Printer-friendly version of this article
AUSTRIA / FRANCE
Long night's journey into day
Le Temps du loup
(The Time of the Wolf, 2003)
In his latest film, Haneke turns his hand to the revived genre of the disaster movie. As Adam Bingham explains, the director subverts our expectations to create what is possibly the darkest film of 2003.
In a recent interview in Sight & Sound, Michael Haneke said with regard to his new film Le Temps du loup (Time of the Wolf, 2003) that: "The danger with the catastrophe genre in Hollywood is that it's one of exaggeration, so it makes catastrophe seem attractive—something we can enjoy because it's so unrealistic."
Typically with this most uncompromising of directors, he seems to have made his latest work with the most diametrically antithetical method of realisation in mind, almost as a kind of manifesto or anti-mainstream matter of principle. In other words, the director of Benny's Video (1992) and Funny Games (1996) has once again set out to challenge the viewers' pre-conceived ideas about genre film-making, about exactly what they want or expect from specific narratives.
Except that this time he has moved squarely into what is, on the surface, a science-fiction story (people trying to negotiate and survive a post-apocalyptic landscape). And, on the back of his recent, piercing character and society studies Code Inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages (Code Unknown, 2000) and La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001), he has brought to bear here a more marked complexity of tone and effect that eschews the slightly too self-conscious audience baiting of Funny Games to explore in unflinching and uncompromising detail the practical realities of Western bourgeois humanity systematically stripped bare of all the trappings of its existence, from affluent home and surroundings right down to food and electricity. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, this is the darkest film of 2003.
After the apocalypse
Le Temps du loup centres on a mother (Isabelle Huppert) and her two children, Ben and Eva, who are left to fend for themselves in the wilderness following an unspecified past apocalyptic event (we enter their story in medias res) that has claimed the life of the husband/father and left the world they know in chaos. All very well, and all very generic, but, as alluded to above, Haneke's point of departure from the norm makes itself felt from the very start. The film takes the recognisable façade of the currently in-vogue again disaster genre (compare this with Margaret Atwood's recent, Booker short-listed novel Oryx and Crake, or with Roland Emmerich's upcoming film The Day After Tomorrow) and cuts straight through it to the dirty, complex human reality at its core.
For example, much of the early and middle sections of the film has the three protagonists simply wandering around in the complete pitch darkness: cold, hungry, terrified and deeply confused. Then, when they do meet up with others, first a young boy then later a group of survivors gathered at a railway station awaiting transportation away, much time is given over to not action, not even to planning or preparation, but simply to talk of a myth of saviours, to petty squabbling and, as before, to sitting around simply not knowing what to do.
Ironically though, given that Haneke largely ruptures the codes of mainstream generic film-making, the style of this work, much like La Pianiste, is almost everywhere suffused with an almost mainstream transparency and with a spare, functional visual style, opening up a distinct fissure, a tension, in the discourse of the film that is somewhat new to this director's cinema (at least in a form that is this subtle, the ruptures to the parodic classicism of Funny Games operating in a very different way—to foster distance).
This push and pull feeling is further reinforced by the typically Haneke technique of alternately drawing us into and away from the characters, so that we both observe and experience their nightmare. However, there is arguably more of the former in this film than has been the case in previous Haneke pictures, and in this case such an effect is achieved as much through technical means than by the manner of narration and syuzhet construction a work like La Pianiste employs (something supported by a slightly greater preponderance of point-of-view shots than is generally common with Haneke, but coupled with a refusal of close-ups).
To the end of our experiencing the protagonist's predicament, the effect is achieved partly through analogy. In other words, our disorientation at having a familiar base kicked out from beneath us by Haneke's method matches such a feeling in the characters as their world is ripped from them. This is rather a crude way of describing such an effect (and also perhaps oversimplified), but it is worth remarking on as a departure for Haneke from the way he has handled similarly codified narratives in the past.
A glint of hope?
What is also surprising about Le Temps du loup is that Haneke hints at a possible transcendence and salvation at the film's close. Much is made, by some of the people awaiting salvation at the railway station of myths—a rumour of a clan of Messiahs sent to safeguard the world—and indeed of religion and faith, as many begin the ritually sacrificial act of hurling themselves into the flames of a soaring fire.
Haneke seems to view these acts not with the coldly dispassionate, even misanthropic eye he has long been accused of harbouring (and this film has been no different in its severe treatment by critics and audiences, being booed at Cannes and largely unenthusiastically received) but almost with awe and wonder, with a sense that such ways of dealing with this extreme situation are, in their way, as courageous as any overt heroism that Hollywood can proffer. To this end, the final image of the film of a train speeding through the countryside brings with it a powerfully redemptive connotation, particularly coming after the attempted but thwarted self-sacrifice of Ben. It is, of course, ambiguous at the very best, but from this director it shines like a flame in the dark.
There is, having said all the above, much to mark this out as very clearly a Michael Haneke film beyond its rigorous refusal of spectacle and entertainment. The directness of the camerawork and emphatically naturalistic mise-en-scène have been commonplace for much of his career. The powerful theme of communication breakdown that is so central to Die Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989) and Code Inconnu is here explored through the representation of characters cast adrift in a chaotic world they cannot comprehend, let alone understand, as well as in the simmering tensions and prejudices that for a long time hold sway in the mock society formed at the railway station. However, it is viewed as a stratified hierarchical structure rather than it as a collection of equals (which, in essence, is what they all are).
In the end, whatever ones opinion of Haneke, it must surely be concluded that he is a unique film-maker in the world today. His has long been a cinema that confronts dark subject matter head on, and with an intensity, integrity and breadth of vision that commands attention and respect. Entertainment is not the sole raison d'etre of the cinema, and today more than ever a director who seeks to challenge, to provoke, to disturb and ultimately to promote thought and contemplation is to be cherished. As critic Peter Matthews has noted: even "Haneke's flaws put the successes of other directors to shame."
Printer-friendly version of this article