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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Quebec groups launch court challenge to euthanasia bill

LifeSiteNews staff
By LifeSiteNews staff

As announced when the Quebec legislature adopted Bill 52, An Act respecting end-of-life care, the citizen movement Living with Dignity and the Physicians’ Alliance against Euthanasia, representing together over 650 physicians and 17,000 citizens, filed a lawsuit before the Superior Court of Quebec in the District of Montreal on Thursday.

The lawsuit requests that the Court declare invalid all the provisions of the Act that deal with “medical aid in dying”, a term the groups say is a euphemism for euthanasia. This Act not only allows certain patients to demand that a physician provoke their death, but also grants physicians the right to cause the death of these patients by the administration of a lethal substance.

The two organizations are challenging the constitutionality of those provisions in the Act which are aimed at decriminalizing euthanasia under the euphemism “medical aid in dying”. Euthanasia constitutes a culpable homicide under Canada’s Criminal Code, and the organizations maintain that it is at the core of the exclusive federal legislative power in relation to criminal law and Quebec therefore does not have the power to adopt these provisions.

The organizations also say the impugned provisions unjustifiably infringe the rights to life and to security of patients guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. They further infringe the right to the safeguard of the dignity of the person, which is also protected by the Quebec Charter.

In view of the gravity of the situation and the urgent need to protect all vulnerable persons in Quebec, they are requesting an accelerated management of the case in order to obtain a judgment before the Act is expected to come into force on December 10, 2015.


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Colorado baker appeals gvmt ‘re-education’ order

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By LifeSiteNews staff

A Colorado cake artist who declined to use his creative talents to promote and endorse a same-sex ceremony appealed a May 30 order from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to the Colorado Court of Appeals Wednesday.

The commission’s order requires cake artist Jack Phillips and his staff at Masterpiece Cakeshop to create cakes for same-sex celebrations, forces him to re-educate his staff that Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act means that artists must endorse all views, compels him to implement new policies to comply with the commission’s order, and requires him to file quarterly “compliance” reports for two years. The reports must include the number of patrons declined a wedding cake or any other product and state the reason for doing so to ensure he has fully eliminated his religious beliefs from his business.

“Americans should not be forced by the government – or by another citizen – to endorse or promote ideas with which they disagree,” said the cake artist’s lead counsel Nicolle Martin, an attorney allied with Alliance Defending Freedom. “This is not about the people who asked for a cake; it’s about the message the cake communicates. Just as Jack doesn’t create baked works of art for other events with which he disagrees, he doesn’t create cake art for same-sex ceremonies regardless of who walks in the door to place the order.”

“In America, we don’t force artists to create expression that is contrary to their convictions,” added Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “A paint artist who identifies as homosexual shouldn’t be intimidated into creating a painting that celebrates one-man, one-woman marriage. A pro-life photographer shouldn’t be forced to work a pro-abortion rally. And Christian cake artists shouldn’t be punished for declining to participate in a same-sex ceremony or promote its message.”

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In July 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins asked Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, to make a wedding cake to celebrate their same-sex ceremony. In an exchange lasting about 30 seconds, Phillips politely declined, explaining that he would gladly make them any other type of baked item they wanted but that he could not make a cake promoting a same-sex ceremony because of his faith. Craig and Mullins, now represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, immediately left the shop and later filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division. The case now goes to the Colorado Court of Appeals as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Craig.

“Jack, and other cake artists like him – such as those seen on TV shows like ‘Ace of Cakes’ and ‘Cake Boss’ – prepare unique creations that are inherently expressive,” Tedesco explained. “Jack invests many hours in the wedding cake creative process, which includes meeting the clients, designing and sketching the cake, and then baking, sculpting, and decorating it. The ACLU calls Jack a mere ‘retail service provider,’ but, in fact, he is an artist who uses his talents and abilities to create expression that the First Amendment fully protects."

Celebrity cake artists have written publicly about their art and the significant expressive work that goes into the artistic design process for wedding cakes.


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Prisoner of conscience Mary Wagner appeals her conviction

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By Tony Gosgnach

TORONTO -- As promised, Mary Wagner has, through her counsel Dr. Charles Lugosi, filed a formal notice of appeal on numerous points regarding her recent, almost two-year-long court case that ended on June 12.

Justice Fergus O’Donnell of the Ontario Court of Justice rejected every application made by the defence – including for access to abortion center records, public funding, standing for a constitutional challenge and for expert witnesses to be heard – before he found Wagner guilty and sentenced her to five months in jail on a charge of mischief and four months on four counts of failing to comply with probation orders.

He further levied two years of probation, with terms that she stay at least 100 metres away from any abortion site. However, because Wagner had spent a greater time in jail than the sentence, she was freed immediately. She had been arrested at the “Women’s Care Clinic” abortion site on Lawrence Avenue West in Toronto on August 15, 2012 after attempting to speak to abortion-bound women there. She then spent the duration of the trial in prison for refusing to sign bail conditions requiring her to stay away from abortion sites.

Wagner is using the matter as a test case to challenge the current definition of a human being in Canadian law – that is, that a human being is legally recognized as such only after he or she has fully emerged from the birth canal in a breathing state.

Wagner’s notice states the appeal is regarding:

  • Her conviction and sentence on a single count of mischief (interference with property),
  • Her conviction and sentence on four counts of breach of probation,
  • The order denying public funding,
  • The order denying the disclosure of third-party records,
  • The order denying the admission of evidence from experts on the applicant’s constitutional challenge concerning the constitutional validity of Section 223 of the Criminal Code,
  • The order denying the admission of evidence from experts concerning the construction of Section 37 of the Criminal Code,
  • The probation order denying Wagner her constitutional rights to freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion on all public sidewalks and public areas within 100 metres of places where abortions are committed,
  • And each conviction and sentence and all orders and rulings made by O’Donnell.

In the notice of appeal, Lugosi cites numerous points on which O’Donnell erred:

  • He denied Wagner her constitutional right to make full answer and defence.
  • He denied Wagner her right to rely on Section 37 of the Criminal Code, which permits “everyone” to come to the third-party defence and rescue of any human being (in this case, the preborn) facing imminent assault.
  • He decided the factual basis of Wagner’s constitutional arguments was a waste of the court’s time and that no purpose would have been served by having an evidentiary hearing on her Charter application because, in the current state of Canadian law, it had no possibility of success.
  • He misapplied case law and prejudged the case, “giving rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias and impeding the legal evolution of the law to adapt to new circumstances, knowledge and changed societal values and morals.”
  • He accepted the Crown’s submission that it is beyond the jurisdiction of the courts to question the jurisdiction of Parliament legally to define “human being” in any manner Parliament sees fit.
  • He ruled Section 223 of the Criminal Code is not beyond the powers of Section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
  • He ruled Section 223 of the Criminal Code does not violate the Preamble to, as well as Sections 7, 11(d), 15 and 26, of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
  • He denied Wagner standing to raise a constitutional challenge to the validity of Section 223 of the Criminal Code.
  • He ruled that Section 223 of the Criminal Code applied generally throughout the entire Criminal Code and used it to deny unborn human beings the benefit of equal protection as born human beings under Section 37 of the Criminal Code.
  • He denied the production and disclosure of third-party records in the possession of the “Women’s Care Clinic” abortion site, although the records were required to prove Wagner was justified in using reasonable force in the form of oral and written words to try to persuade pregnant mothers from killing their unborn children by abortion.
  • He denied Wagner the defence of Section 37 of the Criminal Code by ruling unborn children did not come within the scope of human beings eligible to be protected by a third party.
  • He ruled Wagner did not come within the scope of Section 37 because she was found to be non-violent (in that she did not use physical force).
  • He ruled the unborn children Wagner was trying to rescue were not under her protection.
  • He denied Wagner the common-law defences of necessity and the rescue of third parties in need of protection.
  • He denied Wagner public funding to make full answer and defence for a constitutional test case of great public importance and national significance.
  • He imposed an unconstitutional sentence upon Wagner by, in effect, imposing an injunction as a condition of probation, contrary to her constitutional rights of free speech, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

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Among the orders Lugosi is seeking are:

  • That an appeal be allowed against conviction on all counts and that a verdict of acquittal be entered on all counts,
  • That Section 223 of the Criminal Code be found unconstitutional  and contrary to Section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982, as well as the unwritten constitution of Canada,
  • That the sentence be declared unconstitutional and contrary to Section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982, and the unwritten constitution of Canada or that a new trial be conducted, with Wagner permitted to make full answer and defence, be given standing to make a constitutional attack on Section 223 of the Criminal Code, with the admission of expert witnesses,
  • That the Women’s Care Clinic abortion site be made to produce third-party records pertaining to patients seen on August 15, 2012 (when Wagner entered the site),
  • And that there be public funding for two defence counsels at any retrial and for any appeal related to the case.

No date has yet been established for a decision on the appeal or hearings.

A defence fund for Wagner’s case is still raising money. Details on how to contribute to it can be found here.


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