Saturday, May 15, 2010

Michael Haneke: The best director alive?

As you may or may not have noticed on the side panel, I recently saw Michael Haneke’s latest Palm D’or winning film The White Ribbon and loved it, loved it, loved it. In true Haneke style the film has left me incapable of putting it far from my mind since walking out of the cinema. He leaves you waiting for something, and whilst you might have a general idea of what you’re waiting for, Haneke is so twisted that you can never really be sure what that is. Throughout the entire duration of The White Ribbon I was waiting for shit to get real. I was waiting for severed limbs, sudden stabbings, graphic torture or slicing and dicing the whole movie, I mean after the whole film is set the simmer, the boiling over always seems just around the corner. That’s what makes Haneke the most skilled director alive. Yes, I’m calling it. He knows his craft, and better yet he knows his audience. What he sets out to achieve, he accomplishes 100% and perhaps with the exception of Tarantino, he is the only working director to achieve this.

He hides his genius in his beard.

With the exception of Funny Games US, which I probably liked more than most, Haneke has a flawless track record. Every film gets under the audiences skin and while it would be a stretch to call his film “entertaining”, they are most certainly engaging. Even The White Ribbon which goes for about two and half hours flew by, despite the slow burning style of filmmaking. When I suspected the film was winding down I thought “It can’t be the end, that hasn’t been two and a half hours”, but it had been. I’d just been so engrossed in this eerie town Haneke shaped that I wasn’t ready to leave yet.

Nazi Germany: The Wonder Years

Similarly his 2005 film Cache [Hidden] never really explodes like the tension implies, except of course briefly in THAT scene. You know the one. For most films a lackluster ending that doesn’t come clean on the dramatic promises it creates usually makes for a wholly unsatisfying experience. But Haneke isn’t trying to wrap his films in a nice neat little box for you to take home to mumma. Take Hidden for a text book example of how effective this can be; the family receives the video tapes and the entire filmed is anchored around this mystery and SPOILER ALERT whilst we never really find out where the tapes came from, its doesn’t matter. Haneke uses narrative tension in his films to create the mood of his films, but ultimately the films mystery pales in comparison to what the film is really about thematically.

That's one for the fridge.

Haneke is constantly pushing in the envelope in his films, and he pushes it so firmly that it would give you a paper cut if you tried to stop it. All poor analogies aside, The Piano Teacher, Haneke’s 2001 film, certainly pushes the envelope in the most obvious and overt fashion of all his films but is done so tastefully that the sexually graphic themes and scenes aren’t as overbearing as they could have been. The Piano Teacher is one of those films that when you describe it to someone as you recommend it, you come across as a sadistic pervert for saying you like it.

"So she goes to a porno booth, gets a dirty tissue and takes a whiff."

But it’s all essential. The goddess of acting Isabelle Huppert gives the incredible performance that is just as layered as Hanke’s direction is. She deserves so much credit for fully grasping what Haneke was trying to achieve and going for broke. In lesser hands the entire film could have fallen apart from a weak thread. Of course it wouldn’t surprise me if Haneke’s hand was strongly at play in shaping her performance. This being said, in every film of Haneke’s, he’s always supported by a fantastic cast and crew that only elevate his genius.

So calling Haneke best director alive is a big call, that maybe I’m not quite ready to claim. The most skilled? Yes. I think there’s a difference that I can elaborate on if people want me to. I’ll be more than interested to see where Haneke goes from here, as he seems to be getting better with each film.

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