If you want to know how to make movies, be sure to look at Michael Haneke’s work for inspiration in terms of affecting and capturing your audience through your film.
How do you handle the suffering of a family member? What do you do when you stand helplessly and observe the merciless decline of a loved one’s mental and physical state?
These are the questions Michael Haneke asks his audience with his latest film Amour (2013).
Haneke is known to be quite the perfectionist when it comes to his work. Every choice he makes has a specific purpose and is well thought-out. Haneke never gives answers. But he is able to stir up questions by getting to the very heart of his viewers’ emotions.
Amour deals with the question of how to deal with the suffering of a loved one. This same topic could have been explored through a story about young parents having to cope with their child dying of cancer, but Haneke chose a story that will concern us all at some point or another.
The film revolves around an old couple of retired music teachers Anne and Georges. Their circumstances drastically change when Anne suffers a stroke and is left partially paralysed. They are forced to deal with their new set of circumstances as Anne’s physical and mental health gradually regresses.
Haneke chooses to tell the story through particularly long takes and steady shots. I found the distance of the camera to the characters very interesting because it was often far, while it’d be tempting to choose a close-up on the actors at particularly emotional moments.
Even these technical choices force the audience to witness and sit through uncomfortable situations we would intrinsically want to run away from, which makes the effect on us all the more impactful.
This queasiness is added to through the choice of the location for filming. The story evolves almost entirely within the confines of Anne and Georges’ apartment – an exact replica of Haneke’s parents’ apartment. It feels as if the apartment is a character in itself, witnessing the succession of their challenges. We feel almost just as constricted as Anne who is unable to leave the apartment.
The story is not beautified through music in the background. In fact, the only music in the film is the music played by the characters themselves. This choice sets the film apart from being mere entertainment, to letting the audience feel entirely part of the story.
The audience experiences the events as they are – without embellishments.
Juliette Binoche, who has worked with Haneke, describes that “he has a drive to see and talk about the world ‘without fat’ so to speak, by removing the mask. […] A lot can be covered up in movies, and to get close to the skin, you need courage.” And Haneke definitely has that drive and courage, as well as his actors.
His casting choice of Emmanuelle Riva (as Anne), Jean-Louis Trintignant (as Georges) and Isabelle Huppert (as Eva) couldn’t have been better. They allow themselves to sit in the emotion, the uncomfortable silences and the difficulties that come with dealing with Anne’s handicap physically and emotionally.
An example of these fascinating moments is when Georges’ realizes he just slapped Anne on the cheek in her feebleness. It hurts the viewer just as much as him. Or Anne having to be naked and washed by someone else is just as uncomfortable for us as it is for her. Most can identify with their daughter Eva who is left talking about investing in property because she doesn’t know how to handle her mother’s state.
The situations themselves are ordinary. So ordinary, it’s scary. Haneke describes:
My films are more difficult for the viewer to watch than they are for me and the actors to make.”
Haneke’s skill lies in the way he is able to make his audience feel.
When he introduced the idea of making Amour, his producer commented that it would be “poison at the box office” because of the taboos it would address. Countless awards later, it proved to have had the opposite effect.
At first, I was trying to figure out what Haneke was trying to say or achieve, until I realized that it is Haneke’s intention to leave the interpretation up to us. “The film asks questions, something I always try to do, and if you expect an answer from me, or to provide you with an interpretation, I have to refuse it. […] I shouldn’t tell you how you are to view the film.”
Amour definitely had an effect on me. After watching it, I immediately gave my grandparents a call to tell them I loved them. And my view of the film changed from aversion to absolute appreciation after mulling over it within the next week.
Whether I understand or agree with the ending or not, is not the point. Haneke proved to be a master in his craft once again – using the powerful medium of cinematography to its fullest potential.