Every month, Interiors Journal dissects the floorplan of a film set to investigate the relationship between space and action. This month they’re focusing their attention on Michael Haneke’s Academy Award-winning Amour. Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the film yet, this article—which we’re reprinting with permission—gives away some critical plot details of the film. So watch Haneke’s masterpiece before reading this.
Michael Haneke, known for such deliberately bleak films as Funny Games (1997/2007), Caché (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009), aims for a touch of miserablist compassion with Amour (2012), winner of the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The film, which explores the private life of a married couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), is a meditation on coping with the precipitous mental and physical deterioration of a loved one.
Haneke has emphasized that the subject matter of this film isn’t based on actual events. Tom Shone of Vulture, however, notes that the filmmaker’s 92-year-old aunt, who suffered from severe rheumatism, asked for Haneke’s assistance when she contemplated suicide. The filmmaker refused, and she criticized him after she awoke in the hospital following an unsuccessful attempt to kill herself. Two years later she succeeded.
Haneke sets his film within a single location, a Parisian apartment, which was constructed in a soundstage. The filmmaker’s direction here is restrained; his static camera observes his characters from a distance, almost always in long shot at first, rarely investigating their internal states of mind—excepting a single, disconcerting dream sequence. This initially objective filmmaking allows the audience’s eventually intimate relationship with the subjects to build slowly over the course of the film.
Sheri Linden of the Los Angeles Times spoke with Haneke and discovered that the apartment in Amour was modeled after his parent’s home. “The layout of the apartment was identical to the apartment of my parents in Vienna,” Haneke says, claiming that having “a space” in mind—which he created with the help of first-time collaborator production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos—was critical to the logic of the film.
The diagram we have presented (above) showcases the entire plan of the apartment. The figures in the floorplan represent three key scenes in the film documenting the decline of Anne’s health, including Georges and Anne’s breakfast at the start of the film, when Anne first shows signs of her illness (0:07:25-0:14:42), Georges and Anne in their study, when Georges helps Anne move from her wheelchair onto the nearby chair (0:22:16-0:24:51), and George and Anne’s bedroom at the end of the film, when Georges suffocates Anne (1:39:28-1:45:44).
In the scene in the kitchen, at the start of the film, Georges and Anne are in seemingly good health. Georges notices that Anne is unresponsive; he wets a towel, leaves the water running and walks over to their bedroom. The use of space in this scene is dependent on the sound design. Georges later puts on his jacket and hears the water stop running. This prompts Georges to rush back into the kitchen.
In the study scene, Anne’s health is in decline; she’s now in a wheelchair and depends on Georges. Georges stands Anne up and moves her from her wheelchair onto a chair. In this scene, Haneke films from a distance. In long shot, we watch them hold onto each other as they move awkwardly. In The New Yorker, Richard Brody describes this as a “dance-like erotic embrace.” This physical embrace is suggestive of the couple’s erotic bond that perhaps once was (though in keeping with Haneke’s ouvre, that bond is never shown, only implied).
In the bedroom scene, Anne is bedridden in the final stages of her life. The use of space in this scene is once again determined by sound. Georges is in the bathroom, shaving, when he hears Anne’s cries. It’s the sound of her voice from the other room that prompts Georges to go from one space to the other.
In addition to these scenes, music plays a central role throughout the entire film. The use of sound and music in the film is diegetic; its source is visible on the screen or originates within the space of the film.
In a later scene in the film, after Anne has become bedridden, we see Anne (in perfectly good health) playing the grand piano in their study. Haneke films this in a long shot, as well, then cuts to an isolated shot of Georges sitting in a chair in the room. The sound of the piano carries over with this cut, until Georges turns in his chair and turns off a CD player, which stops the music that was coming from her piano. Michael Haneke films this scene in a realistic manner, even though it’s imagined.
The final scene between Georges and Anne is once again compelled by sound. Georges rests in the den and hears the sink being turned off, which prompts him to go back to the kitchen. Georges discovers Anne washing the dishes (despite the fact that she is no longer alive at this point in the film). The director tells Aaron Hillis of Indiewire that the detail “occurred to me because in my parents’ apartment, the kitchen and the bedroom were quite far apart. If it had been different, I’m not sure I would’ve had that idea.” Michael Haneke films this exchange in a two shot; both characters fill up the frame, emphasizing their closeness.
Haneke, who often obsesses over the sound and production design in his films, had complete freedom with the construction of this space. The library and music room was constructed from real oak. In The Hollywood Reporter, we learn about how specific he was with the design of the space itself. “The crew had to install and reinstall the parquet floor to make sure it creaked just right.”
The filmmaker’s wife, Susanne, who oversaw the set decoration for the film, was specific about the slightest details in each of the rooms. Sheri Linden notes that the library and music room is infused “with the sense of the octogenarian characters’ shared life and work,” and rather than cramming bookshelves with a collection of books, each book was chosen specifically, “ordered according to theme and subject matter, and also alphabetically within the themes.” The space that exists in the film, as a result, is a
reflection of the characters’ class and culture.
The use of space within this single location is notable; much of the events that happen throughout the film are described rather than shown. Michael Haneke shows his audience only the essential—insignificant details about doctor’s visits, for instance, are only described. Additionally, the apartment exists separate from the outside world, as Georges and Anne live a somewhat disconnected life.
By setting the majority of the film in a single location, Haneke shows how a familiar, comfortable location can also become a sort of prison or purgatory for its characters. A place of love and light transforms into one of extreme pain and darkness.