Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 20, 2004 1:03 am 
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A small bright light at the end of the world

You wouldn’t expect a Haneke post-apocalypse film to be anything but harrowing, beautiful, moving and redemptive. It has all these qualities. Where The Time of the Wolf (Le Temps du loup) differs from its many sci-fi cousins (which it externally resembles but somehow doesn’t feel like at all) is in its minimalism and the rawness of the experiences it depicts, the sense of shock and confusion. A hay barn burning, a horse being slaughtered, a man being shot, a violent thunderstorm, a boy’s nosebleed – all have a palpable reality no special effects could match. Haneke is a risk-taking director and this is a movie that’s willing to appear disorganized and boring: that’s the only way he can capture the true chaos of a world where the social order is breaking down, where there is no communication, no government, no sense of what will happen next.

The Time of the Wolf can perfectly well be interpreted as representing modern war; the sufferings of the characters as those of war refugees. But there is a strange namelessness about everything that helps the film avoid conventionality or specificity. It’s obvious Isabelle Huppert, though she’s stripped of her usual formality and elegance as she also was as the escaped prostitute in Olivier Dahan’s 2002 La Vie promise, is a bourgeois woman from Paris who’s fled to the country with her family. But Paris is never mentioned by name and we don’t know when this is or why it has happened or where we are and what the result will be.

The sheer chaos of civil disorder is conveyed in the film’s structure by the way Isabelle Huppert (Anne) and her son and daughter Ben (Lucas Biscombe) and Eva (Anais Demoustier) merge into the crowd that gathers in a depot where people (including Béatrice Dalle, Patrice Chéreau and Maurice Bénichou) wait for a train to come and rescue them and no longer seem central any more. Their needs or goals blend into the vague collective aspirations of the crowd, which seem hopeless, yet keep everyone going from day to day into who knows what eternity.

In the course of the daily comings and goings of people at the depot the man who shot Huppert’s husband at the beginning of the film appears, and in the absence of witnesses or judges, nothing can be done. This is balanced by the presence of another man bent on scapegoating a foreigner for some disaster in his village. This wrong also is impossible to push through for the same reasons: no one knows, and the man is silenced in the interest of the common good.

As in André Téchiné’s Strayed (Égarés) there’s a wild teenage boy (Hakim Taleb), picked up by Ben the night when he disappears, who scavenges and hovers on the edge, unwilling to join in the makeshift society, and Huppert’s daughter is drawn to, but maddened by, him. It’s this wild boy who has led them to the depot. There people trade bikes, jewels, watches, batteries, sex, for necessities that impromptu leaders dole out. All this has a randomness that’s all too real. There’s a man named Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet) who’s in charge of trading the group’s pooled resources for food and water at a nearby village but we don’t know how all this works or how it came into being.

A letter Eva writes to her dead father defines as well as anything could the difficulty of individual consciousness in a state of social chaos. She has to write the letter: there’s nobody to talk to to help her digest what has happened and she must do her digesting alone.

This is a self-effacing role for the regal Huppert, but it was already clear that she can fearlessly and brilliantly go anywhere Haneke takes her. For the risk-taking director, she is the perfect actress.

The action begins with the little family who seek shelter at their vacation home, which is when the father is shot by squatters who have taken the place over. After a difficult period of solitude and deprivation, when Huppert and her two children (with the wild boy hovering nearby) have found the warehouse with its gathering of people, they cease to be the “main characters” except for the sequence in which the little boy, Ben, tries to enact a rite of self annihilation and apotheosis in fire. It’s a typically Haneke moment, both desperate and noble. He is rescued and soothed and there is somehow a moment of hope, even if it’s fantasy.

Code Unknown (Code inconnu, 2000) is a study of social evils, of the same kind of exploitation of “second-class” nationalities that we see developed with a more intimate and conventional plotline in Stephen Frears’s 2002 Dirty Pretty Things. La Pianiste (2001) is a study of sexuality and a glimpse into the depths of the human soul. The Time of the Wolf is a depiction of human chaos – of what happens when society breaks down. The latter is full of randomness, but also of particularity and a strange desperate hope. Haneke’s vision is really unique.

Because so many of the encounters are inarticulate, ideas aren’t developed as fluently in The Time of the Wolf as in Code Unknown and La Pianiste. But The Time of the Wolf is equally powerful and thought provoking, and this stunning trilogy confirms the Austrian who makes films in French as one of the world’s most brilliant and provocative directors. When his stuff is on the screen, you’re in for a rough, memorable ride, and his repeated tendency to bring up the more reprehensible and painful aspects of human behavior does not mask his sense that the human condition is worthy of our most intense and loving scrutiny.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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