Two of the best films I have seen this year share something utterly rare: they are both sincere and insightful reflections on mortality. Tarr Béla’s The Turin Horse and Michel Haneke’s Amour are two different, yet still surprisingly similar films. They are similar first of all in the austerity and perfect craft of their cinematic language. Tarr and Haneke are two masters with mature style or vision and a pace unique to them. This makes both films formally flawless and stunning. In terms of storytelling, the two directors are quite diffeent, however. While Tarr is prone to portray reality as if only an excuse to push metaphysical and poetic thoughts through, Haneke is much more interested in the strangeness and layers inherent in reality itself. This two tendencies are reflected in the two films as well. Tarr offers an existential-cosmic interpretation of the mortal condition, while Haneke examines in grim and realistic detail the actual “happening” of dying. In spite of this difference, I believe that the two films complete each other and can enter into an interesting dialogue in one’s head if we allow them too. It is as if Tarr’s film was a more philosophical-abstract re-interpretation of the fact of death examined by Haneke.
I am going to start with a bold statement: not only every Haneke fan or every film lover but every mortal being concerned by his or her aging and mortality should watch Amour. As usual, Haneke strikes deepest through simplicity. He proves once more that no complicated storyline is needed to have drama. He builds up the tension of his film just by pointing his camera to human existence and documenting (in excruciating detail) its fading away. The story is about an old couple of musicians living in Paris. The woman suffers a number of stokes and slowly but inevitably disintegrates in front of her husband desperate to hold on to her the way she was and genuinely torn by her suffering and slow death.
Haneke is one of the most sincere and straight-forward directors – he gives you no bullshit and no fake comfort, but throws everything in your face: all the embarrassing malfunctions of the body, all the annoying character flaws, and all the desperate but necessary gestures that emerge in a limit-situation.
The cinematic style of other Haneke films has been perfected and purified in this one: strong acting, deep philosophical insight and drama and an utter refusal to compromise in order to comfort anyone. Acting by veterans Emanuelle Riva (Hiroshima, mon amour) and Jean-Loius Trintignant (The Conformist, Z), as well as from Haneke’s twisted muse Isabelle Hupert (La pianiste)is flawless as always. We also have the characteristic provocative ending that has become a trademark of Haneke films – but of course, given the premises of this film, it is not a major spoiler to reveal that the ultimate punch line of the film involves death and dying.
The strongest features of the film, however, are beyond the formal, stylistic or reflective – these we already became accustomed to and wouldn’t accept less from Haneke. In previous films, Haneke dissected universal phenomena almost abstracted to their essence: violence, fear, religious, nationalistic or racist fanaticism. These were of course not abstract conceptions for him, but his characters were rather abstract exemplifications or tools towards saying something important and revealing about his very much real issues. In this case, however, the characters are all present in their own personal uniqueness. And it is no accident that this is the case: for a radically sincere director like Haneke aging and death cannot be addressed without the physical, actual, biological process of dying. And this bodily event of death makes it impossible for his characters to remain abstract. Especially Riva gives an incredibly courageous performance in this respect. So everyone living through their own gradual dying or helplessly witnessing the demise of a loved one cannot be anything else but a unique person. In our death we become irreplaceable, even though we are all dying. We cannot take on someone else’s death, even if we wanted to.
The film’s couple is approaching the end of their lives. Their tragedy is not only this, but also that they are dying at different speeds: she is disintegrating fast, first as an organism, then, inevitably, also as a person. He has to watch her slip away, take care of her basic needs and face his own end all at the same time. Haneke and the actors manage to allude to the deep love and intimate bond between the man and the woman with just a few simple words or gestures. No big declarations of love are needed, it is clear almost from the start that these to people belong together in the deepest possible senses that a person can belong to another. The ultimate gesture at the zenith of the film is also ultimately a gesture of love – hence the title of the film. Although this is a film depicting dying, it is essentially about love, or about how love figures or matters in certain death. We are reminded of Alejandro Amenabar’s Mar adentro, where the main character says: “The person who really loves me will be the one who helps me die. That’s love.”
But the love between the man and the woman is not the only love challenged by sickness and death. They have a daughter and the relationship between parents and child is also addressed in the most ruthless fashion by Haneke. The daughter’s life and problems seem very far away, foreign, impossible to relate to (even silly at times). But the opposite is also true: she can not understand what it means to stare certain death in the face every day – not to mention in the face of a loved one. Thus her presence seems to be an intrusion every time. This lack of connection between parents and daughter is all the more painful as it happens in spite of the obvious love and affection that they have for each other. It is as if saying that love is not enough if it does not share the same physical and existential space: the parents are facing a limit situation, and there is no room for advice or pity from anyone else. At one point the father utters the harshest words to his daughter: “Why don’t you just leave us alone to die here in peace.” This is not necessarily a reproach that she doesn’t understand as a genuine wish to dedicate all of his attention and efforts to the last days as living beings.
The existential isolation in the face of death is also expressed spatially. Other than a brief scene at the beginning, when they are both well, the entire film takes place in one apartment which becomes a suffocating, different plane of existence. I read in an interview that the apartment was made following the exact layout of the apartment where Haneke’s parents lived, although the furniture was not the same. As if he needed the architectural structure of that apartment – the sketch of it – but not the exact replica to tell his story. What matters are the walls that separate – first of all from the rest of the world, but then also within the apartment – as she becomes more and more sick, her presence she is restricted to less and less territory (ultimately to the bed), while he becomes more and more lonely and foreign in the rest of the apartment.
Although the outside world is still occasionally and even significantly present in the form of neighbors, relatives, former students or nurses, ultimately, the couple is all alone here, and eventually, when he remains alone, he cannot stand to remain in the home he shared with her…Before the end, he has several nightmares, all of which are grim images of a deteriorating, horrific and flooded world outside the apartment and within their marital bed. The end of the film is open to interpretation, we do not find out what happened to the man or where he is. What we know, though, is that he did not remain there in that shared place. It is also as if it doesn’t even matter anymore…after her death, his life, even if it goes on, it doesn’t “count” anymore.
Béla Tarr’s latest opus, The Turin Horse is a rare cinematic and hermeneutic experience. It expects the viewer to be ready to enter into an open and thoughtful interpretative dialogue and filter the film through our own experiences and impressions. Tarr poses a question rather than offering an answer. Accordingly, the answers will be as different as many viewers are willing to join in. Visually, it is like watching an early Van Gogh painting (slowly) move. The same dark colors, similarly marked but almost expressionless faces, hands deformed by harsh work and a general atmosphere of hopeless resignation. But just as Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, Tarr’s characters – an old man and his daughter living on a remote farm – also manage to emanate an expressionless despair: a sense of being crushed and defeated by the harshness of existence but still performing daily routines just in order to exist, as if from inertia. The dull repetitive rhythm of everyday basic activities further deepens the claustrophobic and dark tone. This film is like the story of Sisyphus but without the dramatic dynamism of a moving rock and without the noble pride of revolt. It is also similar to Abe Kobo’s Woman in the Dunes, but without the possibility of genuine companionship or human ingenuity.
The man and his daughter (played by János Derzsi and Erika Bók) barely communicate; they are immersed in their own voiceless worlds where the only contact with each other is through the necessity of eat-sleep-drink. And even then, their communication is performed in routine movements, their mutual understanding and concordance is gestural – they continue each other’s movements and react in advance at each other’s unuttered needs. This bleak, senseless harmony is disturbed by the gradually disintegrating environment. Nature and the basic elements seem to revolt against humans – the water disappears from the fountain, the winds rise, animals die, and finally, light disappears, effectively signaling the end of the world. Except for a brief episode of revolt (which takes the form of an attempt to escape), the two characters react in a matter-of-fact way to such apocalyptic changes. When the world comes to an end, they quietly go to bed, accepting their fate.
Although the title is an allusion to a story about Nietzsche, I believe this film is not a reflection or interpretation of Nietzschean philosophy. Rather, it is precisely the story of the philosopher hugging an old horse and crying for it that is the starting point, the excuse, if you will, to contemplate that kind of visceral cry for living beings that is exemplified in the story. What was it about that old horse that made the philosopher who celebrated vitality and life break down in despair? Presumably the same basic human reaction to suffering and death motivated this film too. No matter how bleak or senseless or hopeless an existence is, its sheer presence, the fact that it is, and the certainty of its disappearance infuses one with deep sadness and melancholy.
Tarr seems to be stating and mourning the existence of living beings (humans and animals) at the same time. The realistic depiction of everyday activities contrasts the subtle symbolism and abstract manner of treating the environment outside the farm. Accordingly, I think there are two possible levels of understanding which gradually become intertwined in the film. The quotidian, almost unbearable repetition of the same movements and gestures points to an existential dimension: the pointlessness of life, freedom, language, the endless repetition and certain demise of all living beings. This daily rhythm (and the silence accompanying it) is broken three times: once by the visit of a neighbor, then by the arrival of some Gypsies, and finally, by an attempt to flee the farm. In the first two cases the outside world challenges the characters in the form of other humans, while in the third the characters try to break away by running toward an outside world. However, by this point, the cosmic dimension has already gained major influence. There is nowhere to run; any attempt to escape is pointless – the threat is not local and not personal. Thus the second level of understanding offered by the film is a cosmic one: we are witnessing the end of the world and just as the characters, there is nothing we can do. Compared with this cosmic event, the fate of humans shrinks in importance. What is the demise of an already mortal being in comparison with the disappearance of the world?
Nietzsche cried for that horse although the horse presumably was not aware of the tragedy of its own being – or maybe that is precisely why he cried. In the film we cannot help being deeply moved by the disturbing inertia of father and daughter, by their voiceless, senseless and unreflected existence. In each case, it is not sure and clear what it is that we are crying about: the dull senselessness of life, or its end, dull and senseless as it is.