The prospect of a new film directed by Michael Haneke and starring Isabelle Huppert, the one woman alive I would allow to beat me into a coma, sent me spinning with joy. And given the premise — assorted French citizens roam the countryside after an unnamed apocalyptic event — I rightly expected a treatise on human depravity and the brutal nature of survival. After all, Haneke’s last film, The Piano Teacher, was endlessly fascinating and contained one of the most insightful character studies I’ve ever seen. Therefore, I had every reason to believe he could do it again. So imagine my disappointment when he didn’t pull it off. I am far from declaring this film a complete failure, but it was so far below expectations that I simply cannot recommend it. Even the luminous Huppert, a woman who always looks like she’s about to gouge out your eyes with rage, is largely wasted, as I didn’t get to see her express the full range of her talent. Still, this is a difficult dismissal, as I do not want to give the impression that I wanted an action-packed end-of-the-world thriller. Haneke should be applauded for his restraint and refusal to provide easy answers, but in this case — and I’m sure it will be isolated — I wanted more than this meandering story would allow.
When we meet Huppert (as Anna), she is visiting her country retreat with husband and kids in tow. To their surprise, another family has taken over the property, and as the man is holding a shotgun, he has no intention of leaving. Given their disheveled appearance, we can conclude that something is afoot, even if the facts aren’t readily available. Anna’s husband tries to bargain with the desperate man, only to be shot dead for no apparent reason. Blood splatters on Anna’s face, and she is told by the killer to take her husband’s body away, along with her children. Anna is also left without her car and most other possessions, which forces her to take what remains of her family into the French landscape. Where are they going? Why are they fleeing? We learn that Anna’s family once lived in the city, but do not seem able to return. Again, I appreciated the ambiguity, as wondering what happened before helps create a genuine tension about what might happen next.
The threesome sleep in the elements for a bit, then discover an abandoned barn. During the night, Anna’s son goes missing, and Anna hunts for the lad while her daughter keeps a fire going to provide a point of reference in the gloomy night. Haneke takes a chance by shooting many of these scenes in total darkness, which also allows him to create an especially haunting image, where the only color on the screen is that of a distant fire, painted a brilliant orange. For the first 30 minutes or so, I was quite intrigued. We didn’t learn much about these people as we were provided no back story whatsoever, but I trusted Haneke enough to make the journey into the unknown. Would there be a flash of violence? Would he push the extremes of human behavior when faced with tough, life-altering choices? I thought so. But as the time passed, my confidence ebbed away. Anna and her brood eventually make their way to an abandoned train depot in rural France, and this seemed to be an ideal setting for some insightful drama. But once Anna’s family settles in, anything resembling momentum comes to a screeching halt. Again, I wasn’t asking for a roller coaster ride a la Michael Bay, but it is no exaggeration to say that nothing at all seemed to be taking place. People sat, talked a little, performed chores, and waited for a train that would most likely never come, but they didn’t do anything.
Then it hit me. Of course! Haneke is showing us what the end of civilized society would really be like. If forced out of the cities and left to fend for ourselves without law and order, wouldn’t we do a lot of sitting around? After all, survival, when reduced to its essential elements, is hardly an endless party. We breathe, shit, eat, drink, and avoid talking about what we know is just a matter of time. So yes, this is a strikingly authentic portrait of a world on the brink of extinction, but it is decidedly not very entertaining. Let me rephrase that — it is not intended for the medium of film. Cinema is about doing, and while it is bold indeed to eliminate the trappings of emotional manipulation — a soundtrack, clear motivations, character depth — it is hard to know how to deal with it. Abstractions can often illuminate the screen, but the deliberately vague also has a tendency to frustrate and alienate. I’m not being a philistine here, simply realistic. There’s no need for chases, gunshots, or shouting matches, but random images, even if beautiful, must eventually give way to ideas.
I’d like to take you further into the story, but it is acceptable that I leave you in limbo at the depot, for that is where Haneke leaves all of us. There are shots of water carriers on horseback, exchanges of sexual favors for food, and even a rape at knifepoint. We also watch what must be the actual killing of a horse, as no animal could ever be trained to fall quite like that, which says nothing for the knife that does in fact plunge into the horse’s throat, bringing forth a tidal wave of dark blood. Again, it is a depressing, dirty little society that these folks have created for themselves, and I believed in its representation every step of the way. There are no cutaways to newscasts, nor are there strangers who arrive in the night, speaking of “help” being available in a town “not too far from here.” We have little doubt that these people will live and die at this location, perhaps never to fully understand their predicament. It just wasn’t enough to bring me inside the world they had left to them. It’s more than a little disappointing that no one really expresses their doubts or concerns. Surely someone felt a bit of anger for being sent from their home. What about their past lives? Their jobs? I firmly believe that this could have been accomplished without being either conventional or obvious.
Despite the misstep, Haneke will survive, as will my confidence in the type of director he personifies. It’s a feat in itself that he’s never made a complete piece of crap, which even the great ones have shamefully achieved from time to time. Like all great artists, he took a familiar concept, turned it on its ear, and challenged our assumptions about the nature of filmmaking. Need it always be dramatic? Must there be conflict? After all, conflict implies resolution, which we all know is an obsession of small minds and limited imaginations. Maybe it’s a commentary I’ll only be able to fully appreciate at a later date; that when mankind is brought to its knees, we fade away, as the story goes, not with a bang, but a whimper. Stripped of our possessions, businesses, and all the trappings of home, we shrivel up out of sheer boredom. After millions of years of evolution and startling societal progress, perhaps only now have we realized our true limitations.