Michael Haneke looks death square in the eye in ‘Amour’

Like Johnny Cash or the Grim Reaper himself, Austrian director Michael Haneke is clad head to toe in black, though as he extends his hand in greeting, he’s smiling and there’s a twinkle in his eye. Given that this is the man behind such punishing movies as “Funny Games” and “The Piano Teacher,” we take some comfort in that, though others still find the 70-year-old filmmaker an intimidating figure.

“I still can’t get over the fact that you made this movie ... you’re usually so sadistic,” one writer told Haneke at a reception Wednesday night hosted by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., referring to “Amour,” an unflinching, intimate portrait of an elderly man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) caring for his wife (Emmanuelle Riva) as her life comes to an end.

Haneke smiles and does not dispute the assessment, though, later, he tells me he finds such readings of his work to be simplistic and strange. But at the age of 70, he’s well past the point of caring -- if he ever did in the first place.

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“Amour” opens with police breaking down the front door of the retired couple’s Parisian apartment and discovering the woman’s corpse, neatly laid out on a bed, surrounded by flowers. Haneke says he began the movie this way to “clear away any possible suspense” about whether Riva’s character would live or die.

“The movie is not about her death,” Haneke says, “but the couple’s love.”

True. Still, Haneke’s unsparing approach calls to mind something Bob Dylan recently told Rolling Stone in a lengthy interview. “Death is a part of life. The sooner you know that, the better off you’ll be.”

“It’s easy to say, but difficult to do,” Haneke says, laughing heartily when told of the quote. “Of course, we avoid death. To know something is inevitable is one thing. To accept, to truly feel it ... that’s different.”

“Amour” premiered this year at the Cannes Film Festival. It won the Palme d’Or for best film, as did his previous film, 2009’s “The White Ribbon.” When writing “Amour,” Haneke knew the material would strike a universal chord, but he wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional response.

“Many people come to me and tell me their experiences, sometimes very beautiful experiences,” Haneke says. “Recently in Paris, the wife of a very famous man who passed away five or six years ago saw the movie with her son, and they suddenly began crying. They had never been able to discuss the death and now they could. I’m grateful to hear stories like that.”

Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the studio releasing “Amour,” believes those kinds of stories will make the movie a strong contender in this year’s best picture race.

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“It reminds me of those great [Ingmar] Bergman films like ‘Scenes From a Marriage’ or even ‘Cries and Whispers’ where you have such a depth in the relationship between these main characters,” Barker says.

“Cries and Whispers” won a best picture nomination, as did Bergman, in 1974. “Amour,” which opens in theaters Dec. 19, could very well repeat the combo feat for itself and its director, not to mention scoring nominations for its octogenarian leads.

“You never know,” Barker says, “but they don’t get better than this.”


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