"I was so young once!" cries the unnamed woman played by Emmanuelle Riva in Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour. More than a half century later, in Michael Haneke's Amour, the octogenarian Riva surveys a photo album of her life with her husband and muses, even as her physical and mental states deteriorate, "C'est belle, la vie!" Life is decidedly not beautiful in Haneke's brief history of debility, but the magisterial performances of Riva as Anne and Jean-Louis Trintignant as her forebearing husband Georges render the film's account of incapacitation less intolerable than transcendent. Amour's immense poignancy issues not only from its portrait of a love total though not eternal — the irreligious Haneke brooks no hint of the afterlife — but also from its affecting record of the faltering bodies, wattled flesh, rheumy eyes and erratic gait of its veteran leads. Riva and Trintignant are perfectly matched as former music teachers; both actors have always exuded cultural refinement — she loves to write poetry, he to recite it — vivacious intelligence, and a certain veiled or enigmatic quality. (Trintignant famously proclaimed: "The best actors in the world are those who feel the most and show the least.") This sense of abstraction or quelque chose caché in their beings has attracted directors as diverse as the cerebral Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet and the humanist-mystical Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Ever the cinephilic auteur, Haneke clearly incorporates the filmic associations of the two actors' personae into the characters of Georges and Anne. Just as Haneke earlier wrote Caché for Daniel Autueil, who he felt has the same "secret" or "hidden" nature that Trintignant has, he devised Amour with the latter actor in mind. ("I wrote the script for Jean-Louis Trintignant. I've always admired and wanted to work with him; it was just a question of finding the right role. It was a sine qua non that he would be involved. Without him I wouldn't have made the film. He radiated the warmth that I needed for the film.") "Yes, I was very uptight," Georges admits towards the end of Amour, conjuring all the repressed, timid or introverted characters Trintignant has played, from the unsure young war dodger in Valerio Zurlini's Violent Summer through the suave fascists of Alain Cavalier's Le Combat dans l'île and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist to the indecisive engineer in Eric Rohmer's Ma nuit chez Maud. Only occasionally allowed to express the smiling joie de vivre he displayed in real life — where he indulged in the Trintignant clan's mania for car racing — and little of the warmth Haneke seems to discern in him, Trintignant often plays sec or tamped characters whose vocations involve precision, decision, or intellection: architects, judges, doctors, engineers, law students. The dark glasses behind which he remains shaded in Costa-Gavras' Z (which disconcerted the film's other actors on set) serve as a metaphor for his concealment and remoteness; even as the bondage-loving drug runner in Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ-Express, Trintignant remains dapper and a little detached. (Trintignant reportedly turned down the Marlon Brando role in Last Tango in Paris because he objected to the many nude scenes.)
Remembering the coolly beautiful Riva in Hiroshima mon amour — "Deform me, make me ugly," she instructs her Japanese lover — makes her senescent frailty in Amour all the more affecting. Riva's characters are often as inward as Trintignant's, though their reserve derives not from timidity or introversion, but from a sense of entrapment. "Elle" cannot free herself from the fetters of memory in Hiroshima mon amour; the imperiously fragile Princesse de Bormes in Georges Franju's Thomas the Imposter cannot escape the realities of war, as much as she attempts to turn carnage into theatre; the eponymous poisoner in Franju's Thérèse Desqueyroux, her face a mask of domestic suffering, literally becomes a prisoner of the clan she has unhappily married into; and Barny, the atheist widow in Melville's Léon Morin, Priest, is trapped in an unattainable passion for a priest. Exquisite in suffering, Riva never submits to martyrdom. Extending her role as the mother beset by Alzheimer's in Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue, Riva courageously incarnates the ailing Anne in Amour, her mind unmoored, her immobilized body submitted to humiliating ablutions. Godard averred that "Every film is a documentary of its actors." Amour is, in that sense, a magnificent documentary.
Some passages of this essay were first published in an article for Artforum International, November 2012.
Thanks to Laure Dahout, Consulat général de France à Toronto; Paola Ruggiero & Luciana Caprara, Cinecittà.