughly by an unfeeling nurse. What a waste. The woman and the piano, that is.

Though music is rarely heard in Amour, it is often discussed. One of Anne’s former students (played by the pianist Alexandre Tharaud) visits to tell her about his recording work but neglects to bring his latest CD – another instance of music placed beyond Anne’s reach or denied outright. After Anne’s operation, Georges attends a funeral where, he later recounts, someone plays a tape-recording of the Beatles song “Yesterday”. The story rightly invites our disdain: this is not, after all, a nostalgic film. There’s no suggestion that, yesterday, all Georges and Anne’s troubles seemed so far away, only that they possessed the strength to cope with them back then (which admittedly doesn’t scan nearly as well).

The reality of nursing a partner in deteriorating health must be cushioned by the couple’s rarefied climate. Georges can produce €800 to pay a carer’s bill without noticeable pause, while Eva issues investment advice to her mother. But fortification in Amour is ultimately emotional rather than financial. The apartment, from which the film never strays after the first five minutes, becomes a symbol of that security. The picture begins with the front door being broken down but the onset of illness is more insidious.

Prior to Anne’s stroke, the couple find that the lock on their door has been tampered with inexpertly by a would-be burglar. Anne’s friend was the victim of a more successful violation: intruders gained access to the apartment building via the attic. You might say Anne is brought low in much the same way. In Amour, the home is no less pregnable than it was in Funny Games or Hidden, but now Haneke has moved out of the inhibiting genre of thriller and into a higher metaphorical register. The threat posed in Amour is not to family or morality but to life itself. Love, rather than any sophisticated security system, stands Anne and Georges in good stead against death, the ultimate housebreaker.

 

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Haneke's "Amour".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit