Before this year, only three films had 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. Even 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 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 Ninety-five 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.
Q Did the fact that Riva and Trintignant played such iconic romantic characters early in their careers make them the appropriate players for this story?
A Jean-Louis 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 me 50 years ago when as a young man I saw "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," but after that she'd 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.
QThere'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!