Local reception of Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning film Amour (2012) may seem not to have matched up to its raving reviews and wide critical acclaim: of all the 263 films screened in Singapore that year, Amour came in close to the bottom with a ranking of only #204 in national box office earnings, grossing a dismal $29,416. Recognising, however, Amour’s poignant and fearful relevance to humanity, and especially to Singapore, this essay posits that the film was indeed a success in Singapore – a success limited only if measured in a narrow, mercantile sense. In our exploration of the film’s success, the demographics of Singapore especially with regard to the state of the elderly will be taken into consideration.
Without a doubt, Amour has the potential to reach into the heart of humanity. The film presents, uncannily, the slow physical and mental decline that comes with old age – the intrusion of death into the sphere of a home that grows increasingly locked-in and stifling with each passing moment, so that the film’s frequent moments of darkness and tense, smothering silence seemed to spill over into the darkness of the cinema space itself. As the home of the protagonists – an elderly couple named George and Anne – becomes increasingly claustrophobic, so did the enclosed space of the cinema; this was exacerbated by the fact that Amour was only screened in one location – Cathay Cineplex at Cineleisure Orchard – whose smallness of space, together with the unusually silent crowd (although almost all the seats were filled, silences were total and intense, without the usual sounds of popcorn-munching and rustling heard in public cinema) served to intensify the sense of claustrophobia that the film evoked. And because there was only one show-time a day (7.30pm), the presence of a crowd – of having no or little space beside one – would have further heightened this sense of claustrophobia.
This sense of stifling entrapment would resonate particularly with city-folk – Singaporeans included. Tension in the cinema reached a peak when Georges slaps Anne for her wish to die; at this point, when the walls of the home seemed most to close in around them, Haneke’s still shots of a series of paintings hanging on the walls of the couple’s home made the cinema walls seem also to oppressively hem the spectator in. For these paintings, with their Romantic focus on the wild sublimity of nature, are the old couple’s only access to freedom – a stark contrast with the smallness of their increasingly prison-like apartment (reminiscent of a 3 or 4-room HDB flat), and a further contrast with the view behind their windows, dreary and cluttered with the dull landscape of the city. The absolute silence of the audience when these paintings were screened was intense and poignant; for as Georges and Anne could only look on these paintings as windows into an inaccessible freedom, so we, citizens of a developed state, surrounded by cold order, concrete and steel, when faced with the vast, wild sublimity of nature can only look and yearn. The screen thus becomes to us a window into an unreachable freedom, as Georges and Anne’s paintings are to them. We are subsumed into the film as it transcends the barrier of the screen, heightening the film’s claustrophobic effect by reminding us of the stifling nature of our own real world, and our own similar desire for freedom.
This merging of the realms of fiction and reality is augmented by the sense of realism and veracity with which Haneke imbues his film, particularly through the discomfiting stillness of the camera that seems determined to conceal all traces of the director’s hand in the film. Haneke creates the illusion of an accurate or truthful recording rather than a fictional narration, as if all he did was to open the shutter and start the film rolling, recording whatever happens to be in front of the lens. Haneke’s form of realism is similar to Bazin’s in aiming to bring out the truth of reality so much so that its representation sometimes seem to disappear and become life itself. It’s a realism that derives its basis from the possibility of participation. Only with this sense of realism already in place allowing disbelief to be suspended can the appearance of the paintings pull the realism or reality as seen within the film into our reality, assimilating real and filmic space so that the film becomes, more so or more clearly than most, an extension of our senses, subliminally changing the spectator’s perception of reality, rather than working at the level of our conscious opinions or concepts. For the spectator views these images as if he were included within the film itself, and so taken into the perspective of the film; the appearance of the images jolts him into an awareness not just of the film as medium but also of this medium as our reality. Through the realism of the film, therefore, combined with the sequence of paintings that abet the pervasion of this filmic reality into our own, the film imposes its own assumptions on the audience, and reality itself becomes imprisoning, suffocating, with euthanasia justified or at least sympathised with even to its most ardent opposers (such as myself). Amour not only suspends disbelief – disbelief is made to come crashing down, for there can be no disbelief in a film that sets itself up as not just a dramatised reflection of reality, but part and parcel of it, as the camera becomes our eyes, the picture frames in the film’s mise-en-scene become the frame of cinema screen, and the world of the film as shown through the camera becomes our sight, or vision – our world. Thus Haneke expertly manipulates the movie form, the medium of film, to influence or alter the spectator’s perception of reality as it heightens our awareness or sensitivity to the claustrophobia of the world in which we live.
In doing so, Haneke (un)cannily sets his film up as a reflection of ourselves, to be studied and contemplated, just as Georges and Anne’s daughter sits, thinking, in their empty house after their deaths. The spectator watches the film seemingly through the objective window of the camera, without directorial interference or mediation, and the film thus appears as open-ended or open to interpretation as life itself – or death – with all its unanswerable complexities. Amour seems to invite us not only to actively examine ourselves as reflected in the film, but also to survey ourselves watching and responding to the film – just as we watch, as if in a mirror, the audience at a piano recital at the start of the film listening to the music being played, without catching so much as a glimpse of the pianist, or the artist. In other words, through his cinematographic realism Haneke seems to attempt to steer himself clear out of the way, leaving the text to stand alone, for itself – allowing, as he says, for ‘complexities and contradictions’. Indeed Haneke blatantly refuses to explain or interpret his films, insisting that ‘every meaning is fine, all interpretations are OK’, and often claiming that he doesn’t know the answer because he doesn’t have such a good relationship with the author – the author being himself, of course.
The film’s sense of claustrophobia is further amplified as the very movie medium through which the paintings are shown subverts the purpose of the paintings themselves. The paintings are rendered Impressionistically, with thick, rough brushstrokes – but while Impressionistic paintings are meant to distil the eternal from the transitory, or to make permanent on canvas the passing mood of the moment, the paintings shown on film do not allow for this; instead, they are fleeting as any moment, one following the other with hardly enough time to dwell on any image at length or fully. This would amplify the sense of suffocation or entrapment evoked in the spectator, in a life subject to death and decline amidst a grey cityscape, as well as the sense of sorrow and yearning, and the elusiveness – and transience, if any of us have travelled to such places – of freedom. The paintings’ rough brushstrokes, that render their depicted scenery blurred and undefined, compared to, say, photographs, makes freedom seem even more out of reach.
The film is relevant to Singaporeans not merely because, as citizens of a developed country where the freedom of the awe-inspiring or sublime seems ungraspable, we can relate to its sense of claustrophobia; the genius of Haneke is that he uses this city-induced claustrophobia to amplify the fear of aging and death. This encompasses, not just the simple fear of dying itself, but also the fear of other aspects of death such as separation from a loved one, witnessing helplessly a loved one’s degeneration, dying with indignity, dependency, or decomposition of the body and the mind – all of which would resonate profoundly with most Singaporeans. In a country where the numbers of the elderly are dramatically increasing_ along with the dependency ratio of the old_, Anne’s physical and mental decline into death, her wish to die so as not to be a burden, as well as her dread and fear of hospitals – as shown by her insistence that Georges promise never again to send her back to the hospital – would be remarkably pertinent. The hospital, a place not just of separation from loved ones but also of abandonment – of being abandoned and betrayed by them – would be particularly dreaded here where the aging population and widening discrepancy between the rich and the poor is causing more of the elderly to necessarily be placed in nursing homes, as the government’s plan to build 6 more nursing homes by 2015 indicates.
These fears – reflected also in Amour in its depiction of death’s intrusion into the sphere of the home, rendering the familiar comfort of the home, the body, and the once two-sided, loving relationship unfamiliar, uncanny, with the reification of such repressed fears – these anxieties, made manifest in Neo’s film, are seen to be increasingly prevalent in Singapore – not only among the aged, but also in the repressed unconscious of witnessing younger folk, for whom, as death inexorably looms closer, life will also ‘go steadily downhill [until it is] over’ – as Georges would say. As the approach of death is translated into a sense of the closing-in of the walls of the home, or of the home rendered uncanny and isolating, Amour’s setting in a small apartment in the city cinematically associates city life, or the city home, with death and its anxieties. Freedom through death thus appears also as an escape from the confines of the city. By thus tapping into the already present claustrophobia of civilised society – a society suffocating under the strain of capitalism and unforgiving, fast-paced competition – Haneke intensifies or draws forth the spectator’s (latent) desire for freedom; and in doing so, he not only forces us to confront our own mortality, as well as the lifelessness or deterioration of civilised society, but also justifies the euthanasia that Georges subsequently performs for Anne. The film, therefore, is ultimately a film about letting go – where one escapes the dreary, stifling tedium of mortal, urban life. The spectator leaves the theatre, perhaps not fully comprehending the film due to its unconventional filmic language, yet heavy with a certain sense of sorrowful understanding, coupled with a strong – though perhaps inexplicable, unrecognised, or even repressed – wistfulness.
Moreover, the love that clearly still remains between the aging couple would further resonate with Singaporeans. To a people living in a country of rising divorce rates and failed marriages, the decay of a sweet and lasting relationship due to inevitable mortality would be all the more sorrowfully poignant for its sympathetic relevance – and the film’s ending, where after death the old couple wake to continue their lives as per normal, able to leave the confines of the house, would be the intensely yearned-for and tear-jerking wish fulfillment of many.
Amour’s poignant discourse on the themes of humanity – especially resonant to contemporary society – thus certainly feels like a success, at least among the educated or critical mass. It was hard even to purchase tickets for the film – one had to book them a few days in advance because it had almost a full house every night. Singaporean reviewers and personal acquaintances seem all to evince gushing enthusiasm for the film. Yet its low ranking in the box office nonetheless indicates that – more’s the pity, this success is limited (at least in terms of its popularity).
This is, of course, a result of the context of its screenings; a film screened only once a day in a small theatre would naturally not earn much from that country. This is likely due to the expectation that as a European art film it would be automatically brushed off by the masses as abstract and esoteric, meant for the elite and intelligentsia; thus a more frequent or widespread screening would perhaps not be lucrative. Moreover, because the film was not heavily marketed, much of the population would have been ignorant of its presence, distilling its audience down to only those in the know, or those who are truly interested.
In addition, the film – with its French dialogue and English subtitles – would not be understandable to most of our local elderly, of which only a minority are English-speaking, with the majority favoring Chinese dialects. Even if the film did come with subtitle translations in Mandarin, the common language among our local elderly, most of our old folk, being uneducated – especially in the arts – would still not be able to understand the import of such filmic images, nor the significance of unexplained symbols or motifs such as that of the pigeon, caught and then released – a layered signifier not only of the intrusion of death and the preciousness of life, but also of freedom, of death as new life. The clear filmic signifiers of Hollywood films, and the use of multiple dialects in local films such as Jack Neo’s, would indeed be much more palatable to them, as well as to most of the Singaporean mass audience, of which only 17% of those aged 15 and over have attained the university level education crucial to a critical appreciation of the film. Among the elderly – that is, those aged 65 and older – a whopping 85.8% of them have not been educated beyond secondary level. Hence the nuances of the film would naturally be lost and unappreciated by most of the population, and its lack of popularity with cinemas and the masses is thus not surprising.
Amour requires a thinking, involved, active, educated or informed spectator. And in the Singaporean context, it also requires a spectator open to all the possibilities of film – one who does not dismiss a film on the mere basis of its genre, or its genre’s associations with esotericism – for as a local reviewer writes, Amour is less abstract than Haneke’s previous pictures; thus its universal themes on the human condition is likely to be more accessible and rewarding for the somewhat casual moviegoer. The film’s limited success in Singapore is not due to the irrelevance of its themes but rather to its artistic indigestibility to local audiences. Singaporeans, the old folks especially, would much rather watch Jack Neo’s Money No Enough because sappy as it may seem, it’s in their familiar language and aesthetic. Does bad acting matter if the audience is completely taken in and moved?
What can be done? One can only hope that with the increasing fecundity of the arts and visual culture in Singapore and the continuing efforts of the Singapore Film Society to cultivate a discriminating viewership by their screening and marketing of less popular art films, more will in time be initiated into the language of such ‘artsy’ films, and not turn up their noses or brush them aside as pretentious or dull but be equipped to receive all that these films have to offer.