‘Amour’ vs. ‘Quartet’: Hollywood and the creeping mainstreaming of euthanasia

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It’s hardly a secret that Hollywood has little use for old people doddering around on the large screen.

But, you might wonder, isn’t promoting euthanasia for the elderly a bit extreme, even for a morally relativistic, youth-obsessed movie industry?

You had to ask.

The troubling answer is that sharply divergent receptions for two current movies with starkly different takes on the final years of life — “Amour” and “Quartet” — would seem to suggest the movie establishment is indeed putting its cultural muscle behind a bid to mainstream the practice of euthanasia for the chronically ill elderly.

“Amour,” the latest toxic emission in a career filled with stark and dreary films by writer-director Michael Haneke, inflicts on audiences perhaps the most harrowing example of drawn-out death ever depicted in cinema as it shows an elderly man slowly driven mad by having to care for his incredibly frail wife alone.

"Quartet," starring Maggie Smith, has a more uplifting take on aging. (Sony Pictures Classics)

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“Quartet,” starring Maggie Smith, has a more uplifting take on aging. (Sony ... more >

In sharp contrast, “Quartet” — the directorial debut of the legendary actor Dustin Hoffman — follows the romantic foibles and physical travails of elderly British musicians who are vibrant and full of life as they prepare for a fundraising concert to save their home for retired musicians.

The Hollywood establishment, through its proxy, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recently honored the French-language “Amour” with exceedingly rare double nominations for both best picture and best foreign film Oscars this year. Previously, “Amour” was crowned with international cinema’s most prestigious festival award, the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or.

Meanwhile, “Quartet” drew a lone Golden Globe nomination for a stellar performance by Maggie Smith and a National Board of Review selection as one of 2012’s Top 10 Independent Films.

Among the broad spectrum of critics who weigh in at film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, opinions are a bit more evenly matched, with “Amour” drawing a lusciously ripe 91 percent approval rating and “Quartet” pulling a still-juicy 80 percent. Still, one senses that the critical establishment is eager to confer instant-classic status on “Amour,” while treating “Quartet” as an agreeable little trifle.

Don’t be deceived — “Amour” is about much more than a deep and enduring love under stress. Yes, the film does sensitively depict the depth and security of a strong marital bond, as the devoted husband is shown feeding, bathing, exercising and telling stories to his wife in a daily grind for what appears to last months if not years. But that relationship ends with a shocking act that clearly advocates euthanasia.

One might write off this act as the isolated choice of a unique, unrepresentative screen couple whose story Mr. Haneke just happens to be telling on-screen. And about whom he just happened to choose to write his single-credited fiction screenplay.

But it would be a mistake to interpret Mr. Haneke’s meaning in “Amour” without consideration of Mr. Haneke himself, a man who has consistently been described as a kind of cinematic sadist for a career typified by films that depict the worst aspects of human nature. The German filmmaker’s body of work is crowded with people inflicting psychological or even physical torture upon others, particularly in the repellent “Funny Games,” which he made twice — first in German, and then in a shot-by-shot remake in English a decade later.

In the full context of Mr. Haneke’s oeuvre, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that “Amour” is not just a film, but propaganda for euthanasia as an acceptable option for culling out people who have become too big a drain on others.

Mr. Haneke isn’t taking the subject lightly, by any means. But the fact that he stacks the deck so extremely — with the wife suffering an unbearable string of maladies and the husband acceding to her unreasonable demand that he never take her to a hospital — manipulates the audience into feeling that there was indeed no other way out but ending her life. At a time when the elderly population is ever-increasing and living far longer than in the past, this sets an especially pernicious precedent.

Now that “Amour” has been released to such ecstatic worldwide acclaim, it could open the floodgates for a stream of new films and TV shows to depict euthanasia as a noble way out, as, indeed, an ultimate act of love. With cinema’s long history of driving changes in social attitudes, this could have the effect of normalizing euthanasia as an acceptable option for the chronically ill elderly. It’s hard to understand the liberal establishment’s cheerleading for this well-acted but painfully slow-moving and, frankly, boring work as anything other than a tool of cultural engineering.

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