AMOUR TRAILER: The Exquisite (?) Subtlety of French Film Marketing

Since its release in December of 2012, the multiple-Academy Award nominated and Oscar Winning Best Foreign Language Film Amour, from acclaimed Austrian director, Michael Haneke, has earned only a little more than 5 million dollars domestically (plus 13M elsewhere), despite its exceptionally strong critical and popular reviews. This is hardly surprising. Subtitles are Kryptonite to American audiences.

Although I intended to discuss the TV spots for the critically excoriated box-office hit Identity Thief (newsflash: the marketers exploit Melissa McCarthy’s gift for physical comedy and Jason Bateman’s skill as a “straight” man), I was drawn to the quiet, unconventionality of the 1:40 trailer for Amour. This is not how we make trailers in the US and while I was initially confused by what the trailer asks of and shares with its audience, I appreciate its method and its rigor, although I can’t quite recommend its approach to finding the widest audience for what looks to be a very deserving film.

Most likely, there wasn’t the budget to make more than one trailer, despite the difference in audience reception and marketing conventions worldwide. This strikes me as a very short-sighted “savings” of say, $50,000 dollars (possibly much less), since the provenance, talent, creative team, and critical buzz for the film was everything the distributor could have wanted to sell this movie more widely in the US market. But though I find it astonishing–given the marginal cost of creating trailers for different audience segments–that only one was finished to promote this film worldwide, the decision was not doubt more complicated and carefully considered than I’ve speculated.

In this post, then, I want to bracket what might have been and focus instead on a beautiful, elliptical, and substantial (if you read closely and allegorically) presentation of information about this coming attraction. A trailer like this will not appeal to everyone, but those who can appreciate its artistry are very likely to appreciate the film it heralds.

The non-chronologically structured trailer opens with 80 year old retired music teacher Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) calling through an doorway of his dimly lit apartment, “is anyone there?” We cut to the jarring sound of the house doors being forced by Firemen/Emergency Response personnel. Through those same doors, we now watch the earlier and quiet entry of Eva (Isabelle Huppert), daughter of Georges and Ann (Emmanuelle Riva), whose tragic love story this is. “Is anyone there,” says another voice (whose?). As Eva calls for her mother while walking through the cavernous, still apartment, we cross cut to a member of the emergency responders trying to open the sealed double doors to the master bedroom. In the next scene, Eva sits in her father’s study, speaking, ostensibly to him, recalling childhood memories of his love for her mother and the comfort that gave her.

Next, Georges wakes from a nightmare. Ann asks, “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a” which has been translated idiomatically as “what’s wrong,” but literally means “What’s there?” As if in reply (non-diegetically, of course) cast cards (white on black) name the actors prior to a shot of George holding Ann’s blank face in his hands. Another card presents Huppert’s name and participation.

We then cut to Eva’s confrontation with her father over her mother’s situation. “What’s going on,” she asks tearfully, a question she poses again, after the imposition of a touching domestic scene between George and Ana. The first time, the trailer shows a card, “A film by Michael Haneke.” At the repetition of her question, Eva, now angry, demands of her father: “are you out of your mind?, what’s going on?” The trailer replies with the title card, “Amour,” both a film name, an abstract noun and an explanation.

In the remaining 30 seconds of the trailer, there are only two shots. Beethoven’s Bagatelle, Op. 126 in G. Minor, plays beneath most of it, played in the first shot by Ann at her grand piano. Then, we watch George listening to the same music, seated in his study, before slowly turning around in his chair to switch off the tape monitor. In silence, he sits motionlessly for 10 seconds further.

It is a very un-trailer like ending. No montage. No quick-cutting. No sound cues to tell you what to feel or experience. Just an actor in silence and stillness. There’s not even much in the way of non-verbal communication. Trintingant stares cameraward (if not exactly into the lens) not engaging the viewer but lost to his difficult thoughts, unaware he’s being seen. After he silences the recording, he shifts his gaze to the right and downward, still locked in reflection, undecided and anguished.

You can see from this synopsis, that the trailer is designed for an audience that is willing to work for its information, an audience that knows the director and actors and trusts their artistry, even welcomes the mystery or the understatement of the advertisement for it. But as I mentioned above, the Amour trailer, while unconventional, honors it’s obligation to provide story, genre, cast, title and stylistic information. At its most traditional, it uses representative scenes, graphic cards and music and editorial cues to establish cinematic and emotional tone.

With respect to story information, the trailer is superficially oblique and unforthcoming. And yet, by watching actively and interpreting allegorically, it is simple enough to learn or predict accurately what the movie is about, where it will go and how it will end. The trick, if such is the right word, is to recognize the cast and title cards as the answer to the insistent, persistent questions framed by the dialogue. “Is anyone there,” is the first utterance of Georges, who is facing his wife’s decline into dementia, initiated by a stroke. Later, Ann asks George, waking from a nightmare, what is it (or what’s wrong). He doesn’t answer; he needn’t answer. Her question is rhetorical, intended to comfort and console rather than elicit an answer she already knows.

“What’s going on” is asked twice by the daughter, an audience surrogate who penetrates the insular world of her parents love and intimacy, only to discover that “it’s not OK,” as she insists in English. The answer, to the first query is the concrete reality of two octogenarians countenancing mortality and honoring–at great cost–the promises they’ve made to each other. The answer to its repetition is the abstraction of love, with its impossible choices and transcendent obligations. The movie, bearing the same name as love, positions itself as a cinematic portrait of this familiar but uncanny emotion.

If it weren’t obvious from the lighting, the cinematography, the pacing and the music cues that this is a grueling domestic drama, the final 20 seconds should make it plain that for George and Ann, living is subordinate to loving. Ann plays (a flashback? a hallucination?) as George listens. We see that he is listening to a recording, as his face expresses doubt, confusion, reflection. When he turns off the recording, plunging the final 10 seconds of the trailer into silence as jarring as a forced door or a dreamer’s screams, his flipping of the switch, his summoning of silence functions as an rehearsal of his decision and determination. Something terrible and beautiful will take place in the apartment, something requiring emergency personnel to expose and filial understanding to process and forgive.

The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film should help attract the audiences that the trailer did not. While an admirable, representative and subtle earnest of its feature’s art and ambition, the trailer for Amour is that rare thing in the movie marketing world: a trailer that’s too smart for the room.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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