Michael Haneke has been shocking polite Cannes film festival audiences since 1989, when the Austrian director unveiled his first feature, “The Seventh Continent,” in which an average-seeming family rejects modern society, systematically destroying all of their possessions before committing collective suicide.
In May, the seemingly pitiless button-pusher behind “Funny Games,” “Cache” and similar explorations of evil managed to shock the Cannes crowd yet again, this time by unveiling a tale of such humanism and compassion, some wondered whether the provocative auteur had gone soft.
His latest film, “Amour,” focuses on a long-married couple, Georges and Anne, played by octogenarian screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. It, too, ends with a husband helping to end his wife’s life, and yet the director’s newly tender attitude toward this controversial act seems to have changed completely. Or has it?
“It’s always a question of interpretation,” says Haneke, who’s famously loath to offer insights about his intentions. “One person might say he does it as an act of love to finally deliver her from her suffering, while another could say he does it because he was overwhelmed by the situation. In reality, both explanations could be true.”
Stylistically, “Amour” adheres to the spirit of ambiguity that defines Haneke’s oeuvre. The film unfolds mostly through static shots, frequently denying close-ups or camera moves that might tip his hand. The characters listen to music at a public concert or on compact disc in their private study, though Haneke adds nothing in the form of a traditional score. In Hollywood films, such elements serve to standardize the experience so moviegoers around the world can share the same emotional reaction to the story. Haneke encourages the opposite, hoping audiences will personalize how the film affects them.
“I think the duty of any form of art, whether novels or drama, is always to pose questions in a useful enough way that audiences can connect directly with the work,” he says.
And yet, Haneke has been quite open about his inspirations on this particular film, revealing that he was deeply moved by an aunt stricken with rheumatism who suffered greatly before deciding to take her own life.
“That got me thinking on the subject of coping with the suffering of someone you love,” he says. “You could also do a film about a couple in their 40s who have a 5-year-old child with cancer, though a case like that suggests a very specialized tragedy. By contrast, old age is something that affects all of us.”
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