By now, you have surely heard something about Michael Haneke’s Amour— likely that it is a film dealing with the ravages of extreme old age and the human body’s gradual betrayal of itself, and the effect this has on those who must bear witness.
You may also know something about its director, Michael Haneke, the Austrian filmmaker best known in this country for his Oscar-nominated study of the origins of German fascism, The White Ribbon; the surveillance thriller Caché; and The Piano Teacher, about the sadomasochistic affair between a music instructor (Isabelle Huppert) and her much younger student. This is not a filmmaker known for his tender touch, and yet it is no accident that his new film is called Amour (“Love”). For this is very much a love story: an unsparing portrait of a couple at the end of a long, perhaps not always happy, but rewarding union, who now find themselves confronted head-on by that eternal promise, “till death do us part.”
The couple are called Georges and Anne, and they are played by two actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both legends of the French screen, lured out of semi-retirement by Haneke for these roles. You believe them instantly as people who have spent decades sharing the same air, surviving myriad betrayals and compromises, soldiering on, growing closer. And if Riva’s physically and emotionally naked turn is the more obvious tour-de-force, Trintignant is no less superb in his moments of confusion and quiet contemplation.
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, on the eve of Amour‘s win of the coveted Palme d’Or, I spoke to Haneke about the making of this most affecting, and unexpected, movie romance.
You’ve said that Amour was partly inspired by real events in your own family. When did you begin to think about turning that into a film, and how did the project develop from there?
I’ve completely forgotten when I first started thinking about this, because this event in my family took place many years ago. In any case, I started to write at a certain moment, and later, I was more or less blocked, and then I saw a Canadian film about a somewhat similar case. It was a film about a man who falls ill, it becomes a drama for his family, and finally he kills himself in the bathtub and his wife doesn’t save him. The story was a little bit similar, though the film was completely different–it was a social film, with the family, the hospital. But I used it as an excuse because I was a little blocked in my writing, and I said to myself, “Well, someone’s already maid a film about this. I should let it go. I’ll work on something else.” And as soon as I started to work on something else, I had ideas for the ending of Amour and after that I wrote very quickly.
Do you feel that this is a particularly contemporary story? People have always gotten old and sick, of course, but recently there has been so much reporting about the number of people living much longer and the crisis it’s creating within families, and in the healthcare system.
No, this was not the reason to do the film. Naturally, in the last few years, there have been a lot of films on this subject, many television films, which are important, because this is a real theme that exists in our society. But that’s not what interested me. The thing that interested me was the question: How to manage the suffering of someone you love? That’s the thing that touched me, that I wanted to investigate. It’s true that it’s also a very current subject because the population is getting older, but I could also have made this film 20 years ago, because this subject is universal and timeless. Everyone has parents, grandparents. You could also make a film about a couple in their thirties who have an eight-year-old child who’s dying of cancer; they face the same problem. But that’s a special tragic case, because getting cancer isn’t the destiny of everyone. But old age … it awaits us all. It’s inevitable.
I was very moved by a sequence mid-way through the film in which we suddenly see a montage of landscape paintings, followed by Anne’s remark, “C’est beau, la vie.” Why did you choose to include this sequence at this particular point in the story?
Because it was the only way to continue the film. It’s a question of timing, also of modesty. These paintings give a certain mental impression that allows us to live with this situation that we’ve seen. In the beginning, there’s something similar: When Anne has the accident with the tea, there are these wide shots of the empty apartment. Then later you have these empty landscape paintings. There’s a correspondence.
You choose to open the film with the ending of the story and then flash back to the beginning.
The idea was, from the first scene, to make it clear that there is no other ending to this story. I didn’t want there to be any false suspense about what was going to happen. We know what’s going to happen in this situation. I did the same thing in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, when I opened the film with a text that said “Vienna, December 23, a young student killed three people in a bank and then himself.” After, you see the film and at the end what happens isn’t a surprise.
There’s also a rather startling and surprising dream sequence that occurs mid-way through the film.
The dream sequence is there because I needed to find some way to move away from the stark realism of the first part of the film, because the end of the film isn’t completely realistic. You have, for example, the moment when he hears her playing the piano. So it was necessary to bring the audience to a more spiritual level, and finally, the simplest thing to do was a dream. But it was the most difficult thing in the film for me to write–the whole film was written and we’d started building the sets, and I hadn’t yet found the solution for the dream. We talked about it a lot, and finally I found something that I think works not badly. When I watched it with the audience, they gasped!
The film takes place almost entirely in a single location–Georges and Anne’s apartment–and you have the feeling watching the film that the camera is unusually close to the actors, unusually intimate with them.
I thought it was the proper location for this story, because when you are sick, life reduces itself to four walls. From the beginning, I told myself I had to respect a certain unity of time and location, the unity of classical tragedy. I had to remain level with the theme, to find a rather rigid form. But I don’t think the camera is closer to the actors than in my other films. It’s just more noticeable here because there aren’t many other possibilities.
The film also has a very powerful physical dimension–a sense of the fragility of these bodies in their various states of decay.
This is because I worked with actors who are … naturally, Emmanuelle isn’t in the same condition as her character, but Jean-Louis is rather like you see him in the film. For him, it’s not so easy to get up and walk over there. You could see that at the press conference in Cannes. And this gave, naturally, a certain truth to the film that one can’t direct, you just observe it.
You wrote the part of Georges with Trintignant in mind. Why him?
Firstly, because I’ve always loved him as an actor, starting when I was a young man. He always has a secret. He always holds something back. All the great actors have that quality. Marlon Brando had it. Daniel Auteuil has it too, in my opinion. Secondly, I wanted him for this role in particular because he has a great warmth; he’s someone who makes me think immediately of love. I wouldn’t have made the film with another actor. I don’t know anyone of that age who could have played the role as well.
Emmanuelle was different because I knew her work well when I was younger–I adored Hiroshima, Mon Amour, everyone loved her back then. After, I more or less lost track of her, she was playing small roles here and there. At the start of Amour, I thought naturally of Annie Girardot, because we had worked together before, but it was clear that she was dying. So I did a casting call, and I invited Emmanuelle, because I thought she and Jean-Louis could make a good couple, and finally she came and did a few scenes and it was immediately clear that she was the best one. You really had the impression that they had been together for 50 years. I was very, very happy. She’s extraordinary.
The film demands that both actors reveal themselves very nakedly onscreen, emotionally and, in Riva’s case, physically as well. Was there anything in the script that gave them pause?
No. Of course, from the first meeting with Emmanuelle, I asked her if she was afraid of anything and she said, “To be honest, the scene in the shower, where I have to be naked.” And I said, “You can rest assured that I won’t show you in an unpleasant way, but it’s important for us to see that this body is decline.” And she said, “Yes, OK, it won’t be me who’s in that condition, it will be Anne.” I think I treated that scene very discretely. Otherwise, they were both afraid of their last scene together, firstly because it was filmed in a single unbroken take lasting eight minutes. That’s already difficult, and it was made more difficult by the fact that Jean-Louis had broken his hand during the shooting, so we were having to cheat things a bit. Everyone was afraid, me included, but fortunately it went extremely well. We did two takes, and at the end of the scene everyone was speechless.
Many of your films depict the relationships between parents and children, and here, in a few scenes with Isabelle Huppert as Georges and Anne’s daughter, you get a very acute sense of this being a very rational, logical family, where people keep their emotions withheld.
I think people are like this, the people I know are like this. Also, today, when the different generations of a family live far apart from each other, a certain alienation sets in, and if a difficult situation arises like the one depicted in the film, they ignore the situation. She talks about her concerts, her travels, but she doesn’t face the situation. This is normal, I think.
In Cannes, a lot of the press praised Amour as your most “humane” film or your most “compassionate” one, including some critics who hadn’t been fans of your earlier films. And yet, it seems to me that this very human dimension has always been present in your work, even in those films that have concentrated on the ugly side of human behavior, or our inability to communicate with one another.
I think it’s very simple. I’ve always said that I try to do the subject of the film in the best way. In this case, the subject of the film is love, so it’s obvious that you have to do it in a way that transmits this to the audience. If I’m making Funny Games, that’s not the point. But even in Funny Games, there are scenes with the couple where they are completely destroyed but at the same time full of compassion. I never understand when people see only what’s on the movie’s surface.
– Learning German From Michael Haneke (2010 interview pegged to The White Ribbon)
– Michael Haneke Will Be Your Mirror (2008 LA Weekly cover story)
– Agent Provocateur (2007 feature on Haneke’s early TV work)
You can follow chief Village Voice film critic Scott Foundas at @foundasonfilm.
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