By Rana Homayouni
This paper strives to understand late adulthood and old age through the movie ‘Amour’, by the Austrian director, Michael Haneke. Amour tells the story of the struggles of an elderly couple in modern day Paris. It is a French language movie which was released in 2012 to critical acclaim. It won Best Director, Best leading Actress at the Academy Awards and is the winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Our movie begins with police officers bursting into an apartment to find an elderly woman, Anne, lying on a bed, deceased. The odour is strong and the officers are covering their noses. The film cuts to a concert, where we see Anne again, this time sitting next to her husband, watching the orchestra play. We soon learn that Anne and her husband George, both presumably in their eighties, are retired music teachers. They come home that night, seeing their apartment door opened by burglars, even though nothing seems to be missing.
One morning as they are having breakfast together, Anne does not seem to respond to George’s questions, she stares into space, seemingly in another world. George panics and it is revealed that Anne has suffered from a stroke, leaving the right side of her body paralyzed. After a stay at the hospital, she makes George promise to never take her back to “that dreadful place” again. George gives his promise. We encounter George and Anne adjusting to this sudden change, Anne cannot walk and needs George to lift her on the bed, to take her to the bathroom, to lift her underwear up after she is finished. Their daughter visits from time to time, but is ordered by George to “get along with her own life” and that he is taking care of Anne and doing everything the hospital can do. She tells him that she used to listen to their lovemaking as a child and that’s when she knew that they were in love and would stay together, forever.
We see a new mattress with adjustable, mechanical springs coming in and we know that those days are over. Anne asks George to stop micromanaging her, to stop worrying. She is angry. She tries to move by herself when she suspects George of not noticing. He is in turn angry with her, for being reckless. She cries during the day, saying over and over again the word: “pain”. George seems angry at the nurse and fires her, calling her incompetent. The nurse is angry and storms out. A former pupil visits Anne and George, playing the piano for them. He is grateful for his training and for Anne’s teachings and asks Anne what has happened to her. Anne tells him to “mind his own business” and seems irritated. The camera shows Anne sitting for a moment behind the piano, with beautiful music playing, but we cannot see her hands. George reaches out and turns off the tape recorder and we are confronted with reality.
Anne has suffered from a second stroke and has regressed to an infantile state, saying “Mum” over and over again. She does not make sense when she speaks. She shouts “pain” over and over again. During one of these fits, George seeks to soothe Anne, rushing to her side. He asks her where the pain is. Anne is incoherent. George checks Anne’s diaper, trying to detect a smell. He adjusts her body on the bed. In what seems as a decisive act, George picks up a pillow and smothers Anne.
The movie ends with George and Anne spending time in the kitchen, in a time which is not clear. Anne looks happy and busy and George listens to Anne when she tells him to put on his coat, they will take a walk outside. Is it the after-life? In a final scene which seems to be in the present time, George has bought many bouquets of flowers. He fills the kitchen sink up and cuts each bud, letting it drop into the water. The flowers float.
Amour allows the viewer to step into the day by day experience of those who have become incapable of taking care of themselves, of existing by themselves through the betrayal of old age. We wonder about George’s final act of murder, was it in fact done out of amour, out of love? Was it an attempt to save his beloved from further agony and also himself? There is a sense of horrified relief as we see him do it, as we watch Anne taking her last breaths, struggling slightly to stay alive. We may also fantasise about the ability to end our lives as soon as we reach this state, the state of powerlessness. Nemiroff and Colarusso (1985) speak of the narcissistic injury one feels when the body experiences symptoms of old age. The result is feelings of helplessness and rage. We may witness this in Anne and George’s angry reactions to the sudden event of Anne’s strokes. Also in George’s outburst toward the nurse, reprimanding her for “being incompetent”, an example of projective identification.
George and Anne seem to lack verbal communication and one wonders if this contributes to their disintegration. Quinodoz (2014) speaks of the rigidity of earlier patterns in old age and how something such as lack of communication may become more ingrained, especially when one partner may insist on remaining silent, while the other respects this wish.
Abraham, Kocher, Goda (1980) believe that the retreat of elderly individuals into an infantile state may be a defence adopted unconsciously in the face of death. One can imagine the horror of impending death and the need to set up this defensive position. This oblivious position may be a way to avoid facing the narcissistic injury of the loss of virility and youth.
Mann (1985) speaks of the elderly person’s resistance to accepting help, and their insistence on remaining independent. The acceptance of help requires an acceptance of dependence on others, of the imperfection of this dependence and the limitations of one’s control of their body.
The ability to trust others in providing that help and curbing impossible expectations is indeed an art. Anne seems to resent her dependence on George, and as a viewer it is easy to see her point. Overnight, she has become reliant on her husband for simple actions that she was previously capable of doing herself. We feel her helplessness and resent it with her. This may explain our relief when her dependence is over, when through an act of horrific agency, George takes matters into his own hands and ends his wife’s life. He seems to be incapable of tolerating incapabilities, his wife’s and his own. The movie leaves us in an ambiguous ending, we are left guessing if George continues living or has committed suicide. We are left contemplating our own upcoming old age, the ambiguity, terror, helplessness and inevitability of it all.