The Curzon Interview: Michael Haneke, director of Amour

Michael Haneke
Michael Haneke makes a magnificent return this week with Amour, his intimate account of an elderly couple facing their greatest challenge in the twilight of their lives, which saw him awarded his second Palme d’Or. A powerful work, it is also his most affecting. James Mottram met with the Austrian filmmaker to discuss the film.

James Mottram: What drew you to the traumatic subject matter of Amour

Michael Haneke: I experienced a carbon copy situation in my family. Someone who I loved very deeply was suffering terribly, and I had to look on helplessly… and that provoked me to reflect on the situation and then to write the script.

JM: Amour has already drawn multiple interpretations – that it’s about love, death, illness. What do you say? 

MH: Everybody is right! It’s their own interpretation. I try to construct all my films in such a way that each viewer constructs his or her own film. There’s nothing more boring than a film that immediately answers every question that it raises. You forget it immediately after you leave the screening room.

JM: Is there an ideal way to die in your eyes? 

MH: For me, the ideal of death is the death of my wife’s grandmother. She was 95. She was sitting at a table, surrounded by twenty friends. At one point she said ‘‘I feel tired’’, laid her head on the table and died.

JM: Were you conscious that the film touches on how the elderly become ostracised in society? 

MH: Absolutely. It’s certainly the case that our society doesn’t like dealing with certain issues – everything that doesn’t represent success or deals with illness, anything that’s not productive, doesn’t create wealth, and that’s banned to the sidelines… that’s not the subject of my film but it certainly develops from it. It’s the same with old people. You don’t see much of them in daily life and very few families live together. They’re all split up. But my film doesn’t try to change that. It would be impossible for it to change that. It’s something that all you can do is reflect on and try to be aware of.

JM: Is it true you used your own parents’ flat as inspiration for the apartment in the film – including paintings they own? 

MH: The paintings weren’t from my parents. Both the paintings and the music were my own choice. The flat had the same layout as my parents’ flat, but it was transposed from Vienna to France, to French taste. To avoid any misunderstanding, I want to make clear that the person in my own life whose suffering provoked me to make this film wasn’t [either of] my parents. I used my parents’ flat because it was very helpful for me to write the script and be able to imagine what my characters are doing, to have a very specific and realistic location in mind.

JM: How did you come to choose Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva for your two leads? 

MH: I knew [Jean-Louis’] career as an actor from my earliest days as a film buff. He was someone I’d admired and always wanted to work with. I wrote the script for him, and I wouldn’t have made the film if he hadn’t been able to do it. Emmanuelle Riva is someone I also knew as a young man. All of us were in love with her. She was such a beautiful woman and she still is today. But I’d lost sight of her. I hadn’t followed her career. And when we came to audition French actresses for the part, she was among them from the very beginning. It was clear she was my favourite.

After doing a couple of tests with her, it was clear she was the best for the part. Not only because she’s such a great actress, but also because together with Jean-Louis, they form a wonderful couple – one that you can believe were together for a very long time.

JM: One of the film’s most moving scenes is between Jean-Louis and a pigeon he finds in their apartment. How difficult was that to film?

MH: The scene was extraordinarily difficult for Jean-Louis, because he had to react to the pigeon. We did our best to direct it. We had pellets on the floor that were intended to lead the pigeon in a certain direction, but that only worked to a certain point. We had to do any number of takes until I got something that I could use. It’s the part of filming I like the least, working with animals. Even with trained dogs – my experience with Funny Games, I must’ve lost so much hair on that shot! It’s something I prefer to avoid if possible.

JM: Do you have any explanation for what the pigeon symbolises?

MH: I don’t have an interpretation for that scene! If when I’m asked how the pigeon ended up in my film, I say that it flew in through the window and it flew out through the window!

JM: Will you return to more controversial fare for your next film? 

MH: I don’t know yet – I’m not that far along with the next script, but I’m sure it’s going to be different. It’s true that there are similarities between the films, because it’s the same person making them, but I think you should always try to deal with different subjects and take a different approach.

Amour opens at Curzon Soho, Renoir Cinema, Curzon Chelsea, Curzon Richmond and hmvcurzon Wimbledon Friday 16 November. 

Watch Michael Haneke's previous films now on Curzon on Demand.

For more exclusive interviews and articles, see the latest copy of the Curzon Magazine.