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Michael Haneke investigates ages-old issues in 'Amour'

The director looks at another family under siege, this one from illness and old age. His film is considered a strong contender for the foreign-language Oscar.

December 13, 2012|By Sheri Linden
  • German director Michael Haneke, here at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, is known for tales of families in distress. He approaches the topic from a different angle in "Amour."
German director Michael Haneke, here at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, is… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

For more than 20 years, Michael Haneke has been observing fictional families under siege. The attack might creep corrosively from within, as in his first feature, "The Seventh Continent"; it might arrive in the form of sadistic home invaders, as in his notorious "Funny Games," a movie so important to him that he made it twice; or it might take the form of an anonymous menacing voyeur, as in "Caché."

With its focus on a loving marriage, his new film, "Amour," at first suggests a departure from the Austrian director's body of anxiety-steeped work. But as Haneke pointed out during an October visit to Los Angeles, the family in his latest production is also "under assault — by disease, by illness and old age." As to whether his latest film, for all its clear-eyed toughness, is also his most emotionally direct and warmest, he says with a laugh, "I have nothing against that interpretation."

"Amour" stars revered French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as Georges and Anne, retired music teachers whose life of quiet leisure is ruptured after she suffers a debilitating stroke. The Paris-set drama has been on the receiving end of profound critical love since its premiere at Cannes, where it received the Palme d'Or. It recently swept the top categories of the European Film Awards, claiming prizes for the film, the director and its two lead performances, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. named it the best picture of the year. The Sony Pictures Classics release, opening stateside on Dec. 19, is considered a strong contender for the foreign-language Oscar.

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Haneke wrote the script for Trintignant but then had to lure him out of retirement. Riva auditioned for her role. "Immediately it was clear to me that she was the best actress by far for the part," Haneke said during a conversation at his Beverly Hills hotel. "With Jean-Louis she formed a believable couple. Casting isn't only a question of finding the right actor for the part but also of forming a believable ensemble."

At 70, the accomplished chronicler of unease and brutality is the essence of composure and elegance. In conversation, Haneke's thoughtful statements — mostly in German, translated by interpreter Robert Gray, with occasional shifts into English — reflect the lapidary precision of his filmmaking. But the man who says, underscoring his words with a penetrating stare, that "films that only confirm my feelings would be a waste of time" is also given to exuberant laughter.

He acknowledges that his screenplay was inspired by a beloved aunt whose crippling rheumatism led her to take her life, but he is quick to point out that "Amour" is not her story. "What happened to her has nothing to do with the story that I tell on screen. It was just the catalyst that led me to think about this question and want to make a film about it. … I was trying to depict the problem of how do I cope emotionally with the suffering of someone I love."

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On set, the intense physical and emotional demands of the material required extra preparation for Haneke, who generally prefers to dive into production without rehearsal ("I'm not a fan of long explanations"). One of the film's lighter moments, in which Anne playfully experiments with her new electric wheelchair, proved to be Riva's most difficult scene and the only one that Haneke rehearsed with the actors.

"To obtain good performances from actors," Haneke says, "what's most important is that they have a feeling of confidence, a feeling that they're being protected, and the feeling that they can trust the person who's giving them instructions — that the director knows his craft and that they can rely on him."

That trust was especially crucial for the climactic sequence, as tender as it is devastating. Haneke says of his stars, "They were both terrified." To ensure their safety during the physically challenging encounter, special mechanical adjustments had to be engineered for the bed where the scene unfolds — apparatus that the director tested with his assistant, switching places so that he could try both roles: incapacitated Anne and caretaker Georges.

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Having set himself the challenge of making a film primarily in a single location, Haneke charged production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos, with whom he'd never before worked, with realizing his very precise vision of Georges and Anne's apartment. "The layout of the apartment was identical to the apartment of my parents in Vienna," Haneke says, and he again emphasizes that "Amour" is not about his family. "It was simply helpful for me when writing the script to have the specific layout in mind."

It was his wife, Susanne Haneke, who oversaw the set decoration, infusing the apartment with the sense of the octogenarian characters' shared life and work. "Usually in a film, for a bookshelf they just simply cram the shelves full," Haneke says. "Here we chose the books specifically. They were ordered according to theme and subject matter, and also alphabetically within the themes."

Given his exacting eye for detail and his insistence on creative independence, Haneke's openness to the idea of remakes of some of his movies — there has been talk of a Hollywood version of "Caché" — is as unexpected as his laugh. "I think it would actually be funny," he says. "I'd be curious to see what other people do with the same material."

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