Magazine article Artforum International


Magazine article Artforum International


Article excerpt

I do view the society I live in as pretty loveless.

--Michael Haneke

"I WAS SO YOUNG ONCE!" cries the unnamed woman played by Emmanuelle Riva in Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour (1959). More than a half century later, the octogenarian Riva first appears in Michael Haneke's Amour as a corpse, ceremoniously laid out on a bed in her Paris apartment in a long, dark dress, her head wreathed with desiccated flower petals. Her body has, apparently, remained in the sealed room for days, the smell of decay repelling the pompiers who force the door in the film's cataclysmic opening shot. Violent incursion into domestic sanctum has long been a trope in Haneke's cinema, but the trespass that initiates Amour differs from the invasions the Austrian master has previously manufactured as metaphors for an ever-threatening universe. Here the intruders breach asylum not as harbingers of torture, but as witnesses to the end of a protracted tragedy.


A chronicle of death foretold, Amour rewinds to the onset of affliction with a long, locked shot in Paris's Theatre des Champs-Elysees, the camera positioned onstage, staring into the auditorium as it fills. This oddly angled shot, whose static duration emphasizes its vigilant suppression of the expected countershot (i.e., a view of the stage from the audience's perspective) even as the evening's performance, a Schubert recital by pianist Alexandre Tharaud, commences, informs us that Haneke is master of this jurisdiction, creating anxiety by withholding the anticipated image. The director, who has frequently claimed, reversing Godard's classic formula, that "cinema is a lie at twenty-four frames a second" and has called for films to elicit an active, questing spectator, appears to accord his audience ontological freedom, allowing their eyes to roam this prolonged image to discern its status, nature, and import, Only on second viewing might one readily espy the film's protagonists, an elderly couple, both music teachers, played by Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, seated among the concertgoers, much as one discovers only after intent inspection of the long-held final shot of the school steps in Haneke's Cache an encounter between two boys that might explain the film's central mystery. Wielding utter authority over the image even as he invests it with calculated ambiguity, Haneke makes Amour a film about confinement that immures its meanings along with its characters.

Arriving home from the recital--"Incredible semiquavers in the presto, what finesse!" Riva proudly exclaims of Tharaud, her former piano student--the couple discovers that the lock on their front door has been jimmied, a portent of the invasion to come. Their vulnerability thus established, Georges and Anne (named after so many bourgeois couples in Haneke's cinema) soon fall prey to violation, though not of the type typically encountered in the director's films. Their apartment, to which the remaining narrative is restricted, becomes another of the Austrian's death traps, but through physical debility rather than aggressive incursion. Already having shown signs of distraction, Anne suffers a stroke at the breakfast table the next morning. Haneke knows this topos--domestic ritual abruptly interrupted by trauma--and precisely controls our sense of quietly escalating panic, employing the sound of a running faucet both to indicate Anne's mental state and to unsettle our own. Anne overfills her cup of tea, blankly aware of her own decline. Haneke cuts to a Resnais-like montage of five shots showing rooms of the apartment in darkness and empty of people, which delimits the perimeters of the old couple's future existence; anything that occurs outside this space is hereafter only reported, never shown. (The commodious, book-and-objet-filled apartment was modeled on that of Haneke's parents in Vienna.) Toward the end of Amour, Haneke immediately follows a violent outburst with a symmetrical montage that "answers" the first, a set of six close-ups of landscape paintings that hang in the apartment. …

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