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Director Michael Haneke on ‘Amour,’ Death and the Puzzle of an Open Window

"I was confronted with a family member I loved very deeply who was suffering in old age, and I had to look on helplessly and watch — it was a very bitter experience"

 

Out of the 71 films submitted in the Oscar foreign-language category this year, Michael Haneke's "Amour" is without much doubt the surest nominee.

An austere, unflinching, deeply moving chronicle of an elderly couple, Georges and Anne (French acting icons Jean-Louis Trintingnant and Emmanuelle Riva, pictured with the bearded Haneke below), coping with the aftermath of a stroke that disables Anne, "Amour" won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival and is one of the year's most acclaimed films.

The 11th feature in a career that has also included Cache, German and English-language versions of "Funny Games" and the 2009 Oscar nominee "The White Ribbon," Haneke’s film has the potential to win nominations beyond the Best Foreign-Language Film category, if Sony Pictures Classics can persuade enough voters to see it. 

What was the impetus for "Amour"?
Like almost all of us, I was confronted with a family member I loved very deeply who was suffering in old age, and I had to look on helplessly and watch. It was a very bitter experience, and it led me to think about that situation, and then to want to make a film about it. However, I just want to point out that my own personal experience had almost nothing to do with the experience that is shown in the film.

 

Did you feel as if there was an aspect of the aging process that you had not seen onscreen before?
No, that wasn't a consideration. It was rather a question of the theme. I could have also presented a similar case in dealing with a middle-aged couple who were dealing with a child who is terminally ill. That would have been a tragic case but an isolated case, whereas this case is tragic but universal. So I think that as a result of that, it's easier for the audience to identify and feel affected by what they see.

It's a quiet film, seemingly different in many ways from much of your previous work.
I don't see the style as being that different from my other films. It's true that the story is a quiet one, and a linear one. And for that reason you have the impression of it being perhaps slower.  But all of my films are slow films that allow the viewer the time they need to see what's going on.

Setting the entire film in a single apartment must have created challenges for you as a director
It was clear to me from very early on that I was going to shoot the film in a single set. If you are ill, then automatically your life is reduced to the four walls you're living in. it's true that TV dramas open up the drama, they show shots in hospitals or involve relatives and things like that, but that didn't interest me. What I wanted  to focus on was the feeling between the couple.

Also, I was intent on finding a form that fit the challenge of dealing with the gravity of old age and illness. For that reason I went back to the classical form of drama—the three unities of time, place and action. It's far harder to write for two actors in a single location than it is for a drama that involves 30 different parts that are shot in 50 locations. But again, it was a process of finding a form that was appropriate.

If you were working in Hollywood, and you pitched a movie about two old people, one of whom watches the other dying, financiers would most likely say, "No way." Did you experience any of that reluctance in Europe?
Well, I can't say that even in Europe the response was, "Oh, great, you want to make a film about old people dying? Fantastic!" Nonetheless it was accepted, because of the success of "The White Ribbon." But if I look back at "White Ribbon," people said, "God help us, he wants to make a two-and-a-half-hour historical drama in black and white with a cast of children. Who's going to see that?"

But again, I was able to make "White Ribbon" because of the success of "Cache." It is a question of success, which improves your working conditions and your possibilities for future films.

The disadvantage of success is that each film has to be better than the previous one. And if it isn't better, then people say, "Oh, he's past his prime."

Do you put pressure on yourself to make each film better than the last one?
Of course I'm putting pressure on myself, but it's not necessarily about making a better film than the previous one. It's about making as good a film as possible. And you can never tell if this story you're working on is going to be a success. Interestingly, my most successful film to date in the English-speaking world has been "Cache," and at the time I thought I was making a film for a few intellectuals in France.

Have you had offers from Hollywood?
Yeah. I got an offer from an American agency after [the 2001 film] "The Piano Teacher," for example. Someone that said they wanted to represent me and that they had a script that they wanted to show me. And I couldn't believe my eyes: it was a film about a World War II air battle between the U.S. and Japan.

I had other offers after that that weren't quite as silly, but I got the impression that U.S. producers or talent agencies read that someone wins a prize in Cannes and then think, Oh, what scripts do we have lying around that we could send to him?

At a screening of a different movie, I overheard a passionate discussion about the end of Amour, and what the open window meant, and when the final scene was supposed to be taking place…
Good, good. [laughs]

Do you see the film as a puzzle to be figured out?
That's always what I'm seeking to obtain with my films — to lead the spectators to reflect on what they've seen. It's the system of my dramaturgy, the way I construct my films, to put the viewers in the position where they're obliged to find their own solution.

That's the best thing I can achieve as a director — and it's just the opposite of what happens with conventional cinema, where as soon as you leave the theater you forget the story and move on to other things.