AFM 2012: 'Amour' Director Michael Haneke on Love and Oscar Buzz (Q&A)

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His new drama about love and dying won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and is Austria’s Oscar hopeful.

Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s unsparing depictions of violence and obsession -- think the Oscar-nominated The White Ribbon or the shocking Funny Games -- have won him a small but slavishly devoted international fan base. His new drama Amour, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and is Austria’s candidate for the best foreign-language film Oscar, appears to be a change of pace.

The tightly told tale follows Georges and Anne (French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly couple whose lifelong love for each other is put to the test when Anne suffers a debilitating stroke. While Haneke’s films typically divide audiences, Amour has been universally praised and is an Oscar front-runner. The filmmaker sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the challenges of making a film about love, how Amour fits into his body of work and why, as a director, he never, ever compromises.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Your new film Amouris unabashedly about love, in a very sensitive, touching way. That comes as a bit of a shock to fans who see you as the expert in depictions of violence, oppression and power struggles.

Michael Haneke: I’ve been confronted with this a lot: People who were surprised that a “Haneke film” could be so sensitive and moving. I always say, “You weren’t looking closely enough at the other films!” Of course, the situation here is different. As a director, you try and deal with the story you are telling as clearly and effectively as possible. If it’s a story about violence or the depiction of violence, it’s hard to be tender. But even in Funny Games, which is certainly not a tender movie, the relationship of the married couple to each other is extremely loving. But it isn’t in the forefront, it isn’t the subject of the movie, so you don’t notice it as much. Here, love is the subject, so I indulge in the depiction of love.

THR: You have a reputation as a distant, analytical director. Was it a challenge to remain so distant with such an intimate subject?

Haneke: Particularly with such an intimate story, it is absolutely necessary to keep your distance and remain analytical. Otherwise you quickly slide into sentimentality and kitsch, and I definitely didn’t want that because it wouldn’t do justice to the subject. It is too important and serious a subject to sell off for the sake of cheap sentimentality and miserablism. It was very important for me to avoid all forms of sentimentality and to avoid any kind of spectacular depictions of suffering. That was the reason I chose this very tight formal structure, where there is a unity of time, location and plot. Everything takes place in the couple’s apartment, a very restricted space over a very limited time frame. The topic is so weighty, we needed to create an appropriately serious and solemn aesthetic to do it justice.

THR: How did you come to the topic of the death of a loved one? It is a universal question we are all confronted with at one point: How do I deal with the suffering of someone I love? One could have made the film about a thirtysomething couple whose 5-year-old gets cancer, but that would have been a more spectacular, more unique event. I wanted to find the case that will hit most everyone. Because I know of almost no one who hasn’t been confronted with this situation in their own lives.

THR: How difficult was it to stage the film in what is essentially just a handful of rooms? It wasn’t easy. It’s harder to write a story with just two people in a room than with 50 characters. People ask me, “Which was easier: this movie or The White Ribbon?” In the writing, The White Ribbon was easier because I had so many stories that I could tell in parallel. When you only have two people and one story, you have to be a lot more creative to make it work. Making it work in the shoot is always difficult, no matter how big or small the film. Of course, for the actors, it was a huge challenge.

THR: At the press conference in Cannes, Jean-Louis Trintignant talked about how strict a director you were. He said you would even direct the pigeons on set. Well, he was being a bit ironic, but of course it was difficult. Hellishly difficult. Not just psychologically but physically difficult. It wasn’t always nice. But there were never any disagreements. If I don’t get what I hoped for, we kept working until we got it. But that’s always the case with me.

THR: How difficult was it to get the film financed? It is really an unsparing look at suffering and death. Well, that’s not how I pitched it: “It’s an unsparing look at suffering and death!” I told the financiers what story I wanted to tell and we have worked together before they had trust enough in me to let me tell the story I wanted to tell. I’ve never let producers tell me what to do. Even when I was making television, I always did what I wanted to do, and if I couldn’t, I didn’t do it. It was a freedom that, these days, young directors starting out don’t have.

THR: Were you surprised when Amour won the Palme d’Or in Cannes?

Well, I thought the film worked, so I wasn’t so surprised. But you never know — it depends on the jury, on the competition. When I heard that Nanni Moretti would be jury president, I was worried because when Funny Games was in Cannes — the first Funny Games, not the U.S. version — he was in the jury, and supposedly he said, ‘If the film wins a prize, I’ll resign from the jury!’ He hated it. So it wasn’t the most fortuitous sign. But then this year, after the award ceremony, he said if it had been up to him, he would have not only given Amour the best film prize but best director and both acting awards as well. And the press has been uniformly positive. Let’s see what the audience thinks.

THR: A lot of people are tipping Amour to win the foreign-language film Oscar. How do you see your chances? Well, I’ll wait and see. Of course one is pleased to get awards. It would be facetious to pretend one doesn’t enjoy it: ‘Oh, another prize, that doesn’t interest me.” But the most important thing for me is the opportunities winning awards opens up. It makes it easier to make the next film. That’s the important thing. But I don’t have any control over it. All I can do is wait — wait and drink tea.