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Michael Haneke: A tender look at life as it slowly slips away

The Austrian filmaker's award-winning film, Amour, which explores the suffering caused by old age, is a gruelling watch. We can relate to it because we've all seen a loved one in pain, he tells Stephen Applebaum

Michael Haneke has a sense of humour. You might not realise it watching, sometimes enduring, his tough- minded, often psychologically and emotionally bruising films, but the Austrian auteur can laugh at himself. Or rather, at his reputation for disturbing and uncompromising cinema. Take the last time I met him. As our discussion about his award-winning study of the roots of Nazism (and terrorism in general), The White Ribbon, wound down, he touched on his next project.

"It will be about the decomposition and the humiliation of the human body in old age," he said blithely. Perhaps noticing my jaw drop, he added laughing: "So a funny thing! Another jolly film!"

Haneke chuckles and smiles a lot during interviews. As a filmmaker, though, he doesn't really do "jolly" or "funny", not even when the movie itself is called Funny Games. (I defy anyone to find a single laugh in this harrowing tale of a bourgeois Austrian family terrorised by two sadistic youths.) It comes as no surprise, then, that the new French-language drama to which he alluded, Amour, and which earned the 70-year-old his second Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, puts more emphasis on exploring the impact of the degradations of time and illness than putting a spring in our step. If old age scares you, you'll find scant consolation here. The film is about love, but it isn't Love, Actually.

Dressed, as usual, entirely in black, Haneke reveals the catalyst for Amour. "It reflects a comparable situation in my family where someone I loved very much died a terrible death," he says. "[It is about] the question of how you look upon the suffering of a loved one and not be able to do anything about it. How do you cope with the pain of seeing their suffering?"

Asked what he was getting out of working such an obviously difficult personal experience into a movie, he tells me firmly that it's none of my business "why" he does a story. "As a private person, professionally I am invisible," he asserts, with a laugh that this time feels like a fist concealed inside a velvet glove.

To be fair this position is in keeping with Haneke's oft-repeated refusal to say anything that could direct viewers to think about his work in a particular way. "An artist is someone who should raise questions rather than give answers," he once told me. "I have no message." Often the kinds of questions he is asking are insoluble, anyway, "and anybody who claims they have a solution is either a liar or an idiot. When I go to the cinema, I don't want to be treated like an idiot." His aim, therefore, "is always to tell stories in such a way as to involve and question the spectator". Haneke wants to create a dialogue with his audience, not induce passivity. Films that do the latter are "boring", he sniffs. "You forget them immediately after you leave the screening room."

Amour certainly isn't a film you could forget in a hurry. Set almost entirely inside a spacious Paris apartment, based on the one Haneke grew up in Vienna, it opens with the discovery of an old woman's decomposing corpse laid out lovingly on a bed, surrounded by flowers, and then proceeds to chart the events that led to this point.

Confronting us with death's inevitability in the film's opening scene feels like a statement of intent, telling us there will be no sentimentality, no sweetening of the pill. And so it turns out. There is no hiding from reality as octogenarians Georges (Jean-Lous Trintignant, for whom the film was written) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) discover, arguably, the true meaning of love, after a stroke sends Anne into a protracted and irreversible decline. It is a painful journey in which the couple's feelings of anger, frustration, pain, guilt, entrapment and grief, among other things, are portrayed in almost microscopic detail. As Anne's condition worsens, she ceases to be herself – the person Georges knew effectively dying before the body does. This, says Haneke, is something that's "overwhelming" to watch.

"It's unbearable when someone changes around you. Just imagine that your life partner changes, then it is difficult to cope with. Or your mother. Or your father. They were strong and now they're like a baby – it's not so funny."

The couple, whom Haneke points out are not modelled on his parents, are former music teachers living in a comfortable middle-class milieu. This is Haneke's social class and, he believes, that of most of his audience. He could have made them financially less well off, of course. But then people might have missed the point that Amour is a film about the human condition.

"The audience might have reflected on 'Oh, if only their finances had been better', or 'If only their social situation had been better', then the situation wouldn't have been as painful. That's not the case. It's the same for everyone. No matter where you're from, or which background you're from, this situation is always going to be terrible."

Some commentators have called Amour the filmmaker's warmest, most tender and humane (as if his other films somehow lacked humanity) film yet, and questioned whether it marks a shift in Haneke and his work. The man himself laughs at the idea. "I think in most of my other films, too, there were heartwarming scenes. Even Funny Games. If you look at certain scenes involving the victims, the couple, there were heart-wrenching, very moving scenes, too."

If people are responding differently to Amour, it's because of the subject matter, he suggests, not because he is a different person. "The film is moving because its about something we can all identify with. It deals with a theme that has touched us all. None of us has been spared the pain of seeing a loved one suffer and go through this. That is what makes it, perhaps, more universal. That's at least my opinion."

The movie raises all sorts of questions about the meaning of love and what it might require from us, about the things that make life worth living and the point when merely existing is not enough, and much more besides. It is a gruelling, difficult watch, but then what else would you expect from the man who gave us films like Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, which shocked Cannes with female genital-mutilation years before Lars von Trier's (admittedly more graphic) Antichrist, or the taut and disturbing psychological thriller Hidden, in which a couple are terrorised, to nail-biting effect, by an unknown assailant?

Haneke takes us to uncomfortable places, and asks us to think about uncomfortable things. Amour makes it impossible not to think about one's own future. The possibility that we could also end up like Anne, immobile, bedridden and incapable of feeding or cleaning ourselves, or having to take the terrible decision that Georges is ultimately faced with, is hard to imagine. On the other hand, we could be lucky and go out like Haneke's grandmother-in-law.

"She was 95, she was sitting at a table surrounded by 20 friends, and at one point she said, 'I am tired,' and laid her head on the table and died. For me, that is the ideal death."

'Amour' opens on 16 November