Cannes 2012: 'Amour' director Haneke says he hasn't mellowed
Two months ago, the Austrian director Michael Haneke turned 70, which might explain why he recently took a turn from his provocateur past to make "Amour," a tender movie about a Parisian couple struggling with old age.
But ask Haneke if the prospect of that personal milestone informed the poignant tone of his new French-language film and he'll demur.
"It was simply the subject that called for this treatment," Haneke said earlier this week from a hotel suite at the Cannes Film Festival, where his movie premiered to rave reviews and became an instant Palme d'Or front-runner. "If I was making a movie about a different subject it might have demanded a different kind of treatment."
Upon being gently reminded that it was he, after all, who chose to make a movie about this tender subject in the first place, Haneke gave a sly smile and said. "If you're asking whether I've become a nicer person, well, you'll have to ask my wife."
Always crisply courteous in person, Haneke has spent the last 15 years making films that have been anything but polite.
With the immigrant drama "Cache" (2005), the original German-language and then remade English-language psychological thrillers "Funny Games" (1997 and 2008), and the inter-generational sex drama "The Piano Teacher" (2001), Haneke has built a reputation for uncomfortable material and unsettling scenes, as anyone who's watched the voyeurism-gone-violent of "Cache" or the infamous sex-on-a-bathroom-floor moments of "Piano Teacher" can affirm.
"Amour" is a different animal. The movie is a restrained story of a musically inclined octogenarian couple, Georges and Anne (played by the legendary French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), who are thrown for a loop when Anne suffers a stroke and her health begins to decline. Hardly in great health himself, Georges must then care for his wife while he attends to his own feelings of grief.
Haneke says he went through a personal experience similar to Georges. "At a certain point almost everyone is confronted with a situation like this," he said. "It happened to me -- I looked at someone I loved deeply and watched them suffer, and that made me want to make this film." (He declined to elaborate further.)
The notion of a sentimental Haneke might prompt some fans to wonder if he's gone soft. Those fans, however, don't have much to worry about with "Amour" -- there are still some trademark shocking touches, including one jolting moment that improbably mixes violence with tenderness. "You always hope every scene is strong, but it's nice when certain scenes have an effect," he said with a playful glint in his eye.
Haneke last made "The White Ribbon," a 2009 black-and-white period piece -- and Cannes Palme d'Or winner -- about the social repression faced by Germany's Nazi generation as young men and women on the eve of World War I. That film required a lot more research, Haneke acknowledged, but he still found himself spending weeks preparing for "Amour," quietly observing elderly patients in hospitals and speaking to nurses about the banalities of their job.
"The White Ribbon" took home the Palme over the favorite "A Prophet" after a somewhat controversial decision by the jury, headed by longtime Haneke collaborator Isabelle Huppert (she co-stars in "Amour" too). In an odd coincidence, both Haneke and "A Prophet" director Jacques Audiard returned to Cannes with new films this year, with Audiard bringing the handicapped-themed love story "Rust & Bone." The 2012 Cannes Film Festival winners will be announced Sunday.
Haneke said he doesn't dwell much on the media storm over the 2009 Palme. He said he does not know Audiard well but that the two did spend time together in the days leading up to the 2010 Oscars, where both films were nominated in the foreign-language category. Neither won.
The prolific Haneke -- he's made three movies since 2008 -- said he's working on a new idea, and that it's "a bit bigger" than the intimate "Amour." But right now his focus is on getting people to see this movie -- and despite the film's heavy air of mortality, not just older people, either.
"I really do think," he said, "that it appeals to all ages."
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Michale Haneke at the premiere of "Amour" in Cannes. Credit: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images