When Lovers Die

If we view love as a complex and contradictory social script rather than shorthand for the highest good, it’s hard to separate the right to care from the right to kill.

Michael Haneke’s Amour isn’t an ironically titled film about love’s entropy, how a relationship cools over time; it’s not about acrimony, withering, or divorce. It’s about storybook romance, undying true love, the idealized couple. One summary of the movie goes like this: An old man loves his old wife. As she suffers multiple strokes and dementia sets in, he patiently devotes himself to her care before finally making the tough decision to obey her wishes and euthanize her. At first look, palliative romance is a strange choice for a director whose subject matter usually ranges from dark stories about children (Time of The Wolf, The White Ribbon) to really, really dark stories about children (Benny’s Video, The Piano Teacher). It sounds more like Mitch Albom than Haneke. Amour is, on paper, sweet. On screen, it’s something else entirely.

There are a lot of kinds of love, but in this review I use “love” to refer to the romantic link between two people that produces the couple-form which finds its legal recognition in marriage.

The movie begins with a police battering ram knocking open the doors to the bourgeois home where the story is set. Inside, investigators find a room with doors sealed from the outside with packing tape. In the room, they find the body of an old woman arranged lovingly, holding flowers across her abdomen, as is the habit of well-dressed corpses. They’re overcome by the smell.

Another summary of Amour goes like this: A man murders his wife.

The old man and old woman are Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). They are a successful retired French couple, they have a good enough relationship with their successful adult daughter. They eat together, they go out together, they are the stuff of Hallmark cards and inspirational posters. But one morning at breakfast Anne has an episode, and from there her health — mental and physical — rapidly deteriorates. Georges is willing to do whatever it takes to care for her; he even keeps his promise not to take Anne back to the hospital. He helps her through arduous physical therapy despite its toll on his aged frame; he feeds and cleans her with an admirable minimum of expressed frustration; he sings children’s songs with her so she can enjoy her last fragmented moments of lucidity. Georges does everything we could possibly hope for from a loving partner with a dying spouse. And then one day he pulls a pillow over Anne’s face and holds it there until she stops kicking.

Saying true love isn’t real is like saying money isn’t real, or race isn’t real, or the desire for deodorant isn’t real. You might be right in a base, materialist sort of way, but nations build policy not only on the existence but the desirability of love. The loving and stable two-parent household, bound together indefinitely, is society’s implied ideal, from the birth certificate to the obituary announcement. Little kids chant the story of social reproduction like a mantra: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.

Even if it’s “just a social construct, babe,” true love structures the world in very real ways, not least of which in the way it organizes our stories. Coupling gives narratives the appearance of a clean finality, the establishment of a bipartite they that allows for happily ever after. People hope to end up together and grow old. But the end in end up together usually refers to just an intermediate stage. Love is everlasting, but bodies are not. How do Prince Charming and the Princess die?

We know one version from the local news and The Notebook. Here are some headlines from the past few months: “Couple dies days apart after 33 years together,” “Jersey City couple die 2 days apart after 55 years of marriage,” “Wed 46 years, they died three days apart,” “Couple married 65 years die hours apart,” “Couple of 62 years die within hours of each other.” It’s one of the most reliable local stories there is. You can look up the same line with any number from 20 to 70 and find a variant. What makes a story about two deaths coming close together so heartwarming that papers repeat it again and again? The titles vary according to understandable confusion as to whether couples are singular or plural in death. If they die simultaneously, as in February’s Des Moines, Iowa, story “Couple married 72 years dies holding hands,” then the singular is safe. But how many hours after death does the singular dissolve?

If love has the power to legally and semantically meld two people into one

, then dying leaves a monstrous remnant. As Anne deteriorates, Georges’s tender care begins to look more like torture, independent of his intent. She can’t drink water on her own, so he has to pour it into her mouth with a sippy cup. When she doesn’t want to drink, he has to force her. It’s gruesome, but perhaps more honest than signing a form to allow a hospital orderly to do it. One of the arguments for gay marriage is that a patient’s true love should be the one making custodial medical decisions. Only love entitles one adult to make another suffer.

What’s so disturbing about Amour is that the situation is only exceptional because Georges shoulders the burden of killing Anne personally. When was the last time you heard someone say they wanted to be kept alive by machines for as long as medically possible? Do you want to force your beloved to shove food down your throat over your own demented protestations? In a summary, it’s easy to describe Georges as euthanizing Anne, but the way Haneke shoots it, the killing is a murder. It would have been easy enough to depict Anne with an oxygen tube Georges could pinch, tears running down his cheek. Instead he struggles the life out of her. With her last breaths Anne flails violently, displaying real vitality for the first time in the film.

I don’t know about France, but in America, had he hospitalized his wife, within a short amount of time he likely could have ended her life without violating the law or even informal expectations. As the Terri Schiavo case made clear, the final use of medical custody is sometimes to let die.

In a small way, then, gay marriage advocates are fighting for a lover’s right to kill their partner.
Once again, Georges’s choice is unsavory but arguably more loving; he won’t sacrifice a minute with her in order to distance himself from her death.

Is there such a thing as a loving murder? At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates says no. After Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins and then himself, a police spokesman said he “cared a lot” about her. Coates disagreed on empirical grounds: “Should we intentionally kill the person we claim to love (or care about) I think it's fair to say that this ultimate act of unlove, makes all other acts of love irrelevant.” The philosophe Alain Badiou is perhaps a bit more honest than Coates when he confesses

There are murders and suicides prompted by love. In fact, at its own level, love is not necessarily any more peaceful than revolutionary politics. A truth is not something that is constructed in a garden of roses. Never! Love has its own agenda of contradictions and violence.

But this admission comes in a longer dialogue called In Praise of Love, and Badiou spends more time conceiving of love as the repetition of not breaking up, the “successful struggle against separation.” He worries that online dating is rationalizing love, taking the danger out. Another aging continental philosopher of love, Franco Berardi, agrees, urging us to throw off our digital shackles and make sweet tender love in a hammock. Love’s costs are taken into account but justified by its metaphysical truth value, which I suppose suffices for a Platonist. But while Badiou alludes to love’s relationship with death, he refuses to draw it out as Haneke does, to the space of necessary conclusion.

Rian Johnson’s Looper deserves credit for its depiction of a love both genuine and disastrous. Johnson never undermines the fidelity of Bruce Willis’s love for his wife, but it’s used to justify murdering children. Yet his plight is never tragic or even pathetic; history isn’t to be redeemed through a man-wife pair.
Till death do us part may be in the marriage oath, but I can’t live without you is the true slogan of undying love. Ask any seventh grader for a story about true love, and odds are you’d get Romeo and Juliet or Twilight, both of which end with couples united in death. Plato rebuked Orpheus not for looking back and reburying his Eurydice but for lacking the courage to join her forever among the dead. At the end of The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta perform love by threatening simultaneous suicide. Titanic needs the bifurcated timeline so Rose can symbolically drown herself and join Jack in the afterlife. And with its bloodsoaked 50 pages of love as sexy suicide pact, it would be a crime to leave Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism out.

The love-is-death story is so common we could do nothing but list sentence-long summaries of examples for weeks. In its lasting depictions, love is a way to die more often than a way to live. In Amour, Georges leaves home for the last time following a vision of Anne (Into dementia? Into death?), and it’s hard to imagine he has much time left in front of him. True love, we’ve learned, is a death sentence.

Looking at love death-first shrinks the distinction between traditional romantic relationships and progressive variations on the model that locate its flaw in sexual jealousy. As Clémence X Clementine writes in the feminist journal Lies, “Polyamory is a multiplication of the couple, not its destruction. Casual sex, primary partners, physical and emotional availability, and other such distinctions contain amorous relations with the negotiation of the couple.” What looks like hedonism is a safeguard for the couple hidden at its core, an attempt to make it less brittle so it can bend without breaking. Amour, as a love story sans sex, isolates the part of partnership that polyamory seeks to protect from the consequences of ephemeral desire. But the controlled situation reveals a core violence that isn’t nearly as extraneous as these love Protestants would have us believe.

If we view love as a complex and contradictory social script rather than a shorter referent for the highest good, it’s hard to separate the right to care for from the right to torture or kill. Arguing that real love by definition never intentionally harms doesn’t address the character of actually existing love, which is shot through with pain, torture, and death.

In the near future, when same-sex couples in California are permanently granted the right to marry, one of the privileges they will inherit is detailed in a special section in the criminal code that allows a sentence of probation for convicted rapists, provided they raped only their spouse.

There’s no reason to think just heterosexual love is two-faced. In fact a University of Pennsylvania study on gay and lesbian intimate-partner violence found slightly higher rates than those for hetero couples.
The U.S. banned use of DDT (1972) before the first state criminalized marital rape (1975). At least one in four American women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and though the statistics don’t tell us how many loved their abusers or how many abusers loved their victims, the literature indicates both sums are substantial. A spouse is both your default next of kin and the family member most likely to murder you. Those like Coates who claim that crimes justified by love aren’t motivated by real love offer no stronger a defense than the blind and pious who blame the church’s sins on impostor Christianity and pronounce the true faith as healthy as ever.
Love figures prominently in breakdowns of murder and suicide by motive. Two pieces of data jump out at me: 1. In 30 percent of American murders by women, the victim is an intimate partner; and 2. Emile Durkheim in his classic work on suicide found marriage suppressed the rate for men but increased it for women.

Compared to the acolytes, Haneke is a love Gnostic. He’s heretical not because he doesn’t believe, but because when he looks at the cross, he doesn't see a savior but the dangling corpse of a tortured man and the God that let it happen. Amour shows love as a janitorial regime that keeps violence and death secreted inside the home, sealed like Anne’s corpse in the bedroom. It’s the part after happily ever after that we rarely see, where untarnished care meets murder, where death parts with a sharp gasp.