Michael Haneke's devastating "Amour" opens Friday in Chicago. And since its Cannes Film Festival premiere in May, this tale of a long-married man and woman in their 80s, tested by illness and the limits of their own compassion, has moved audiences in a direct, emotional way unknown and, indeed, unintended by the director's previous, icy provocations.
Earlier Haneke films such as "Cache," with Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil, and "The Music Teacher," with Isabelle Huppert, were morality tales made in a style the writer-director once described in an essay as "clarifying distance in place of violating closeness." The wonder of "Amour," besides its tender high regard for its leading actors, is Haneke's ability to retain that clarifying distance while maintaining an extraordinary intimacy, in dramatic terms, with the retired music teachers played by two octogenarian giants of French and European cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant ("The Conformist") and the ageless Emmanuelle Riva ("Hiroshima, Mon Amour").
"My mother died very young, nearly 30 years ago," Haneke, 70, told me in an interview conducted in a bunkerlike conference room in a downtown Toronto hotel during the most recent edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. "My father, I didn't grow up with my father. I grew up with mother, my aunt, stepfather. But all this has nothing to do with the film. The point is this. If you write a script about a couple, say, 35 years old, with a child of 5, and the child gets cancer, this you'd call a special and especially tragic situation." Not this movie.
"'Amour,'" he said, is "everyone's drama. It concerns what it means to witness the suffering of a loved one. Everybody knows a situation like this." Haneke has no interest in a sentimental treatment of a reductive theme. "Anyway, I don't like to have a single theme. Or any theme, really," he said of his screen work, breaking into a grin. "That's for television. That's not my kind of approach."
The German-born, longtime Austrian resident conducted the interview partly in English, partly in German, with the help of a Montreal-based translator. Haneke initially tried his hand at the piano, then at acting, film criticism, television editing and dramaturgy and, eventually, directing. His directorial stage career (opera excluded) ended when he made his first theatrical feature ("The Seventh Continent") in 1988. In May, "Amour" won the top prize, the Palme d'Or, at Cannes, just three years after he was awarded the Palme for his black-and-white mosaic of incipient fascism, "The White Ribbon," set in a farming village on the eve of the Great War.
"Amour" is confined to one apartment, and, though its supporting cast includes Huppert as the daughter of the retired music teachers, it is essentially a two-hander. Haneke found it "harder to write a script for two actors and a single location than for 30 actors and multiple locations." As Anne, played by Riva, experiences an episode of forgetfulness followed by a stroke, and then worse, her husband, Georges, cares for her under increasingly trying circumstances. Where "Amour" takes these two, and the audience, involves an act of violence indicated by the opening sequence. The apartment, Haneke has acknowledged, is designed very closely after his mother's flat in Vienna.
It's strange speaking to Haneke during the Toronto festival, a populist affair very different in tone and more Hollywood-minded than Cannes. Haneke acknowledged the oddity of "selling" a movie such as this one as part of a multinational press tour. At the moment he is preparing for a spring Madrid staging of Mozart's opera "Cosi fan tutte."
"There's an enormous amount of joy working on a film, when it's work that you love," he told me. "But it's quite different plunging into a musical universe, being constantly transported by the music, particularly if it's Mozart. It's why I allowed myself this pleasure, even though the preparation is a lot of work."
An early working title for "Amour" was "The Music Stops." Tellingly, Haneke never allows a piece of music on the film's soundtrack to be heard without an abrupt cutoff. That's life, he seems to be saying. And that's death. Our interview over, I thanked him for all the good, nerve-racking work over the years. Haneke laughed once again.
"Yes, well, we do what we can. After the opera I will finally sit down and write a script. I have certain ideas. But, of course, I can't count my eggs before they're hatched," he said.
"Amour" opens Friday.