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.

Only 5 days left!

Support pro-life news. Help us reach our critical spring fundraising goal by April 1!


Share this article

Advertisement
Featured Image
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signs the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Ben Johnson Ben Johnson Follow Ben

, ,

Indiana faces backlash as it becomes 20th state to protect religious liberty

Ben Johnson Ben Johnson Follow Ben
By Ben Johnson

INDIANAPOLIS, IN, March 27, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – On Thursday, Indiana became the 20th state to prevent the government from forcing people of faith to violate their religious beliefs in business or the public square.

Gov. Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SB 101) into law, saying the freedom of religion is a preeminent American value.

“The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion, but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action,” Pence said.

Gov. Pence, a possible dark horse candidate for president in 2016, cited court cases brought by religious organizations and employers, including Catholic universities, against the HHS mandate. “One need look no further than the recent litigation concerning the Affordable Care Act. A private business and our own University of Notre Dame had to file lawsuits challenging provisions that required them to offer insurance coverage in violation of their religious views.”

The new law could also prevent Christian business owners from being compelled to bake a cake or take photographs of a same-sex "marriage" ceremony, if doing so violates their faith. In recent years, business owners have seen an increased level of prosecution for denying such services, despite their religious and moral beliefs.

The state's pro-life organization applauded Pence for his stance. "Indiana's pro-life community is grateful to Gov. Mike Pence for signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law,” said Indiana Right to Life's president and CEO Mike Fichter. “This bill will give pro-lifers a necessary legal recourse if they are pressured to support abortion against their deeply-held religious beliefs.”

“RFRA is an important bill to protect the religious freedom of Hoosiers who believe the right to life comes from God, not government,” he said.

The state RFRA is based on the federal bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. The Supreme Court cited the federal law when it ruled that Hobby Lobby had the right to refuse to fund abortion-inducing drugs, if doing so violated its owners' sincerely held religious beliefs.

In signing the measure – similar to the one Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed – Pence and the state of Indiana have faced a torrent of venom from opponents of the bill, who claim it grants a “right to discriminate” and raises the spectre of segregation.

"They've basically said, as long as your religion tells you to, it's OK to discriminate against people," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, a national homosexual pressure group.

The Disciples of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination based in the state capital, has said it will move its 2017 annual convention if the RFRA became state law. The NCAA warned the bill's adoption “might affect future events” in the Hoosier state.

Pence denied such concerns, saying, "This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way I would've vetoed it."

The bill's supporters say that, under the Obama administration, it is Christians who are most likely to suffer discrimination.

"Originally RFRA laws were intended to protect small religious groups from undue burdens on practicing their faith in public life,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. “It was not imagined there would come a day when laws might seek to jail or financially destroy nuns, rabbis or Christian camp counselors who prefer to abstain from the next wave of sexual and gender experimentation. And there's always a next wave.”

The bill's supporters note that it does not end the government's right to coerce people of faith into violating their conscience in every situation. However, it requires that doing so has to serve a compelling government interest and the government must use the least restrictive means possible. “There will be times when a state or federal government can show it has a compelling reason for burdening religious expression – to ensure public safety, for instance,” said Sarah Torre, an expert at the Heritage Foundation. “But Religious Freedom Restoration Acts set a high bar for the government to meet in order to restrict religious freedom.”

Restricting the ability of government to interfere in people's private decisions, especially their religious decisions, is the very purpose of the Constitution, its supporters say.

"Religious freedom is the cornerstone of all liberty for all people,” Tooley said. “Deny or reduce it, and there are no ultimate limits on the state's power to coerce."

Advertisement
Featured Image
Fight pornography. Beat pornography. And join the ranks of those who support their fellow men and women still fighting.
Jonathon van Maren Jonathon van Maren Follow Jonathon

Porn is transforming our men from protectors into predators. Fight back.

Jonathon van Maren Jonathon van Maren Follow Jonathon
By Jonathon van Maren

Since I’ve gotten involved in anti-pornography work, I’ve met countless men who struggle, fight, or have beaten pornography. Each person seems to deal with the guilt and shame that accompanies porn use in a different way—some deny that it’s “all that bad,” others pretend that they could “stop whenever they want,” many insist that “everyone is doing it,” and most, when pressed, admit to a deep sense of self-loathing.

One worry surfaces often in conversation: What do my past or current struggles with pornography say about me as a man? Can I ever move past this and have a meaningful and fulfilling relationship?

I want to address this question just briefly, since I’ve encountered it so many times.

First, however, I’ve written before how I at times dislike the language of “struggling” with pornography or pornography “addiction,” not because they aren’t accurate but because too often they are used as an excuse rather than an explanation. It is true, many do in fact “struggle” with what can legitimately be considered an addiction, but when this language is used to describe an interminable battle with no end (and I’ve met dozens of men for whom this is the case), then I prefer we use terminology like “fighting my porn habit.” A semantic debate, certainly, but one I think is important. We need to stop struggling with porn and start fighting it.

Secondly, pornography does do devastating things to one’s sense of masculinity. We know this. Pornography enslaves men by the millions, perverting their role as protector and defender of the more vulnerable and turning them into sexual cannibals, consuming those they see on-screen to satisfy their sexual appetites.

What often starts as mere curiosity or an accidental encounter can turn into something that invades the mind and twists even the most basic attractions. I’ve met porn users who can’t believe the types of things they want to watch. They haven’t simply been using porn. Porn has actively reshaped them into something they don’t recognize and don’t like. 

Follow Jonathon van Maren on Facebook

Porn is this generation’s great assault on masculinity and the role of men in society. It is essential that we win this battle for the sake of society’s survival. Contrary to what the gender-bending and family-morphing progressive elites claim, good husbands and good fathers and good church leaders are necessary for a healthy society. But pornography is destroying marriages, creating distant and disconnected fathers, and, metaphoricaclly castrating men, hindering their ability and desire to make a positive difference in the society around us.

So, with this sobering set of facts in mind let’s return to the question: what do pornography struggles, past and present, say about a man?

The proper way to respond is with everything that is good about masculinity. We have to fight pornography as men have fought countless evils throughout the ages. We need to fight pornography to protect women, and wives, and children, and our society at large. This is how pornography threatens society, by castrating men, and turning them from protectors into predators. Rooting out the evil in our own lives allows us to better fulfill the role we are called to perform in the lives of others. Battling our own demons enables us to battle the wider cultural demons. Every day without porn is another bit of virtue built. Virtue is not something you’re born with. Virtues are habits that you build. And one day without porn is the first step towards the virtue of being porn-free.

Many men ask me if men who have had past porn addictions are cut out for being in a relationship or working in the pro-life movement or in other areas where we are called to protect and defend the weak and vulnerable. And the answer to that is an unequivocal yes. Our society needs men who know what it means to fight battles and win. Our society needs men who can say that they fought porn and they beat porn, because their families and their friends were too important to risk. Our society needs men who rose to the challenge that the evils of their generation threw at them, and became better men as the result. And our society needs men who can help their friends and their sons and those around them fight the plague of pornography and free themselves from it, too—and who can understand better and offer encouragement more relevant than someone who has fought and been freed themselves?

So the answer to men is yes. Fight pornography. Beat pornography. And join the ranks of those who support their fellow men and women still fighting. Lend them support and encouragement. We cannot change the fact that porn has left an enormous path of destruction in its wake. But we can change the fact that too many people aren’t fighting it. We can change our own involvement. And we can rise to the challenge and face this threat to masculinity with all that is good about masculinity.

Follow Jonathon van Maren on Facebook

Share this article

Advertisement
Featured Image
Shutterstock.com
John-Henry Westen John-Henry Westen Follow John-Henry

Red Alert!

John-Henry Westen John-Henry Westen Follow John-Henry
By John-Henry Westen

I don’t like having to do this, but we have always found it best to be totally upfront with our readers: our Spring fundraising campaign is now worrying us! 

You see, with just 6 days remaining, we have only raised 30% of our goal, with $125,000 still left to raise. That is a long ways to go yet.

We have no choice but to reach our minimum goal of $175,000 if we are going to be able to continue serving the 5+ million readers who rely on us every month for investigative and groundbreaking news reports on life, faith and family issues.

Every year, LifeSite readership continues to grow by leaps and bounds. This year, we are again experiencing record-breaking interest, with over 6 million people visiting our website last month alone!

This unprecedented growth in turn creates its own demand for increased staff and resources, as we struggle to serve these millions of new readers.

And especially keep this in mind. As many more people read LifeSite, our mission of bringing about cultural change gets boosted. Our ultimate goal has always been to educate and activate the public to take well-informed, needed actions.

Another upside to our huge growth in readers is that it should be that much easier to reach our goal. To put it simply: if each person who read this one email donated whatever they could (even just $10) we would easily surpass our goal! 

Today, I hope you will join the many heroes who keep this ship afloat, and enable us to proclaim the truth through our reporting to tens of millions of people every year!

Your donations to LifeSite cause major things to happen! We see that every day and it is very exciting. Please join with us in making a cultural impact with a donation of ANY AMOUNT right now. 

You can also donate by phone or mail. We would love to hear from you!

Thank you so much for your support. 

Share this article

Advertisement

Customize your experience.

Login with Facebook