Games. Funny games. Such brutally funny games has Michael Haneke played throughout his career as a film director.
Given the nature of his past films which have relentlessly chronicled misanthropy at its most heinous, many critics and viewers alike will feel the urge to second-guess Haneke’s intentions behind Amour, his latest triumph at Cannes. Many will see it as another cinematic game in which he manipulates at will in order to satiate his own sadism. Some will even feel an extra layer of antipathy, considering that the film deals with the theme of old age and death, an inherently sympathetic one which could shield Haneke from the usual criticism lobbed at his oeuvre. But ultimately, only Haneke himself, who once went so far as to say that “a movie is always a manipulation”, knows the answer to such questions.
Then the onus placed on the audience should not be that of determining the intentions of the filmmaker, but that of determining whether the final film deepens our understanding of the subject of old age and death in the 21st century. None other than Haneke’s famous compatriot Roland Barthes would agree with this, an idea he expressed in the fittingly titled 1967 essay, The Death of the Author. After all, no artist can transgress the theme of death as to manipulate it, not even a filmmaker notorious for his transgressions. If the subject of death ennobles even the possibly originally cynical motives of Haneke, is that not in the end an artistic triumph of thanatos itself?
The film’s denouement is never in question. In fact, we see the dead body of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) at the very beginning. This, in turn, marks a radical departure from Haneke’s previous films, in which “what next” was always the overriding question. In The Seventh Continent, Haneke’s debut film, death was the shockingly surprising ending. The inexorable march—in this case perhaps more like a crawl—towards death is neither the climax nor the denouement in this film. It is how Anne, who in her old age becomes paralyzed, and her devoted if somewhat curmudgeonly husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) deal with her handicap and their impending deaths.
Again, the casting itself might cause some to call foul. Every cinephile knows Trintignant, who was gifted with a magnificent coiffure and aristocratic looks that might have made even Alain Delons suffer from a case of envy or two. Now the perfect coiffeur has been replaced by a scruffy gray comb over, and deep crags line the once flawless face. We cannot help but remember his unrelenting charm in My Night at Maud’s, his mod chic in Trans Europ Express, his mute ruggedness in The Great Silence, and his tortured sensitivity in The Conformist. Emmanuelle Riva, while not perhaps iconic as Trintignant, once melted the hearts of arthouse audiences as the perfect feminine personification of the West’s guilt towards Japan in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon Amour. Her delicate youthful fingers that once enveloped Eiji Okada’s back in what is one of the most indelible images from all of French cinema are now scrawny digits that count down the seconds till death.
As he has always done, Haneke aims to exasperate the audience. But paradoxically, no one can deny the exasperating nature of dying from old age. Sincerity and humanity abound in this film, but it’s not necessarily because Haneke has chastened. It is an incidental and serendipitous sincerity because there are only a few things more exasperating than caring for a sick elderly person. In an early scene highly reminiscent of Funny Games, Anne and Georges have an argument as to who remembers what. But again, since all of this is within the frame of aging, the confusion does not register as contrived but as perfectly understandable. The game here is not one waged by Haneke, but one waged by life itself. In his previous films, cruelty was brought on by some malevolent outside force that was not inevitable, but now the cruelty is brought on from within us, by the very ontological nature of living and dying. The word “compassionate” may still not apply here, but the word “human” does.
As perhaps the most well-known ode to love goes, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” Appropriately enough, there is no indulging in the presentation of abstruse evil here. There may not be a rejoicing with the truth either–the truth that old age does make weaklings of us all. But there is the understanding that old age doesn’t come alone but with the subdued resignation that life itself presents challenges that can be tempered only with love.
Will we merely hear a fly buzz when we die? None of us will ever find out. What every one of us knows for certain, though, is that we all have a rendezvous with death and that none of us shall fail that rendezvous. And what Haneke has shown us with his Amour, perhaps even both unwittingly and in spite of less than compassionate motives, is another certainty–that our final frail foray, as the flesh becomes heir to a thousand natural shocks, is navigated less painfully with love than without it.