The films of Austrian-born director Michael Haneke are always disturbing and maybe none more than his latest, “Amour” (“Love”). But instead of a meditation on violence, racism, sexual despair or the Nazi generation this one, on one level, is simply about old age.
That’s a very scary subject in Haneke’s hands. Sad to say, the twilight years are no place for old people.
But that really isn’t the theme of this beautiful yet anxiety ridden picture. Indeed he announces the theme in its very title — love. In this he finds incredible redemption for the human spirit.
The film, it should be noted, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May and the L.A. Film Critics Assn.’s best picture honors this month.
First some background on this “surprisingly old-school art-film director,” as my late friend, the critic Peter Brunette, called him in his published study “Michael Haneke” (University of Illinois Press).
Born in 1942, Haneke is an extremely well-read European intellectual who originally came from the theater and has also been train in and profoundly influenced by classical music.
He worked in Austrian and German television for nearly two decades before breaking into features (made in German, French and English). These caught the attention of festival-goers and European art houses but had little impact beyond those venues.
I saw his films “The Piano Teacher” (2001) and “Time of the Wolf” (2003) but was not impressed. Perhaps I’d better go back and take another look at those films, which at a the time I found bizarre and unsettling but determinedly “arty.”
In any event, Haneke broke out of the festival circuit with the French-language “Caché” (“Hidden”), an open-ended meditation on the media, violence and hidden prejudice, which I saw at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. It knocked me for a loop.
He won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, for his next two films, the brilliant historical reconstruction “The White Ribbon” (2009) and this year’s “Amour.”
The latter can be linked to his overarching themes, those of the alienation from self and others in contemporary society, the attendant loss of our common humanity and the grinding attenuation of human emotions.
But everything here happens on a much more elemental level. This is his most straight-forward film.
After an opening sequence that deliberately robs the film of any suspense over its eventual outcome, the camera, in a long take typical for Haneke, sees a crowd settling into their orchestra seats for a concert in a Paris theater. You might spot the film’s two stars, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, actors whose careers reach back to the 1950s.
They play Georges and Anne, names Haneke frequently uses for protagonists.
The concert begins. In brief shots, the retired couple hob-nob with others following the concert, catch a late-night bus home, then enter their well-appointed if slightly fussy flat. It’s spacious and accommodating, just the place for an older couple to feel comfortable.
Only there is no comfort. The front door lock has been broken and someone had entered the apartment while they were away. Repairs might take a couple of weeks. They talk with concern about other burglaries in the neighborhood.
So Haneke prepares you for anxiety but it comes from an unexpected source. The next morning Anne is momentarily unresponsive at the breakfast table. Greatly disturbed, Georges hurries to dress but finds Anne has recovered.
She has no memory of the incident and angrily insists that it is of no importance. She goes to pore tea and her hand shakes uncontrollably.
The scene is set.
The couple’s daughter Eva (frequent Haneke collaborator Isabelle Huppert) visits days later. Anne, you learn, is in the hospital recovering from an unsuccessful operation. She has had a stroke and is partially paralyzed.
She comes home and the couple settles into a routine that’s new and baffling with Georges as nurse to the increasingly feeble Anne. Her deterioration goes slowly but remorselessly. This was not how the two planned their golden years.
The film seldom ventures out of the apartment and then it’s for a disquieting dream Georges suffers. Scenes are sparse and in long takes often from medium range.
There is no music save for Schubert, Beethoven and Bach, all played by Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud). Anne’s former piano pupil has become an international recording artist and, presumably, his concert was the one the couple attended on their last “normal” evening together.
He drops by and plays the piano. Eva, also a professional musician in a troubled marriage to an Englishman, also drops by to her father’s increasing annoyance. There is nothing she can do for them.
At a press conference in Cannes in 2009, Haneke said, “All my films are about violence.” Here the violence — with one crucial exception — comes from within.
Anne’s body has betrayed them both. The couple’s bond of love is supremely tested. This then is Haneke’s theme.
Anne’s mind slowly regresses. Speech becomes more problematic and then she seemingly regresses into an illusion of childhood, calling for her mother and worrying about what clothes to wear.
Georges is endlessly patient with Anne, who clearly wishes to die. She makes her husband promise never to return her to any hospital. Then, at one point, in the film’s one moment of violence, Georges ceases to be patient.
It’s a shock more powerful than a car bomb or machine guns spitting out bullets in an action film. Which, no doubt, is Haneke’s point.
These are brave performances by his aging actors. Trintignant, who has pretty much retired from film — he made one other picture this century — and Riva, who continues to work, are willing to use their bodies and minds to expose the flaws that flesh is heir to.
This love he portrays is not perfect but it is real and strong. Then, later, Georges realizes he must do the right thing by his wife of many years. It takes courage. But that’s what love requires — courage.
Darius Khondiji’s sublime cinematography and Jean-Vincent Puzos’ meticulous production design create a velvet-lined coffin for the two performers. The seemingly spacious flat becomes overtly claustrophobic while its beige and white decor oppresses.
(On a recent visit to Los Angeles, Haneke told me he modeled the apartment after his parents’ flat in Vienna down to the smallest details.)
Georges soldiers on into each new day. Reluctantly he hires female nurses only to fire one in a fit of temper.
“Amour” isn’t an easy film and it certainly isn’t entertainment by most definitions. Indeed so-called art-house films are mostly upbeat or entertaining foreign-language or indie films that seldom take on anything as “real” as this.
Haneke’s challenge to audiences is to experience love — not eroticism or sentimental yearnings but real love. It’s tough and brutal and definitely not for the faint of heart.
Opens: December 19, 2012 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: France 3 Cinéma, Ard Degeto, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Westdeutscher Rundfunk
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell
Director/screenwriter: Michael Haneke
Producers: Margaret Menegoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Jean-Vincent Puzos
Costume designer: Catherine Leterrier
Editors: Monika Willi, Nadine Muse
PG-13 rating, 127 minutes