Time of the Wolf
By Chris Hyde
July 14, 2004
Isabelle Huppert wanders through a nebulous post-apocalyptic Europe in Michael Haneke’s new Time of the Wolf.
Austrian director Haneke has made a career centered on projects that are about as un-Hollywood as they come. An intellectual aesthete, the filmmaker takes challenging themes and sets them in meticulously constructed realist landscapes, all the while utilizing cinematic techniques like long static takes that are completely contrary to the standard contemporary style. In films such as Code Unknown, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher this approach served him quite well, as these unsettling movies are loaded with devastating moments that effectively provoke the audience into thinking about both the events onscreen as well as the act of viewing itself.
Not one to shy away from the uglier sides of the world, the cinema of this director is very much involved with examining issues like racism, violence and the shadier aspects of the human personality. But he’s not one to really believe that a filmmaker can depict “truth”; in fact, to paraphrase Haneke’s own words, he believes far more in authenticity than truth. What this means is that while a film must of necessity be on some levels little but a lie, if done properly the end result can still carry the aura of truth — its essence will then carry the authority of truth, if not the reality of it.
In his past work, Haneke generally set his stories in a contemporary milieu that made his daring examinations of the nature of the world echo with the substance of everyday life. Curiously, in his new movie he’s chosen much different surroundings in which to place his characters and the result is unfortunately somewhat less than the director likely intended. The backdrop this time is somewhere in the European countryside, but it’s a land that has been beset by some sort of catastrophe that has rendered society into a dysfunctional form. The exact form of the disaster is never revealed, but whatever has happened has poisoned the water, disrupted supplies and led to a near complete breakdown in the standard rules by which we imagine contemporary culture operates.
Into this desolate place come George, Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and their two children, Ben and Eva. Escaping from the city to their country house in hopes of surviving whatever strange fate has befallen their nation, they are thrown off guard when they find that their home has already been taken over by others. This meeting with the people who have occupied their domicile leads to an incident that will change all of their lives forever and that provides the impetus for what will unfurl during the rest of the film. Forced to wander through the world without shelter, the family then finds themselves tested repeatedly by the shape of the universe as it has become, of necessity coming to grips with a land whose mores no longer resemble those that they once took for granted.
As the characters struggle for survival in this barren new land, many of the standard Haneke themes come to the forefront. There are moments of prejudice that reflect the filmmaker’s examinations of contemporary European cultural clash that were handled so deftly in the brilliant Code Unknown, and other bits that confront issues like miscommunication between people and the human predilection for violence. Sadly, though, there’s something about the pseudo sci-fi scene that gives off an air of in-authenticity that the director probably didn’t wish audiences to perceive. To be sure, the anarchic state of the post-mysterious disaster setting has the disconcerting effect that Haneke no doubt meant to convey, but it also has the deleterious result of allowing one to distance oneself from the disturbing notions that the filmmaker is hoping to force his viewers to address.
Though to this viewer this air of (for lack of a better term) unreality makes this outing far less successful than any of his other films, that is not to say that the movie is in any way a total loss. For what film with the great Isabelle Huppert could ever bear that sobriquet? Partly underused here (very unlike her role in the Piano Teacher, which was so central as to carry the film), this brilliant actress once again comports herself in a manner that befits one of the great female film stars of our day. There are few working performers who can display the range of this woman, and though she gets little chance to display the broad nature of her skills, she remains a luminous presence in any scene in which she appears.
The cast overall is in fact quite sturdy, with notable turns put in by people such as Olivier Gourmet and Anaïs Demoustier in supporting roles. Also worthy of mention is the spectacular camerawork by German cinematographer Jurgen Jurges, who is perhaps best known for his work in the 1970s with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The choice of Jurges is particularly inspired, as the clarity of his compositions and lighting are a perfect vehicle for Haneke’s incisive examinations of social breakdown. Muted in color and balanced in shadow, the cameraman’s eye proves an ideal match for the distant observations of the director, a perfect complement to the sort of cerebral coldness that marks the work of Time of the Wolf’s Austrian helmsman.
While this newest work by one of contemporary film’s most provocative artists falls far short of his best, there remains plenty here that is valuable and full of insight. But the use of the semi-futuristic backdrop seems a bit offputting and out of character for the filmmaker, and at the same time it tends to dull the edge of his cutting perception. The director’s unique style seems much more appropriate when his shrewd glances at humanity are wrapped in the trappings of the “real”; to foist a fantastic edge onto his almost neorealist sensibility seems as cheap a device as a trompe-l’oeil painting. It’s unfortunate that an artist as perceptive as this one has chosen a means of storytelling that so badly suits him, for it truly mars the power of what otherwise might have been another in a line of topnotch films from this man. Here’s hoping that his next movie returns him to the more fitting sort of approach that characterized his earlier cinema — for Michael Haneke is too good an artist to need to resort to the capriciousness of chimeras to make his penetrating points on the human race.