“Death is no different whined about than withstood” wrote Philip Larkin in his desolate poem Aubade. In other words, whether we live paralysed by fear or accept it, the grim reaper will get us one day.
For obvious reasons many prefer not to think too much about the subject at all and regard those who broach the D-word without good cause as morbid (“Can’t we talk about something more cheerful?”).
In movies the topic is widely viewed as box office poison. People go to the cinema to be entertained not to be reminded of their mortality.
This is why many will studiously avoid Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’ like the plague. Haneke is known for turning a unflinching eye on ‘difficult’ subjects. In Funny Games we are forced to watch two sadistic psychopaths on a murderous mission, in Caché he exposes the guilty secrets that tear apart a well-heeled couple.
In ‘Amour’, the Austrian director presents the story of a woman who suffers a stroke which partially paralyses her and then another which takes away her ability to move or speak. Despite this trauma, it could be construed as a love story, hence the title, because of the way the stricken woman’s husband cares for her and tries to comfort her.
Haneke’s notorious resistance to sentiment brings a disturbing tension and stark realism to this challenging story. Its strength lies in the honesty and compassionate way he presents the woman’s desperate attempts to preserve some dignity despite her terminal condition. There’s never any expectation that she will recover. From the opening scene will know that she will die and that there won’t be a happy ending.
Watching this made me think of the different ways death is treated other movies.
The list of the ten movies that first came to mind, in order of release, is as follows:
- A Matter Of Life And Death directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (UK, 1946)
A war pilot (David Niven) survives a crash due to an other worldly error and has to argue why heaven should wait.
- It’s A Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (USA, 1946)
Wishing you’d never been born is a death of sorts. A trainee angel earns his wings by showing George Bailey (James Stewart) the consequences of his non being. One of the greatest life-affirming movies of all time.
- Ikuru (To Live) directed by Akira Kurosawa (Japan, 1952)
A pen-pushing bureaucrat belatedly finds a purpose in life after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Based on Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ , this stands as a poetic reminder that you should never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
- The Seventh Seal directed by Ingmar Bergman (Sweden, 1957)
A stylish art house classic in which a medieval knight (Max Von Sydow) plays a game of chess with the grim reaper to delay his inevitable demise..
- Wings Of Desire directed by Wim Wenders (Germany, 1987)
A group of the coolest angels in the history of cinema patrol the streets and skies of Berlin.
- After Life directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Japan, 1999)
A curious but affecting movie in which the newly dead stop at a way station where they have to choose the happiest moment of their lives to experience for eternity.
- Beginners directed by Mike Mills (USA, 2010)
A warm and witty tale of a widower who comes out as gay and, much to his son’s consternation, finds a new meaning to the final months of his life
- The Sixth Sense directed by M.Night Shyamalan (USA, 1999)
Tight, supernatural tale of the unexpected in which a mother seeks help for her son who admits “I see dead people” to a child psychologist (Bruce Willis) who has troubles of his own.
- La Stanza Del Figlio (The Son’s Room) directed Nanni Moretti (Italy, 2001)
Moretti is best known for his comedies but this is a deadly serious tale of a man grieving after his son is a victim of a tragic accident.
- Still Life directed by Uberto Pasolini (UK/Italy, 2013)
John May is a council worker (Eddie Marzan) who organizes funerals for the Eleanor Rigbys of this world who die with no known friends and no next of kin. A poignant story of loneliness.
What all these have in common is that in each, while reflecting on being and nothingness, the real subject is life and living.