The Nightmare-Body. Michael Haneke Reversing a Tarkovskian Dream Logic in Amour
“Babeş-Bolyai” University, Cluj-Napoca
Michael Haneke Reversing a Tarkovskian Dream Logic in Amour
Abstract: This paper focuses on a dream sequence from Michael Haneke’s latest film . Amour captures two bodies between life and death, an octogenarian couple secluded in their home, from which departure means passing away. After enlarging on various concepts created by Gilles Deleuze (the body without organs, but also the time-image of cinema), my close reading shows how the movie reveals its oneiric structure, especially in the second half, introduced by the nightmare of Georges, a scene the author confesses to be reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky. This dream summarizes the film by forging the path of a subtle oneiro-poetics: later on, we are witnessing two scenes where the protagonist has a reverie with his wife. As a counterpart, we have the soul, represented by the pigeon, which acts like a sort of a psychopomp. Thus, the function of the dream sequence would be to foreshadow pure death or, maybe, afterlife.
Keywords: Body without Organs; Hallucination; Nightmare; Oneiro-Poetics; Recycled Myth; Schizoanalysis; Time-Image.
Death gives rise to many myths, maybe to most of them. Recycling these archetypes finds in cinema the best visual field of dissemination. I will show how, in a movie which deserves its name from the very beginning to its fatal end, a major subversive path is taken by the nightmarish account of a rather sadistic love mythology: the characters act like teenagers, going to a concert together, gazing at each other and holding their hands on the bus back home, only to find the worst unwanted guest already in the apartment which they are no longer going to get out of.
In fact, my focus will be on a bad dream sequence from Michael Haneke’s latest film, the Palme d’Or winner in 2012. Moreover, as we shall see, Amour contains additional scenes that can testify to a rather serendipitous Tarkovskian influence upon the Austrian director.
I have mentioned Andrei Tarkovsky. We could also bring to our minds Federico Fellini, another maestro of oneiric cinema – a term in fact coined for him by film critic Peter Bondanella. We could go even further and search similarities between Haneke and Ingmar Bergman, probably the best lucid dreamer on-screen – from Wild Strawberries to Cries and Whispers, avant-garde films when they were released, which pervaded somehow the post- or, better said, hyper-modern canon. Going back to Tarkovsky, allow me to prove in precise words how this director answered a question: is it really possible to express / to transpose, in fact, a dream on the huge and collective screen of cinema? Here we have Andrei Tarkovsky’s answer, and I quote from his book Sculpting in Time:
First of all we need to know what sort of dream our hero had. We need to know the actual, material facts of the dream: to see all the elements of reality which were refracted in that layer of the consciousness which kept vigil through the night [...]. And we need to convey all of that on the screen precisely, not misting it over and not using elaborate devices. Again, if I were asked, what about the vagueness, the opacity, the improbability of a dream? — I would say that in cinema “opacity” and “ineffability” do not mean an indistinct picture, but the particular impression created by the logic of the dream: unusual and unexpected combinations of, and conflicts between, entirely real elements. These must be shown with the utmost precision. By its very nature cinema must expose reality, not cloud it. Incidentally, the most interesting or frightening dreams are the ones where you remember everything down to the minutest detail. [emphasis added]
Thus, for Andrei Tarkovsky, the logic of the dream is not only of the dream, but of the film generally speaking. More so, this perspective reaches a Deleuzian approach to the so-called time-image in cinema.
For Gilles Deleuze, that kind of cinematic image allows one to arrange different movements in the same picture, like in the puzzle of a dream, to mix and overlap various events that come to form a world of their own, again, just like when we are dreaming: these frames apparently have no connections to the rest. One could consider a character in such a movie to be time-traveling, either into their past (in which case the mere filmic dream acts like a form of involuntary memory), or into the very future, with unexpected rules to follow. Further on, if Deleuze defines time-image as “a little piece of time in the pure state” (« un petit morceau de temps à l’état pur »), he also classifies a typical dream-image, or oneiro-sign, as “an image where a movement of world replaces action” – that is, a mere substitute of physical awakening attribute par excellence. In fact, years before getting closer to the movies, the French philosopher along with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari had created a set of concepts they surnamed schizoanalysis, for which the body psychologically appears without organs, but, quite as expected, the dream could be the most in-between human representation.
Of course, to return to the stipulated topic, I would say the dream-image, or better, the dream reproduced on screen, is a time-image in the pure state just because, on the other hand, the dream-body acts like a body without organs, namely a simulacrum, a surface without any depth, if not anything else but disguised profoundness, possibly the very last avatar of the soul myth. I shall finish this conceptual part of my paper with a hermeneutical warning statement:
Spectators and critics alike have often been fascinated by these moments of film composition, but they pose a challenge of the first degree for film analysis. It is often difficult to grasp relationships within their composition, and in some cases regularities in terms of narration can hardly be found; as a result, the [|] interpretation of such works becomes increasingly arbitrary or itself takes on the blurry aspect of dreams.
In other words, a close oneiric reading that is going to be just my style of analyzing Amour and its nightmare-bodies, Georges and Anne Laurent.
We must agree, the production has an extremely stark physical dimension, objective and impact. If the first shot ends with revealing the corpse of a deceased old woman locked in a sarcophagus-like bedroom, as a narcissistic or hyper-individualistic means for someone to keep her conserved like a mummy, then, by dealing with corporeal decay, the film rushes to capture two bodies already caught between life and death: an octogenarian couple secluded in their home – like in a dream, like in a body, like in a dream-body, from which awakening means passing away – or, better said, two characters captive between real and imaginary bodies.
In a rather unrecognizable transition, we can visualize the track out of reality into the dream-state. Shot by shot, Amour does reveal its oneiric structure, especially in the second half, introduced by the nightmare of the sane husband, a scene about which the author confesses it was the most harsh to conceive. In Haneke’s own words, “it was the most difficult thing in the film for me to write – the whole film was written and we’d started building the sets, and I hadn’t yet found the solution for the dream”. In my close reading words, one usual morning, after a false awakening, while brushing his teeth, Georges can doubtlessly hear that somebody is knocking at the door. This uninvited guest, maybe pure death, recalls – in a symmetrical manner – the beginning of the movie, when the couple returns home from the piano recital of their former pupil, only to discover that someone has tried to break in, but also the end, when the daughter Eva enters the empty house, after the door has been broken by the police and the corpse of her mother has finally been detected. But now, in the dream sequence, there is nobody at the door, only some strange scaffolding, so that, along with Georges, we may gradually realize that something is not right:
Soon, the hallway becomes a true maze, then a flooded basement, in which the bare-footed character materializes his terror; he feels the torture of a third hand arisen from behind his neck just like a tentacle on his mouth, becoming a transformed, mutant body:
Furthermore, we witness his suffocation and real awakening from a pre-lucid dream, which he had while sleeping on his back, due to pectoral pressure: he awakens thus from a physiological nightmare. In the reality which has little in common with any form of imagination, as Anne says, Georges will suffocate and kill her with the same hand, by pressing a pillow on her face.
As mentioned earlier, the director confesses the dream scene was not only the hardest for him to grasp in the process of his film-writing, but also reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky. Related sequences do appear in The Mirror, maybe the best achieved Tarkovskian output, which Michael Haneke has ranked third on a list of his 10 favorite movies he gave for the 2002 Sight & Sound Greatest Films Poll. When giving an interview shortly after Amour had been released, our director came, in fact, with an expected testimony: “That was my fear, that those associations with Tarkovsky might arise, that they’d see that and think, ‘Ah, we’ve seen this before in Tarkovsky!’ – but I couldn’t think of anything better.”
I have chosen to illustrate my comparison between the two directors with a dream scene where the Russian auteur depicts his mother apparently washing her hair in a strange vessel:
Even though his movie is not completely autobiographical, Haneke confesses he rebuilt for the set of Amour the apartment of his parents, the same way in which Tarkovsky rebuilt his childhood house for the sake of The Mirror. On the one – or other? – hand, in every dream, even the buildings represent the dreamer, his body without organs. Like in Amour, where the devastated corridor was Georges himself, in The Mirror we have the plaster on the ceiling that begins to disintegrate, falling in slow motion. Thus, the ravage of the room symbolizes the physical counterpart of the subject, an old mother:
Further associations between the two directors engage the recurrent dripping water. Even when it causes damages, for Andrei Tarkovsky water has the function of a positive Jungian symbol. This permanent vital aspect may be there just because fire is always present, simultaneously. One could mention a science fiction spiritual movie like Stalker, with its flooded floors, but, unlike Amour’s dampness and void, filled with objects.
On the other hand, it is the water of the tap that Georges leaves on after his wife has the initial stroke; it is the rain that falls when the patient wants to commit suicide, while her husband attends a funeral. The continuous flow of the liquid is the maintained thread of Anne’s life. But this water is sometimes overwhelming. If Tarkovsky celebrates life and spirit, Haneke’s movies emphasize acts of violence and mainly death, involving, what else, the mortal body. Nevertheless, it is the oblivious water myth of Lethe – from a rather ancient view of dreams and, better said, psychological time – that is being recycled here and there by both of our directors, even though in such disparate ways; one sees in it a protective liquid, while the other miasma.
In fact, being placed at the very core of the movie, between the two strokes, when there is no turning back, the dream sequence in Amour summarizes the whole film by forging the path of a subtle oneiro-poetics. Later on, we are witnessing a scene where the protagonist has a reverie with his wife, seemingly recovered, who is playing on the piano a sublime Impromptu Op. 90 no. 3 by Schubert. One could entitle it Hallucination/Delusion of an immortal beloved: when he can no longer bear this lucid illusion, the husband turns off the stereo player which, in fact, has played his former pupil’s perfect recording.
Retrospectively, along with a classic nightmare sequence, this one is important because it brings an aesthetic path for the public to understand Haneke’s vision: “those two scenes were necessary to set up the ending. It introduces a meta-realistic level to the film.” In another commentary, the director states:
The dream sequence is there because I needed to find some way to move away from the stark realism of the first part of the film, because the end of the film isn’t completely realistic. [...] So it was necessary to bring the audience to a more spiritual level, and finally, the simplest thing to do was a dream.
Fully enabling a hyper-realistic intrusion of the imaginary, the film ends after this terribly loving husband hallucinates about Anne washing the dishes and leaving the apartment together with him, in a movement somehow announced by the hallway dream itself. Astonishingly enough, the phantomatic wife literally disappears with a real and alive body of Georges. If the whole movie has taken place in various but always interior, inner spaces (like the concert hall, the bus or the house), one could easily take into consideration the following fact: all three phantasms are making bodies hyper-visual – the one of Georges (in the dream) and that of Anne (in the hallucinations).
Finally, as a body counterpart, we might read, or find, or see the soul in the second pigeon released by Georges after he caught it with a blanket on the apartment floor. This – how else but – spiritual sacred animal acts like a sort of a psychopomp, even though Haneke would only say that in Paris there are many birds. In this case, the function of the dream sequence would be to foreshadow pure death or, maybe, afterlife. Because if the house represents the body, then the analyzed nightmare, which takes place outside of it, becomes a very strange out-of-body experience.
Besides The Mirror (1975), the film placed at the very core of Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpieces and which Haneke worships, I shall finish my presentation by comparing Amour with another two films of the Russian director. First, we could observe that Michael Haneke reuses the same Bach chorale, BWV 639 “I’ll call to you, Lord Jesus Christ”, that Tarkovsky featured in Solaris (1972) when the astronaut’s wife haunts his memory. Unlike there, the melody played by Georges stops in the middle of its development, just because redemption – that is, a new soul & body – seems to have been canceled by an obscure power: salvation is not possible.
Then, the pigeon moment is a good reminder of a celebrated passage in Stalker (1979). One could force this brief parallel/secant with a scene from the sand-dune covered room, where two dark birds (not light, as in Haneke’s film) enter the screen from the foreground (wonder why not from the background, as in Amour), one disappearing without trace. Vlada Petric makes a generous description of the sequence:
At one point, two black birds enter the screen from the left and right foreground, flying toward the other end of the room; just before they reach the back (brightly lit) wall, the first bird disappears (through an optical trick), as the other lands naturally on a sand dune, producing a cloud of slowly billowing dust. Visually fascinated, most viewers are uncertain what actually happened on the screen – or whether it happened at all – and feel a spontaneous desire to see the shot again.
Ironically, Amour confronts us with a similar fascination:
Anyway, for Andrei Tarkovsky “the world of dreams and thoughts evokes a hyper-reality, as is the case of dreams from the Dostoevskian novels”. Concluding, one could consider the aforementioned writer to be the closest precursor both for Michael Haneke himself. Moreover, anticipating a possible further contribution to this field of research, it should be acknowledged that for all the three authors, expressing/transposing a dream engenders a world of myths recycled.
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Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, Films and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick, and Wong Kar-wai. Lanham – Plymouth, Lexington Books, 2008 ;
Kelly Bulkeley, “Dreaming and the cinema of David Lynch”, in Dreaming, 13.1, Mar 2003, p. 49-60;
Robert Curry, “Films and Dreams”, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 33.1, Autumn 1974, p. 83-89;
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2. The Time-Image, Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, London, The Athlone Press, 1989 ;
Idem & Felix Guattari, Capitalisme et schizophrénie. L’Anti-Œdipe, Paris, Éditions du Minuit (collection «Critique»), 1972;
Scott Foundas, “Michael Haneke on Amour: “When I Watched it with the Audience, They Gasped!””, 20 Dec 20, http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2012/12/michael_haneke.php, accessed on 2 February 2015;
Lanie Goodman, “What Love’s Got to Do With It. Michael Haneke’s Latest Film, ‘Amour,’ Takes an Unflinching but Compassionate Look at Old Age”, in The Wall Street Journal, 8 Nov 2012, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970204712904578094942536843054, accessed on 25 January 2015;
Roy Grundmann (ed.), A Companion to Michael Haneke, Chicester, Wiley-Blackwell (Companions to film directors), 2010;
Leslie Halpern, Dreams on Film: The Cinematic Struggle Between Art and Science, foreword by Robert Smither, Jefferson, McFarland, 2003;
Philip Horne, “Michael Haneke’s Amour: is this the ultimate horror film?”, 15 Nov 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/9667894/Michael-Hanekes-Amour-is-this-the-ultimate-horror-film.html, accessed on 4 February 2015;
Andrew O’Hehir, “Michael Haneke: “Art doesn’t offer answers, only questions””, 23 Jan 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/01/23/michael_haneke_art_doesn%E2%80%99t_offer_answers_only_questions, accessed on 23 January 2015;
Vlada Petric, “Tarkovsky’s Dream Imagery”, in Film Quarterly, 43.2, Winter 1989/1990, p. 28-34;
Brian Price & John David Rhodes, On Michael Haneke, Detroit, Wayne State University Press (Contemporary approaches to film and television series), 2010;
Laura Rascaroli, “Like a Dream: A Critical History of the Oneiric Metaphor in Film Theory”, in Kinema. A journal for film and audiovisual media, Fall 2002, http://www.kinema.uwaterloo.ca/article.php?id=141&feature, accessed on 1 February 2015;
Karin Schiefer, “Michael Haneke talks about Amour”, Austrian Film Commisssion, May 2012;
F.E. Sparshott, “Vision and Dream in Film”, in Philosophic Exchange: Annual Proceedings, 1, Summer 1971, p. 111-124;
Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, 2nd edition, Translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair, London, The Bodley Head, 1987;
Mihai Vacariu, Îndrăgostit de Tarkovski. Mic tratat de trăire a artei [In love with Tarkovsky. Small treaty of living the art], Iaşi, Adenium (Punct RO. Eseu), 2013;
Peter Wuss, “Dreamlike Images in Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Tarkovsky’s The Mirror: A Cognitive Approach”, Translated from the German by Brian Currid, http://www.avila.edu/journal/fall03/wussdreamseng1.pdf, accessed on 24 January 2015;
***, http://rateyourmusic.com/list/77ships/michael_hanekes_10_favorite_movies, accessed on 30 January 2015.
 Michael Haneke, in Scott Foundas, “Michael Haneke on Amour: “When I Watched it with the Audience, They Gasped!””, 20 Dec 2012, http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2012/12/michael_haneke.php;
 Michael Haneke, in Philip Horne, “Michael Haneke’s Amour: is this the ultimate horror film?”, 15 Nov 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/9667894/Michael-Hanekes-Amour-is-this-the-ultimate-horror-film.html;
 Idem, in Andrew O’Hehir, “Michael Haneke: “Art doesn’t offer answers, only questions””, 23 Jan 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/01/23/michael_haneke_art_doesn%E2%80%99t_offer_answers_only_questions;
 “Lumea viselor şi a gândurilor evocă o hiperrealitate, aşa cum este şi cazul viselor din romanele dostoievskiene.” – in the original: Mihai Vacariu, Îndrăgostit de Tarkovski. Mic tratat de trăire a artei [In love with Tarkovsky. Small treaty of living the art], Iaşi, Adenium (Punct RO. Eseu), 2013, p. 198.