'The pessimists are those who treat the audience as stupid'
It’s well known that Michael Haneke refuses to answer interpretative questions on his work, and in person the director proves as puzzling as his films
Living life as Michael Haneke must be a difficult business. People expect so much. And people expect such odd things. The Austrian director, now 70, did not direct his first feature until he was in his late 40s. Over the following decade, he developed a reputation as a sort of high-brow cultural terrorist. The nippily titled 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance revolved around a mass killing. Benny’s Video began with pig being slaughtered. Funny Games took in more mindless slaying.
Haneke received many strong reviews, but he also attracted great degrees of suspicion.
It would be wrong to suggest that his films have softened over the past few years. He does, however, seem to have become a deal less aggressively provocative. Consider the extraordinary Amour. Detailing the slow decline of an elderly woman in an elegant French apartment, the picture offers the viewer a gruelling experience, but it is also humane, touching and heart-breakingly tender. The jury at Cannes were, earlier this year, sufficiently impressed to award Amour the Palme d’Or. It followed Haneke’s success with The White Ribbon in 2009, making him one of only seven film-makers to have taken the top prize on two occasions.
He has gone beyond mere respectability. He is now as admired in his own time as Ingmar Bergman was in his. Such adulation brings pressure.
“Success is always a pressure,” he agrees. “People are always waiting for your next film to be better than the one you have just made. And I put pressure on myself. But it would be very hypocritical to say I am sorry about success. There are worse things to live with.”
And he laughs. No, really.
Such is the austere, pessimistic nature of Haneke’s films – we’ll get to his rejection of those adjectives later – that one could be forgiven for expecting an interview with the great man to play out like a chat with the lord of the flies. It’s not quite like that. He rarely (thank heavens) comes across like Robin Williams; comedy Scotsmen are not in evidence. But, buried beneath the angular Austrian demeanour, there lurks a playful mischievousness. He seems to enjoy making you toil.
Let’s have a crack at Amour. The picture stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, two giants of French cinema, as Georges and Anne, an elderly couple living in an upmarket area of Paris. In painful, rigorous detail, Haneke takes us through Anne’s experiences after suffering a stroke. Her husband oscillates between despair, anger and pity. We know from the beginning that she will not live long.
“It began with a personal experience,” he says slightly cryptically. “I was interested in the effect the suffering of a loved one can have upon a person. Everything actually grew out of working on the subject. It could just as well have been about a young mother with a sick child. But that would have been a special case. The idea here was to have a more general case – something that we can all expect to experience.”