The actors—both legends of the French screen lured out of semi-retirement for these roles—are extraordinary. 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 has the more obvious tour de force, baring herself physically and emotionally on the screen, Trintignant is no less astonishing in his moments of confusion and quiet contemplation—culminating in a pas de deux with a confused pigeon that has become trapped inside the apartment, which is, I think, among the most poetic expressions of grief I have ever seen in a movie. Recently, I spoke to Haneke about the making of this masterful film.
SCOTT FOUNDAS: 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?
MICHAEL HANEKE: 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 made a film about this. I should let it go. I’ll work on something else.” As soon as I started to work on something else, I had ideas for the ending of Amour. After that I wrote very quickly.
FOUNDAS: 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.
HANEKE: 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 8-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.
FOUNDAS: You choose to open the film with the ending of the story and then flash back to the beginning.
HANEKE: 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.
FOUNDAS: There’s also a rather startling and surprising dream sequence that occurs midway through the film.
HANEKE: 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!
FOUNDAS: The film takes place almost entirely in a single location—Georges and Anne’s apartment. The camera feels unusually intimate with the actors.
HANEKE: 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.
FOUNDAS: The film also has a very powerful sense of the fragility of these bodies in decay.
HANEKE: 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.
FOUNDAS: You wrote the part of Georges with Trintignant in mind. Why him?
HANEKE: 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.
FOUNDAS: And Riva?
HANEKE: 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 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.
FOUNDAS: 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?
HANEKE: I asked (Emmanuelle) 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 in 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 discreetly. 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.
FOUNDAS: 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.
HANEKE: 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.
France, 2012, 125m
Director/writer: Michael Haneke
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva