Margaret Somerville

Amour: does old age have any honour left?

Margaret Somerville
By Margaret Somerville

Amour     
Directed by Michael Haneke      
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert     
127 minutes, French with subtitles 
   

January 28, 2013 (Mercatornet.com) - It is a drastic understatement to observe that Austrian director Michael Haneke’s film Amour (Love) is harrowing and heartbreaking. I sat there just wanting it to be over. Yet I couldn’t leave. I felt like an animal caught in a hunter’s spotlight – unable to move, mesmerized.

Amour has been heaped with praise and is an Oscar nominee in five categories, including best film, best director and best foreign film. It is insightfully and accurately described by Francine Prose, of the New York Review of Books blog, as “a masterpiece you might not want to see”. This warning is merited: the film is intensely distressing. Paula Span, in the New York Times, under the banner of the “new old age”, calls Amour “the brutal truth”. Some people will see it as a clarion call for the legalization of euthanasia. I’d suggest, however, that it’s equally, if not more so, a clarion call for our responsibilities as families and a society to correct the circumstances in which many old and vulnerable people find themselves.

Anne (played by Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the two main characters in the film, are such people and live in such circumstances. They are financially secure, upper middle-class, retired musicians, living in a classic, elegant apartment in Paris. They have one child, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who is around 50 years old and visits them occasionally. She has two young-adult children who have left home, is in a troubled marriage, and preoccupied with her own problems. The acting is superb: it is difficult to believe these are not real life events, which adds to the serious emotional distress the film elicits.  

It opens with firemen and a plain clothes detective breaking into an apartment and finding the decomposing body of a clothed, dead woman, with a crucifix on her chest. She is laid out on a bed, surrounded by wilted flowers which have been cut from their stems.

The story then shifts to a concert hall, where Anne and Georges are attending a performance of a Schubert piano concerto by Alexandre (the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, who plays himself), who, as a 12-year-old, was Anne’s pupil. They are delighted by the performance, but come home to find an attempted break-in to their apartment. Anne suggests calling the police, but Georges refuses. This is the beginning of Haneke’s brilliant portrayal of what proves to be their increasingly vulnerable state and the unavailability of help, and of their, especially Georges’, refusal to accept it or lack of capacity to seek it.

Next morning, Anne and George are eating breakfast and Anne temporarily loses consciousness and is unresponsive to Georges’ questions about what is wrong. She regains consciousness but has no memory of losing it. She pours some tea, which spills because she cannot control her movements. The rest of the film documents in graphic detail both Anne’s physical and mental decline as a result of failed carotid artery surgery, strokes and dementia and Georges’ efforts to care for her, almost entirely without assistance.

We learn that Dr Bertier, Anne’s physician, and a hairdresser come once every two weeks. A nurse whom Georges hires comes three times a week. A second nurse is incompetent and abusive and is fired by Georges. The janitor helps Georges to carry in groceries and the janitor’s wife vacuums the rugs. Both offer whatever other help they can give, but Georges does not take up their offer. They are obviously curious about Anne’s condition and try to linger and talk, but Georges always promptly ushers them out.

Neuroscientist Dr Tiffany Chow, who has just written a book, The Memory Clinic: Stories of Hope and Healing for Alzheimer’s Patients and Their Familiestold the Globe and Mail: “The number one mistake that caregivers make is thinking ‘I can do all this myself’. That’s a guaranteed recipe for burnout. Caregiving has to be done with some allies, whether it’s your personal friends, neighbours, other family members or professional care providers.”

Eva pays the occasional visit to her parents, once accompanied by her husband Howard, who suggests Anne be placed in a nursing home, a proposition Georges adamantly refuses. He has promised Anne, who is frightened of doctors and hates hospitals, to keep her at home.  The only other visitors are Alexandre and a stray pigeon which flies in through an open window.

Meanwhile, we see in great detail Georges helping Anne in and out of her bed and her wheelchair, off the toilet, and, eventually, checking her diapers when she is bedridden; trying to get her to take water from a sipping cup and food from a spoon, both of which she refuses; reading to her; and trying to sooth her when she screams “mal” (hurt) over and over.

Finally, Georges tells Anne a story from his childhood – about being sent away to a summer holiday camp and letting his mother know through a prearranged signal of drawing stars on the weekly postcard he sent home, that he was desperately unhappy there, in part because, like Anne, he refused to eat, in his case, rice pudding. He completes the story, grabs the pillow from his side of their bed and suffocates Anne, whose struggles to escape slowly subside.

Georges goes out to buy flowers from which he cuts the stems and then chooses a dress from Anne’s closet. Our thoughts flash back to the opening scene of what we now realize was Anne’s body on the bed. We then see George using wide adhesive tape to seal the doorway into the bedroom.

In a following scene, the pigeon returns and one can’t be sure, at the time, whether Georges smothers it, as he did Anne, in the blanket in which he caught it, or cuddles and strokes and then releases it. In a letter which we subsequently see him writing, presumably a suicide note, we learn that it was released. This comes as a tiny affirmation of hope and respect for life. But in this unrelentingly depressing and joyless film, which resonates with a “culture of death" and makes death seem vastly preferable to life, it is a hugely welcome one.

So what can we learn from this film?

First, Amour shows us the impact, not only of the presence of love, but also of its absence.

It captures Georges’ and Anne’s love for each other, and Georges’ love as portrayed in his care for Anne. Flowers and music are often associated with love and appear frequently in the film, which is rich with symbolism, allusion and innuendo – for instance, in looking at the family photo album, Anne seems to look only at photos in which she is present.

It also merits noting that Haneke makes powerful use of silence, sometimes to express positive emotions and closeness; sometimes negative ones and alienation. And when Anne and Georges are listening to the CD Alexandre had given them of the concert they had attended, Anne abruptly says, “Stop the CD”, which Georges does. Music seems to represent the thread of life for this couple.

In contrast, the stark absence of love is seen in the almost total lack of any loving support from family, friends or community. Eva sums up her feelings in this regard, “I can’t believe that these days there's no way of handling this [Anne’s illness and Georges’ situation] efficiently.” Efficiency is a bureaucratic, emotionally detached value. From this perspective, the film can be viewed as a tragic commentary on the dissolution of families and the values of mutual support and responsibility for family members, especially when they are vulnerable, because they are old, sick and dying.

Likewise, it can be seen as an indictment of the community’s and society’s failure to provide palliative and hospice care and other support, including respite care, for those who try to look after their loved ones at home. Like Anne, most people want to die at home but can’t because of lack of support for their carers.

When Anne is bedridden and her dementia has become very advanced, she constantly cries out, repeating one word, “Mal” (hurt).  It seems reasonable to interpret this as an indication of pain. Yet, we do not see her being given any pain relief treatment and, as noted already, the doctor visits only once every two weeks. Inadequate pain relief, or fear of being left in pain, is a reason people ask or advocate for euthanasia.

Another reason, and one of the main ones, is that they see themselves as a burden on others, especially their families. Other reasons are loss of control and the feeling that they are losing their dignity. They confuse being independent with having dignity and, therefore, perceive dependence as the loss of dignity. All of these are piercingly and powerfully communicated in Amour. But what can be done to address and eliminate those reasons is nowhere to be found.

In this latter respect, Intimate Death, a book by French psychologist Marie de Hennezel, who specializes in the care of dying people, could not be in starker contrast. In moving and poetic vignettes about dying people, and without denying suffering or romanticizing or glamourizing it, she tells us stories that allow us to see that dying can be the last great act of living.

Essential ingredients for that to be the case are the presence of hope; the sense that our life had meaning and can still have meaning, even when we are dying; the realization that we can still learn and even teach; that we have something to give others; and that we can leave a legacy. None of these features of a “good” death is present in Anne’s and Georges’ situation.

Early in the film, when Anne is wheelchair-bound, but not demented, Pierre, one of her and Georges’ friends, dies and Georges attends the funeral without her. When he returns she asks him about the service. Here’s what he says:

“It was rather bizarre. The priest was an idiot. Then one of Pierre’s co-workers made a speech that was embarrassingly emotional. His old secretary came with a radio cassette player and after the speech she put on “Yesterday” by the Beatles. You can’t imagine. Everybody turned round to look at her. Apparently, it wasn’t planned. His grandchildren were there. Of course they giggled as soon as the music began. Then the urn was put on a huge stretcher that was obviously designed for a coffin, and out we went into the rain. They placed the urn on a small electric cart that crawled along for what seemed like an eternity to the tiny hole they had dug. A lot of people had to stifle their laughter. It must have been terrible for Jeanne [Pierre’s widow].”

There’s a loss of solemnity and respect, a trivialization of the momentousness of death and the losses it involves, a failure to express grief and to mourn and, a lack of opportunity for healing. The secular music, the Beatles’ song “Yesterday”, represents the antithesis of hope. Hope requires a sense of connection to the future; this song implies that only a sad connection to the past is possible.

Having a sense of connection to the future when one is dying does not have to involve religion, although of course it can. One other way is to be aware of leaving a legacy. Canadian psychiatrist Dr Harvey Max Chochinov and his colleagues have been researching how to help dying people. They have developed what they call “dignity therapy”. Part of this is helping dying people to see what they can leave as a legacy to those they love and to other people.

Anne’s legacy was in her students, represented by Alexandre. But she refused to listen to the CD he gave her of his critically acclaimed concert. She refused to allow hope to creep in, to have a moment of joy. In fact, a dominant feature of Amour is that there are no moments of joy.

I began this review saying I sat through Amour just wanting it to be over. Both dying people and those who love them can also feel that way about death. But wanting it to be over is very different from wanting to be killed and the impact of each – that is, allowing to die, as compared with killing – is very different at institutional, societal and even global levels.

Some people will see Amour as an argument for legalizing euthanasia. The strongest case for this is the situation in Amour - an individual who is suffering and dying and wants to die.

But we must also consider the effect of legalizing euthanasia on other people, especially the possibility of elder abuse; on the medical profession and medicine’s millennia-old guiding principle, “curing where possible, caring always, never killing”; on the law as a primary institution upholding the societal value of respect for life; on other healthcare professionals and healthcare institutions; and on society’s most important values, especially that of respect for life.

Amour brings to mind lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices.

It leaves us, however, with no sense that

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;  
Death closes all: but something ere the end,  
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,  
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

Margaret Somerville is director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal. This article reprinted under a Creative Commons License from Mercatornet.


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Medical staff arrested in India after accidentally aborting baby at 8 months

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By Thaddeus Baklinski

A doctor and a nurse at a prominent private hospital in India have been arrested after they allegedly administered abortion drugs to a eight-months pregnant accidentally, resulting in the death of her unborn child.

"We have immediately registered a case and arrested the doctor, whose negligent act has caused this," said South Jammu Superintendent of Police Rahul Malik, according to the Hindustan Times.

The woman's husband, Rakesh Sharma, told the paper that the doctor mistook Shruti Sharma for another patient who was scheduled for an abortion at the JK Medicity Hospital in Jammu on Friday afternoon.

Shruti had gone to the hospital after her gynecologist advised a routine medical examination to safeguard her and her baby's health.

Rakesh alleged that the doctor gave his wife the abortion pills without consulting her medical records. “Doctors and paramedical staff instead of administering glucose, gave her abortion medicine, which was actually meant for another patient,” he said.

"It is the worst case of negligence. I feel strongly that such hospitals should be closed. If this has happened to me today, tomorrow it can happen to any body else," Rakesh said.

While the JK Medicity's administration said it has launched an inquiry into the incident, a report from the Jagran Post stated that the district government has revoked the hospital's license.

"Jammu and Kashmir Government has ordered sealing of the private clinic after suspension of its license to operate in the wake of the incident," said Minister for Health and Medical Education Taj Mohiuddin according to the report.

National media have reported that the incident has brought illegal abortion practices in India to the attention of both the public and government officials.

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According to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, abortion is legal in India up to 20 weeks. However, the opinion of a second doctor is required if the pregnancy is past its 12th week, and abortion-inducing drugs such as mifepristone and misoprostol are allowed only by prescription up until the seventh week of pregnancy.

Moreover, abortions can be performed only in government licensed medical institutions by registered abortionists.

Indian Express reported that the accused in the incident, Dr Amarjeet Singh, practices ayurvedic medicine (traditional Hindu medicine) and is "unsuitable for carrying out abortions."

A video posted by IndiaTV shows the parents surrounded by family members and relatives at a protest outside the JK Medicity hospital where the group is demanding punishment for those involved in the death of the child.


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News editor fired for criticizing ‘gay Bible’, files complaint

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By Kirsten Anderson

The former editor-in-chief of Iowa’s Newton Daily News has filed a religious discrimination complaint after he was fired over a post on his private blog criticizing the pro-gay Queen James Bible.

The Bible revision was produced by homosexual activists who claim to have edited the eight most commonly cited verses against homosexual behavior “in a way that makes homophobic interpretations impossible.”

On his private blog, which has since been deactivated, Bob Eschliman wrote in April that “the LGBTQXYZ crowd and the Gaystapo” are trying to reword the Bible “to make their sinful nature ‘right with God.’”

After public outcry from homosexual activists, Shaw Media, which owns the paper, fired him on May 6.

In a statement the day of his firing, Shaw Media President John Rung said Eschliman’s “airing of [his opinion] compromised the reputation of this newspaper and his ability to lead it.”

“There will be some who will criticize our action, and mistakenly cite Mr. Eschliman’s First Amendment rights as a reason he should continue on as editor of the Newton Daily News,” Rung said.  “As previously stated, he has a right to voice his opinion. And we have a right to select an editor who we believe best represents our company and best serves the interests of our readers.”

Rung said the company has a duty “to advocate for the communities we serve” and that “to be effective advocates, we must be able to represent the entire community fairly.”

Eschliman, who has been writing professionally since 1998 and became editor-in-chief of the Newton Daily News in 2012, says that the company was aware of his personal blog when he was hired and never indicated it would be a problem for him to continue sharing his personal political and religious views.

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In his religious discrimination complaint against the company, filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), he says that he believes he was singled out for termination because of his Christian views concerning homosexuality and same-sex “marriage.”

“As a lifelong writer, I have maintained a personal blog on the Internet with some personal thoughts and writings,” Eschliman wrote. “Newton Daily News, my employer, never had a policy prohibiting personal blogging, Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media. In fact, my employer encouraged us to engage in social media on a personal level and I am aware of several employees of Newton Daily News who continue to blog and are still employed with Shaw Media.”

“There is no question that I was fired for holding and talking about my sincerely held religious beliefs on my personal blog during my off-duty time from the comfort of my own home,” Eschliman wrote. “Shaw Media directly discriminated against me because of my religious beliefs and my identity as an evangelical Christian who believes in Holy Scripture and the Biblical view of marriage.

“Moreover, Shaw Media announced that not only were they firing me based upon my religious beliefs, but that they would not hire or allow anyone to work at Shaw Media who holds religious beliefs similar to mine, which would include an automatic denial of any accommodation of those who share my sincerely held religious beliefs,” he added.

Neither Shaw Media nor the Newton Daily News have been willing to provide further comment to the press on the matter, citing pending litigation.

Matthew Whitaker, an attorney with Liberty Institute who is assisting Eschliman with his complaint, said the law is on his client’s side.

“No one should be fired for simply expressing his religious beliefs,” Whitaker said in a statement. “In America, it is against the law to fire an employee for expressing a religious belief in public.  This kind of religious intolerance by an employer has no place in today’s welcoming workforce.”

According to Whitaker, if the EEOC rules in Eschliman’s favor, Shaw Media could be forced to give him back pay, front pay, and a monetary settlement.


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If you find this filthy book in your home, burn it

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By Jonathon van Maren

I don’t believe in book-burnings, but for the 50 Shades of Grey Trilogy, I’ll make an exception. I prefer charred books to scarred people.

The 50 Shades of Grey Trilogy, for those of you living outside “civilization,” is a repulsive and poisonous stack of porn novels that celebrates the seduction and manipulation of an insecure girl by a powerful businessman who happens to like spending his recreational time engaging in what is now popularly known as “BDSM.” For those of you who are fortunate enough never to have heard of this glorification of sexual assault, the acronym stands for bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism. In 50 Shades of Grey, the man in question inflicts all sorts of pain on the girl, because he is a sadist, which used to be a bad thing. (How utterly confusing it is to see the “feminists” of Planned Parenthood and elsewhere celebrating this phenomenon—wasn’t domination something they sought to subvert? Didn’t bondage used to be something one wanted to be freed from? And sado-masochism—I could vomit.) And now this trash has been developed into a film, the trailer of which is all over Facebook.

50 Shades of Grey and the new “BDSM” phenomenon are nothing more than the celebration of pain, rape, and destruction.

A lot of people seem to be taken with these books, especially based on the number of people I’ve seen unashamedly reading it at airports. These porn novels are “hot,” many reviewers tell us confidently. Yes, hot as Hell and halfway there, I think.

Consider this, for just a moment: In a culture where broken families are often the norm, we have a generation of girls often growing up without fathers, never receiving the paternal love and affection that they need. Thus the famous “Daddy Issues” that so many comedy sitcoms repulsively mock, as if hurting girls seeking love and affection in all the wrong places is some sort of joke. Conversely, boys are also growing up without fathers, never having a positive male role model in the home to teach them how to treat women with love and respect. And what is teaching them how to treat girls? At an enormous rate, the answer is online pornography, which increasingly features vicious violence against girls and women. The average first exposure of boys to pornography is age eleven. It is an absolutely toxic mess—insecure and hurting girls seek love from boys who have been taught how to treat them by the most vicious of pornography.

Introduce into this situation a book, written by a woman, glorifying the idea that girls should expect or even enjoy pain and torture inside of a sexual relationship. How does a girl, insecure and unsure, know what to think? The culture around her now expects her not to need a safe relationship, but a “safe word” to employ in case her sadist partner gets a bit too carried away in the pain-making. Boys who might never have dreamed of asking a girl to subject herself to such pain and humiliation are now of course emboldened to request or even expect this fetishized sexual assault as a matter of course in a relationship. After all, much of pornography now features this degradation of girls and women, and a woman wrote a book celebrating such things. It might seem sadistic and rapey, but hey, sexual freedom has allowed us to celebrate “bondage” and sexual liberation has allowed us to liberate our darkest demons from the recesses of our skulls and allow them out to play in the bedroom. Boys used to get taught that they shouldn’t hit girls, but now the culture is telling them that it’s actually a turn-on.

I genuinely feel sorry for many teenage girls trying to navigate the new, pornified dating landscape. I genuinely feel sorry for the legions of fatherless boys, exposed to pornography before they even had a chance to realize what it was, enfolded by the tentacles of perverted sexual material before they even realize what, exactly, they are trifling with. It brings to mind something C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Wouldn't it be dreadful if some day in our own world, at home, men start going wild inside, like the animals here, and still look like men, so that you'd never know which were which.”

50 Shades of Grey and the new “BDSM” phenomenon are nothing more than the celebration of pain, rape, and destruction. Find out if the “sex educators” in your area are pushing this garbage, and speak out. Join campaigns to make sure that promotion of this filth isn’t being funded by your tax dollars. And if you find these books in your home, burn them.


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