ENCOUNTERS with Michael Haneke are often tense affairs.
The Austrian-born auteur, the man behind such heavyweight films as The Piano Teacher and Code Unknown, has always been something of a tough interviewee, his answers as elusive and distant as his films are cold and clinical. But today he seems different. Dressed in a near-monotone colour scheme – navy suit and black polo-neck, contrasting with his white hair and beard – he seems almost jolly. There is the occasional smile, a laugh or two, even the odd answer in English (he usually speaks in German, via a translator).
Certainly, his latest film, Amour, is not the Haneke we know. Yes, this story of two retired music teachers is harrowing and unsentimental, but it's also one of the most personal, emotional films of his 38- year career. So is he going soft, now he's turned 70? "You'll have to ask my wife," he grins. Perhaps it's that he can now rest assured that his place as one of world cinema's greatest directors has been confirmed. Amour repeated the trick of his 2009 film The White Ribbon and claimed Cannes' top prize when it premiered in May, making him just one of seven directors to win the Palme d'Or twice.
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A former philosophy and psychology student, who went from writing film criticism to working in TV and theatre, Haneke's too reserved to get over-excited by such fripperies. After all, while he's only ever received one Oscar nomination (for The White Ribbon), he's taken just about everything on offer in Cannes over the years – from Best Director for Hidden to the Grand Jury prize for The Piano Teacher. "If you win a prize, it's very flattering," he shrugs. "But even more importantly, prizes improve the working conditions on your next film. It requires certain courage to agree to produce the films that I make- and prizes lend courage."
Whatever it is that's improved Haneke's mood today, there's no question he's operating at the peak of his powers right now. Amour is certainly the most accessible film he's made, full of universal truths and two unbelievable performances from two legends of European cinema. Jean-Louis Trintignant (who won Best Actor in Cannes for Z in 1969) plays Georges, who must care for his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, she of Hiroshima Mon Amour fame) after she suffers a stroke and gradually, painfully, begins an inexorable slide towards death.
As is usual for a director as precise as Haneke, he did his research, visiting hospitals, speaking to doctors and attending therapy sessions, but his desire to write on the topic of old age and illness stemmed from something much closer to home. "I experienced a carbon copy situation in my family," he explains. "Someone whom I loved very deeply was suffering terribly, and I had to look on helplessly." He even modelled the flat that Georges and Anna live in on his own parents' flat in Vienna (although is at pains to point out it wasn't either his mother or father who inspired the story).
While death has often haunted his work – think of the horrific murders in Funny Games, the shocking suicide in Hidden – what we see here is less extreme, more commonplace (though no less moving for it). Watching a loved one die an agonising death is one of the most appalling things that so many of us have to face, he says. "For me the ideal of death is the death of my wife's grandmother. She was 95. She was sitting at a table, surrounded by 20 friends. At one point she said, 'I feel tired' and laid her head on the table and died."
Although Amour is far removed from the disease-of-the-week TV movies that clutter up broadcasters' afternoon schedules, its subject immediately raises talk about social issues surrounding death – notably whether euthanasia should be permitted in more countries. Haneke, though, refuses to get drawn in. "I've been asked that question repeatedly," he says. "But it wasn't my intention to deal with it. The theme of the film touches all of us, but nonetheless, every discussion, every debate that my film raises, is a good debate. I'm happy about it."
Likewise, for a film that deals with both love and death, he has no intention about putting his stamp on any particular interpretation. Take the scene towards the end – one of the most moving this year – where Georges finds a pigeon in their apartment. After what seems like an almost comical moment where he follows the bird around, he eventually catches and frees it. Just don't ask Haneke what this symbolises. "I don't have an interpretation for that scene. When I'm asked how the pigeon ended up in my film, I say that it flew in through the window and it flew out through the window."
Still, it does conjure up a wonderful image – of the esteemed auteur of European cinema directing a pigeon. "We did our best to direct it," he sighs. "We had pellets on the floor that were intended to lead the pigeon in a certain direction, but that only worked to a certain point. We had to do any number of takes until I got something that I could use." He hates working with animals, recalling the trained dogs he used on Funny Games. "I must have lost so much hair on that shoot!"
Even a master of cinema like Haneke can't control everything.
Amour opens on November 16.