In his essay “Age, Actually,” Teju Cole writes about Michael Haneke’s movie Amour. The couple at the film’s core are fine at the film’s beginning – old but intact. Then the wife, Anne, smart and sarcastic until then, has a stroke and develops dementia. “Georges insists on being her caretaker,” Cole tells us, and the unspoken implication is that this choice is unnecessary and foolhardy; there are places to outsource people like Anne.
For much of the rest of the film, Georges and Anne move through a repetitive series of mundane tasks. Cole describes it this way: “Their lives become purely physical: eating, excreting, cleaning, sleeping.” In the estimation of both filmmaker and writer, the couple’s lives are reduced to functions also performed by animals, even insects. They have become somehow less than human. Both camera and pen express a mix of awe and disgust: “…we see Anne’s aged body being bathed – the naked body of a woman in her eighties – it is a terrible and original moment, at once dignified and totally lacking in dignity. This is Haneke at his realistic and heartless best.”
I wondered how many naked older bodies the two of them had seen, and what the eighty-five-year-old actress, Emmanuelle Riva, who played Anne, would feel if she read Cole’s words. I wondered whether Haneke and Cole had conflated Anne’s circumstances with her age, and whether there might be different circumstances in which they might see not just dignity but beauty in an older body.
According to Cole, the question at the heart of the film, is “What does it mean when someone – particularly someone vital and beloved – becomes no one?” For me, his question raised others, most importantly what makes a person someoneor no one, and what does it mean to be human? Can a being that has human genes, cells, history, and appearance really be or become something else? And if they cannot, but we think they have, and treat or abandon them accordingly, what does that say about us?
Among the consequences of not asking those other questions are the fates suffered by the couple in Amour. Cole writes, “Anne often cries out in pain – helpless and wounded cries Georges struggles to parse.” It’s of course far worse – nearly unbearable – in the film than on the page. I bristle at her suffering. Something could have, should have, been done.
Georges assumed things had to be as they were, that no one and nothing could or would help. Their loneliness and isolation are searing, and the doctor in me ached to help, to make Anne more comfortable, an outcome that would also make Georges more comfortable – and me. Cole commends Haneke’s refusal to console viewers as most filmmakers do, as I wanted desperately to do for Georges and Anne. In not allowing that relief from discomfort, Haneke forces us to confront life’s universal, existential facts.
Watching the film, I felt physically agitated. I kept getting up to pace. That wasn’t just my doctor reaction, but my human one. And though I take Cole and Haneke’s existential points, I am instrumental enough to believe there are things – many things, actually – we could do that would lessen suffering and loneliness at the end of life, even if death is always and only alone.