PRINT November 2012


Michael Haneke’s Amour

Michael Haneke, Amour, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 127 minutes. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva).

I do view the society I live in as pretty loveless.
—Michael Haneke

“I WAS SO YOUNG ONCE!” cries the unnamed woman played by Emmanuelle Riva in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959). More than a half century later, the octogenarian Riva first appears in Michael Haneke’s Amour as a corpse, ceremoniously laid out on a bed in her Paris apartment in a long, dark dress, her head wreathed with desiccated flower petals. Her body has, apparently, remained in the sealed room for days, the smell of decay repelling the pompiers who force the door in the film’s cataclysmic opening shot. Violent incursion into domestic sanctum has long been a trope in Haneke’s cinema, but the trespass that initiates Amour differs from the invasions the Austrian master has previously manufactured as metaphors for an ever-threatening universe. Here the intruders breach asylum not as harbingers of torture, but as witnesses to the end of a protracted tragedy.

A chronicle of death foretold, Amour rewinds to the onset of affliction with a long, locked shot in Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the camera positioned onstage, staring into the auditorium as it fills. This oddly angled shot, whose static duration emphasizes its vigilant suppression of the expected countershot (i.e., a view of the stage from the audience’s perspective) even as the evening’s performance, a Schubert recital by pianist Alexandre Tharaud, commences, informs us that Haneke is master of this jurisdiction, creating anxiety by withholding the anticipated image. The director, who has frequently claimed, reversing Godard’s classic formula, that “cinema is a lie at twenty-four frames a second” and has called for films to elicit an active, questing spectator, appears to accord his audience ontological freedom, allowing their eyes to roam this prolonged image to discern its status, nature, and import. Only on second viewing might one readily espy the film’s protagonists, an elderly couple, both music teachers, played by Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, seated among the concertgoers, much as one discovers only after intent inspection of the long-held final shot of the school steps in Haneke’s Caché an encounter between two boys that might explain the film’s central mystery. Wielding utter authority over the image even as he invests it with calculated ambiguity, Haneke makes Amour a film about confinement that immures its meanings along with its characters.

Arriving home from the recital—“Incredible semiquavers in the presto, what finesse!” Riva proudly exclaims of Tharaud, her former piano student—the couple discovers that the lock on their front door has been jimmied, a portent of the invasion to come. Their vulnerability thus established, Georges and Anne (named after so many bourgeois couples in Haneke’s cinema) soon fall prey to violation, though not of the type typically encountered in the director’s films. Their apartment, to which the remaining narrative is restricted, becomes another of the Austrian’s death traps, but through physical debility rather than aggressive incursion. Already having shown signs of distraction, Anne suffers a stroke at the breakfast table the next morning. Haneke knows this topos—domestic ritual abruptly interrupted by trauma—and precisely controls our sense of quietly escalating panic, employing the sound of a running faucet both to indicate Anne’s mental state and to unsettle our own. Anne overfills her cup of tea, blankly aware of her own decline. Haneke cuts to a Resnais-like montage of five shots showing rooms of the apartment in darkness and empty of people, which delimits the perimeters of the old couple’s future existence; anything that occurs outside this space is hereafter only reported, never shown. (The commodious, book-and-objet-filled apartment was modeled on that of Haneke’s parents in Vienna.) Toward the end of Amour, Haneke immediately follows a violent outburst with a symmetrical montage that “answers” the first, a set of six close-ups of landscape paintings that hang in the apartment. Confined and failing, Georges and Anne must now make their way through a different kind of wilderness.

Though he has always rejected genre as a contrivance, Haneke has often resorted to its lineaments; however singular his approach and vision, many of his films can be characterized variously as melodrama, thriller, mystery, or disaster movie. Amour, too, draws on hallowed traditions, of the claustral-apartment film (e.g., Roman Polanski’s Repulsion [1965] and The Tenant [1976]) and of the cinema of death. Like Maurice Pialat’s La Gueule ouverte (The Mouth Agape, 1974) and Cristi Puiu’s Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), Amour charts the deterioration of a body until surcease. When the surgery to unblock Anne’s obstructed carotid artery does not work—Haneke pedagogically notes that the failure rate is only 5 percent—the right side of her body is paralyzed. (The director, who has frequently situated catastrophe in offscreen space to exaggerate its horror, bluntly elides Anne’s second stroke to augment the shock of its outcome.) The couple, lovingly married for decades, handles her infirmity with tender fortitude, but as Anne slips first into aphasia and then dementia, desiring death as she loses control—“There’s no reason to continue living. I don’t want to go on,” she calmly asserts—Georges’s response shifts from devotion to helplessness and, finally, violent exasperation. Amour is probably the only film since Bresson’s L’Argent in which a slap registers with such appalling force. (A discussion of Bresson’s film appears on page 250.)

With The White Ribbon (2009) and now Amour, Haneke appears to be reborn as a classicist, the Brechtian shock effects of Benny’s Video (1992) and Funny Games (1997) replaced by magisterial discretion. Working for the second time with French-Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji—the first was on Haneke’s ill-fated 2007 American remake of Funny Games—the director charily places the camera at an unsentimental distance, employs subtle focus-pulling in some two-shots of conversation, and submits his aged actors to a few extremely long takes. (Trintignant’s extended recitation of a childhood event required prodigious memorization.) Despite accusations of sadistic manipulation and coercive tactics, Haneke has always claimed the ambiguities and disquiets of humanism: “I try in all my films to be a ‘humanist,’” he once remarked, “because I think if one is seriously interested in art, you can’t do it any other way. Humanism is the sine qua non.” Some might find in Haneke’s clinical description of Anne’s incapacitation his inveterate tendency to the didactic, despite Amour’s hard-won aura of tact and compassion. For such detractors, however much the bodily horror described in Amour differs from the torture Haneke typically depicts, the overcontrolling manner in which he applies his lessons retains his air of schoolmasterly arrogation. Haneke perhaps baits his critics by inserting so many auteurist markers into a film that all but announces itself as a departure—from the water-flooded floor (recalling The Seventh Continent [1989]) to the names taken from the director’s long-established template (including that of the couple’s daughter, Eva, played by Isabelle Huppert) to the final Hanekean puzzle of the couple’s postlude departure. In two egregious sequences, the director reveals his inclination to engineer cheap effect. In the first, a horror-film foray into the stairwell outside the apartment turns out to be Georges’s nightmare, an echo of Daniel Auteuil’s cauchemar in Caché. In the second, Anne suddenly appears hale, playing her beloved Schubert at the piano—in Amour, Haneke finally releases Schubert’s music from its role as signifier of aesthetic tyranny, or what the director has called “an instrument of repression”—until the startling incident is ascribed to Georges’s memory in a contingent “thought bubble” shot. Otherwise, Haneke is capable of delicate perception, particularly when capturing the burden of solicitude foisted on caregivers—“Your concern is of no use to me,” Georges tells his daughter, and suffers the faintly patronizing sympathy of his well-meaning concierge—and the mixture of discomfort and curiosity of those unprepared to encounter infirmity. The uneasy temps mort in which Haneke strands Tharaud (playing himself) as he awaits the arrival of his old piano teacher, and Tharaud’s faltering attempt at circumspection in querying Anne’s condition when she appears in her wheelchair, are among the film’s most anguishing moments of untoward politesse.

Godard averred that “every film is a documentary of its actors.” Amour’s immense poignancy issues not only from its portrait of a love total though not eternal—the irreligious Haneke brooks no hint of the afterlife—but also from its affecting record of the faltering bodies, the wattled flesh, rheumy eyes, and erratic gait, of its leads. The full careers of Trintignant and Riva would seem to have been subsumed within their munificent portrayals of Georges and Anne. Haneke wrote the script with Trintignant in mind, attracted to a nature he found “secret” or “hidden.” “Without him I wouldn’t have made the film,” the director has said, recalling Eric Rohmer, who waited over a year to ensure that the ultrareserved actor could play the diffident engineer in his My Night at Maud’s (1969). “Yes, I was very uptight,” Georges admits toward the end of Amour, conjuring all the repressed characters Trintignant has played, including the Fascist agents of Alain Cavalier’s Combat dans l’îsle (1962) and Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). (“You are a monster sometimes, but very kind,” Anne tells her husband.) Remembering Riva in Hiroshima mon amour—“Deform me, make me ugly,” she instructs her Japanese lover—or her eponymous poisoner in Georges Franju’s Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962) and imperiously fragile Princesse de Bormes in his Thomas the Impostor (1965), one laments both the actress’s senescence and her character’s impairment in Amour. Extending her role as the mother suffering from Alzheimer’s in Krzyztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993), Riva courageously incarnates Anne, her mind unmoored, her immobilized body submitted to humiliating ablutions. After her second stroke, the once ravishing, now ravaged woman can no longer claim “C’est belle, la vie!” as she had done earlier, when reviewing the couple’s photo albums, but instead ends her unwanted life reduced to the strangulated incantation of a single word: “Hurts! Hurts! Hurts!”

Michael Haneke’s Amour, which made its US debut at the New York Film Festival last month, opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 19.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.