Ricky Gervais and Michael Haneke: together at last

Ricky Gervais’ sitcom Derek concluded its first season around the time Michael Haneke’s Amour won the Oscar for best foreign language film, and my viewing of both overlapped in a way that made comparison perhaps a bit more obvious that it otherwise would be. At first glance these two figures could not seem more different: on the one hand Gervais – portly comedy innovator who (along with lanky co-writer Stephen Merchant) devised two of the best television comedies of the 2000s  – is an arrogant evangelical atheist whose massive over-sensitive ego and hysterical giggle saturate his media appearances to the point of grating irritation; on the other Haneke, tall slender auteur, whose icy stare and demeanour echoes the Beckett-like formal austerity we see in the aggressive, pitiless mise-en-scene that his films deploy, as he jams 1970s Screen theory with the generic engines of neo-classical mainstream cinema to produce a critical honeypot of Art-house faire. Gervais the Clown, hungry for applause; Haneke the Artist, steadily creating an oeuvre.


But such contrasts are deceptive and crude. (As an aside I would note that for a while now a trim Gervais has looked every bit the Hollywood player.) While each of them have fashioned personas that serve their creative purposes, albeit in different ways, they both share an impeccable ability in their casting and handling of performers. Amour has Emmanuel Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant as Anne and George, the elderly couple struck by the consequences of Anne’s stroke in a film that tracks the ambient cruelty and indignity of gradual decline toward death. The film hardly ever leaves the confines of their (now oppressively) large Paris apartment and this space and its tasteful décor gradually becomes one of the many irrelevancies, and burdens, in which the characters have to live. The power of the film is located primarily in the way these actors unobtrusively carry the weight of the finality that approaches in a way that does not either spectacularise or sentimentalise the daily routine of suffering they depict in their actions. Derek by contrast is a sitcom that features an ensemble cast centred around Gervais’ character Derek, a childlike man of fifty who helps Hannah (Kerry Godliman) run Broad Hill, a residential care home for the elderly; they are assisted by a miserable, yet eloquently mordant caretaker Dougie (superbly played by Karl Pilkington), and Kev (David Earl, drawing on a persona he created for stand-up and his radio show), a lewd and slimy nobody who has attached himself to the group for want of having anything else to do. Gervais’ skill as an artist has always been caught up with his astute recognition that his own appetite and hunger for the camera has to be formally contained for it to work, hence his usage, here and elsewhere, of the mock-documentary format; the figure of Derek doubles this protection by radically de-glamorising (removing Hollywood from) Gervais’s body, while augmenting what has been perceived to be diminished in his persona, the quality of loving sentimentality.


Unlike Amour, Derek’s setting allows us to experience, within a blend of comedy and pathos, a community of care in the face of aged decline. In the context of healthcare and nursing home scandals in the UK – themselves emblems of a sinister creeping ideology that sees old people as euthanasiable burdens – its achingly simple message that ‘kindness’ is the solvent of abusive and humiliating treatment is both timely and apposite. Even Kev, the fly in the ointment whose crudity grates throughout, is treated with extraordinary generosity, not least when his character confesses the depth of his self-awareness as a failure in the final episode (which may be the best scene in the entire series).


Both Amour and Derek are withering in their depiction of those who flinch from the nature of caring for the old and frail. The former shows us the irritable, narcissistic squeamishness of George and Anne’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), the callousness of private nurses, even the unthinking aestheticization of Anne’s condition by a former student. Derek is equally pointed in its depiction of acquisitive, feckless and selfish offspring offloading their putatively diminished parents in the home, and the oppression of the box-ticking municipal audit. What is missed or avoided by such figures is the shared continuity of our lives which old age complicates through its enforced indignities, but nevertheless does not abrogate.


When his neighbour, Mr Méry who helps carry bottled water to the apartment, says he is impressed by George’s ‘handling of the situation’, it reminds us that such admiration is always comfortable to communicate at a distance from the granularity of everyday care for the old and chronically sick. It is a commonplace for politicians and others to offer gestural praise for long-term carers which, while it is obviously deserved, equally offsets the speaker from proximity to the nitty-gritty of the everyday routine of cleaning, feeding, holding, lifting, bathing and the sheer being-there-ness that is required and which is depicted unblinkingly in both Amour and Derek. And yet, this public praise does point to a truth we may hope for, which is the possibility that in the everydayness of such care we might collectively acknowledge courage, even heroism. In Milly Buonanno’s excellent recent book, Italian TV Drama & Beyond: Stories from the Soil, Stories from the Sea she thinks through the alloyed valency of contemporary heroism in the West, noting that for sociologists like Alvin Gouldner, everyday life offers a kind of ‘counter-concept’ or critique of heroism, dealing as it does with social, loving relationships, in risk-free – if perhaps conformist – regular settings. Reality television and its celebrities offer one potential solution to the fusion of courage, talent and extraordinary achievement with ordinariness. But I think Amour and Derek both refresh the idea that there is a unique strain of dignity, bravery and fortitude at work in those facing death as a routine as common and daily as doing the washing up and making the beds.


Amour offers the most austere vision in this respect, but is a limited one, and all the more devastating for it. Haneke has remarked that his decision to confine the events of the film to one apartment was based on a desire to make it an existential rather than a social drama, so that the question ‘How do I cope with the suffering of a loved one?’ is centralised for the spectator. However, the singular ‘I’ in that question does recruit a particular social and ideological context: for what we see in George and Anne’s final weeks are the latter stages of the bourgeois conception of love and marriage, and it is ultimately isolated and removed from the rest of the world and its connections. By contrast Derek offers a socialised sense of final days: it is (Richard) Hoggartian in its depiction of the rituals of the amateur night, the birthday party and that emblem of working-class pastoral, the seaside day-trip. While Amour has been praised for its humane usage of Haneke’s stylistic (often Bressonian) austerity, Derek was criticised for its overblown sentimentality, most of all the incessant piano music and Coldplay tracks that double-underline its message about the necessity of kindness. I have two responses to this criticism. The first is that Gervais astutely internalises such sentimentality by making Derek himself spectacularly sentimental, not only in his reaction to the death (and there are several) of the old folks he cares for, but also in his enthusiastic reaction to YouTube clips of animals doing silly things. By refusing to medicalise Derek as having a ‘condition’ such moments do not allow us to attribute this to a mental deficiency, and they deliberately complicate our reaction. Secondly, in his book In Defense of Sentimentality philosopher Robert C. Solomon points out that criticisms of sentimentality as false or self-indulgent affect miss the ethical role that the stimulation of tender and compassionate feelings can have. By setting Derek in a world where kindness can be recognised and acknowledged (rather than the private love that is, as in Amour, left to be discovered after the participants have left the stage), Gervais signals the availability of a tender kind of heroism in everyday life, an availability that allows others to learn from and participate in it. Perhaps Amour is a better aesthetic work, but Derek offers more to us as an ethical achievement, and signpost.


[First published on CST Online in March 2013]


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