AMOUR: THE HORROR IN THE ORDINARY
AMIT R BAISHYA
Amit R. Baishya is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. He has a Ph.D in English from University of Iowa, and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on postcolonial literature and theory, critical theory and cultural studies. He is currently completing a book manuscript on violence and survival in post-1980 Assamese and English fictions based in India's northeastern region.
Back to Essays Index
Long time viewers of Michael Haneke's films will notice an immediate parallel between Caché (2005) and Amour (2012). Caché begins with an extended shot of the empty spaces outside Anne and Georges Laurent's (played by Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil) household and ends with a sequence outside Pierrot's (the Laurent's son, played by Lester Makedonsky) school where we gradually begin to focus on an unrecorded conversation between Pierrot and the Algerian-origin Majid's son (Walid Afkir). While the first sequence is unnervingly revealed to be a video recording, the closing sequence initially seems to be composed of a shot of a random public scene outside a school. Very slowly, we begin to discern a conversation occurring between Pierrot and Majid's son in the background. The arrangement of the two sequences is reversed in Amour. After the "prologue," where we see people breaking into an apartment only to find Anne's (Emmanuelle Riva) decomposing body, we are presented with an extended shot where we notice an audience settling down for a musical performance and, as in the last shot of Caché, slowly begin to focus on the faces of Anne and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant; incidentally the couples in both movies are named Anne and Georges Laurent). Similarly, the last few sequences of Amour present us with shots of the empty indoor spaces of Anne and Georges' apartment. The sequence closes with a deep-focus shot of Eva (Georges and Anne's daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert) framed by an open door as she melancholically contemplates the emptiness of the place her parents once lived in. Haneke is, of course, a master presenter of the uncanny dimensions of ordinary space and everyday life. Besides the two movies mentioned above, Funny Games (1997), Benny's Video (1992) and Code Unknown (2000) are memorable examples of such representations. However, the reverse-placements of these shots of the uncanny dimensions of ordinary space and everyday life, I suggest, invite us to read Caché and Amour as a pair; if Caché shows us how the minutiae of everyday life are sometimes horrifically interlaced with traumatic public and private events which haven't been worked through, Amour illustrates how the ordinary itself becomes the topos of excruciating horror. Unlike Caché, the public world rarely intrudes into the almost obsessive focus on the interiors of Anne and Georges' apartment; yet, through a poetics of interlinked visual and aural motifs, Amour transmogrifies the "interior" and the "everyday" into a harrowing exploration of the horror lying latent in the ordinary. In this short essay, I will explore Haneke's aesthetic of horror and the related ethical concerns in Amour through a consideration of the narrative and affective functions of three of these motifs: the aural-visual motif of water, the presentation of empty space both through mise-en-scéne and montage and, finally, the focus on the "unique" nature of the voice and the face.
When Anne suffers her first stroke at the beginning of the film, Georges is washing dishes in the foreground. As Georges slowly realizes that something is seriously wrong with Anne, we keep hearing the diegetic sound of the flowing water. This aural-visual motif of water is repeated in two scenes later—first, when Georges cannot bear to hear Anne's moans of agony any longer and decides to kill her (the act of throttling her surprises us with its suddenness although a retrospective reconsideration of the film provides clues about its inevitability), and, second, when he follows the vision of the dead Anne outside the apartment the last time we see him. Interestingly, he is washing dishes just prior to the moment when he is "spirited" away by the vision of Anne. Through this repetition of the aural-visual motif of water—a technique which reaches its apogee in the dream sequence towards the middle of the film-text—Amour transforms something ordinary into a source of horror. Hitchcock's famous distinction between surprise and suspense in his conversation with Truffaut (1978) is worth quoting here, if only to emphasize the differences between the two auteurs:
There is a distinct difference between 'suspense' and 'surprise', and yet many pictures continually confuse the two…We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.
The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There's a bomb underneath you and it's about to explode!'
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist…when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story. (79-80).
Judging by these criteria, Haneke can be considered the anti-Hitchcock. Haneke's unique aesthetic of horror is predicated on a sense of surprise, and not suspense, in Hitchcock's sense of the term. Whether we consider the banal nature of the surveillance sequence in Caché or the use of the alienation effect in the "rewind" sequence in Funny Games, Haneke constructs scenes that are "absolutely ordinary" initially only to genuinely surprise and unsettle us later. A powerful instance of this transformation of the "absolutely ordinary" is in Georges' dream sequence in Amour. The lengthy sequence begins with a banal everyday occurrence—Georges hears the doorbell ring and goes to answer it. He finds no one outside when he opens the door. Trying to find the source of the noise of dripping water, he walks down the corridor. As he turns around the corner, he notices water accumulating on the floor. As he stares nonplussed at the water, a monstrous arm emerges from behind and clasps itself around his face. At that point, the spell is broken as Georges wakes up gasping for breath from his nightmare. Other than the noise of the dripping water, there are no other sounds in this sequence. The hand that throttles Georges from behind genuinely takes us by surprise as we initially are lulled into thinking that this is a representation of an extremely ordinary event. The faux ordinariness of this scene is accentuated by the wide shots and the long takes deployed by Darius Khondji, the cinematographer of Amour.
Furthermore, the very banality of this sequence and its sudden, shocking reversal introduces the presentation of a sense of claustrophobia which eventually culminates in Georges throttling Anne to death with her pillow. The sense of creeping claustrophobia which accentuates the pervading atmosphere of death and nothingness is magnified by the cinematic representations of deep space—both through the deployment of mise-en-scéne and montage. Khondji's long, deep-focus shots of empty interior spaces serve, in my opinion, a dual function. First, they enhance the feelings of claustrophobia and entrapment. Second, space functions as an impersonal witness of the horror of the ordinary. This creeping sense of entrapment is memorably represented in the sequences with the pigeon in the window and virtually empty hallway of the apartment. After repeated attempts, Georges manages to finally capture the pigeon which keeps entering his apartment. Although the eventual fate of the pigeon is not directly shown, we are told by Georges (through his letter) that he let the pigeon go. In many ways, the sequences with the pigeon simultaneously mirror and offer a cruel contrast to the increasing sense of entrapment experienced by both Anne and Georges within Amour's diegetic space. Anne gets "entrapped" in bed as her situation deteriorates. Georges' sense of isolation and entrapment within the confines of his apartment also increases as he witnesses the gradual collapse of the distinctions between Anne's public-private "face" and her body.
In this context, Georges' act of smothering Anne to death by suddenly placing her pillow over her face as he narrates a story, functions as a direct contrast to his initial desire to throttle the pigeon when he manages to capture it. Consider a counter-factual possibility—what if Amour actually had a sequence where Georges throttled the pigeon to death? It is possible that we would have reacted to Georges' action with a sense of moral disgust. However, his act of letting the pigeon fly away stands in stark contrast to his sudden act of smothering and suffocating Anne. The latter instance is narratively coded either as an act of "mercy killing" (Georges cannot bear to see Anne suffer and cry out in pain in such an excruciating fashion) or as a moment where the death of the other becomes Georges' mode of escape from a sense of claustrophobic entrapment. If Georges had smothered the "innocent" pigeon to death, it would have seemed either as extremely cruel by the very fact of it being so arbitrary or as a possible psychological explanation for his act of killing Anne (in the lines of "there was always a cruel streak in his character"). Letting the pigeon go, I believe, undercuts the narrative codes of both "mercy killing" and "escape." Both the pigeon and Anne are united in the fact that they are virtually "mute"—they are in the realm of phone and not logos. Yet, within the logic of Amour's narrative, the potential killing of one would seem extremely arbitrary, and, by extension, extremely cruel, while the actual murder of the other is coded and presented in such a way that it collapses the distinctions between "cruelty" and "love." However, the key fact we need to remember is that the desire to smother the pigeon is contained within the realm of potentiality—we are led to believe that it does not actually happen. This containment of the direct presentation of murderous desire in the realm of potentiality ethically problematizes the narrative presentation of the events leading up to and culminating in Anne's death at the hands of Georges.
There is another (impersonal) witness to the distinctly ordinary scenarios of horror that unfold inside the apartment. That witness is empty space which is presented, more often than not, without the accompaniment of non-diegetic sound. Like Caché, Amour explores the uncanny potentialities of ordinary, everyday spaces. Besides communicating a sense of entrapment, Khondji's wide shots also set up empty space as the primary witness (besides Georges) of the events in the diegetic space. These shots are juxtaposed with the extended montage of landscape paintings towards the middle of the film. As in the shots of the apartment interiors, depth of space is the common compositional feature of all the paintings.
These paintings of pastoral scenes are "mute" witnesses of "silence" and the passage of "slow time," much like Keats's description of the myriad figures on the Grecian urn. Yet, like the figures on the urn, they too are like a "cold pastoral"—lulling us to imagine life and movement as an all-too-brief moment of exchange with the proliferating power of death and nothingness. In an interview with Scott Foundas (2012), Haneke notes the complementarity of the painting montage and the slow-moving, wide shots of empty space:
These paintings give a certain mental impression that allows us to live with this situation that we've seen. In the beginning, there's something similar: When Anne has the accident with the tea, there are these wide shots of the empty apartment. Then later you have these empty landscape paintings. There's a correspondence.
Haneke doesn't mention a third "correspondence": the scene where Anne and Georges browse through the photograph album, the "nearest," as Ryan Gibley (2012) says, "Georges and Anne get to a soft-focus montage of marriage highlights." However, the act of browsing through photographs is not a mere highlights reel or a simple remembrance of things past; it also shows, as Susan Sontag memorably puts it, "the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction" (70). Our view of these photographs through the points-of-view of Georges and Anne are tinged with the melancholic awareness that one of the characters is slowly but surely hurtling towards death. These three elements—the montage of paintings, the near-montage of photographs and the ponderous, wide shots of empty space— correspond with each other to create a "mental impression that allows us to live with this situation we've seen." "To live with" obviously accentuates the proliferating power of death that I mentioned above—as an audience, these images of beauty and "slow time" enables us to bear witness to the terrifying, yet utterly mundane, drama that unfolds inside the space of the apartment. This aspect of impersonal witnessing is driven home when we see the figure of Eva staring at the empty spaces of the apartment in the closing sequence. Eva probably tries to imagine what she has not witnessed—the last days her parents spent in the apartment. However, the role of Eva as indirect witness is offset by empty space (and, by extension, the audience) as "mute" witnesses. Through the presentation of empty space we bear witness to what Eva does not see. To witness, the communication theorist John Peters argues, has a dual dimension:
…the passive one of seeing and the active one of saying. In passive witnessing an accidental audience observes the events of the world; in active witnessing one is a privileged possessor and producer of knowledge… What one has seen authorizes what one says: an active witness first must have been a passive one. Herein lies the fragility of witnessing: the difficult juncture between experience and discourse. The witness is authorized to speak by having been present at an occurrence. A private experience enables a public statement. But the journey from experience (the seen) into words (the said) is precarious. (709-10)
Peters' point about the "difficult juncture between experience and discourse" encapsulates, I think, the paradox of witnessing in Amour. The privileged possessor of the act of seeing—empty space which becomes a metonym for the audience—in the film-text is "mute." It/we see without possessing the capacity to bridge the juncture between experience and discourse. When Eva stares at the empty spaces at the end, she attempts to imaginatively bear witness; however, since the primary witness(es) are "mute," the "precarious" journey from "seeing" to "saying" is short-circuited from the very beginning.
The repetition of "muteness" takes me to my final observation about Amour in this short essay: the voice and the face as a marker of human uniqueness. Relational ontologists like Adriana Cavarero (2005) argue that the voice is one of the most distinctive markers of the uniqueness of a human being. Cavarero's genealogy of the voice in For More than One Voice traces its plural histories through a consideration of both opera and music. Significantly, in Amour both Anne and Georges are musicians. As I already mentioned above, the first shot of the crowd shows them attending a musical performance. Along with the visual-aural motif of water, voice (and its loss) and music are two other dominant motifs in Amour. Gibley stresses the importance of voice and music in his review:
…every piece included in Amour [including selections from Schubert and Beethoven] 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. (emendations in square brackets mine)
We could extend this to argue that this abrupt curtailment of music and the "sense of pleasure thwarted" are conjoined with the presentation of the gradual deterioration of Anne's ability to speak, and also with the "sudden" surprises of Haneke's aesthetic of horror I discussed earlier. Moreover, this loss of one of Anne's unique capacities and her sense of pleasure in the exposure of this uniqueness to others is also mirrored through the presentation of faces. The film is replete with over-the-shoulder shots of Georges staring at mirrors and his reflection looking back. These shots are strategically placed throughout the narrative to show Georges contemplating his steadily growing loneliness and helplessness. However, the most poignant sequence that involves the face is a wide shot of Anne refusing to look at a mirror. Anne's second nurse (Dinara Droukarova), who is fired later by Georges for "cruelty," tries to make Anne look at her face in the mirror. (1) Anne, who has lost her capacity to speak by this time, vehemently refuses. Significantly, unlike many of the mirror shots with Georges, we only see the back of the mirror in this sequence. Anne's act of closing her eyes and turning her face away, I argue, is a crucial moment because we see how her sense of being-in-the world has slowly deteriorated reducing her gradually to the level of zöe (pure, simple biological life). For both Cavarero and one of her philosophical forbearers, Hannah Arendt (1998), the voice and the body disclose the "who" as opposed to the "what" somebody is. We can add the face to this consideration of the uniqueness of the plural, relational category of the "who." After all, one of the bases of personhood is the exposure of the distinctive quality of a face to the look of others and its concomitant recognition in a relational field. The juxtaposition of the unique features of a face, a voice and a body, more often than not, are the central nodes for a construction of a sense of person-hood. (2) In addition to the fact of losing her voice, Anne's act of closing her eyes and wrenching her face away illustrates her inability to witness the gradual process of her de-personalization. (3) However, like a mirror, the cinematic screen reflects her pain back at us and, once again, forces us to bear witness to the horror in the ordinary.
Amour, dir: Michael Haneke, perf.: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert, Canal+, 2012.
Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (Second Edition), Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Benny's Video, dir: Michael Haneke, perf.: Arno Frisch, Angela Winkler, Kino Video, 1992.
Caché, dir: Michael Haneke, perf.: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Sony Pictures Classics, 2005.
Cavarero, Adriana, For More than One Voice: Towards a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, trans. Paul Kottman, San Francisco: Stanford University Press, 2005.
Code Unknown, dir: Michael Haneke, perf.: Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Artificial Eyes, 2000.
Foundas, Scott, "Michael Haneke on Amour: 'When I Watched it with the Audience, they Gasped!'" blogs.villagevoice.com, 20 Dec 2012.
Funny Games, dir: Michael Haneke, perf: Susan Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, Madman Entertainment, 1997.
Gibley, Ryan. "Michael Haneke's Amour and the Music of Time," newstatesman.com, 15 Nov 2012.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour, dir: Alain Resnais, perf.: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Pathé Films, 1959.
Keats, John, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," bartleby.com.
Peters, John Durham, "Witnessing," Media, Culture, Society, 2001 (23), 707-23.
Sontag, Susan, On Photography, New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1989.
Truffaut, Francois, Hitchcock, London: Paladin, 1978.
1. Andreea Marculescu informed me that the accent of the second nurse was distinctively from somewhere in Eastern Europe. I can only speculate here, but it may be worth considering how the incident where the nurse is fired by Georges may be a subtle commentary on tensions about immigration in contemporary France. Moreover, Walid Afkir, who plays the role of the Algerian Majid's son in Caché, also appears briefly in Amour as a paramedic. This, too, may be a nod to the overt exploration of colonialism and immigration in the earlier movie.
2. I am not going to delve into the distinction between "mask" and "face" here because that would take us into the realm where the category of the person merges with the construction of a juridical sense of the subject. That exploration is beyond the scope of the present essay.
3. Emmanuelle Riva was also the lead actress of Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)—another film that focuses strongly on the voice, the body and the face.