Among the cinema’s many visions of the apocalypse, few have resonated with the chilly precision of Michael Haneke’s “Time of the Wolf.” Pic’s set in an unspecified time and place, during the aftermath of some great, unspecified tragedy and at the dawn of perhaps an even greater one. This masterful film, coming two years after Haneke’s international triumph with “The Piano Teacher” and shown out of competition in Cannes due to the presence of jury president Patrice Chereau in a supporting role, keys into the current global climate of fear and uncertainty. But Haneke’s stripping down of humanity to its bare essence remains tough for many viewers (evidenced by the loud jeers at the conclusion of its Cannes press screening), which will make pic a difficult go commercially. Still, a high curiosity factor should lead to brisk international sales.
“Time of the Wolf” is, in many ways, the movie Austrian writer-director Haneke has been building toward: a confident braiding of his concerns over society’s rampant violence (“The Seventh Continent,” “Benny’s Video”), the co-existence of disparate belief systems (“Code Unknown”) and human behavior observed under the most extreme circumstances (“Funny Games”). Often wrongly categorized as an attention-getting shock artist, Haneke is in fact a humanist despairing (in “Time of the Wolf” more than ever) over man’s inhumanity to man.
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Opening sequence recalls that of Haneke’s own “Funny Games” (to say nothing of the 1980s John Candy-starrer “Summer Rental”). A family from the city arrives at their weekend home in the country only to find that the house is already occupied by another family — a man, woman and young child. The squatters proceed to hold the first family at gunpoint, demanding that they hand over all of their supplies and flee the house.
The husband, Georges (Daniel Duval), suggests perhaps they could all stay in the house together. But his plea is rudely interrupted by a shotgun blast that kills him instantly, splattering his blood over the face of his wife, Anne (Isabelle Huppert).
This unsettling violence — like similar moments that dot the landscape of Haneke’s films — seems aimed at reminding viewers of how complacent they’ve become in regard to human suffering, and how commonplace such scenes have become in movies.
Fleeing, Anne and her two children (played by the remarkable Lucas Biscombe and Anais Demoustier) travel in the fog along deserted roads and through shuttered-up villages. The few people they do find to ask for help are unwilling to give it. Eventually joined by a teenage runaway (Hakim Taleb), the family proceeds to an abandoned train depot, where most of the rest of pic’s action takes place. Like the shopping mall from George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” or the hospital from Jose Saramago’s novel “Blindness” (a clear influence here), Haneke’s depot becomes the locus of activity for the survivors. It is a fleabag Ellis Island of sorts, presided over by a man called Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet), who may (at least in the minds of some) be one of the 36 just men of Jewish and Islamic prophecy.
Using the depot to represent an intersection for mankind’s noble and reprehensible characteristics, Haneke demonstrates profound insight into the essence of human behavior when all humility is pared away, raw panic and despair are the order of the day, and man becomes more like wolf than man.
Yet, this is not a hopeless film.
Although Haneke first developed the idea for “Wolf” nearly a decade ago, it is more relevant in the aftermath of 9/11 and the second Gulf War.
In the film’s extraordinary final moments, Haneke appears to indicate that humans should believe in something, and that something is their untapped potential for divine grace.
Pic is driven by Huppert’s superb, largely wordless performance. Most of the film is set at night, and, shooting for the first time in anamorphic widescreen, with his usual d.p. Jurgen Jurges, Haneke has achieved a series of nighttime scenes that are ravishing, as well as a series of outdoor sequences that frame the actors against a towering natural landscape. The film projects a sense of what a tiny window of time mankind has occupied in the history of the universe, and how quickly he could disappear again.