At the very end of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s hysterically funny romantic comedy Gertrud (important note: my take is skewed), the title character — who has allowed her unimpenetrably lofty standards for love guide her unfalteringly toward the path of old maiden-dom — suggests to one of the many suitors she rejected decades ago, that she welcomes the embrace of death.
And when she goes, she has a tombstone at the ready. On it is inscribed: “Amor Omnia,” or “love is all.”
Dreyer’s final and arguably best movie presents a test case for self-abnegation being the ultimate form of self-involvement. Gertrud’s notion of love is so fastidious and individual that there ends up being only one person that can possibly satisfy her: herself. I don’t want to date anyone who doesn’t find Gertrud amusing (which no doubt dooms me to Gertrud’s own fate).
Michael Haneke’s newest film Amour, last year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes and now a mildly surprising contender for five Oscars (including best picture, director and actress), forms something like an equal-and-opposite antithesis for Gertrud’s ideals, especially if you take that headstone’s phrasing as a take-off of the more popular phrase “Amor Vincit Omnia,” or “love conquers all.” Because there is one specific thing love can’t conquer, and it’s precisely the thing that Amour hones in on with nothing resembling sentiment.
Haneke’s movie stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as Georges and Anne, a pair of urbane retired musicians in their 80s. Early in the film, they’re shown eating breakfast when Anne’s eyes go blank. As she stares at nothing in particular, Georges grabs her by the head and tries to snap her back into reality, which she does after a few minutes, believing that nothing happened.
It’s the first crack in the façade for Anne’s physical condition, and Haneke depicts her decline with the grim inexorability of a funeral dirge. Anne always seems to be arriving at the next undesirable “stage” in her illness long before you hoped, and the aftermath of each new degradation becomes exponentially more pronounced with every sympathetic neighbor’s visit. The audience is thereby forced to cope with her mortality for much longer than most deathbed dramas, and with significantly less melodramatic payoff. (You know that scene where someone who is about to die manages to brush away those few errant hairs from their still-glowing face and whisper some sugary catchphrase to their most beloved family member? In its place, Haneke shows Georges trying to trap a pigeon that has flown into his apartment.)
Haneke’s films have long been subsumed by death, or at least the desire to make audiences wish they were dead. Far from exposing a softened heart, as its comparatively tender approach might suggest, Amour, vis-à-vis Haneke’s enduringly jaundiced view, centralizes death as the one uniting feature among all mankind. Some of us die young. Some of us die old. Some of us die virgins. Some of us die while having sex. But we all die.
Furthermore, Haneke seems to be saying that the human is the only animal that allows death to emerge as life’s ultimate embarrassment. Georges’ attempt to keep Anne’s hurtful death spiral shielded not just from public view but even from her own daughter (not unlike a feral cat finding a hiding spot when it senses its time is through) could read as a touching corrective, but Haneke can’t quite help but undercut their master plan anytime a neighbor enters their apartment to drop off a load of groceries, tell Georges to give Anne their best, and walk out without even making a hollow gesture at popping their head into her room. The implication is that only humans would make death something the living have to endure, rather than the dying.
Gertrud and Amour are both signposts in the genre of “old man cinema.” One sardonically defines love as nothing more than a concept. The other confrontationally declares it a necessary crutch.