The commercial and popular success of Michael Haneke’s Amour will owe much to the way the story can be assimilated to contemporary anxieties about aging, care for the dying, euthanasia, and so forth, and this in spite of the fact that nothing in the screenplay suggests easy or comfortable lessons on these topics, and much in the film as a whole that points us in quite other directions. What I was struck by, to a pitch of both uneasiness and wonder, was how this film felt like a work of religious art, an emotional and intellectual experience equivalent to the experience of placing oneself, receptively, before, say, the Isenheim Altar.
By chance, the day after seeing Amour we went to a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. The films illuminate one another.
Bergman’s film shows religious people in a religious setting, in which the language of faith is central and where primitive religious art hovers over intensely felt sacramental practices. Yet both films employ the same vocabulary of light and dark, imprisonment and escape, love and responsibility, disintegration and transcendence, violence and redemption. They both understand the power of suggestion, the unfinished gesture, the incomplete trajectory, equivocal actions, the possibility of the supernatural.
This last deserves more attention than it has got. Haneke has, in interviews, remarked on his admiration for the Danish master, Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose film Ordet presents a religious parable culminating in a resurrection—one of the greatest moments in all of cinema. The analagous moment in Haneke’s film is perhaps not remarked on in reviews because it is more comfortable to explain the mysterious in psychological terms, or to assume there must be such an explanation. In fact, Amour is no more easily deciphered at this fundamental level of perception and truth than was his Caché.
Both the Bergman film and the Haneke film are about the way personal relationship is entwined with, interdependent on, what we might call metaphysical safety. It is surprisingly explicit in the Bergman film, on a close viewing, that the hero, the priest Tomas, is a frozen soul because he has lived a “life lie” (the term is Ibsen’s), having to believe he loved his dead wife. Only a form of psychological violence frees him from this life lie. Haneke’s film is not so explicit, but we do witness a terrifying plunge into ambiguity of motive and affect, unresolved and unresolvable except through the purgations of violence. There is no euthanasia here. Terror and pity, yes.
But not only in Aristotelian terms. We are not passive witnesses to a drama of cathartic experience “out there,” so to speak, in the agony of these characters. We are drawn in, forced to choose, constituted as beholders, made responsible in our beholding. There is no place to hide ourselves from these words and these images. This is the opposite of sentimental entertainment, and even of helpful instruction. Is this perhaps the function of religious art? To make us unsure what it is we are actually seeing until we have been already changed by it?