Magazine article Screen International

Michael Haneke

Magazine article Screen International

Michael Haneke

Article excerpt

Michael Haneke's latest film Amour won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year and continues to attract awards attention. The Austrian auteur talks to John Hazelton about tackling ageing and suffering on screen -- and why he doesn't like improvisation

It is probably not something the 70-year-old Austrian writer-director would ever say himself, but Michael Haneke is on a roll.

His last three films (leaving the US version of Funny Games aside for the moment) have earned an impressive haul of awards: a Cannes best director prize and five European Film Awards, including European Film and director nods, for 2005's Hidden (Caché); the Cannes Palme d'Or, the foreign-language film Golden Globe, two Oscar nominations, a Bafta nomination and three European Film Awards, again including European film and director, for 2009's The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band); and, earlier this year, another Palme d'Or for Amour, which as Austria's entry for the best foreign-language film Academy Award, is considered a front runner for an Oscar. The film also has six nominations at this year's European Film Awards.

Audiences have shown their approval by turning the challenging, sometimes bleak or violent films into strong arthouse performers, with the French-language Hidden grossing $16.2m worldwide and the German-language The White Ribbon $19.3m. Amour, another French-language outing, started its international roll-out in September in Germany and Austria, and has since opened in territories such as France, Italy and the UK. It opens in the US on Dec 19 via Sony Pictures Classics.

Haneke has even become something of a role model in the film financing world. Having made most of his films over the past decade as French-German-Austrian co-productions (with the occasional participation of other countries as well) he is, he says with the kind of sly humour that sometimes cuts through his professorial demeanour, "a poster boy for the success of the European financing system".

The growth of Haneke's reputation has allowed him to tackle difficult subjects on respectable budgets. With its reported $9.4m ([euro]7.3m) budget, Amour was considerably less costly than the much larger scale The White Ribbon. But its subject, Haneke concedes, speaking in his native German through a translator, was certainly risky: "I'm dealing with a theme that's usually considered a sure box-office flop."

Veteran cast confronts taboos

Featuring French veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant (star of European classics ranging from Z and The Conformist to Three Colours: Red) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour to Three Colours: Blue), Amour looks at how the bond of love between two ageing, retired music teachers is tested when one suffers a stroke that leads to rapid physical decline.

Isabelle Huppert, who previously starred in Haneke's The Piano Teacher and Time Of The Wolf, plays the couple's concerned daughter.

'The question was how do I cope with the suffering of someone I love. That was the starting point'Michael Haneke

The inspiration for the story came from personal experience, says Haneke. "It was a case that I experienced in my family. Like so many of us I was confronted with someone who I loved very deeply and who was ill and suffering. And I had to look on helplessly and witness their suffering. It was an unbearable experience and that led me to reflect on the question."

Though Haneke has been praised for taking on the almost taboo subject of old age, it wasn't ageing that interested him. "I could just as easily have made a film about a young couple coping with a sick child," he explains. "The question was how do I cope with the suffering of someone I love. That was the starting point.

"Had I made the film about a younger couple then it would have been a tragic case but an isolated one. Whereas dealing with old age it's a more universal occurrence and for that reason there's a greater possibility of the audience identifying with what's going on. …

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