Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On Brody On Amour (2012)

What should we make of Richard Brody of The New Yorker's extraordinarily disdainful response to Michael Haneke's Amour (2012)? For example:
I don’t doubt Haneke’s sincerity when he affirms in interviews the personal and compassionate roots of the story—the sufferings of his ninety-two-year-old aunt, who had wanted him to help her commit suicide. But what comes off onscreen is the filmmaking’s smirking pleasure at depicting, with a chilling explicitness, a heinously affirmative killing—a peculiarly active variety of euthanasia. In doing so, Haneke lined his dominoes up perfectly. First, he constructed characters whose bonds of love seem incontrovertible, so that Georges couldn’t be accused of mixed motives. Second, he made this characters seem, angelic, so that there’s no trace of perversity or caprice on Anne’s part, no selfishness or cruelty on Georges’s. Third, he cast soulful actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, to play the couple.[my italics]
[T]he director films his elderly couple with a superficial simulacrum of wisdom and experience, strips them of traits in order to reduce them to the function of the film to render the appalling act justifiable, to strip out the appearance of mixed emotions. And yet, what comes through is that Haneke likes filming a killing, takes a smirkingly ghoulish look at the act, and takes unconscious pleasure in the unconscionable. As Georges smothers the incapacitated Anne under a pillow, her legs kick in resistance: she may be willing to die, but that doesn’t mean she’s ready to stop living. Nothing in Georges’s demeanor suggests anything but the desire to end Anne’s misery, in defiance of any objection the world might make. How he faces that opprobrium, or the force of law, we can only imagine. Haneke either knows and doesn’t show it, or doesn’t bother to imagine it; but, for him, it doesn’t matter. He has had his fun. He has shown murder and made his viewers love it, has brought them into complicity with his smirkingly ghoulish pleasure. The hollowness of the contrivance conceals the grotesquerie of the sacralized Grand Guignol. Where “Django Unchained” suggests Quentin Tarantino’s unconscious delight in the unconscionable “Amour” reflects Haneke’s calculated desire to stir up a reaction by way of a cynical ambiguity, to recalibrate a moral shock with an overwhelming preponderance of mitigations. [my italics]
The subject of “Amour” is powerful and true... That’s what makes Haneke’s rigid contrivances—the pristinely repressed and filtered script and images, the directorial straight face held with iron bands to suppress laughter—all the more repellent. [my italics]
Let's start with Brody's basic complaint that Haneke 'lined up his dominoes perfectly', that he engineers a kind of best/ideal case for euthanasia. Well, what's wrong with that? Obviously, as multiple old saws go, extreme cases, whether they be best/ideal or nightmarishingly murky and confounded, normally make for 'bad law' and/or lousy public policy. But Haneke's made a movie, not authored a treatise or a carefully weighted pros and cons style report on a projected law change. Haneke's ideal case can legitimately form part of the backdrop for a public policy debate but it's no substitute for that kind of careful discussion. Similarly, describing highly idealized cases of punishment and torture (where we know guilt with certainty, where there's intense time pressure, and so on) is one thing; developing and justifying public policy about punishment and torture is quite another. Extremely vivid highly idealized cases may mislead - taking account of that is why we have treatises, formal processes of policy development, and all the rest of it.

One can sort of see what's getting Brody's goat here: Haneke on euthanasia is playing the same game that 24 did on torture. But so long as we are clear that embracing euthanasia/torture as public policy would mean endorsing a whole euthanasia/torture regime, hence accepting lots and lots of highly non-ideal cases then we can stop panicking about jejune treatments of ideal/best cases. That is, we can allow ourselves to feel the power of Amour's and 24's types of cases precisely because such cases do nothing to establish (and, unless we are easily panicked, can never force us to take a position on) the moral viability of the respective regimes each might be felt to implicitly advocate.

Now consider Brody's claim that "How he [Georges] faces that opprobrium, or the force of law, we can only imagine. Haneke either knows and doesn’t show it, or doesn’t bother to imagine it". This point strikes me (and others, esp. swkaplan among Brody's commenters) as completely bogus. Haneke's film is clear that Georges ends his own life almost immediately after he end Anne's. He has no 'fun' left in him; here's can be no question of Georges gaining any advantage from killing Anne. He isn't now 'able to get on with his life' let alone achieve anything less noble. That this is so is, of course, another example of Haneke getting his 'dominoes in a row' for his ideal case. So this part of Brody's argument is riddled with falsehood and reduces to his main argument that (Straw Man-ishly) supposes that Haneke is making public policy, that Amour's drama is a treatise.

Update:An article by Haneke scholar, Roy Grundmann is worth thinking over. Grundmann's essay contains several obvious mistakes, but in grappling directly with the pigeon sequences and the paintings it's a useful starting point towards a more comprehensive reading of the film than I provide here (i.e., given that I'm really just trying to straighten out a basic logical point about the film's strategy and mistaken reception).

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