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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Amour: Family, Care Giving and Mercy Killing Go to the Oscars

Nickie Phillips

Amour (2012):  Family, Care Giving and Mercy Killing Go to the Oscars 1

Guest Post by Demetra M. Pappas

That the title of the Oscar-nominated French film, Amour (2012), is the French word for “love,” sets up this fact-based film about an aging 80-something-year-old couple, in which wife Anne Laurent (played by Emmanuelle Riva) falls ill and husband Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) engages in long-term caregiving and ultimately engages in mercy killing of Anne, who suffered from heart disease and repeated, worsening strokes. No, this is not a spoiler alert – in the opening scenes, the audience is treated to a CSI-style arrival of policing authorities on the scene of a homicide.  The events depicted are factually based upon events that took place in screenwriter/director Michael Haneke’s family.  The work has been awarded thus far with awards from Cannes to Bafta, and at the 2013 Oscars, the film has been nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Emmanuelle Riva), Best Original Screenplay (Michael Haneke), Best Director (Michael Haneke) and Best Foreign Language Film.

I could tell you that his may well be the best film made in the past 20 years, as my friend Alex Kustanovich, a former screenwriter, told me after he saw it in France over the Christmas break.  Or I could repeat the persnickety (but seemingly correct) comment made by the friend I attended the film’s screening with, herself a scriptwriter and artist, made, to the effect that the Isabelle Huppert (as daughter Eva Laurent) wore the same shoes in all scenes (my friend’s explanation – the scenes were likely all shot the same day, and the relatively low budget film purchased different outfits, but used the same footwear, rather than an oft-used mechanism of similar colors/styles, to show character personality;  my own explanation is that I wear the same pair of sneakers every day, unless on pain of penalty).  This I shall not do, although their comments were received by me, a former criminal lawyer turned legal studies academic criminologist and sociologist, with great interest.

Instead, I am going to write about the film through my own (academic) eyes.  Like screenwriter Haneke, I had a family matter which influenced my life and my work – for over 20 years, my father had Huntington’s Disease, an early midlife onset and relentlessly degenerative neurological disorder (now popularized in discussions in a storyline in the television show, House), which drew me to the questions of medical euthanasia and assisted suicide. Before anyone assumes that I am automatically in favor, I have written at length, in an introduction to a piece referred to as the “Bitter Pill,” about the experience I had when my partner, in CCU during the latter part of my year doing my master’s in Criminal Justice Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, nearly died, and I balked at his demand that I do to him what I had wanted done for me,* a game changing experience, to be sure, as the surviving partner wryly comments.  (Yet another game changer was when I assertively underwent genetic testing in an early study at  London’s Institute for Neurology, only to learn that the illness I had assumed would be killing me by my 40s was nowhere to be found in my genetic makeup, thus making me question whether I was a suitable person to write of my family illness, since resolved with an answer in the affirmative, after discussion with sociological, legal and biomedical advisors and, of course, the people in my life).

Thus it is that in watching and contemplating Amour, I found myself looking back at sets of families whom I had studied in my doctoral and subsequent academic work.  Family members in medical euthanasia cases, such as Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian (whose trials I attended and compared in my PhD for the LSE) did not view themselves as secondary victims (the decedent being the primary victim), but, on the whole, as family members grateful for a service that ended the suffering of their beloved.  Some became pro-assisted suicide and medical euthanasia activists, such as the daughter of one of Kevorkian’s patients/victims/clients, who not only went on the lecture circuit, but who told me in an interview that she took instruction (after her mother’s own death) as to how to help end the life/suffering of others, by, among other things, hoarding Seconal (in the years before Oregon and Washington State allowed for this as a legitimate medical prescription to effect death with dignity for patients with imminently terminal illnesses, who were enduringly requesting that their lives be medically ended by physician assisted suicide).

In the end, this film is an extension of true-life end-of-life film making such as that of The Sea Inside (2004).  However, unlike that film, in which “many hands” were employed to effect the death of quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro (who unsuccessfully fought and sued in Spain so as to be able to receive medical euthanasia and “the right to die with dignity”), in Amour, there was unquestionably only one set of hands involved in Anne’s death – that of Georges.  It was an interesting, and perhaps unsatisfying (to the American viewer) writing and directorial choice that the audience is not shown or told (via after notes) what happened to Georges after he takes Anne’s life.  Did he commit suicide? Was he arrested and prosecuted, as was Georgia’s Carol Carr (2002), who shot and killed her two 40-something year old sons as they lay side by side, with advanced Huntington’s Disease, in a nursing home in Georgia (after which her felony murder and malice murder indictment was reduced to assisted suicide, effectively with time served and felony probation – as long as she did not live with her surviving son, who also had Huntington’s Disease)? Was he simply left to live out the remainder of his life (in Amour, there is a suggestion that he starved himself to death, which might perhaps be viewed as either the consequence of extreme grief or as suicidal, after he took Anne’s life, though the audience does not see Georges when the police break into the apartment)  in mourning for his beloved wife, whom he cared for through surgeries and strokes until she was end-stage, all-the-while honoring her wish that she not be placed in a hospital (which I liken to the case of Merian Frederick, one of the women for whose assisted suicide Jack Kevorkian was tried and acquitted in 1996)?  Did he ultimately live and find a bereavement support group (such as “Survivors,” as the Kevorkian family members call themselves)?  And, conversely, assuming that one agrees with the mercy killing (which I neither endorse nor condemn here) did Georges “wait too long,” as one might wonder in the wake of the January 13, 2013 euthanasia of middle-aged deaf twin Belgian brothers, who were going blind and horrified that they would never see one another again, thus choosing the time and manner of their deaths, which were lawfully effected by hospital medical staff.

Haneke’s central question is how to manage the suffering of someone you love (and Georges does so heroically and stoically through heart illness, two strokes and severe degeneration to near persistent vegetative state).  In seeking to answer this, he opens another – how to manage and support the needs of the caregiver who is experiencing social isolation to the point of social death, along with the needs of caring for someone in escalating medical need.

* "Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: Are Doctors' Duties when Following Patients' Orders a Bitter Pill to Swallow?", in G. Howarth and P. Jupp (eds.), Contemporary Issues in the Sociology of Death, Dying and Disposal, Macmillan, Inc. (1996).

Demetra M. Pappas holds a JD from Fordham Law School, an MSc in Criminal Justice Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a PhD from the Department of Law and the Department of Sociology of the London School of Economics.  Her doctoral dissertation was entitled, The Politics of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: A Comparative Case Study of Emerging Criminal Law and the Criminal Trials of Jack ‘Dr. Death’ Kevorkian.  This ethnographic study had an entire chapter devoted to issues pertaining to families and interviews of family members of decedents (whether denominated patients, victims or clients).  Her first book, Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America :The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate, (Greenwood Press,  2012) (100 year study of US and UK  doctors prosecuted for medical euthanasia/assisted suicide and role of media, in which she pointedly takes a neutral stance, and invites readers to draw their own conclusions) came out in September 2012.  She is currently on the faculty of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Francis College, where she was named SGA Faculty Member of the Year in 2011/2012.