Towards a Response to Amour..
the following comments were initially meant to be a response to GF’s comment here but as always this response became somewhat more comprehensive (!) than I originally intended it to be and I decided to create a separate post on it, not least because I also end up with more general points on cinematic reception towards the end. The quote that starts things off is from the same GF commment..
“Amour, like those two films, is populated by unwanted, unannounced guests and mysterious, intangible and physically dangerous intrusions into a private space.”
This is really the key to Haneke’s universe. It a discourse on the ‘intruder’ over a whole series of films. And of course the status of this ‘intruder’ is often undecidable. There are physical intruders who are strangers (Funny Games) or those who belong to the ‘family’ in the most intimate sense (Benny’s Video). Then there are political intruders (the immigrants of Code Unknown and Cache). And all the other works that problematize this notion in various ways (incidentally I agree that his absolute masterpieces are Cache and White Ribbon).
Amour reminds me of a beautiful short text by Jean-Luc Nancy called ‘The Intruder’ (which lent itself to a film by Claire Denis with the same title..) which is about a heart transplant the author got and which then became an ‘intruder’ in his body forever. As an aside there’s a wonderful moment in All about My Mother where the woman spies on a patient who’s got a similar transplant, only it belongs to her recently deceased son, and as she’s gazing at this stranger she cannot nonetheless stop herself from thinking of her son’s still ‘living’ heart. In any case Amour though seemingly a surprising choice on Haneke’s part becomes a completely comprehensible, even logical one once one watches it. Because Haneke has dealt with every kind of intruder in the past except of course the biological one. Here not a virus or a transplant but really the body’s own age-related mutations or those that any biological body necessarily hosts but which can always destroy it (and not only with age). In this context cancer is the classic example where it is nothing from the ‘outside’ that invades but simply a cannibalism of cells from within (this point finds even sharper focus when one considers that there is always a minimal number of cancerous cells in the body.. it is only when they exceed a certain number or when the economy between dying cells and those coming to be gets derailed in favor of the latter that the cells start crowding each other out and cancer in the proper sense emerges). Whether it is this or all those afflictions that act on the brain (irrespective of their physiological origins… Alzheimer’s, strokes et al) the body has to put up with a certain, often ‘self-engendered’ violence. There could not be an example of a greater intruder. The most ‘intimate’ kind. To be a biological ‘body’ is to always be open to this danger or these intrusions from within. It is to paraphrase a critic on Amour the ultimate ‘horror story’. In different ways, but especially with ‘maladies’ affecting the brain, the human becomes a ‘stranger’.
Haneke handles all of this supremely well. He indeed relies on some ‘horror’ or certainly suspense cues to set forth the suddenness of the symptoms he deals with. But also he makes the crucial decision to elide a great deal of detail. So we just just see the spouse in various stages of ‘decay’ without ever seeing a more mechanical revelation on all these stages (in the classic ways of Hollywood for instance). Or every time we encounter the wife beyond a point we see her in a new stage of her condition. And of course she gradually becomes totally alien to the husband.
In his early 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance and then to a lesser extent in Code Unknown and perhaps elsewhere too Haneke has been very interested in the fragmentary nature of personal and political memory, specially so in an age of various technological recording devices. So a horrible crime might be reconstructed later without the sense of a proper ‘narrative’ on it. Or on the other hand a very ‘narratively’ stable existence might suddenly be sliced through (or intruded upon) by a shard from the past. A certain symmetry exists between the ‘editing’ choices (whoever engages in these) of the videos in question and their interplay with the seemingly more stable lives lived around them (I phrase it deliberately in this fashion because there is also a technological intruder in Haneke that has the power to reset everything and make itself the center of gravity for the living), all of this metonymically connected with cinema’s own tools and choices. At any rate (and a detailed analysis of all of this would take far too long) there is the question of the witness deeply implicated in all of this. As a technological matter, as a political matter and so forth. Here too there’s a link with Amour. Because the ultimate ‘disaster’ on this score occurs not when time is made more fragmentary (either because reality is only accessible through a series of videos or because the video has the power to slice open ‘stable’ reality) but when the possibility of a witness is foreclosed. In Amour no one can really witness the change operative in the degenerating woman. The husband can see all of it of course as can the audience but neither we nor he can attest to the shattering of the woman’s inner universe. Because the life of the mind with all its economies of memory is the ultimate (and originary) cinematic apparatus. There is always editing going on here, always choices being made, always things being re-ordered based on newer experiences, always the possibility of a great event, traumatic or otherwise, simply performing a reset for all of one’s experiences. But in the case of a degenerating mind all of this becomes questionable and more crucially there simply cannot be a witness. The person who undergoes this cannot attest to anything and beyond a point it is clear that even an inner ‘testimony’ isn’t possible. Because the mind simply loses that most basic of abilities.
In all these ways (which again would require a far more detailed bit of exposition on each one of these points) Amour really connects well with the entire trajectory of the director’s career. And interestingly some of he early films like Benny’s Video or 71 fragments which seemed to be superseded by the more mature works suddenly return as newer points of reference for Amour.
I would nonetheless say at a personal level that this will not have been among my favorite works by the director. I admire it more than I perhaps ‘like’ it. And even though this is a very logical choice in Haneke’s career in the ways I’ve laid out I do regret the loss of certain more precise political themes here (even if politics in a wider ideological sense isn’t absent from this film).
The second point to be made here (and because this came up in the Ratnam discussions recently) once again is that even as one tries to respond to individual works it is equally important to examine that larger trajectory to illuminate the same. If I knew nothing else about Haneke barring Amour I would not be able to get as much out of it. I would appreciate all the formal choices of course but these larger themes would probably remain hidden (to me). This doesn’t mean that there isn’t the individual work but that the thinking that informs such a work ultimately transcends it and gets repackaged and reformulated in other works by the same director. Put differently the individual work forms a ‘point’ in a larger field operated by the director’s chief concerns. Which is why sometimes in older or more ancient outputs in art we are a lot more at sea (!) when we have either fragmentary works or just a very limited number from a very large corpus. We can still recognize the art in them or even judge them to be masterpieces but our judgments are simply not as ‘complete’ as these would be if we could access the rest. All of this is yet another argument for the provisional nature of any judgment. One cannot be absolutist or totalitarian about these things. One day Ratnam will be interpreted in ways using critical tools that we cannot even conceive of today. This is something that I neglected to mention in all the earlier debates. It is not just that opinions change over time but that the tools used to ask such questions are also transformed. And even the most well-known works become completely new when read in the light of these newer forms of interpretation much as older (even canonical) readings, seem despite their significance, dated. To recognize that the work of interpretation remains open by definition or that similarly a work of any seriousness can never be limited to a finite set of readings, defined by any ‘present-day’ standards, is to simply opt for something that is factual in the most obvious ways. Denying this is perhaps a defensible ideological position but one destined to be consigned to the ashes over time..*
* all this in addition to the possibility and ‘evidence’ of a diverse set of interpretative options even in the ‘present’.