I met Michael Haneke on Thursday evening, October 4 2012, for a Q & A following the screening of Amour. He had literally just flown in from Europe for a weekend screening of Amour at the NY film film festival. Haneke, who is Austrian, speaks fluent French and German and also has a good grasp of the English language. Although the discussion took place mostly with the assistance of a talented and patient translator the director spoke directly to me, intent on making the most of every level of communication. Haneke knows filmmaking and was open to discussing story, acting, cinematography, set design and not hesitant to point out something I might have missed about his films. In Amour, for instance, there is an unusual moment (for him) when music overlaps two scenes that begin in the concert hall then cut to a later moment in the hall lobby. I mentioned that this was unusual in his films but he pointed out that he had used the technique before – and the ending of Code Unknown, in which a continuous drum track plays over related scenes between the main characters, immediately jumped to mind. Possibly sensing, and maybe appreciating, that I was giving a nod to the formal rigor of his style he crossed himself and said “mea culpa” for his sins (or for mine).
A Film by Michael Haneke
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Amour, the new film by Austrian director Michael Haneke, is a transcendent work of art that provokes, engages but never embraces. It marks the return to the screen of two actors who are alive in the minds of anyone who enjoyed the classic art house cinema of the last 60 years. Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was the conformist in Bertolucci’s seminal 1970 film of the same name and also starred in such classic films as 1956’s And God Created Women (Ok, maybe not a classic), A Man and A Woman (1966), and Z (1969) plays Georges Laurent, a retired musician. Trintignant is 81 and was retired himself from filmmaking for 14 years before Haneke, who envisioned the role for only him, lured him back. Playing Anne, his wife, is Emmanuelle Riva, who’s very first role as Elle in Alain Resnais’s debut feature film Hiroshima, Mon Amour launched a 63 year career that includes such work as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (1961) and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993). Ms. Riva, who is 85, plays Anne, a retired concert pianist and teacher who has settled into a simple and comfortable life with a husband who clearly adores her.
After simple white-on-black opening credits the film starts at the end then takes us back just far enough into the lives of the couple to give some context to the depth of their relationship. The opening moment is the kind of blunt cut that Haneke loves to throw at the audience. From black a two panel door bursts open into a spacious Parisian apartment and policeman and building personnel barge straight at the camera and into the room. It’s an exhilarating moment that doesn’t let up as the police swiftly go into investigation mode. Cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shot the director’s 2007 remake of his own Funny Games, is up to Haneke’s demands, constructing the long and complex scene in a single shot. The police finally come to a locked and taped off room. Covering their noses policemen open windows to air out the apartment while the commanders break through the second door. Inside they find a woman (Anne), deceased and laid out on the bed with yellow and white flowers spread carefully around her.
The first edit of the film is to a brief director’s credit, then to the second shot, which is also the second scene of the film. We meet Georges and Anne (Haneke’s central characters almost always have a variation of these names) in attendance at an old-world concert hall. Framed in a very wide shot that fills the screen with a theater audience facing the stage, it is as though we were on stage looking out at them. But they do not gaze directly at us, the audience on film looks diagonally to our screen right. The shot seems to last for a couple of minutes and somehow, from the first moments that the image appears, we find Georges and Anne amongst the hundreds of others, waiting for a performance to begin. In case we don’t see them someone passes by, forcing them to stand momentarily before sitting again. It is a masterful shot/scene that goes from the viewer “discovering” its essential meaning, then watching the Laurent’s viewing the stage, then to watching Georges looking at his wife, trying to understand something that remains unknown. It’s one of the simplest and boldest pieces of cinema of the year, and it is only the second shot of the film. In the third scene we are in the lobby and learn that the young musician (Classical musician Alexandre Tharaud) is Anne’s most talented former student. In a soundtrack moment that is rare in Haneke’s work, the piano performance continues over the post-performance lobby scene. (The director’s boldest instance of breaking his own rule is in Code Unknown (2001), when a montage tracks the actions of the central characters while a powerful unstoppable drum beat, introduced as the work of a group of deaf youngsters earlier in the film, fills the soundtrack.)
Haneke is a master of the long take and will use far fewer shots to cover a sequence than more commercial/mainstream directors. But his films seldom feel slow, in part because he so carefully creates unusual and effective structures for his stories. Amour is a departure, an exploration, as he has explained, in following the classical unities of action, place and time. Of course Haneke presents time for his own purposes and does not limit his story to 24 hours (part of Aristotle’s thesis), but the amount of compression that he does to the story is quite remarkable. We have no way of knowing how long the story takes place. We are kept off-balance because the very act of extracting time in a story also heightens the drama.
When the couple return home from the performance a bad omen awaits – someone tried to break in but they only managed to bend the lock plate. But Georges’s only concern is the effect on his wife – he tells her “don’t let this ruin your good mood.” It is soon clear that they are musicians, lovers of culture, music, classic books, and art. They seem to have everything they need or want.
At the morning breakfast table Anne goes silent and Georges gradually realizes that something is wrong. Haneke moves away from his use of long takes to a handful of shot/reverse shots as Georges holds Anne, and she is held by him. What would seem standard in other films stands out – the shots have a symmetry and grace that suggest something meaningful is taking place, that attention must be paid. George leaves the room – the camera follows him, and has left the water running in his concern to dress and seek help. As he searches for clothes to change into when the running water suddenly stops. When he returns to the kitchen Anne is completely unaware of her blackout. The descent begins, and it is a journey that neither Georges, Anne nor the audience are fully prepared to take.
We soon come to understand that Georges and Anne are completely alone and have only themselves. This is equal parts beautiful and horrifying. What are the limits to love that we face as we grow into old age? What can we do to help ourselves and to help the ones we love. How will we act when we are the ones who have become disabled by age? Can we ever really know what our response will be to something before we directly experience it?
Family is represented by their daughter, Eva, played by Isabelle Huppert, and her husband Geoff, played by William Shimell. They live far away and are infrequent visitors. As Anne’s condition worsens it becomes clear that Eva may (or may not) be well intentioned but is also looking for simple answers to a complicated and painful reality. But reality is seldom as simple as we would like, especially when looking in from the outside. The building superintendent and his wife are also helpful with small chores but their intermittent presence only accentuates how alone Georges and Anne are. When Anne returns from the hospital she asks George to promise that he will never send her back. This confuses and scares him but the intertwined nature of their shared fates is sealed when he agrees to not let her leave again.
What is different about Amour from Haneke’s previous theatrical films (after directing and writing in television he made The Seventh Continent, his first feature, in 1989) is the unprecedented degree that we are able to empathize and care for the main characters. Georges and Anne are in love (they seem to have spent most of their long lives together) and they have learned to respect and live with each other. But life has its built-in limitations. Citizen Kane, when Bernstein the publisher is talking about his own long life, he reflects on existence by saying “Old age is the one disease that we don’t look forward to the cure.” It is not fate, as in Funny Games, that brings punishment onto the Laurents. It is life itself. They are others in a long list of victims in Haneke’s films – but victims of the same fate that befalls each of us, no matter where our place in society may be. Haneke’s films are filled with people who are punished. In Funny Games, a film he liked so much that he made it twice, in German language (1997) and then ten years later with an American cast, an upper-middle class couple and their son are isolated and tortured in their own home. Even more unnerving is the fact that the boy who “directs” the whole affair also talks to the audience in a Brechtian sort of way, although his general attitude is more Grand Guignol. In Cache/Hidden (2005), Haneke’s most artistic and intellectual achievement until Amour, the lives of a well-to-do couple are wrenched from normalcy by a series of video tapes and drawings that demonstrate they are being watched and most likely stalked. In The White Ribbon (2009), an Austrian town at the turn of the 20th century (the time that the story takes place is not revealed until the end) is plagued by a series of violent events that inflict pain on adults, children and even animals. Even more disturbing is that the seemingly random acts begin to feel like a mirror to the nasty doings that go on behind the closed doors of the most “respected” village families.
Although it is hard to find anyone to empathize with in Haneke’s films there have been movements in that direction that prepare us for Amour. In Hidden, the Algerian man, who nearly became the adopted brother of the writer Georges when they were children, was victimized as a child and seems to have grown into a peaceful but very much defeated father. He may also be involved with the video tapes that the family receive but, as we find in most of Haneke’s work, the question can not really be answered. Depending upon what we choose to believe about the story, we are allowed to empathize, and even sympathize with him. Funny Games dares us to identify with the family who suffer so completely at the hands of the two sociopaths while also attempting to force us to accept that what we really want in the movies (violence and action) is the very thing that sickens us once we really get it. It is in The White Ribbon that Haneke finally allows a bit of humanity to infiltrate his intentionally oppressive and astoundingly precise view of life. With a cast of characters larger that any of his other films (the village itself), and in need of a storyteller to help put the events into perspective, he introduces a youngish teacher (played by Christian Friedel), who is inquisitive, likable, and as an outsider, seemingly uninfected by the darkness creeping through the town. He is also the narrator of the story, speaking to us reflectively from many years in the future. Just as engaging is the chance encounter with a young girl riding through town on a bicycle who has come to the village as a nanny. The fumbling courtship, and ensuing relationship, is naively innocent and quite unlike anything we have come to expect from the director. It’s a glimpse, it seems, of what’s to come.
What is consistent about Amour (and continues to identify Haneke as one of the most auteur and uncompromising filmmakers of today) is the rigorous and obsessive way that he constructs his stories using the language of cinema. His reliance on the long take, his refusal to construct time using the classical tools of the shot/reverse shot and reaction shot (he relents a bit for Amour, as can be seen in the advertising which features alternating shots of Georges and Ann from the defining moment of the film), his almost total refusal to use non-diegetic (soundtrack) music (there are a few moments of it in Amour when he cuts from the unseen piano performance to the lobby, and the music continues although the performance has ended). It is also an axiom of the director’s work – and a reason that his films can be so frightening – that the most violent and transgressive moments will occur offscreen. Four of the five killings (including the dog) in Funny Games, the creation of the videotape in Hidden, all of the beatings and mutilations in The White Ribbon, the bank victims who are finally shot with the gun that changes many hands in 71 Fragments all happen off-screen. We are left to our imagination to “create” that which we did not witness. We can imagine who made the videotapes in Hidden but will never know. We can imagine how the young son of the property owner in The White Ribbon was beaten, but will never know. We can see for ourselves the destroyed and lifeless body of the son in Funny Games, or the back of the bank worker in 71 Fragments as his blood flows from him in seeming slow motion, but we will not have seen the violence that caused this. Off-screen space in Haneke’s films lurks around the corner like a hidden threat. And once he has conditioned us to use our imaginations to “see” the most horrible things he breaks his own rule and catches us off guard in the most brutal and effective ways – for instance in the shock cut to the beheading of the chicken and the out-of-the blue self-laceration of the the Algerian man in Hidden.
Haneke, more than any major director that I am aware of, makes us work to integrate (and understand) the story elements that he implies or simply leaves out. He is also a master of the soundtrack, using sound and the absence of sound to provoke, to create anxiety, to heighten suspense and to add mystery. Combined with his passion for the long take (he likens the technique to an attempt to create a more authentic experience for the viewer) the effect can be chilling – for example a single shot scene in Code Unknown in which Anne (Juliette Binoche), who we have earlier seen being terrorized as an actress on a low-budget thriller/horror movie, irons clothes in her kitchen while listening to the television news. Minutes into the shot she (and we) hear something in the distance. She turns down the television and listens for what seems a very long time to an indeterminate sound that could be someone in pain or could be something we just can’t understand. Making the moment even more complex, and possibly unknowable, is that we do not know what she already knows – or even what she is thinking. Some of the most memorable moments in Amour are driven by off-screen sound – the water that suddenly stops running as Georges dresses, Georges in the bathroom and the sound of Anne falling erupts from the silence, a bed-stricken Anne calls out from the other room for what seems to be her mother, the doorbell rings while Georges is brushing his teeth but nobody is there. Haneke, a native Austrian film maker who who began to make his films in France (and in the French language) with his fifth film (2001’s Code Unknown) has always executed language with precision and complexity. In Amour, for instance, a decisive action by Georges ultimately hinges upon the pronunciation and understanding of a single word. And the between-scene moments could fill a second film: Anne and Georges return from a hospital stay that we never see after her first stroke, Anne’s second stroke, the relationship of their daughter Eva and their son-in law.
Although it is Ann who must be cared for, it is through George’s eyes and experiences that the impact of her illness is made real. His devotion is eternal but his ability to shelter his wife, and himself, from the final stages of life is fleeting and ultimately ineffectual. Life that is truly shared is a yin-yang experience – the diminishment of one is also the loss of the other. Cause and effect takes its toll as though the life force was a single entity. The increasingly subjective descent that Georges experiences, the visual and aural manifestation of his pain and suffering in dreams, visions, and odd occurrences (the reoccurring visit by a street pigeon may or may not have meaning) has brief echoes in the memories/dreams that Georges the writer experiences in Hidden. But the degree that we experience this inner world is also new ground for Haneke, a dip into the subconscious and the surreal that feels quite refreshing.
Amour is an experiment in humanity for Haneke – he has said that the story came from experiences that he went through with someone close to him. But “humanity” is a relative term and for viewers conditioned to the soothing balms of commercial cinema, who are used to the softening of reality that makes even the gravest of events “consumable” and open to happy endings, Amour will most likely seem depressing and demanding. But isn’t it the nature of art to open our eyes to reality, and isn’t cinema, at it’s highest level, the most revealing and penetrating of art forms? Imagining the reality of old age, for ourselves and our loved ones, is one of the great taboos of modern life. Amour, Michael Haneke’s latest masterpiece of ferocious and unsparing cinema, is a direct assault on our most existential blind spot. Be prepared to face a future that you might not want to see coming.