Friday, February 1, 2013

Foyer Amour

Over the weekend I visited the home of some relatively new friends for the first time.  As I walked into their 1920's Spanish, I recall that the first words out of my mouth were, "You have a foyer!"

The rest of the rooms radiated from this wonderfully free space.  One might say unusable space, because the family needed more room, and this was not a viable area for, say, an office.  But one could also imagine a gathering of people there drinking champagne, turning to smile at you as you walked in the door....

The truth is that, ever since seeing the film Amour, I'd been thinking a lot about the foyer in that film and how it functions.  About why writer-director Michael Haneke and his production designer chose/built that apartment set.  And why the foyer is so large with respect to the rest of the couple's apartment--aside from the desire to have Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) have space enough to try out her motorized wheelchair in the scene depicted above. I've been thinking about its windows that blow open, and the pigeon that the husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), so carefully and patiently cloaks and releases.  About the fact that the foyer is the room that is almost broken into at the opening, an omen that Georges and Anne choose largely to ignore...or perhaps more accurately, to accept without alarm, which seemed very foreign to me (pardon the puns).

In many ways the symbolic significance of all of the above in the film seems obvious, almost simplistic, heavy-handed in description.  But in Haneke's meticulous and unsentimental (some have called it "clinical") depiction, the result is, rather, restrained and mysterious.

A foyer, from the 19th century French word for "hearth" or "fireplace," was designed to be a place of transition from the cold outdoors and the fireplace-heated rooms beyond. The concept originated from the theater--where audiences went for warmth and repose between acts.  And now, of course, it's where we spend intermissions and, on occasion, gather for receptions after performances.

 As blogger Joseph Craven puts it in his terrific post, in a home the foyer is a "prelude," a "preamble":  "The foy-yurrrr is the handshake of rooms."

The foyer is also described as a "vestibule," which, having grown up Catholic, I recall as the anteroom with the fountain of holy water one would use to bless oneself.  It's a transitional place/space from the "noisy business of the world," as one description put it (like the therapy room!).  Another definition of vestibule is a cavity, chamber, or channel the leads to another cavity, such as the "vestibule to the ear."  Or  the vagina.  Ah--Man.  Woman.  Birth.  Death.  Infinity....

In Amour, the foyer is certainly emblematic of Anne's transitional state between life and death, and the death-in-life (that apparently useless space) that old age and illness force some of us to endure.  My friends need more space in part because they're contemplating taking in an ailing parent.  My own 92-year-old stepmother, when she could last speak to me on the phone, said she wished the Lord would take her.  Until then, she's in her own private little purgatory in a convalescent home, confined--at least physically--to the space between a bed and a chair.

I prefer to picture her dancing a polka with my long-deceased father in a grand and slightly tacky Italianate foyer.

Update 2/24/13:  Click here for a link to article on Amour's production design:  the apartment is a replica of Haneke's parents' in Vienna, and it was built on a sound stage.  Haneke's wife was the set decorator.

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