Cannes Check: Michael Haneke's 'Amour'
The director: Michael Haneke (German-Austrian, 70 years old)
The talent: After the low-profile ensemble of "The White Ribbon," Haneke returns here to the big names. Isabelle Huppert has a history with Haneke and Cannes: she won the festival's Best Actress award (her second) for "The Piano Teacher" in 2001, and headed the jury that handed him the Palme d'Or three years ago. This marks her third collaboration with him, and her first since 2003's "The Time of the Wolf," but she doesn't appear to be the primary focus this time: that'd be two veterans of the French New Wave, Emmanuelle Riva ("Hiroshima, Mon Amour,") and Jean-Louis Trintignant ("Three Colors: Red" and "Z," for which he won Best Actor at Cannes in 1969). (Fun fact: Riva played the lead in Georges Franju's original film of "Thérèse Desqueyroux," Claude Miller's new adaptation of which is closing the festival.) Also on board: British opera baritone William Shimell, who made an impressive film debut opposite Juliette Binoche in 2010's "Certified Copy."
Haneke wrote the original screenplay, as per usual. Below the line, it's exciting to see Darius Khondji, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer of "Se7en," "Evita" and "Midnight in Paris," picking up the collaboration he and the director began on 2007's "Funny Games U.S." Editors Monika Willi and Nadine Muse (also a sound editor), both of whom have worked on and off with the director since 2000, are back. As usual with Haneke, there is no composer -- though the subject matter portends use of existing classical pieces.
The pitch: If you're familiar with Haneke's work, you won't need me to tell you that the narrative revolves around a couple named Anne and George. Those names, transferred from one totally unrelated character the next, are a minor trademark of his work, and this time belong to the characters played by Riva and Trintignant, a married octogenarian pair of former music teachers whose mutual devotion is put to its severest test when Anne suffers a paralyzing stroke. (Huppert plays their daughter, a musician living abroad.)
While this sounds a typically solemn premise from the sternly formalist filmmaker, it also promises more warmth and outward emotion than his recent work has led us to expect. It would appear that the blunt title (which I'm still not sure will be translated for English-speaking markets -- it seems unnecessary) hasn't been casually applied: this ought to be a substantial meditation on how we love, and why. Incidentally, if you hadn't already guessed, Haneke is back in French-language mode for the first time since "Hidden" in 2005, though the film is a French-German-Austrian co-production.
The pedigree: Haneke's been in Competition at Cannes five times before, winning everything from the Ecumenical Jury Prize ("Code Unknown") to the Grand Prix ("The Piano Teacher" to Best Director ("Hidden") to, finally and most recently, the Palme d'Or for "The White Ribbon" in 2009. (See, Cannes isn't entirely unlike the Oscars in that way: persistence pays.) His last film also netted a Golden Globe, two Oscar nods and an armload of European Film Awards, making it his most decorated film to date, though he'd been on the elite list for some time already. Add French acting royalty of Huppert and Trintignant's caliber and the film could hardly rank higher on the European arthouse hierarchy.
The buzz: Everything I wrote in the above paragraph, plus the pitch's promise of emotional candor and relative accessibility, ensures people are expecting an arthouse monster. Haneke's filmography hasn't been free of missteps, but they've generally been more obviously signposted this one. Sony Pictures Classics, of course, already has US distribution rights.
The odds: With everything going for it on paper, "Amour" would have to be regarded as one of the frontrunners for the Palme d'Or -- were it not for the fact that he won the prize on his last time at bat. Only six directors have won the festival's top honor twice, and while no jury would baulk at letting Haneke join the ranks of Coppola, the Dardennes and, uh, Bille August, it's rarer still for one to win for consecutive films. (August, amazingly, is the lone precedent.)
Of course, Cannes award runs needn't end with the Palme, particular when it comes to the festival's pet filmmakers -- the Dardennes, for example, have taken both Best Screenplay and the Grand Prix since their Palme double. But while it's quite conceivable that Haneke could take a lesser prize, it's likelier still that its actors will be rewarded: the combination of veteran sentiment and baity-sounding roles could ensure a prize for Trintigant or Riva or, quite plausibly, both. ("The Piano Teacher" pulled off that double in 2001, and the Grand Prix to boot.) Lots of options here: assuming the film delivers emotionally, and with a humanist like Nanni Moretti running the jury, the most surprising outcome would be the film winning nothing at all.
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