A Valentine's Day conversation with 'Amour' writer/director Michael Haneke
Every time Michael Haneke has an idea for a film, there's always a different catalyst that makes him sit down and write it. It might be an image that comes to him, or a newspaper clipping that will stir his creativity. "The motivation has to be something that already interests you enough to want to think about it and reflect on it," he says, calling from Madrid where he's preparing a new opera. "Then you start collecting material and observations until you feel you have enough to start trying to order the material, structure. And that ordering and structuring is the longest, most difficult process."
Other times, like in the case of something like "Amour" and star Jean-Louis Trintignant, it might be a specific actor for whom he wishes to write a part. But his latest film, which has landed five Oscar nominations including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Haneke, had darker and more meditative beginnings than just that. He had an aunt once who asked him to help her pass away and he was forced to look on as a loved one suffered. And yet, "Amour" is a love story, with all the deeply considered complications of love and a life lived with another. It's fitting, then, that we're speaking on Valentine's Day.
"Amour" has come to be considered one of Haneke's most universal and accessible works, despite sporting the same rigor as his previous work. That might be because it concerns itself with that very universal concept. But nevertheless, to Haneke, "there's not a difference between my films besides the subject matter."
While Haneke wrote the film with Trintignant in mind, it was through a typical casting process. He looked at a great many actresses in France of the appropriate age. It was Riva, who debuted in Alain Resnais's "Hiroshima Mon Amour" over five decades ago, who stood out for the director.
"From the very first audition it was clear that she was the ideal partner for Jean-Louis Trintignant," Haneke says. "Not only because she's very good, but also because together they form a very credible couple."
It's clear quickly enough that Haneke isn't overtly concerned with concepts so much as craft. He avoids dealing in theory too much, which is interesting for someone who's earliest professional exposure to the art of filmmaking was as a critic.
"Critics are more interested in the theoretical aspect of film and less with the practical aspects of film," he says. "That's what disturbs filmmakers when they read critics, because critics are more interested in questions of ideology than they are with questions of craft. You can only learn your craft from making films."
Nevertheless, Haneke teaches directing at Filmacademy Vienna in Vienna, Austria. And he's always been interested in the theoretical underpinnings of film, he says, "because that's enjoyable. But I don't think that's necessary for the artistic quality of a film. I think that intelligence and education can't hurt you as a filmmaker but it's not the only source for artistic production."
Quite obviously, Haneke is guided by his gut and instinct when putting together a new film project. What it all might mean, well, perhaps maddeningly, he'll leave that to discussion. He often deals in ambiguity, though, and there are elements of that even in his "most accessible" latest.
Take the couple's relationship with their daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert. There is an underlying sense that something has gone quite wrong in that relationship, that they seem more dedicated to each other than to her.
"We live in a society when we're quite busy in our working lives and it's the family life that pays the price for that," he says. "A century ago when the elderly fell sick and died, they would have done so within the prism of their family. Now that family structure no longer exists. And I think that the family relationship that the film portrays is very common."
So while "Amour" might indeed be more universal, it's still very much a Michael Haneke film. Of course, then, he was "totally surprised" it was nominated in five categories by the Academy this year.
Now he's knee deep in mounting a production of the opera "Così fan tutte" in Madrid. It's a bit of a shift, to say the least. He moves from the deep love and celluloid of "Amour" to the comedic wife-swapping of Mozart. "I'd worked with the same opera company in Paris a couple of years ago on a production of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni,' so I was happy to work with them again," he says. "The pairing of Mozart with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte is really the pinnacle of opera. It's a huge pleasure."
In two weeks Haneke may or may not walk out of the Dolby Theatre with an Oscar for his film. Though don't expect him to Tweet about it. Whether he does or not, "Amour" is his most successful film to date. Accessible? Maybe. But it certainly wasn't compromised into that position.
"Amour" is now playing in select theaters nationwide.