Here’s something that sounds like the beginning of a bad awards season joke but is actually a halfway serious question: what are the differences between James Cameron and Michael Haneke?
There are some obvious ones we can tick off at the outset: budget, the ability to direct actors (maybe Sigourney Weaver rivals Isabelle Huppert as an actress, but not under Cameron’s direction), subject matter, the intellectual and artistic traditions they rep, their national and political origins (Haneke as a post-WWII Austrian and Cameron as an American Baby Boomer), their position on “the Na’avi Question” etc.
A lot of differences, no doubt.
But I think there is one incredibly important area in which they overlap, and that’s the role of audience in their films. I’ve argued elsewhere that Cameron is truly a master of manipulating his audience, and that is one of the reasons we actually go to his movies: to be toyed with, emotionally. I’ll just quickly point out that this is one of the hallmarks of Haneke’s films as well: they don’t just assault their audiences — the assault on the audience is part of the thematic fabric of the film itself. This is clearly true in something like FUNNY GAMES, but no less true in THE WHITE RIBBON, which ends with a shot of a church full of people looking looking just like an audience in a theater (parents on the bottom, their soon-to-be Nazi children on the top), and his next film AMOUR, which begins with a nearly identical shot of an audience at a concert.
In these films, and in probably all of his films from BENNY’S VIDEO on, Haneke shows us things that seem designed to make us feel terrible. That alone would make him a sadist, but his films go further. They ask us not just to think about the relationship between aesthetic experience and cultural complicity but to live through it over the course of a couple hours, right there in the theater.
Let’s note that this is essentially what TITANIC does, albeit in a clunky, ham-fisted way and without Haneke’s moral complexity and seriousness. But, if you’re a certain kind of filmgoer, the experiences of watching both of them are comparable in an important way; they’re not totally alien to each other. Whatever thing makes Haneke’s critics accuse him of abusing his audiences is the same thing that makes Cameron’s critics accuse him of manipulating his.
Maybe that’s why Haneke, with his wobbly English and grim Austrian smirk, didn’t look as out of place as I thought he would onstage at the Golden Globes last night. He could have been the highest grossing filmmaker of all time. Instead he’s just one of the greatest.