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

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad