DVD Movie Review: Le Temps du Loup (The Time of the Wolf) (2003)

vlcsnap2010112215h25m10Not with a bang…

As official selection way back in Cannes 2003, Le Temps du Loup (The Time of the Wolf) (2003) was loved and loathed in equal measure. Both sides have a point – director Michael Haneke had not been so aggressive since the nightmarish but hysterical Funny Games (1997). A disquieting tale of a nameless apocalypse that has reduced Europe to third-world poverty, and the capacity for cruelty revealed in the survivors, Le Temps… is not easy viewing.

But the depth of characterization, coupled with Haneke’s willingness to show that people are capable of good as well as evil in extreme circumstances, makes it impossible to dismiss the film as exploitation.

Things fall apart very quickly – a family arrives at their holiday country cottage, only to have a gun held on them by a wild-eyed man, Fred (Pierre Berriau). Despite attempts to defuse the situation (which are, in fact, early indicators that all is definitely not right in the world), the husband is shot dead – whether by accident or intentionally is never made clear. The perpetrator allows the shell-shocked widow Anna (Isabelle Huppert) and her two children Ben (Lucas Biscombe) and Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) to leave – and they are quickly at the mercy of an increasingly hostile environment. With food and clean water scarce, no electricity and money worthless, the outlook is grim.

Huppert excels in a role that combines the steely determination needed to protect her children as best she can with sincere altruistic overtones, as Anna battles to prevent herself from degenerating to the level of an animal. Solid support is also provided from the child stars, who deliver very mature performances. Refreshing also to see the recently under-used Betty Blue icon, Béatrice Dalle, in a role worthy of her talents, as a forthright, painfully honest member of the makeshift commune to which the wandering family becomes attached.

The concept of society’s threads unravelling is powerful, and, with only one or two unfortunate lapses into grand guignol, the otherwise slow-burn pacing and sense of gathering doom make for an uncomfortable but illuminating journey into darkness.

113 mins. In French.

The Road (2009)

the roadWith a whimper…

‘Not with a bang, but a whimper’ – that was how poet and playwright T.S. Eliot once declared that the world would end, and there is no doubt that the most powerful cinematic evocations of Armageddon have made this concept their central tenet.

As with Michael Haneke’s Le temps du loup (The Time of the Wolf) (2003), John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) thrusts us into the world that exists after a nameless, cataclysmic event – animal and plant life has been decimated, leaving the survivors who choose to carry on living to forage for whatever food can be found.

We join father-and-son Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), on their journey towards America’s east coast, as they struggle against hunger, the elements and other remnants of humanity, many of whom, in their desperation, have developed a taste for human flesh…

Cormac McCarthy’s original novel could never be described as a laugh-fest, and Joe Penhall’s adaptation (which is, if anything, less grim than its source) with unflinching direction from Hillcoat (The Proposition (2005)), combine to create one of cinema’s most startlingly bleak mainstream releases – customary audience expectations of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ go to the wall very swiftly as depravity after depravity unfolds, with the father desperate to keep his son alive and holding to values long discarded by most survivors.

Man: The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will have fallen. The roads are peopled by refugees towing carts and road gangs looking for fuel and food. There has been cannibalism. Cannibalism is the great fear. Mostly I worry about food. Always food. Food and our shoes. Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice – difficult as they are to remember. All I know is the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.

Boy: Papa, we’re the good guys, aren’t we?
Man: You have to keep carrying the fire.
Boy: What fire?
Man: The fire inside you.

No surprise to see Mortensen turning in a remarkable, snarling performance – the actor has long since won his spurs, with fantastic turns in films such as A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) – but the real revelation here is the 13-year-old Smit-McPhee, who one can only hope is encouraged to be selective of his future roles because, based on his work here, this is a talent that must be nurtured at all costs – he is set to star in Let Me In (2010), Matt Reeves’ upcoming US remake of Tomas Alfredson’s superb vampire film Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In) (2008).

Hillcoat’s perspective on humanity contains the contradictions that one would expect – why would one choose to go on living in such circumstances? Would the route taken by Woman (Charlize Theron), the partner and mother to the pair, whom we see only in flashback, not be infinitely preferable?

‘No’, is Man’s resounding answer and here, perhaps only here, is where hope just might be found.

111 mins.

Previously published on Expatica.com.

Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon) (2009)

Suffer the children

Directors before Michael Haneke have asked the same fundamental question that permeates his elegiac, trenchant study of darkness and light, Das weiße Band (2009) – namely, with specific reference to Germany, from whence did the affiliation with fascism rise, and how did a people turn a blind eye to the atrocities in their midst during the 20th century?

Haneke (who also wrote this Cannes-lauded tale) has already proved himself a director more than adept at dealing with darkness – both his Funny Games (1997 and 2007) and his end-of-the-world-as-banality Le temps du loup (The Time of the Wolf) (2003) show an artist unafraid to take viewers into landscapes, both literal and interior, that are far removed from safe ‘normality’.

And so it is with his latest – set on the eve of World War I, a series of strange, disturbing and seemingly inexplicable events begin to afflict a small village, Eichwald, in northern Germany, in which half the population works for the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and are strongly influenced by the strict Protestant pastor (Burghart Klaussner). As the occurrences unfold, beginning with the local doctor (Rainer Block) being seriously injured when his horse stumbles over what is subsequently discovered to be a deliberately set trip wire between two trees, village teacher Lehrer (Christian Friedel, whose welcoming older voice, as portrayed by Ernst Jacobi, recounts the tale) becomes increasingly determined to find a solution to the mystery. However, it is a quest, much as was the case in Haneke’s earlier work Caché (2005), that is doomed to failure.

Suspicions simmer and accusations fly as stranger, darker crimes follow, but Lehrer (whose bashful, budding romance with his former student Eva (Leonie Benesch) is perhaps the only chink of light in a tale drenched in darkness) begins to believe that the village’s oppressed children may know a great deal more than they’re letting on. Proof, however, will be hard to come by…

Haneke paints a meticulous portrait of a still largely 19th century agricultural community that is far removed from the mechanization and mass-murder of the 20th century that is set to engulf them but which, despite the severe moral strictures under which all still live, is nevertheless a village in which almost no family is a stranger to the evils of maliciousness, child abuse, adultery and premature death. The exception to the rule appears to be the childless Lehrer himself – the absence of children from his own life, save those under his guard at school, is shown to be the reason for his greater clarity of perception, but this does him nor anyone else little good in the end.

Christian Berger’s immaculate monochrome cinematography helps the film’s near-perfect depiction of a time and place enormously, and the acting across the board is much as you would expect of a recipient of Cannes’ highest honour. And does it deserve it? Well, the same question is asked every year, so this reviewer will politely refrain from opining on that point, save to say that Das weiße Band is clearly one of the year’s best, offering insights into the worst of humanity that will long remain with the viewer.

Of course, alongside the film’s general analysis of humanity there are implicit suggestions of tendencies in the German character and culture that point towards reasons for the developments in the country’s subsequent three decades, which may court some controversy for its director, but that the film is set in Germany is in fact neither here nor there – this could be anywhere, anytime. We have seen the monster, and it is us.

144 mins. Black and white. In German and Italian.