Coming to L.A.: Michael Haneke, master of highbrow cinematic sadism

Michael Haneke, 2009. Courtesy Wikimedia/Georges Biard.

In person: Austria’s Michael Haneke, the director of The White Ribbon (2009 winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes), Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, to name just a few of his best-known works, is coming to L.A. for two nights of screenings and Q&As.

Audiences who attend these events can ponder once again the difference between an artist and his work, for while Herr Haneke’s films are some of the most fiendishly unsettling provocations in movies of the past couple decades — this is one filmmaker who resolutely does not believe in cinema as a vehicle for escapism — the auteur himself comes across as quiet and professorial in interviews.

Haneke has cited Robert Bresson and Bresson’s Au hasard, Balthazar (1966) in particular as key influences on his work; it’s not hard to see. But Haneke also has a talent for creating suspense and springing surprises on viewers, in a way that suggests he learned from Alfred Hitchcock as well. Hitchcock once described his films as “slices of cake”; you could say that Haneke’s appropriations of the thriller genre are like Hitchcock, provided you substitute “hell” for “cake.”

To borrow a phrase from Haneke’s fellow Viennese Sigmund Freud, his subject might be summed up as civilization and its discontents. Haneke’s movies are generally situated in prosperous Western Europe (typically, Vienna or Paris) and scratch below the surface of a well-heeled milieu to get at the entitlement, racism, guilt and hypocrisy lurking in those societies. The films are sophisticated and often inventive in messing around with the standard narrative structures of features. They’re also unusually tense and unpleasant, so committed is the director to shaking the viewer out of his perceived complacency. Don’t expect to find any feel-good liberal platitudes here.

On Sunday, Sept. 30th, the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood will first show Haneke’s Caché (a.k.a. Hidden), which met with both critical acclaim and audience bafflement back in 2005. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche star as a married couple in Paris who find a series of mysterious videotapes being left at their front door — tapes that show that someone is surveilling them, for reasons unknown. (This is the same premise as David Lynch’s 1997 psychodrama Lost Highway; I’ve always wondered if Lynch’s film was the initial inspiration for Haneke’s scenario here.)

No prizes for guessing that Auteuil and Binoche soon find themselves rudely shaken out of their comfy bourgeois lifestyle. But the film isn’t just the obvious exercise in épater that a plot summary might suggest — it’s too smart and too chilling to give the audience any easy outs. The enigmatic final shot was the subject of much debate when the movie first came out: attentive viewers will notice a disturbing clue that’s as close as the film comes to providing answers.

Following a Q&A with Haneke, the Egyptian will show the equally heart-warming Benny’s Video, Haneke’s 1992 film about a teenager who videotapes himself killing his girlfriend, and whose parents then cover up the crime. For more info, click here.

On Monday, Oct. 1st, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will host Haneke in a discussion about his career, followed by the L.A. premiere of his latest film Amour, which earned him his second Palme d’Or at Cannes this year.

Amour stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as a long-married elderly couple, along with Haneke mainstay Isabelle Huppert as their daughter. Contrary to Haneke’s rep as an auteur who likes to torture his audience for intellectual ends, reviews for Amour describe it as a humane but heartbreaking look at a couple in old age. For more info, click here.

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