Before this year, only three films have received a double Academy Awards nomination for best picture and best foreign film. Now the Austrian director Michael Haneke's "Amour" joins "Z," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Life is Beautiful" in that distinction. Haneke's bleak and disturbing body of work, from his harrowing examination of media violence "Funny Games" to his allegorical study of religious extremism "The White Ribbon," has earned him a reputation for terrifying veracity, but not so much for compassion.
With "Amour," he reveals a spellbinding new depth of feeling. The film describes with delicate melancholy the aftermath of a stroke on the marriage of two devoted, cultured octogenarians. In scenes of alarming realism Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, "A Man and a Woman") tends to his infirm wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour") through her inevitable decline. As man and wife become caregiver and patient, "Amour" refutes the cliché that time heals all wounds.
The film, based on Haneke's experiences with his own parents, hit the foreign awards circuit like a hurricane, and made a huge impression among Oscar voters. Riva received a best actress nomination, and Haneke is in the running for best direction and best original screenplay. Though Haneke is famously averse to interviews, we met after the Toronto International film festival, speaking through an interpreter. It should be noted that while his films are dour, Haneke smiles easily and laughs often.
Q: This is a challenging, realistic portrayal of the end of life. Do you think American films that insist love conquers all, and death is always followed by some kind of symbolic resurrection, do us a disservice?
A: It's not up to me to judge other films, but I think the theme I'm dealing with is a challenging one. It's a question of finding an appropriate level to deal with that theme. And the danger of course is that you betray the nature of this theme, through cheap sentimentality or miserabilism.
Q: American end-of-life films often center around a hospital where there are heroic efforts to save the patient. Why is there so little medical intervention in your film, which presents Anna's decline as an inescapable stage of life?
A: This misery we see in hospital rooms is something we've all seen a hundred times on television. My film is more about how I cope with the suffering of someone I love. And can't help. It's true that the medical questions have their place, they're relevant to the story, but I don't think it's necessary for me to define them or point them out with my finger.
Q:Why is the film titles "Love" rather than "Death"?
A: Because it's about love. Of course, it's about both. Like all film titles, it isn't a comprehensive description of the film but rather something that's meant to lure the audience. This is the film among all my films which makes tenderness its theme. Tenderness is in all my films but it's presented in a different context. If the theme you've chosen is how violence is portrayed in the media, as in "Funny Games," then there's very little room for tenderness in it. Yet I think there is great tenderness between the couple that is murdered in that film.
Q: In a mainstream American film, love would save the day for Anne and Georges somehow. It would have provided some sort of redeeming moment of closure. Tell me about your decision to reject that kind of sentimentality.
A: Because it's a lie.
Q: Aren't films often lies?
A: It's unworthy for the kind of cinema that I like. That's not my taste. Certainly 95 percent of cinema consists of that kind of film, so it would be absolutely stupid for me to say it shouldn't exist. But I think there's an element of cynicism that's involved, that's required to suggest these false realities, these false solutions to the audience. That's too comforting and too simple. I think people are much less conscious of death now than they were before. The elderly are shunted into old-age homes where they pass away in silence and without visibility. It's just the opposite of how things were even up until the beginning of the last century. People suffered and died in the context of their families. I think now the old are evacuated into institutions so that we don't have to reflect on death. If death is on our minds it's because there are more and more old people and death is more costly to us as a society.
Q: What guided your decision to film almost entirely in interiors, in the couple's apartment?
A: It didn't make things easier. On the contrary, it's harder to write a script around two actors in a single setting than to write for 100 characters in 20 different locations. When you're sick at a certain age your world is reduced to the apartment you live in. But realism wasn't the dominant reason. It's true that I could have opened up the film, having scenes for example in a supermarket. But that wouldn't have been appropriate, wouldn't have helped the story. I wanted to concentrate on the two people. For that reason I chose to turn back to the unities of classical theater, of time, place, and action.
Q: Apart from their wonderful skill, did the fact that Riva and Trintignant played such iconic romantic characters earlier in their careers make them the appropriate players for this story?
A: From his very earliest roles Jean-Louis was one of my favorite actors. I never had the role for him until I wrote this piece for him. What led me to him is he has this unusual mysteriousness about him. At the same time he also radiates enormous human warmth. There are other great actors his age but none have the warmth. That made him so fitting for the part. Emmanuelle marked be 50 years ago when as a young man I say "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," but after that she's fallen off my radar. I only met her while casting. I saw many other actresses in the same age group, but it was immediately clear to me she was the best for the part.
Q: There's a wild scene where pigeons infiltrate Georges and Anna's apartment. Was it hard to work with the pigeons?
A: Sure! But it was harder for Jean-Louis, because he always had to respond to where the pigeons were. We shot those scenes over two days. We had various pigeons we used for those shots and we could exchange them when they got tired. Unfortunately we couldn't exchange Jean-louis!
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186