The Making of 'Amour': Michael Haneke's Personal, Painful Drama About the End of Life

 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The awards ceremony that concludes each year's Cannes Film Festival is familiar turf for Michael Haneke. The Austrian director, whose rigorous style often has been described as chilly, has been there to pick up prizes for 2001's The Piano Teacher, a tale of sexual obsession, and Cache, his 2005 exploration of voyeurism. In 2009, he earned his first Palme d'Or for The White Ribbon, a study of the origins of terrorism set in a small German town on the eve of World War I. And in May he was awarded his second Palme d'Or for Amour.

PHOTOS: The Making of Michael Haneke's 'Amour'

Yet while Amour is as uncompromising as any of his earlier films, it also displays an unexpected and gentle sadness as it witnesses the gradual decline of a long-married couple, played by acting legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The French-language film, which Sony Pictures Classics will release Dec. 19 in the United States, is Austria's entry in the foreign-language feature Academy Award competition, and it could well surface in other Oscar categories as well. For all its gloom, Amour is Haneke's warmest film, hailed by critics as his most approachable and touching work yet. It's also deeply personal.

"There was a relative I loved very much, and I had to look on as she suffered," the 70-year-old Haneke explains, recalling an aunt who suffered from rheumatism and ended up taking her own life. "I wanted to investigate this feeling of being able to do nothing about it." So once The White Ribbon finished its festival rounds, the writer-director embarked on three months of researching stroke victims, consulting doctors and attending speech therapy courses before sitting down to pen what would become a film about an elderly couple navigating death.

In assembling Amour, Haneke faced two big hurdles: the film's subject matter and its casting demands. Haneke's story centered entirely on two people in their 80s, "and in our society, that is a total taboo," says Margaret Menegoz, head of Les Films du Losange and Amour's lead producer. "He may be the most important director working today, but we had one potential TV partner tell us, 'Forget it, you shouldn't show old people.' "

But that's exactly what Haneke intended to do. He wrote the part of the husband, Georges, expressly for Trintignant, 81, the star of such films as Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist. "I don't know any other actor who exudes the same human warmth as he does," Haneke explains, "and that was really important for this story." But Trintignant, who had retired from film acting, resisted at first. The director had to talk him into it since he refused to make the movie with anyone else. "I think it helped that we got along immediately and talked about everything one can talk about, only a little bit about the script itself," Haneke says.

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Finding an actress to play Anne, who suffers a stroke early in the film and whose painful decline is the engine of its plot, required more of a search. After auditions and screen tests, Haneke zeroed in on Riva, 85, whom he remembered as the star of 1959's Hiroshima Mon Amour. "He told me it was because I was the most moving," she says. Not to mention the most believable-looking. "It's not easy to find actors of our age who haven't had any plastic surgery," notes Trintignant. "Especially actresses."

French leading lady Isabelle Huppert, who starred in Haneke's The Piano Teacher and Time of the Wolf, was happy to sign on to play the couple's daughter, even though the part is comparatively small. "It's not big in terms of time," she says, "but it's essential because as the daughter of the couple who are the center of the story, I represent everything that comes into their world from the outside. I never say yes to a film when I haven't yet read the script," she adds, "but I had spoken with Michael and knew more or less what was coming. When I finally got the script, it was so beautifully translated into French, and the dialogue -- that's always the first thing an actor looks at -- was fantastic. And with Michael, what you read is exactly what you end up saying on camera, there is never any improvisation. It wasn't the kind of thing I'd read very often, so rich in love but also in complexity."

With his actors in hand and an $8.9 million budget secured -- roughly 70 percent from Losange, 10 percent from Vienna-based production house Wega and 20 percent through Stefan Arndt and Tom Tykwer's Munich-based X-Filme Creative Pool -- the production began filming in Paris in February 2011. Haneke, who is obsessed with his films' sound design, and production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos painstakingly built an expansive Parisian apartment on a soundstage so the director could control every aspect of production. Attentive to detail to an obsessive degree, Haneke had the library and music room -- Anne and her husband are both retired musicians -- constructed out of real oak. The crew had to install and reinstall the parquet floor to make sure it creaked just right.

VIDEO: 'Amour' Clip: Water Running

As the nine weeks of shooting were about to begin, Riva decided that, due to the physical demands of her role and the long commute, she would sleep on the set. "There was no way I could be in a car for an hour with smoke and noise on the highway -- I'd be tired before I even showed up for work," she recalls. "So at night, it was just me and the security guard and a guard dog. I hardly move in my part, so when filming was done for the day, I needed to move and dance, and there I could do it. They brought me food to eat, I was like a spoiled child."

Though Haneke's films can seem brutal, the atmosphere on the set was not. "It's never sad or heavy working with him," says Huppert. "Never. To produce what you see on the screen is work, and we can't work in a melancholy frame of mind. Michael is actually a very joyful person. He's not too hands-on as a director, either. OK, he might make you do 10 takes to get a gesture just right, but in my first scene with Jean-Louis, he didn't give me any direction at all. Mostly he just says, 'Not sentimental.' "

But the shoot did have its challenges -- and here it's impossible to avoid a major spoiler, so be forewarned. The physically frail Riva had to endure slapping, a naked scrub-down by a brutal nurse ("No one likes being naked, no matter how young or old they are," she says) and, ultimately, suffocation. "Before we started work on that scene, I was a little apprehensive," she recalls. "We had to make it look real, but I said, 'Hey, I don't want to die myself!' That's delicate for anyone."

For Trintignant, who had broken his hand during preproduction physical therapy, it was not the act itself but having to undertake it after a long, moving scene of dialogue, all in the same shot. "Had it just been suffocation, it would have been easier, but it's more surprising this way," he says.

Once principal production wrapped, Haneke moved on to a brisk two months of editing and then an extended -- but for him, totally routine -- period of sound editing and mixing. "I've never worked with a director so involved," says sound engineer Jean-Pierre Laforce. But sound is critical, Haneke insists: "You can approach the heart more directly through the ear than through the eye. Our ears are more resistant than our eyes, which are flooded with images. With sound, you can directly reach a viewer's unconscious mind."

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The results this time around surprised even longtime Haneke fans like Sony Pictures Classics co-heads Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, who picked up U.S. rights while the director was still finishing the project. "We always felt this film was going to be different than his others," says Barker. "I'm not talking about the level of warmth, but there's less of a distance for the audience. This one just feels like a piece of perfect craftsmanship, lean and clear, with so much honest emotion."

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TWO BLAZING STARS REIGNITE ONSCREEN

Part of the thrill of Amour is the opportunity to watch screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in a display of acting virtuosity. Yet at first, Trintignant, known to American audiences for such films as 1966's romance A Man and a Woman, 1969's political thriller Z and 1970's political allegory The Conformist, resisted Michael Haneke's invitation to join the film. Since the early 2000s, Trintignant had retired from films, focusing instead on theater. While he is a great admirer of Haneke's work, he wasn't prepared to give the director an automatic yes. "I told producer Margaret Menegoz I'd rather kill myself than make another film," the actor admits. "I don't think movies are made for actors. We do them out of vanity, for money, and it's more prestigious. I loved the script but I found it so sad, and I'm at an age when I've got to avoid sadness. But Margaret told me, 'Make the film and kill yourself afterward.' "

VIDEO: 'Amour' Clip: Piano

Riva has enjoyed a six-decade-long career in her native France, though stateside she is probably best known for Alain Resnais' 1959 drama Hiroshima Mon Amour, playing an actress who has an affair while filming an anti-war movie in Japan. She leaped into this new Amour whole-heartedly, though she didn't waste any time on research, not even for a cursory glance at French WebMD. "All I have in my house is an old telephone," she says with a laugh. "Haneke had done so much research of his own, he simply showed me how a stroke victim would move, how I should hold my hand, and we got on with it pretty quickly."

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