'The pessimists are those who treat the audience as stupid'
I assume he will look puzzled if I suggest that his films tend towards the pessimistic.
“I don’t look at myself from above. It is the job of the cultural journalist to make those decisions. But, no, I don’t find myself pessimistic at all. For me, the pessimists are those in the mainstream who treat the audiences as more stupid than they actually are.”
What about the notion that – in the first decade of his film-making career, at least – he deliberately set out to unnerve and shock his audience? In The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert mutilates her own genitals. In Funny Games, two culturally undernourished young men massacre an innocent family. And so forth.
“Funny Games was certainly a slap in the face,” he says. “I was angry and I wanted to pass that slap on to others. Benny’s Video was not done deliberately in order to shock anybody. But it dealt with shocking, difficult things. Shocking for the sake of shocking is a pubescent thing to do. I don’t see any of this. It is always other people who make these comments.”
At any rate, it now seems like a long time since Michael Haneke was seen as being even faintly disreputable. Indeed, the universal critical acclaim directed towards The White Ribbon and Amour has enhanced the reputation of the earlier work. Troubling films such as Funny Games and Hidden now look like frantic attempts to find a route through contemporary moral disarray.
Those pictures were not so nihilistic as they appeared on the surface. Just because the characters had given up on humanity that did not mean the director was similarly awash with despair.
“Of course, that’s true,” he says. “It’s a ridiculous position. In most films you will have lots of characters with different positions. Yes, you have thought or heard these opinions in life. But the fact that you’re playing Richard III doesn’t mean you’re a murderer.”
Sure enough, Amour may play like the work of a man who is prepared to look deeply into life’s darkest corners. But it is also powered by an empathy for human beings and an interest in what keeps them driving forward. That title is not in any way ironic. The film really engages with the risks we take when we chose to love.
Still, there is no escaping the grim terminus towards which Emmanuelle Riva’s character is headed.
Though thin and bony, Michael Haneke seems alert for a man entering his eighth decade. He must, however, have found his thoughts turning to his own mortality while shooting Amour.
“I think about my own mortality all the time,” he says with a genuine chortle. “But not specifically for this film. I consider that often.” Hang on. Isn’t he playing directly into the caricature of Haneke as an unstoppable pessimist? “No. I think about my mortality all the time. But that doesn’t make me a pessimist.”
As I say, talking to Michael Haneke is not like talking to Robin Williams.