Michael Haneke's "Amour" and the music of time

A thought-provoking portrayal of the realities of nursing a partner in deteriorating health.

Amour (12A)
Michael Haneke

Anyone purchasing the soundtrack to Michael Haneke’s Amour before seeing the film would get a comically misleading impression of the director’s use of music. It isn’t that the album’s track listing is incorrect. There is indeed Schubert and a selection of Beethoven’s Bagatelles. But every piece included in Amour is curtailed after only a few seconds by an abrupt cut, or by someone saying: “Switch it off.” (An early title for the picture was The Music Stops.) The sense of pleasure thwarted is overwhelming and appropriate for a film in which a woman’s means of communication are stemmed, her life foreshortened, after she suffers a stroke.

Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who is in her eighties, is sitting at the kitchen table when she experiences a break in perception. One moment she and her husband, Georges (Jean- Louis Trintignant), are talking, the next she is gazing at him uncomprehendingly; it’s as though she too has been switched off. Following surgery, she is left paralysed in one side of her body. “It will go steadily downhill for a while,” Georges tells their adult daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert). “And then it will be over.”

Like Georges, Haneke is not someone to whom you’d turn if you wanted the truth broken gently. He lacks, shall we say, a certain bedside manner. The cruelty of the world he depicts is not tempered by reassurances; his is a form of tough love. The White Ribbon (village plagued by unattributable acts of violence), The Piano Teacher (woman terrorised by her mother performs degrading, self-harming acts), Benny’s Video (parents cover up a murder committed by their desensitised son) – each of these films would lose their air of appalled horror if Haneke didn’t mourn implicitly the sufferings and shortcomings on show.

Amour is different. Haneke is no less stringent now as a film-maker – a quick browse through a photograph album is the nearest Georges and Anne get to a soft-focus montage of marriage highlights. But his emphasis in Amour is on love and loyalty as positive counterpoints to mortal tortures. Even when the couple bristle at one another, or Georges loses his temper, the tension illuminates the capacious dimensions of their life together – the depth and breadth of their marriage. Partly this is the result of putting performers as profound as Riva and Trintignant in front of the camera. To whom can you look for actorly eloquence if not the woman who shouldered much of the emotional weight of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), and the man who embodied refrigerated rage in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970)? We believe in their long marriage not only because they are superb actors working from a note-perfect screenplay; there is also a lifetime’s tenacity shining through Trintignant’s husk-like face, a well of memories in Riva’s eyes. In a film frugal with music, everything still depends on this duet.

Music has always been central to Haneke, whether he has used it to terrorise (the screeching death-metal audible to us, but not to the sweetly smiling family on screen, at the start of Funny Games) or hasn’t used it at all (Hidden, his most admired film, is so unsettling partly because it includes no music whatsoever). It is in every way pivotal to Amour. Georges and Anne are retired music teachers who share an elegantly sombre Parisian apartment, shot with respectful warmth by the cinematographer Darius Khondji. The piano in their study is played only twice (once in a hallucination or memory). In its big close-up, there is noise rather than music emanating from its vicinity: the piano simply stands there while the cleaner vacuums around its legs. It is no more able to participate in the action of the scene than the paralysed Anne can object to having her hair brushed roughly by an unfeeling nurse. What a waste. The woman and the piano, that is.

Though music is rarely heard in Amour, it is often discussed. One of Anne’s former students (played by the pianist Alexandre Tharaud) visits to tell her about his recording work but neglects to bring his latest CD – another instance of music placed beyond Anne’s reach or denied outright. After Anne’s operation, Georges attends a funeral where, he later recounts, someone plays a tape-recording of the Beatles song “Yesterday”. The story rightly invites our disdain: this is not, after all, a nostalgic film. There’s no suggestion that, yesterday, all Georges and Anne’s troubles seemed so far away, only that they possessed the strength to cope with them back then (which admittedly doesn’t scan nearly as well).

The reality of nursing a partner in deteriorating health must be cushioned by the couple’s rarefied climate. Georges can produce €800 to pay a carer’s bill without noticeable pause, while Eva issues investment advice to her mother. But fortification in Amour is ultimately emotional rather than financial. The apartment, from which the film never strays after the first five minutes, becomes a symbol of that security. The picture begins with the front door being broken down but the onset of illness is more insidious.

Prior to Anne’s stroke, the couple find that the lock on their door has been tampered with inexpertly by a would-be burglar. Anne’s friend was the victim of a more successful violation: intruders gained access to the apartment building via the attic. You might say Anne is brought low in much the same way. In Amour, the home is no less pregnable than it was in Funny Games or Hidden, but now Haneke has moved out of the inhibiting genre of thriller and into a higher metaphorical register. The threat posed in Amour is not to family or morality but to life itself. Love, rather than any sophisticated security system, stands Anne and Georges in good stead against death, the ultimate housebreaker.

 

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Haneke's "Amour".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser