Haneke on Ageing, Loss – and Liebe

Austrian director Michael Haneke secures another Cannes award with his opus on love

Top Stories | Christopher Anderson, Dardis McNamee | September 2012

Director Haneke with Riva and Trintignant in Palme d’Or winner Liebe (Photos: Filmladen)

Austrian film enthusiasts couldn’t believe their ears last 27 May, when the jury at the Cannes Film Festival awarded Michael Haneke the prestigious Palme d’Or for the second time in four years, this time for Amour (distributed here as Liebe, in the English-speaking world as Love), a joint production of companies in France, Germany and Austria, with the participation of eight television broadcasters.

The success came on the heels of a Golden Globe coup in 2010 honouring Haneke’s powerful Das Weiße Band and an Oscar for Burgtheater pillar Christoph Waltz’s brilliant supporting role in Inglourious Basterds. Haneke had already joined the list of Palmarès in Cannes for Das Weiße Band (Palme d’Or) in 2009, Caché (Best Director) in 2005, and La Pianiste (Grand Prix) in 2001.

How does a director keep a streak like that alive? With love, it seems – for the cinema, for the public, and most of all, for his characters. The narrative of Liebe revolves around the elderly couple Georges and Anne Laurent, played by two veterans of the screen: Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva. Among many famed performances, he starred in Les Liaisons dangereuses with Jeanne Moreau in 1959, and she in Duras’ Hiroshima mon amourin the same year.

Here Haneke explores the struggles of two ageing pianists, whose later years, still rich and active, are shattered when Anne has a stroke, and Georges, himself frail enough, takes on the tasks of her care. After an unsuccessful operation and a stay in the hospital, the burdens increase. A nurse is hired, then a second. Georges has promised that he will not send her back.

Through a gentle unfolding of domestic scenes in the couple’s Paris apartment, Haneke shows us their closeness in countless small things, the right moment for a cup of tea or a Schubert Impromptu, decades of shared experience and mutual acceptance; theirs is a deeply comfortable relationship of unquestioned understanding and acceptance.

Haneke navigates the descent into their diminishing world with a sure hand, and thanks to masterful – at times nearly overwhelming – performances by Riva and Trintignant, we live the decline as they do, through Georges’ eyes and within their shared moral frame.

Thus we see them among spectators at a theatre, listening to a concert by her former piano student, now a star soloist. Once back from the theatre, we enter their private sphere, where we stay for the rest of the film. It is intensely intimate: We live with them as they struggle with the simplest daily tasks as Anne begins to succumb to the effects of the stroke, with her frustrations and increasing irrationality, his patience and growing despair. Yet, because we are viewing her from his perspective, who’s to say he’s not the one who is unravelling?

Haneke makes masterful use of the interior of the flat. Once there, it’s a space we get to know, a bounded realm rarely ruptured, except by the arrival of a pigeon at the window ledge, or when an intruder invades a room flooded with water. These periodic visits from the outside are startling, reminders of how isolated Anne and Georges have become, yet also how powerful the loving bond between them is, brilliantly maintained by Trintignant and Riva.

We meet the couple’s only child Eva, played by screen veteran Isabelle Huppert, as she catches them up on her travels, the status of her intermittent relationship with an Englishman Geoff, and the updates on her two children. Yet in the context of the film, she seems inexplicably self-absorbed. If the couple share the love they clearly do, we are left to wonder why the daughter is so detached – a question that is never answered: She seems to be just another thankless child, the product of a self-absorbed modern life that here seems out of place.

The awkward but well-meaning concierge M. Mery stops in several times, bringing food and lingering longer than he seems invited for. Such interludes add to an overall awkward tone created by Haneke, foreboding troubles to come. Even when Georges returns from a funeral, he reports that the sermon was pathetic, an embarrassment for all. Death without honour; not your typical funeral review.

Finally, we’re introduced to the performer in the theatre, Alexandre Tharaud, a concert pianist in real life, here playing himself (Vienna audiences can see him at the Musikverein on 11 May 2013). Anne urges the Schubert-enthusiast to play a Beethoven Bagatelles he had mastered as a child prodigy – he resists and resists again, until finally giving in and playing for her from the heart.

These subtle moments of doubt, hesitation, and distance break the serenity of the couple’s love, and intensify as the effects of the stroke worsen. Thus, for a film with little action, the emotional tension provides the spine of the storyline, the dehumanising loss of one’s powers, the agony of being unable to help.

In Haneke’s world aging is cruel. But love is more powerful.

Opening 21 Sept. at cinemas throughout Vienna. Visit falter.at, or the following link.

For more on Haneke’s other cinematic successes, see "‘Funny Games’ Revisited" in Feb 2008 TVR.

This article was originally published on 19 Sept. 2012.

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