Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has won the Palme d’Or twice, in 2009 for The White Ribbon and again in 2012 for Amour. Haneke’s films are known for their cool aesthetic, for what some critics have described as keeping audiences at a distance. Haneke’s films are also recognisable for their transgressive characters, who push at the boundaries of proper behaviour. Funny Games (1997), The Piano Teacher (2001), and Hidden (2005) feature acts of violence, but it’s the unseen terrors that create the most potent unease. Haneke plays with these gaps and uncertainties. He’s a filmmaker uninterested in telling audiences what to think – his films ask questions, provoke ideas, and open conversation.
In The White Ribbon (which also won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film), Haneke leaves the narrative wide open. The White Ribbon is set in a fictional Protestant German village in 1913 where a series of unexplained acts of violence, mostly against children, occurs. An investigation into the rise of evil in seemingly ordinary places, The White Ribbon might be a moral parable for Nazism, but could also be about any society in which blind faith to ideology takes fervent hold. Shot in stark black and white, Haneke emphasises the murky darkness; he never clarifies what is going on, who is guilty, or where the source of the horror lies.
Amour, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, pushes the Haneke style in another direction. The film’s title suggests a grand French love story, and in many ways, this is precisely what we get, albeit in an unexpected package. There are no walks along the Seine or candlelit Left Bank dinners here. Haneke strips love of all sentimentality. His couple – Anna and George Laurent (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) – have been together many years. When Anne suffers a stroke, and then another, they render her increasingly dependent on George’s care, but their relationship takes a vicious turn towards its close. Performances are profound and Haneke’s intelligent direction observes the horror of Anna and George’s suffering with an unflinching eye.
Haneke’s films are never as cold as their surface first suggests. Beneath each beats a pulsing humanist vein. Watch The White Ribbon and then watch Amour to discover it for yourself.
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