"If you slap people in the face, you can't expect them to like it," Austrian director Michael Haneke once said of his forbidding reputation.
The German-born, Austrian-raised Haneke, now 70 with snowy hair and beard, has been revered and reviled for his often harrowing films (The Piano Teacher, The Time of the Wolf, Cache), which show his German heritage both in their Brechtian effects and focus on authority, propaganda and complicity. In May, Haneke won his second Palme d'Or (after 2009's film, The White Ribbon) for Amour, an intense chamber piece about an attractive couple, Georges and Anne, in their eighties (played by French screen legends Jean-Louis Tritignant and Emmanuelle Riva), who enter the downward spiral of illness and suffering. As tough as it is to watch, Amour is an uncharacteristically straightforward and compassionate film. Haneke is often reluctant to comment directly on his work ("You'll have to ask the author and I'm afraid I don't know him very well," he once told me), but he's good-humoured about the ritual of the promotional interview. The following conversation took place in the Intercontinental Hotel on Saturday.
How do you respond to the notion that Amour reveals your new, compassionate side?
I'm fine if people want that description, but it's not how I see it. It's the same director, the same head. It's simply a different theme. Here the theme is love so there's more love in the film, the other films were about violence so there was less love.
What was the film you set out to make?
Like so many of us, I was confronted with someone who I loved very much and I had to look on as they suffered and I could do nothing about it - so I reflected on that. It isn't a film about old age or dying but that feeling of helplessness. I could have just as easily made a film about a couple in their forties, with their five-year-old child dying of cancer, but that would have been too specific. I was looking at a general story that we could all identify with.
Yet Georges and Anne aren't quite any couple. They're well off and cultured. They spend most of their time in a lovely Parisian apartment. Can you talk about the decision to pick those people, and the setting they're in?
First, I wanted the film not to seem too melodramatic, not too miserabilist. You can't say "Ah, if they had more money they could have had more health," they faced something we all have to face. As for locating it in the apartment, there were two reasons. Realistically, as you get old, your life does shrink, it collapses. The second reason was the seriousness of the subject. I wanted to take a formal approach and go back to the classical unities of time, place and action.
Given the emphasis on those classical unities, did you aspire to a kind of tragic catharsis?
That's too big a word for me.
In our world today where we're drowning in all these sources of excitement, it will be simply too presumptuous to try to have that effect. If after watching the film, someone is slightly touched by what they have seen, slightly considers what they have seen and what it means for them, that's more than enough.
What was the importance, to you, of including a third character, the couple's adult daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert?
She represents us, the audience, in the film. If we were only in the position of the old people, we could neither watch the film, nor make it.
Counting the two versions of Funny Games, this is now the eighth film where your characters have been called some variation of George and Anne. Are they done for good now, or will the names live on?
Of course. That's because I have no imagination.
This interview has been condensed and edited