– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf plays out like an endless nightmare tunneled through a constricting vision of the modern world slowly descending into chaos. Set mostly in the French countryside during some unmentioned national catastrophe, the film follows the Laurent family’s quest for survival, breaking down their struggle to an elemental level. As in most Haneke films ambiguity reigns, degenerating spaces through jarring cuts and sudden jumps in time. The film meticulously pulls back the everyday façade of human existence to unearth the inherent abuses and evils underneath. The apocalypse has never been this restrained or this horrifying.
In the opening moments, Haneke introduces a visual motif that will produce considerable menace later in the film – an intimidating tracking shot slowly charting a quiet languishing drive through the forest. The camera seems lost in the hypnotic endlessness of the landscape until Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) and her family arrive at a vacation cabin isolated far away from their city existence. The darkness of the dank cabin reveals a surprise – a family of squatters, led by a man holding a shotgun. Something is amiss, not only in this particular scene but on a collective level. There’s a panicked nature about these character’s actions, and the gripping scenario produces deadly results.
After Anne’s husband is senselessly killed in a terrorizing moment of off-screen violence, Haneke jettisons the mother, her young son Benny, and pre-teen daughter Eva into the either, brutalized and alone. We see them in an epic long shot, framed by the edge of a tree line, drifting through the space like phantoms searching for a destination. But they have nowhere to go, as neighbors turn them away in lue of some larger, global crisis. There’s talk of dwindling supplies, food, and water, and Haneke reveals this collective angst through subtle clues in the dialogue. All Anne can do is keep moving, but where?
It becomes clear very quickly that Anne’s personal tragedy has come at the height of some grander event, something far bigger enveloping the family during their mourning process, and Haneke paints the situation in extremes. Darkness shrouds every night scene, allowing the sound design to creep into the aesthetic consciousness unveiling a place without light, figuratively and metaphorically. Daytime isn’t much more comfortable, as thick fog nearly bleaches out the frame and rainfall falls in droves from a dark sky above. Haneke plays everything close to the chest, much like Anne and her family are forced to do, and it makes for a brilliantly complex narrative, one that borders on instinctual.
Anne and her children finally arrive at makeshift railway station where a small group of people are shacked up waiting for train to arrive. Later, a larger group of people reach the station, sending the community into a state of mass flux. As the amount of distressed bodies in each scene grows exponentially, Haneke begins to expand his themes regarding human nature. Survival trumps dignity, greed destroys compassion, and survival remains at the heart of each action. Most apocalyptic films deal with these ideas, but Time of the Wolf displays them within brilliantly nuanced confrontations between people ripped of all necessities, trying to hold on for some semblance of life that may never come to fruition. Haneke once again uses his roving camera to explore the dead space between conversations, the impending presence of nature enveloping man, and ultimately the way human beings confront mass trauma.
Time of the Wolf represents Haneke at his most fluid state, evoking his patented visual menace through slow revelations of action, but also a glaring thematic weight transcending the shock value and moral cynicism the director is know for. It’s a film of muted colors (even blood takes on a grayish crimson hue) and blank stares, burnt bodies and broken spirits. Its landscape often houses burning animal corpses and empty spaces where humans once dwelled. Fire often plays a key role in signifying both death and rebirth, and in the haunting final sequence, the misguided need for sacrifice. Haneke doesn’t force a contrived or entertaining scenario on his narrative, because civilization doesn’t need zombies, or natural disasters, or Mayan forewarnings to break down permanently, just people slowly losing faith in each other’s humanity.
To Haneke’s credit, Time of the Wolf ends with a stunning vision of salvation, a point of view shot from a moving train looking out onto the green terrain, a definite parallel to the opening jaunt through the forest. Is it coming for the Laurent’s, or have they already boarded? We’ll never know, but the mere recognition of the train careening forward is good enough. This simple sequence lends much needed hope to a film that bluntly deconstructs family and community in times of collective despair.