Mercilessly milked for neo-Poseidon Adventure computerized banalities by Roland Emmerich in The Day After Tomorrow earlier this year, the disaster genre gets a more clinical work-out in The Time of the Wolf. The latest feel-bad offering from Michael Haneke, a considerably less audience-caressing Teutonic auteur, the work possibly stands as the culmination of the filmmaker's career-long impulse to pulverize modern world before being able to save it, an impulse that, as Roger Corman has proven time and again, can be best accommodated within the apocalyptic genre frame, the more abstract the better. Thus, any reminders of civilizations are dispatched right off the bat -- the opening, with a bourgeois family driving to their country cabin, self-consciously suggests the opener of Haneke's Funny Games, though the invaders awaiting inside are no psycho jocks, but a scared clan shakily pointing a rifle. The father promptly shot dead, the mother (Isabelle Huppert) and her two children (Anaïs Demoustier, Lucas Biscombe) take off into the desolate French countryside.
As befits the director's end-of-the-world allegory, no explanation is given for the bonfires of slaughtered animals and freight trains mysteriously slogging by, all the better to play psychological caveman amid the rubble of order. Huppert and the kids get some reluctant help from a suspicious young runaway (Hakim Taleb) before stumbling upon a group of ragtag scavengers (including Son Frère director Patrice Chéreau and Béatrice Dalle in a parody of Bergman's bitter couples), presided over by bullying Olivier Gourmet, who is already taxing the crowd -- even with the world in ruins, capitalism remains the preferred mode of exploitation. While the characters wait for some kind of salvation and dutifully go through their primeval routines of brutality, paranoia, sacrifice and grudging compassion, Haneke seizes the opportunity to execute visual coup after widescreen visual coup: one pitch-black nocturnal interlude proves (if further proof were still needed) what a piece of shit The Blair Witch Project was, and the impromptu burial of a child later on is shot from the waist down, bawling mother just above the frame and torch-toting figures in the horizon. Still, visual sublimities are second to the director's implacable dissection of the human race brought down to survival-of-the-fittest levels.
Haneke remains cinema's ice king, the kind of committed, serious-minded, relentlessly combative artist obsessed with shattering audiences' complacency, and if torturing them is the way, then so be it. His sense of moral purpose is so powerfully felt that I'm almost ashamed to not like his works more than I do. Almost. His films suggest a man alarmed at the cruelty of the world yet artistically akin to this same cruelty, stunningly adroit with film yet disdainful of the medium -- hence the "non-manipulated" long-takes and middle-distances of his finest movie, Code Unknown, where the cinema is shown as impotent when it comes to capturing the multiplicity of human viewpoints in any given situation. I may never come to terms with Haneke's purposely sadistic iciness, though I much prefer his recent French movies to his earlier Austrian ones, simply because he now tends to see his characters as people rather than just as elements to be crammed through ideological grinders. If few viewers will confuse him with Jean Renoir, The Time of the Wolf is nevertheless Haneke's most humanistic film -- pretentiousness, tedium and all, it's a step forward in finding, as befits a journey toward human clarity, the light at the end of the tunnel.
Another 2003 French production only now making its way to (some) U.S. screens, André Téchiné's Strayed displays a remarkably similar structure to The Time of the Wolf. Recently widowed mom Emmanuelle Béart finds herself cut off from civilization with her two children (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Clémence Meyer), having to depend on a mysterious young man (Gaspard Ulliel) in order to survive in the woods. The time, however, is not the vague here-and-now of the global apocalypse, but June 1940 as the Nazi march into Paris, although the sudden German bombing that disperses the bourgeois exodus and pushes the family into the unknown is depicted with as much visceral immediacy as anything Isabelle Huppert is made to suffer through in Haneke's hands. Refuge here comes in the form of an abandoned country home where the characters spend a brief but eventful interlude. Since we're dealing with the marvelous Béart, whose ethereal beauty ripens with age (it's her first MILF role), and with Ulliel, who's like Matt Damon's feral, Gallic little cousin, it is only a matter of time for the two to give in to their erotic longing, and even less time for the outside world to intrude on their idyll.
Despite the constant threat of war, the tone of Strayed is serene, even pastoral, the emphasis less on suspense than on the growing, shifting feelings of the characters. To many people the subtlety may seem cozily nostalgic next to the frontal attacks of The Time of the Wolf, but the truth is that Téchiné, France's least known great filmmaker, is possibly even more understanding of the tragic uncertainties of living life from moment to moment, of the luxury of emotion and connection amid the harshness of the world. David Thomson in his new biographical dictionary accuses the director of academicism, which is only further proof of how hard it is for people nowadays to appreciate an artist's expression through the accumulation of gestures, stances, actions, where the washing of a window or the cutting of a phone wire brim with meaning. So, Haneke's bludgeoning fist or Téchiné's novelistic delicacy? Haneke's despair or Téchiné's tenderness? God knows, the cinema is large enough to accommodate both approaches, but I much prefer Téchiné, who's just as concerned with the world we live in yet is more aware that human beings ultimately must remain on both sides of the camera.
Reviewed July 20, 2004.