Monday, September 16, 2013

The Artificial Hopelessness of Amour

Photo by Franz Johann Morgenbesser.
I enjoy independent films for their departure from the Hollywood stereotype. Slow-paced films give opportunity for reflection. Dialogue-driven films provide food for thought.

I prefer realistic depictions of people closer to my age.  Life involves so much more than sexy young adults chasing after criminals, robots, aliens, or each other.  I'd rather see an art house film starring mature actors in their midlife or late life.

Consequently, I was eager to watch Amour (2012) directed by Michael Haneke (pictured on the left), knowing that it was a film about a mature couple dealing with the wife's declining health.  Haneke most likely drew on personal experience of his beloved aunt's failing health to make the film.

I have watched many films about the harsh realities of aging, so I didn't flinch when placing this film in my Netflix queue, even after reading some reviews that spoiled the ending.

However, I will not be recommending this film as a study in how to manage the challenges of late life.  After I watched it, I had insomnia for the remainder of the night. And then I chewed on the film for another week. Now I'm writing this in an effort to achieve some peace of mind.

The film focuses on the challenges Georges and Anne face as Anne suffers a stroke, then complications from surgery, then more serious disability after a second stroke. The film has a tightly narrow scope in setting, characters and action. The vast majority of the film is set within the confines of their apartment. The vast majority of the action focuses on Georges' minute-by-minute work to care for Anne, often wordlessly.  As the film progresses, the claustrophobia quality of the film becomes overbearing--for Georges, for the viewers.

Even though Amour offers realistic depictions of the challenges of caregiving, it purposely slams shut any escape routes for overcoming obstacles.  

Anne refuses to receive institutional care. Anne resists any visitors. Anne resists psychological adjustment to her disability, refusing visitors and even refusing to look into a mirror. Their only child provides no practical assistance.  Neighbors provide nominal assistance with shopping but offer no emotional support. Georges fires one of the caregivers. Georges doesn't consider placing Anne into a facility even briefly so that he can have respite care. Georges does not seek counseling or a support group or independent activities to replenish himself. Georges constantly pushes himself to have no physical or emotional limits to his caregiving.

This leaves the audience feeling trapped inside a hopeless situation with no exit but death.

Yes, I realize that advanced age sometimes presents options that leave us choosing the best out of horrible options: exhaust family? exhaust finances? medicate the dying into oblivion?  neglect or abuse the disabled person even in the smallest ways because of limitations of time or money or resources? assisted-physician suicide? Pray for a miracle that may not come?

How many people die without suffering first?

Yes, I realize that there exists outside of this film real, mature couples who take extreme measures when dealing with catastrophic health problems. Yes, I do understand (but may not totally agree) with arguments for art depicting violence:  realism, catharsis, analysis, or even consciousness raising.  Yes, I do value  realistic films because they generate sympathy for caregivers.  Yes, I do see the filmmaker's desire to embrace controversy and ambiguity in order to make the viewers squirm so that they spend hours, days or even weeks contemplating the issues presented in the film.

Nevertheless, I am frustrated by Haneke's art, his artifice, his artificial world inhabited by the octogenarian characters Georges and Anne.  I suspect this is Haneke's intention: he built their relationship with the intent to disturb.

Film Critic Oliver C. Speck makes this observation about Haneke's filmmaking:
“One thing that runs through everything in his work, in terms of both form and content, is ambiguity,” Mr. Speck said. “We as an audience want closure, we want the whole represented seamlessly, without questions left open. But he makes sure we understand that the totality cannot be represented, and that if somebody says he can, he is either a liar or a fascist.” (qtd. by Larry Rohter of the New York Times)
Well, Haneke's aim was achieved, but I don't agree with his aim. He is an artist who can live in a world of ambiguity.  I used to teach college literature and had the luxury of entertaining hypothetical problems for the sake of expanding critical thinking about the the quandaries of the human condition.

Now I'm a gerontologist. I offer information and support to people facing age-related challenges. I have to pin down meaning enough to act.  Haneke might call me a liar or a fascist, but action requires a commitment to some sort of reality, even if it's constructed. (And my humanities training leads me to confess that people construct the majority of their reality.)

Does life imitate art? Will more caregivers enact violence upon their loved ones after watching Amour? Or does art imitate life? And the amount of violence is going to remain constant because the film is just a mirror? Is it even possible to delineate the influence flowing only in one direction in our media-saturated culture?  Probably not.

Whatever your opinion, I invite you to artfully create a world that has more options, more lines of support, and more hope.

While I certainly do not have an exhaustive understanding of the ways caregivers and those with disabilities can seek help, let me suggest these palate-cleansing books and resources:

  • Dass, Ram. Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying. Review 
  • Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays with Morrie. Review
  • Sheehy, Gail. Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. Review
  • Peck, M. Scott. Denial of the Soul: Spiritual and Medical Perspectives on Euthanasia and Mortality. Review
Also, I invite you to contact your Area Agency on Aging for information about support groups, social services and government programs for caregivers and those working to live with disabilities. There are also businesses that support older adults such as Home Instead Senior Care.  And hospice organizations offer wonderful support for those active in the dying process.  

Movies about Older Adults Active in the Dying Process
Books on Aging


  1. I also was deeply affected by this movie, and I have to say that your post made me think about it in a different light. It seems that only the most isolated or resistant couples faced with a similar issue would fall into this trap. I would like to think that early red flags can alert other family members and outside resources so that it is not left up to the spouse to deal with this alone. Thank you for this well-written review.

    1. Thanks for reading. Yes, I would hope that for others in the same situation, outsiders would try to make positive interventions. I can't tell if I'm more made at Haneke or more mad at the challenges of catastrophic illness. Either way, I'm still stewing. And I confess there are no easy answers. But I still feel a lot of pain for Georges and Anne--well, for their real-life corollaries.

  2. I have not seen the movie but can comment on the way you depict George as handling the crisis. It is hard to reach out and ask for help. Faced with tremendous challenges it's often easier to just forge ahead w/o seeking assistance-that takes a lot of effort as well and often we feel we ought to be capable of handling the caregiving role ourselves.
    In one of our dire crises, no one offered to help. I was reluctance to ask for help. My adult sons thought I was putting forth too much energy and didn't see a need to assist. What you've described sounds realistic for many caregivers. I'm not saying that it's the right way but it is more normal than people think, from my experience.

    1. Walker: I am sorry that you had a dire crisis to work through. I am a big extrovert, and I have a lot of social connections. And I tend to verbalize my problems to others. I recognize that others prefer to play their cards closer to their chest. I just felt so bad for Georges, trying to address his wife's needs by himself when he was in his 80s and more importantly while she was profoundly disabled--which would have challenged even a man in his physical peak. I know that I can't address everyone's pain, and I can't convince people to solve problems like an extrovert (just as they fail to convince me to be more introverted in my problem-solving techniques). But I want to feel more hope for caregivers and those with catastrophic health problems. (Even if I have to lie about it?) By working in gerontology, there is some expectation that information and services can alleviate suffering. It's the foundation of the field. I hope that I can help someone like Georges and Anne. Hope, hope, hope.

  3. I am totally in accord with you. I saw the movie about three months ago at least with about six other people. Everyone except me and a friend felt it was a wonderful movie albeit difficult to watch. My friend and I are both caregivers for our mom and have started a blog site a year ago called "When the Table Turns." After seeing that movie that is in many ways beautifully filmed, acted etc, BUT so, what I would call, heavy and unrealistic in many ways as you point out. I really appreciate reading what you wrote because it confirms what I felt but could not fully express at the time. I knew it was overly heavy, dramatic and not giving any options like you said, but could not have expressed it so fully. So thank you. Also as you may realize, it has gotten so many accolades. Warmly, Judy Fox p.s. I also appreciate independent movies as well.

    1. Judy: I just followed your blog on FB. I applaud you for sharing your caregiving journey with your friend. For the topic of caregiving, personal testimonials are crucial. I expected to love Amour (2012) based on all the awards and chatter. And I do see that it invites meditation on the issues of caregiving. I just didn't like the hopeless feel. Caregivers need some kind of hope. But maybe outsiders need to see how oppressive the challenges can be. But will the movie lead to greater practical support or just intellectual posturing?

    2. I'm totally with you. I did find it so heavy and hopeless and I agree that caregivers need hope and some light through the "darkness." I also ws really looking forward to the movie and it is called Love...but every director/writer makes choices about what they put or don't put into a movie and this director who has such skill chose to leave out a lot of "light." Nice to meet you. Judy

  4. Found this while trying to ID the name of the movie... I have never seen it. Unfortunately one of my brothers took our elderly mother to see this movie. She returned quite traumatized from watching it. I googled it and read about what it was about. She was 86 at the time and is 89 now and has had an extremely rough last year healthwise. This particular brother has also caused a lot of problems for our mother, resulting in three separate hospitalizations in the last year. I am the main care provider now, have left work in order to do so and I live with my mother so that she can remain in her house. Eventually I will get paid for this but because of problems this particular brother caused with his interference, I have not been paid since June 2015 and it's march 2016.

    Families OFTEN do NOT help - and often they CAUSE HARM! The government does NOT help. Adult protective services are extremely slow to help and the help will come too late if there's elder financial abuse. And the brother who caused a lot of problems during our mothers recovery happens to be a Social Worker with a Masters in Social Work and employed by the county we live in. But his behavior - I can't even begin to tell you how awful he acted. For over 3 1/2 months, his behavior was irresponsible and incompetent many times! He should have just not helped at all and let me and another family member deal with it all. It's far worse to have an unreliable or dangerous 'helper'.

    1. I've been on a road trip and unable to get online, hence the delay in replying. I am sorry to read that you have a family member who "stirs the pot." That's an unnecessary complication to an already challenging situation.

  5. The one good thing I can say about government help in this region where we live is the In Home Supportive Services, IHSS. They pay for caregivers of the elder or disabled person's choice to provide some basic care several times a week. They also screen and can provide training for those IHSS workers. So the character that was the main provider in the movie could have gotten some help, although it would be minimal and limited but somewhat helpful. Even some help going out shopping or cleaning would be incredible for me. Thankfully my mother is doing much better than she was last year. My brother's actions only made things much worse, including leaving our mother alone and not responding to her calls over the emergency button call box we have. I found her crying and lying in her own urine and feces when this brother was supposed to be caring for her and when I confronted him about it after I had cleaned our mother up he assaulted me shoving me against the stove and slugging me in the stomach.

    Of 7 siblings, only 3 help. 1 is completely indifferent and used to visit our parents once every two years if then and he lives less than 20 miles away. 3 others are harmful, emotionally and/or financially abusive to our mother over the years. Of the 3 helpful ones, one has constantly tried to convert our mother to her religion claiming that if she doesn't, our mother's soul will burn in hell. (Our mother is a devout Catholic). But other than that she's OK. The only good brother lives in Texas, a few states away, but he came here when it was clear our mother could die from her situation and stayed for a few months. So even having lots of family does not necessarily mean an elder will receive good care.

    Our country is really horrible in handling the elderly, especially when our elders want to age with any kind of dignity.

    1. Agreed - both families and government (local and federal) could increase their level of care to older adults. Thanks for articulating some of the issues.