All About “Amour” on Either Side of the “Window”

20 08 2013

The following piece was written for Dr. Mary Dalton‘s Film Theory and Criticism in spring 2013.

SPOILER ALERT: The following post discusses major plot points in both Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and Michael Haneke’s “Amour.”

What do an American film from the 1950s about a cooped up reporter and a French film from 2012 about a woman dying slowly from a debilitating stroke have in common?  While “Rear Window” and “Amour” seem to be an extremely unlikely pair, they explore common themes of love in confined spaces.  Both films take place almost entirely within a single apartment, although Alfred Hitchcock’s classic focuses mostly on the action outside the window while Michael Haneke chooses to keep his camera focused on what happens inside the window to the outside world.  Yet in spite of their different emphases, both filmmakers come the conclusion that couples must turn their sights inward in order to fully realize their love for each other.  Through forced identification, Hitchcock and Haneke’s films powerfully convey the dangers that come along with spectatorship.

Rear Window

A line delivered at the beginning of “Rear Window by Thelma Ritter’s Stella, “we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” has become a famous and often quoted passage from the film.  Most, however, tend to cut out the sentence that follows it: “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”  Taking that sentence into account as well, Stella is not only offering merely an implicit critique of the voyeurism of humanity – a flaw largely compounded by Hitchcock’s contemporaries in the cinema – but also bringing up a seldom noticed side effect.  She is taking L.B. Jeffries, known in the film as “Jeff,” to task for being so concerned with the lives of others that he lets his relationship with his girlfriend begin to rot.

Throughout the film, Jeff’s obsession with watching the world out his rear window is seen as an impediment to the love and intimacy between he and his girlfriend, Lisa.  Every time they begin to hold each other and show tenderness, his thoughts about his neighbors’ exploits distract him, often compelling him to pick up his binoculars and look in on them. Hitchcock uses forced identification with Jeff’s outward gaze by the editing style of subjective POV, making the viewer not merely a party to this denial but entirely complicit in it.  Jeff is never seen through the window, just looking out it from the shadows, a clever replication of what the audience does in the act of watching the film in a dark theater.

RearWindow5

By his casting a gaze out the window, he neglects her needs not only intimately but also on a deeper relational level; it is clear that she is seeking marriage, yet Jeff seems clueless or at least ambivalent towards her regular hints. Their love is always broken off by one of them, normally Lisa, before it can escalate.  The film’s final shot, however, hints at some sort of reconciliation between the couple, though nothing is made explicit.  While the neighbors go about their lives, Jeff sits in his wheelchair with his back turned away from the window, soaking in the sunlight rather than lurking in the shadows.  He falls asleep with a smile on his face; meanwhile, Lisa moves from reading a serious book to please him to reading a fashion magazine for her own pleasure.  Her demeanor and posture appear markedly more relaxed and comfortable, hinting at a much-improved relationship with Jeff’s gaze turned inwards towards her.

Amour

“Amour,” on the other hand, offers no such getaways for its characters or the audience watching the film.  Georges and Anne, the octogenarian couple, are trapped with each other in the apartment as she slowly succumbs to complications a series of strokes.  The two spend nearly every moment together; Georges even pays someone to go get their groceries so he can stay and monitor Anne.  Similarly, Haneke never grants the audience a single moment of escape from their lives, confining the viewer into the apartment as an objective, third unacknowledged presence in the room.  His sparse editing that chooses to leave the dull bits of life in the film as well as his predilection for long shots in deep focus provides the audience with a cold reality that they either have to accept watching or must avert their eyes from entirely.

As Anne’s condition worsens, she begins to express her great dismay with her physical state, eventually telling him, “Georges, I don’t want to carry on. You’re making such efforts to make everything easier for me. But I don’t want to go on. For my own sake. Not yours.”  Georges initially writes off her request as ridiculous because he believes she does not want to keep living to spare him pain.  Yet after she suffers a second stroke that takes away her ability to speak coherently, Georges begins to see just how miserable an existence she has come to live.  He observes as nurses give her showers, and the slightest wrong touch brings her excruciating pain.  He tries to feed her, yet she spits the water back in his face.  Her anguish leads him to slowly remove his own opinions from his view and focus all the more closely on her.

With all this attention and gaze directed solely inwards at their relationship, Georges eventually comes to do the selfless thing and put her out of her misery.  He achieves this in a respectful and loving way by putting her at ease by telling her a pleasant childhood story and then by smothering her.  Had he been aloof and turned his attention outside their apartment, he would not have noticed her lifeless life, nor would he have lovingly honored her request.  Similarly, the audience through their forced witnessing of events come to interpret his killing as an action not motivated by selfishness; rather, they see it as fulfilling the action indicated in the title: love.  It just takes the course of the movie for Georges to gain the same level of objectivity that the audience has been given since the beginning of the film.  Only when that is achieved can he realize that true love is complicated and requires tough decisions.

Amour

“Rear Window” and “Amour,” despite their different plots and tones, arrive at the same general truth within the setting of an apartment.  By casting our gaze abroad, we ignore the problems at the heart of our most treasured relationships.  Only when we look inward and give our own lives the attention they deserve can we truly find the love we need to give others.  Ironically, to liberate us from our obsession with spectatorship, Hitchcock and Haneke feel that they must first trap us in it.

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