Michael Haneke's film drama “Amour” Minimalism with an incredible effect

Michael Haneke and his leading actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Photo: Denis Manin
Michael Haneke and his leading actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Photo: Denis Manin | © X-Verleih

After recently winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film with his drama “Amour”, Munich-born Austrian director Michael Haneke has now won just about every prize there is to win in the international film world.

Michael Haneke (b. 1942) is the creator of numerous films including The Seventh Continent (1989) a trilogy critical of society and the media, Benny´s Video (1992), 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), and adaptations of the novels The Castle (1997) and The Piano Teacher (2001) by Franz Kafka and Elfriede Jelinek, respectively. In 2007 he also did a US remake of his own film Funny Games (1997), which stirred controversy at its original screening at the Cannes Film Festival.

Hermetic drama

His last film, The White Ribbon, also had its world premiere in Cannes, but was much less controversial than Funny Games. The black-and-white epic was awarded a Golden Palm in Cannes, a César in France, and a European Film Prize, but its two Oscar nominations remained just nominations in the end.

Michael won the Golden Palm again in Cannes in May 2012 for Amour, a slightly haunting Paris drama about love, dying and having to let go. It is an inscrutable, 127-minute-long piece that had a unique run of successes that started with the Golden Palm and continued without a defeat until it received the Oscar in February 2013 for Best Foreign Language Film. The German-language author and filmmaker has now won nearly all of the awards that the international film scene has to offer: the Golden Palm in Cannes, the British Bafta, the French César, the Bavarian Film Prize, the European Film Prize, a Golden Globe and finally an Academy Award. The success of this love story, an Austrian-German-French coproduction, is unmatched in Europe – a unique phenomenon.

A treatise on human existence

The film takes place in Paris in the present-day. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) live in a large, comfortable old building. They are married, both over 80 years old, and have been living here for decades. Things are harmonious. They have had a lifelong passion for music on both professional and personal levels. They taught music. They lived music. But after retiring they both spend all their time in the huge apartment reading, listening, chatting and sitting silent. They also have a daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who lives with her own family in England.

One day, when Anne begins behaving strangely, Georges gets a bit concerned. His wife is changing, slowly and gradually. She is forgetting things, speaking incoherently, and having linguistic as well as mental blackouts. Life for the old couple goes into a tailspin and begins to lose its shape. A solid structure is falling apart. Their daughter Eva decides to come over from England for a visit but she is helpless in the face of it as well. The physical and mental deterioration of this once vital and very present woman can no longer be stopped. The end is nigh.

Amour, a complex film drama with such a seemingly simple name, is primarily a treatment of human existence. It is about the ephemeral nature of our lives, the finiteness of life itself – the fact that our physical presence is not of an unlimited duration, as our cold, performance-oriented, fast-paced, modern society seems to suggest. Munich-born Austrian director Michael Haneke is a master of tackling the intangible and presenting it to the audience with incredible precision. The slow process of having to let go of each other is shown with wonderful grace in Amour. The images from cameraman Darius Khondji are very photographic in style – minimal and with great formal clarity. Haneke's production is uncomplicated and he manages the film without effects or pathos. His signature lack of sentimentality is juxtaposed here with surprising tenderness.

Audience in a pressure cooker

Like in most of his films, there is a latent pressure that seems to emanate from the precise psychological profile of the old couple. Both roles are expressively and courageously interpreted by 82-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, 1966) and 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima, mon amour, 1959) and in this regard, Haneke's work stands alone in contemporary cinematography. The viewer experiences an oft unbearable weight when watching Amour, but it is one of Haneke's most delicate, gentle films yet, pervaded by goodness and warmth, and by an arousing and moving gesture of humanity.

Despite its utter minimalism, the events in Amour are still incredibly effective, with the scenes of letting go, of dying, of unavoidable death, and of a gentle yet imminent impact. Amour stays with you long after you leave the theater. Michael Haneke has created a masterpiece – another one – and with his Oscar he has indeed received the most highly coveted award that a filmmaker could possibly obtain.