A talk with Amour director Michael Haneke, the season's surprise Oscar nominee 

The Labor of Love

The Labor of Love

Last October, if you had told the New York Film Festival press corps that Amour and its writer-director Michael Haneke would be major Oscar players a couple months later, there doubtless would have been some chortles. Not as a reflection of the film's quality, but out of surprise at the Academy rewarding an experience as deliberate and exacting as the latest from Austrian cinema's favorite taskmaster. It's a pitiless examination of mental and physical deterioration, as the marriage of two octogenarians (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva) is altered forever by the wife's stroke.

By the punishing standards of the director's Funny Games (both versions) and Caché, the Palme d'Or-winning Amour is atypically humane: Its tormentors are time and frailty. Yet Haneke remains the movies' foremost cartographer of the contours of human cruelty, and any thought that he has somehow mellowed will leave you with the film's title card, all the more upsetting for its brutal irony. With this in mind, the Scene spoke to Haneke at the 2012 New York Film Festival, thanks to ace translator Robert Gray.

Amour is structured very deliberately inside the apartment of Georges and Anne, except for two scenes in the first 10 minutes. Was there a specific reason?

When you are elderly, very often your life is reduced to the four walls in which you live; this was the external reason for that choice. Certainly the film could have been opened up, and the drama could have included everything which goes on around the central story — the scenes in hospital and such — and it could have been a very socially critical film, as one often sees on television. But this was not my concern. There was another consideration for that aesthetic choice, which was that in dealing with something as serious as this, you must find a form that is worthy of what you are dealing with, and this was why I went back to the three classical unities of Greek drama: time, space and action.

Does this film come from a specifically personal place?

It was an aunt whom I loved very much, and at the end of her life she was suffering terribly, and it was an awful experience to witness such pain and to be unable to do anything about it.

Was this aspect part of your discussions with your actors? They both do amazing work in the film.

I am not a fan of discussions beforehand about backstory. I feel that the history of this story arises through the set design — the rooms that they are acting in. You do not need lengthy discussions about backstory when you are working with good actors. The danger, should you have those discussions, is that your actors will then act their opinions of those characters, or their situations, rather than acting the situations themselves. Here I am speaking of my work in film and not in theater.

With the very specific needs of your script, was it difficult finding the appropriate actors?

I wrote the screenplay for Jean-Louis Trintignant, and in fact I would not have made the film without him. Not only is he an exceptional actor, but he exudes the human warmth which was absolutely necessary for the role. It was different with Emmanuelle Riva. I had seen her as a young man in Hiroshima, Mon Amour and was smitten by her, but I had lost sight of her through the years, so when it came to that part, I did a normal casting in Paris with all the actresses who were of an appropriate age. It was clear from the first audition that Emmanuelle was perfect for the part — not only because she is a wonderful actress, but also because she and Trintignant form a very credible couple.

There are moments with Riva's character Anne that feel almost like a violation to watch. Did you have any difficulties getting her to the place the film requires?

After Emmanuelle had read the screenplay and as I was meeting with her for the first time to discuss the part, I asked her if there was anything she found difficult or made her nervous, and she did reference the nudity. I told her that unfortunately the scene was unavoidable and that it was essential for the film. ... She said she would shoot it, but not as Emmanuelle Riva; she would shoot as the character of Anne, and that made it bearable for her. As a director, I did all that I could to preserve her dignity. I did not exaggerate the physical misery that she was going through.

In the second of the film's trilogy of break-ins at the apartment, we see the remains of an attempted robbery that occurred while Georges and Anne were attending a concert. Is there a thematic or narrative significance to these echoes of ingression?

As they return from the concert at the beginning, I wanted to show that someone had tried to force their way into the apartment. Such an occurrence was necessary dramatically. I had read of someone who had returned from vacation to find their bathroom no longer functioned, which in itself is not a huge drama, but can lead to someone becoming very upset, and in this particular case led to someone having a stroke. Events, even minor ones, can have larger consequences. I think this is often the case in Paris, or here, or in Vienna, if you find someone has tried to break into your flat, it is another of these sources of frustration that lead you to become worked up, and at a certain age these can be dangerous.

This echoes the first break-in, just before the title card. What made you decide to position such a dramatic reveal so early in the film?

I decided to make the end of the film clear from the beginning so as to avoid any false suspense about where the film was headed. At a certain point in the story, it is clear where we are going. I wished to avoid any false suspense about how the film would end, focusing rather on how these characters got there.

Barring the opening, there is a fairly linear progression of elements. Did you have any technical challenges in crafting the film?

We wished to tell the story through the course of a year; it was complicated, because we were shooting the external shots through the windows with green screen, and we shot those scenes that you see, in sequence, over the course of a year. It was extremely complicated during the post-production, but it was achieved thanks to Darius Khondji, the incredibly gifted photographer. Usually you shoot your exterior shots first and balance your interior lights to them afterward, but with him we were able to work the other way around.

Working with such gifted but aged actors, did you have to alter your usual style of direction?

It is difficult to generalize. Some scenes you get exactly what you want the first time; with others, you have to keep going. The scenes with the pigeon were extremely difficult to shoot — pigeons are very difficult to direct. And as Jean-Louis was very frail, we shot the two scenes with the pigeon over two-and-one-half weeks.

There's been talk that the pigeon is supposed to be an avatar of death, or a signifier of the exterior world and Georges' alienation from it.

Images such as this in my films — I invite members of the audience to find their own interpretations of them. If I were to provide a commentary or user's manual for the film, I would then be robbing the audience of the use of their own imaginations. That said, it is not unusual, in Paris, for pigeons to fly into apartments.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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