Sunday, May 20, 2018

Time of the Wolf (Le Temps du Loup)












TIME OF THE WOLF (Le Temps du Loup)             C+                  
France  Austria  Germany  (114 mi)  2003  ‘Scope  d:  Michael Haneke

In films, catastrophes usually happen elsewhere — war in Iraq, hunger in Africa, never at home.  This is a film made for wealthy countries.  I wanted to see what would happen if tomorrow we had the same situation here that always exists in the Third World.  Since September 11, it’s easier for people to imagine catastrophes happening here.  That’s the ‘news’ element, in inverted commas.

—Michael Haneke in a 2003 interview with Jonathan Romney, Michael Haneke: 'If someone doesn't get my films, it's not my problem ...  

Haneke’s only film shot in ‘Scope, by Fassbinder’s cinematographer Jürgen Jürges, who shot the two previous Haneke films as well, but this was their final collaboration, appropriately, in an apocalyptic end of the world setting, a Götterdämmerung, where domestic space is violated and ultimately all social structure is eliminated, though there is no back story to suggest anything is amiss.  Instead it comes as a surprise, like a jolt to the senses in an opening scene that serves as a reprise to Funny Games (1997), where a middle class family arrives at their summer home in the woods stocked with supplies only to be surprised by armed intruders who appear to be starving and in desperate straits, shooting the husband, stealing their food and water, and sending the mother, Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) and her two children, teenage daughter Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) and younger son Ben (Lucas Biscombe), to scamper through the countryside on a bicycle without any provisions.  From the claustrophobic tight opening shots where it appears there isn’t sufficient room for all of them inside the cabin to long panoramic landscape shots where the fleeing family are tiny specks seen along the road, the film is a study of contrasting fates, an elusive freedom and an impending doom.  The first half-hour or so takes place in near dark, a cinematic revelation, really, with no artificial lighting, where towns and cities have been abandoned, reduced to ghost towns engulfed in fog where a few have barricaded themselves inside, refusing to answer their doors or provide help to others, with livestock dying from contaminated water, seen thrown into the streets in a ritualistic burning, like something seen in the Middle Ages — or Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV (1966).  While we never hear what led to this dire situation, there is a collapse of any existing societal order, reduced to basic survival instincts in a post-apocalyptic scenario where there is utter anarchy on the road, evoking an era where barter becomes the norm, sexual favors are exchanged for meager amounts of food, milk or water, suggesting a return to petty squabbles and racial animosity, a lawless world without any hint of justice.  Like other Haneke films, this becomes a morality tale that concerns itself with ethical problems, though questions of guilt or responsibility are curiously absent.  Characters are required to struggle against chaotic conditions that led to this scourge, where only a few are actually willing to help others, as most are caught up in self-preservation, where any sense of their former humanity is completely shut down.  In some cases, with no food or water, death is commonplace, especially for infant children, with distraught parents reduced to begging and pleading for help to indifferent ears, remaining traumatized afterwards, where no words can describe their agonizing pain. 

Unrelentingly bleak throughout, where the achievements of civilization serve no higher purpose, but remain remnants of a distant past, lost in a maze of disorientation and forgetfulness.  Lacking the poetry of novelist Cormac McCarthy in John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009), an adaptation of his Pulitzer prized literary work that describes a bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic world, yet that film was so much more involving and deeply profound, while this features plenty of crying and moaning, emphasizing the wretchedness of the human condition, chaos in modern times, an absence of basic necessities, including gasoline and electricity, leading to a collapse of human values, where unfortunately the director crosses the unwritten lines of his own barbarous treatment of animals (hint:  there are no CGI special effects in this film), shooting three live horses on the set, then knifing the throat of one of them that was still shuddering (actually shot in a slaughterhouse), watching the blood pour out of his throat.  While there may be laws against this in the United States, apparently not in Europe, yet this certainly emphasizes a glaring character flaw in the director.  There is a cinema of cruelty, but being cruel himself as a director is a whole other matter, perhaps providing insight into his own moral dilemma, but what it really represents is his own sadistic cruel streak, bordering on Lars von Trier territory, where each seems to step over the other in personifying cruel and despicable behavior.  Unfortunately, this inhumane treatment of animals extends throughout Haneke’s films, smashing a fish tank in The Seventh Continent (Der Siebente Kontinent) (1989), then filming the fish writhing and fluttering outside water where they can’t breathe, seen dying of their own asphyxiation.  In Benny's Video (1992), a bolt is shot through the brain of a pig instantly killing him, basically a snuff film used throughout that becomes a metaphor for a human’s desire to commit a murder.  In Caché (Hidden) (2005), a child axes the head off a rooster that continues to thrash around afterwards, while The White Ribbon (Das Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte) (2009) shows a horse fatally tripping over a wire.  Rather than reveal any profundity about the human condition, these barbarous acts serve to undermine this director’s own reputation, as a key focus in his films is the viewer’s complicity for violent and abhorrent behavior, yet bludgeoning a live horse onscreen is simply inexcusable, revealing the director’s blind spot, a glaring view of his own inhumanity.  This literally undermines Haneke’s intent, which is to provoke a viewer discussion with the content happening onscreen, in effect, broadening their worldview.  But this has the opposite effect, targeting the director himself, holding him responsible for his own despicable behavior. 

Certainly there is evidence to suggest Haneke is an anti-humanist, a misanthrope, as his works are guided by gloomy and fatalistic outcomes, yet it’s hard to believe that’s what actually drives his creative impulses.  Often criticized as a shock artist, his work reveals a preoccupation with fascism, showing the face of it throughout his films, routinely making viewers uncomfortable with what they see.  Released during the aftermath of 9/11 and the second Gulf War, with continuing conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and civil war strife breaking out in Africa, this film was actually conceived a decade earlier, bordering on a pervading sense of hopelessness, despairing over man’s brutal inhumanity to man, suggesting continued malevolence breeds passivity and demoralization, where anxiety and fear unearths suspicion and distrust, yet there is an intangible factor, the element of the unknown, which suggests there is more lying under the surface, where the ability to suffer, particularly among children, adds an almost religious context.  Despite a collection of French stars, their use is minimized, as the film is more about the impact on children, who are the featured leads in this film, with Ben losing his speech following the shooting death of his father, becoming a silent observer.  The daughter Eva (Anaïs Demoustier in only her second film and first international appearance) seems to personify that spirit of hope in the film, reaching out to strangers or undesirables, and in a nod to Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust remembrance novel Night, she’s enchanted by the playing of Beethoven on a barely audible Walkman in such a Godforsaken place, where we hear her intently listening to Beethoven’s 5th Violin Sonata Beethoven violin sonata No. 5 Spring Mvt 2 (2/3) Perlman YouTube (6:27), though here there is no ultimate redemption.  Certainly in the director’s most prolific period from Code Unknown (Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages) (2000) through Caché (Hidden) (2005), all seem driven to right some wrongs in the world, to expose a glaring evil in order to eradicate it, with his films serving as a catalyst to provoke a change for the better.  Those are hardly the actions of a misanthrope, though his fallback or default position does appear to include strains of pessimism and fatalism, which may be his own morbid outlook that has yet to be transformed by a higher calling.  Many artists are themselves despicable people (Good Art, Bad People - The New York Times):

Probably the most frequently cited example is Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was such that he once wrote that Jews were by definition incapable of art. Degas, a painter often praised for his warmth and humanity, was also an anti-Semite and a staunch defender of the French court that falsely convicted Alfred Dreyfus. Ezra Pound was both anti-Semitic and proto-fascist, and if you want to let him off the hook because he was probably crazy as well, the same excuse cannot be made for his friend and protégé T. S. Eliot, whose anti-Semitism, it now seems pretty clear, was more than just casual or what passed for commonplace in those days.

Anti-Semitism turns up so often in the résumés of 20th-century artists, in fact, that it almost seems part of the job description, and critics and commentators have sometimes tried to mitigate if not excuse it. Wagner, they point out, had Jewish friends. Eliot was a devout, churchgoing Anglican — surely not a “bad” person in any extreme way. So for now, let’s leave anti-Semitism off the list. How about misogyny, or generally creepy behavior toward women? Picasso probably takes the prize here: of the seven main women in his life, two went mad and two killed themselves. His standing could be in jeopardy, though, if the crime novelist Patricia Cornwell ever succeeds in proving her conviction — argued at length and at great expense in her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper— Case Closed — that the British painter Walter Sickert was in fact the famous serial killer.

Speaking of killing, Norman Mailer in a rage once tried to kill one of his wives. The painter Caravaggio and the poet and playwright Ben Jonson both killed men in duels or brawls. Genet was a thief, Rimbaud was a smuggler, Byron committed incest, Flaubert paid for sex with boys. So case closed, one is tempted to say, invoking Ms. Cornwell’s phrase: anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism (I left that out, but there are too many examples to cite), murderousness, theft, sex crimes. That’s not to mention the drunkenness, drug-taking, backstabbing, casual adultery and chronic indebtedness that we know attended (or attends) the lives of so many people who make unquestionably good art. Why should we be surprised or think otherwise? Why should artists be any better than the rest of us?

One could argue that this is one of the director’s weakest efforts, as it holds no grip on the viewing audience, showing little involvement with any of the characters, precious few moments of suspense or exhilaration, feeling more like a retreat into the wilderness regions of the director’s imagination, but it simply can’t hold a candle to other works that similarly depict familiar apocalyptic outcomes, where the Granddaddy of them all is Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which may be in a league by itself, but even more recent efforts, such as Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) and David Michôd’s The Rover (2014) carry greater weight, where all go to more extreme lengths to establish a pervasive mood that remains baffling and mysteriously inexplicable.  All exhibit a transcendent spirit that is completely missing from this film, instead presenting a series of exploitive anarchistic events that seem to go nowhere, presenting a portrait of mankind in oblivion, where bits and pieces of near incoherent ramblings take on greater meaning, including conspiracy theories or religious rants, the kind of stuff no one would pay attention to during normal times, but due to the absence of moral guidelines in such precarious times, people’s lives are tested like never before.  Surrounded by bickering arguments that never seem to cease, trying everyone’s last nerve, what some might describe as nonsense becomes horrifically meaningful in the eyes of a child, who can’t yet distinguish between good from evil, as it all looks and feels the same in such blisteringly harsh times.  Minimalist to the core, much of what happens appears random and perhaps even improvised on the spot, where prominent French names appear in the cast but have insignificant roles, becoming the third Haneke film shot in French language, suggesting a universality that extends borders or nationalities.  While it has been suggested that mainstream Hollywood cinema takes refuge from the world of responsibility, European cinema has a tradition of challenging audiences to decipher various moral dilemmas presented to them, with films becoming puzzle pieces that often hold clues, remain ambiguous, or reveal transformative material that can alter the lives of viewers by the personal impact it can have.  This film is void of all that, seemingly abdicating its primary responsibilities, feeling like a modern day experiment gone wrong that is starkly underwritten and unfinished, looking backwards instead of forward, having more in common with his dismal “emotional glaciation” Trilogy, offering mere fragments, like outtakes, caught up in insignificant details, never really breaking through into becoming something meaningful or important. 

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