At long last Amour. I was waiting for our film group to meet before writing about this amazing film.
Being interested in how viewers receive a film and what is on-screen I found that above all other films Amour demands the active participation of the observer. I will write my immediate reactions on my first viewing as the film unfolded but will elaborate when needed. At my age (78) I have known many deaths of family, close friends and acquaintances and I found myself relating the images on-screen to these experiences.
The titles’ sequences over the discovery by the firemen of a dead body that is already smelling did make me think of the occasional reports of such events in the local paper but I recalled also the first experience of the mortician in Departures (2008). Knowing the subject of the film I tried hard to identify the corpse’s face as the face of a woman and I could not. I did think ‘death’ in general rather than a particular person’s death was suggested by this long take of the unidentifiable body.
‘The film starts with a long shot of a packed audience in a concert hall. I found myself scanning the rows of people to identify George and Anna. The task was made easier when they had to get up to make way for other people. In the green room apart from a brief contact with their ex pupil they talked to nobody. The subsequent scenes establish the couple in their apartment and hint at their relationship. George is quick to organise on the phone the repair to the front door. In their conversation there are mentions of house mishaps that happen to people in particular a blocked toilet and its stench (taking me back to the smell of the corpse) . When Anne refuses to call the doctor after her ‘absence’ George, although showing some protest, acquiesces. Here my personal and professional experience affected my instant reaction. Professionally I thought that such a symptom should be investigated, while personally I appreciated the dilemma of persuading a loved one to see a doctor when they are resistant to the suggestion. The tenuous boundary between the autonomy of the other and the responsibility to the other is a problem I often encounter these days. Discuss.
Women consult the doctor more often than men do and the above example sets the subsequent overt role reversal. Most carers are women of course. Here at no point are we given any indication of George’s work whereas we are shown that Anne was a successful music teacher. Georges has become the ‘carer’ with no other function . Stereotypically – I do say stereotypically – women have friends but often men lose theirs after retirement. In this domain reversal is not complete. The couple seems to be isolated.
It is difficult in a film where the narrative has no visual continuity to remember the sequence of the scenes. The next scene that affected me because I did have to make such a decision about a major operation, is the one when George explains to Eva, the daughter, that Anna was one of the 5% for whom the operation failed. This brought to me the agony of having to decide one’s own fate or the fate of a loved one on statistical grounds and the pain of being in the minority of failures. Another subject to debate at length and would involve deep philosophical discussion.
The next scene that I found profoundly thought-provoking and shocking, is the scene of ‘the promise’. Anne on her return home after the operation coerces Georges into promising that he will never let her go back to hospital. Anne does not let Georges express himself on the subject and finishes by saying to him “Do not say anything”. My immediate thought was that the cared for was oppressing her would-be carer and that I would never do that to my husband, or make this promise to my husband. I thought this is not ‘love’.
The later scenes between the father and daughter sent me on another brain network. This time I went back to being a daughter and being in the impossible situation of caring and organising the care for my parents who lived in another country and had no cultural affinity for England where I live. I can hear myself saying the sentences “one must be able to do something, they can’t be left in this situation, there must be hospices” to my brothers who were organising the end of the parents lives. The pressure of – as the only daughter- to care personally for my parents was very strong. At the same time the practicalities implied a neglect of my own life and my family lives.
I viewed the scenes of practical intimate care with no particular emotions or identification as I had worked in hospitals often in the neurology ward. The incident with the insensitive but probably competent young carer raised in me many recollections of inadequate carers. How important it is that the carer understands the background, culture, likes and dislikes, and it goes without saying but necessary to do so, the language of the disabled person.
My interpretation of the nightmare was that George was losing control: Barred exit to the lift, rising water and above all the sudden hand over his mouth preventing him from talking.
Until the scene of the suffocation I could feel my brain working, making connections. The cinematography, long takes, stills, framing, ellipses, cuts to black, contrasts of light and dark permitted me to remain quite detached and unemotional. There were also other details of the mise-en-scene that forced me to notice certain connections: water (in the sink, in the nightmare, in bottles, in Anne’s mouth, the rain outside the windows, the sound of toilet flushing), the recurrence of smells, the rotten strawberries, the funeral, the recurrence of the words ‘thank you’ and ‘I am sorry’, the childhood stories, the interrupted music.
I am surprised by the effect of the emotional shock of the suffocation scene on my brain processes. I thought that George had lost his sanity and acted in a momentary loss of control. When he started to chase the pigeon distanciation was not working any more. I was terrified thinking that he was going to kill it. When he caught the pigeon on his lap I thought that he was just about to strangle it. I found this a horrific prospect in its premeditation. When I was talking about this to my husband I recalled Georges on the point of suffocating the bird under the blanket but then releasing it. I actually was persuaded that I saw the pigeon flying out of the window.
On a subsequent viewing of the film with one of the women in the film group when we shared our thoughts I was appalled to see on my computer screen that Georges was stroking the pigeon and not applying undue pressure on its neck. I was adamant that the few shots of the bird being released and flying out of the window had been cut. We found no evidence that this had been done. The only discrepancy between the screen version and the DVD is that in the cinema the few lines about the pigeon in the letter that Georges is writing had subtitles but the DVD did not . What I can decipher on my computer screen is : un pigeon est entré ………. mais cette fois je l’ai attrappé. En fait ce n’était pas difficile du tout. Mais je l’ai remis en liberté. I can only explain my false memory by the fact that having witnessed the killing, I expected the worse when Georges went after the pigeon. The release on seeing (the subtitle) that he did let it go made me conflate the previous scene of the pigeon flying through the window with this later incident.
George and Anne leaving the flat together I saw as a hallucination of a dying emaciated George. The fact that we are not shown his body as closure did not matter to me as I was prepared to believe right at the beginning of the film that the discovered body could have been either one of the couple.
At the second viewing I also noted that Georges was calm and calming before he smothered Anne. This was in contrast with the scene when Anne spat out the water that he forced her to drink. Also in the second viewing it became clear that Anne had said when in full control of her faculties that she did not want to carry on living. When Gorges came back from the funeral and found her on the floor next to an open window she complained that he came too early. Later she enunciates very clearly that she wishes to die: we can imagine that she failed to throw herself from the open window. His response is ” I do not believe you”. Later on when her condition worsens she refuses to eat and drink. His response ? a slap given in anger. It seems to me that the killing was a deliberate gesture as a response to Anne’s crying “mal, mal, mal”. A gesture motivated by the need to end Anne’s suffering with the knowledge that she had expressed her wish to end her life. Neither in my first viewing nor in the second or the third in a group, did I feel that I needed to judge Georges or to generalise about the general ethics of euthanasia.
We are presented with a deliberately masterly devised situation where the ageing body deterioration raises issues of disability, isolation, care, cared for and carer relationship, couple and family interactions, carer burn out, assisted suicide are left for the audience to consider.
There are on the web pages and pages of reviews, critics, essays too numerous to refer to in this blog without further research. I just wanted to give a very personal view of the film and declare my passion for films that make me think…