Dir. Michael Haneke. Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert
After Anne has had her first stroke – indeed, towards the tail end of her life as a more or less ambulatory, thinking human being – she and Georges are eating a meal together. He’s almost cleared his plate. She still has a fair bit of food on hers. She asks Georges to dig up some old photo albums for her, which he does a little grudgingly. He leaves the room (and the eye of the camera, a Haneke trademark which seems especially perfect for this film), comes back with three or four thin albums, and returns to his food while she looks through them, turning the pages a little clumsily with her left hand while her curled-up, useless right hand hangs above the pages. After some time, she finally says, “It’s so beautiful.” Georges asks what is, presumably thinking about some photograph of a parent or of the two of them while they were young. “Life,” she replies. Yet at this point, Anne has long given up on living; this is far from the first sequence, nor will it be the last, where she does something which suggests that she does not intend to be around much longer. Life is so beautiful, but she isn’t eating; she isn’t keeping up her strength; she is inviting death, looking back on life as if that’s something that happened to other people but not herself, and recognizing the beauty in the past but refusing to even search for it in the present.
Anne’s tenuous grip on her own life – read that as you will about her desire to live, or about her ability to have a high-quality existence – is placed in concert with Georges’ increasing aloneness. As Anne gets farther and farther away from the capable, brainy, analytical woman she had been for decades, Georges can do little more than shift deck chairs. Tasks which the two of them may once have shared are done by him alone. Haneke’s deliberateness is so important here, as we see Georges take on responsibilities that his wife used to have for herself, from cutting up food to washing dishes, from rising to find a book to washing hair. There is a scene for each one, but none of them is quite as powerful as the first, when Georges brings Anne home from the hospital after her surgery to remove a blockage from her carotid failed. He tells his daughter that the surgery only has a 5% failure rate, almost angrily, yet he seems resigned to it. Someone has to be the one failure out of twenty. Anne comes home in a wheelchair, and wants to sit down in one of the chairs facing the piano in their living room. Georges has to pick her up out of the chair and painstakingly, awkwardly move her to the chair which is less than a foot away. We can’t see his face, his exertion. All we can see is Anne’s face, which is impassive. It’s a haunting scene, especially for a young viewer; even when the minister says stuff about “in sickness and in health,” it simply doesn’t occur to the twentysomething bride or groom that someday, if everything goes well, one of them will watch the other one waste away and die in front of the other. Days before, they had gone to the concert of a former pupil of Anne’s, an internationally recognized pianist. Now she cannot control the right side of her body; that shriveled right hand is an affront to any pianist. Later in the film, Georges, sitting in that same chair, can see her as a slightly younger woman (still in her eighties) playing effortlessly, beautifully; after a moment, when the camera returns to his dumbfounded face, you can see that he’s listening to a piano piece on their stereo system that she used to play. The vision of the woman he understood is as clear as ever, and yet she can do little more than lie in bed and vocalize inscrutably. Eventually, all she can do is cry out “Hurts, hurts.” The nurse tells Georges not to take it too hard; everyone with a similar medical condition does something similar. Georges doesn’t ask the question that the audience must be thinking: Why does her mind, what’s left of it, choose to moan “Hurts!” over and over again?
While the two of them can still communicate effectively, before a second stroke robs her of her language, Georges and Anne seem constantly to be apologizing to one another. It would have been harder to recognize the pattern without subtitles, but in English, the words “I’m sorry” or “Forgive me” show up over and over again. They both apologize. He apologizes for being short with her; she apologizes for being helpless. It’s the politeness of extremely stressed people, and it almost becomes the politeness of strangers. The two of them pretend for each other. While Georges is looking for a book that Anne wants and has to search their apartment to get it, her face changes from well-meaning to utterly despairing, and stays that way while Georges chatters on about his infallible memory and his problem being that he’s too tidy and so on; only when he comes back to her bedside does she smile a little for him, providing a touch of warmth. He goes out again and her face is as serious as ever as she tries to put on her glasses and situate her book using a single hand. There is so much suffering in those few minutes, as he jabbers uncharacteristically to create a homey atmosphere and she pantomimes the appreciative convalescent. Both are putting up a facade, but it’s difficult to tell if they need it for themselves or for the other.
Georges never stops talking to Anne, not even when she becomes largely unresponsive. He is indirect with her more frequently than not; for example, after he’s come home from a funeral, he discovers her out of her wheelchair, the great window to the courtyard open, the rain pouring down. It’s maybe the film’s first close-up, the look on her face as Georges helps her back into her wheelchair. She is surprised he came home so soon. He tells her about the absurdity of the funeral, of an urn rolling around on a mechanized gurney; he likes to tell stories, and he does not like to address that his wife tried to kill herself while he was out. He tells her a story about being moved to tears by a film when he was a child, and how an unsympathetic relative teased him for crying. (Her surprise at the story, followed by his response – There are many stories I have that I’ve never told you – is so meaningful that it’s almost exploitative. A couple in their eighties and there are things they’ve never told one another, and they are running out of time.) The last time he speaks to her, he runs off a long story about being a little boy with diphtheria at summer camp, so ill that he had to be moved to a hospital and placed in quarantine, so that when his mother came to see him, she could only put her hand on the glass. It’s a good story, but within it are all the concepts which have haunted him for months: the sense that his loved one is far away, unreachable except for small notes, the feeling of isolation even when he’s surrounded by others, the concept of illness itself at the heart of it. The more he talks to her, the more alone we realize Georges has become. There are two scenes back to back which seem especially lonely to me. In the first, Georges is washing dishes with the radio on. In the next one, Georges is trying to spoonfeed Anne some peach-flavored mush that she won’t take much of. He is silent in the first and as chatty as ever, if a touch stern, in the second, and he seems so much more by himself when Anne’s wasting body is in front of him.
There are moments where it seems like she might improve. Georges works with her physically, trying to get her to walk around the apartment after trying to strengthen the muscles in her legs. When it becomes clear that walking is the least of their concern, when her language is at risk, Georges tries to work through vocal exercises, little poems, with her. And even while she is speaking almost without any reason at all, he seems to understand little bits of it and tries to turn it into conversation. At one point late in the film, the two of them are very nearly talking when she reaches for his hand, gently. He cannot keep the surprise from his face; he squeezes her hand. It never comes that close to meaningfulness again. I about died watching her take his hand then, and yet all that can come after it – and Georges knows it, he tells his daughter very bluntly about the shape of her mother’s illness – is decline and decline and ultimately a death, where if you’re lucky no one laughs at your ashes as they scoot toward a hole in the ground. Georges, to his credit, does not distance himself from his wife. What choice does he have? He could watch her die at home or he could have to take a train or a cab to the hospice and watch her die outside her own bed. There are many good readings of the film’s cryptic title, but that one is my personal favorite; he loves her so much that her upcoming death, her great suffering, only clarifies his reasoning. It would be easier to put her in hospice care, but it wouldn’t be fitting.