11 July, 2010

Movie Review: 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)

Given how interesting The Seventh Continent and Benny's Video were, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, the final film in Michael Haneke's "Glaciation Trilogy" about the frigidity of modern society, is a huge disappointment. I suppose someone could surmise that from the awful title, which accurately sums up the content of the film: seventy-one brief scenes (including television news clips) leading chronologically to a random act of violence.

The seventy-one scenes, excluding the news clips (which detail ethnic violence, foreign invasions, ethnic clashes, IRA bombings, genocidal war, and child abuse), relate six exposition-free stories about a handful of characters we know nearly nothing about. These are the stories, in no particular order:

-A young army cadet robs the base armory and sells the weapons and ammunition to the black market, only to have his barracks ransacked by martial detective.

-A young boy who has escaped drugs, prostitution, and poverty in Romania illegally hitchhikes to Austria because a girlfriend informs him that people are nice to children there. He instead encounters (with a few exceptions) apathy and hostility as he loiters and pandhandles at a train station, committing small crimes to sustain himself. He eventually turns himself in to the police, hoping to find warmth and refugee status there.

-A married couple that desperately wants a child adopts a foster daughter who is emotionally hardened, fearful, and untrusting. They try to elicit warmth from her, but quickly give up and return her to the agency when they hear the story of the Romanian boy on the local news. They adopt him in her place.

-An armored truck driver who makes bank deliveries grieves over the failing health of his baby daughter. He prays fervently for her recovery, for world peace, for continued safety, and for the end of various other sufferings, yet his marriage and his child's health gradually deteriorate.

-An unhappy bank teller estranges her family from her elderly father, a man of poor health whose lonely life consists of watching television, talking on the phone to the daughter who is uninterested in him, and making monthly trips to the bank in order to withdraw his pensions and see her.

-An impulsive, passive college student whose only passtime is ping pong, though he's not particularly good at it, obtains--through a random chain of events--a gun from his roommate. This was one of the guns stolen by the army cadet. One afternoon before Christmas, he goes to a gas station to fill up his tank before picking up a friend, but he forgets his cash. Hassled by the driver behind him, treated brusquely by the gas station attendant, frustrated by a broken ATM, humiliated by a man in the long line inside the bank, and impatient to pick up his friend on time, he snaps, pulls the gun, shoots up the bank, and commits suicide in his car. Though details are not specified, it is implied that he has randomly killed the elderly father, the foster mother, and the armored truck driver.

The news treats the shooting spree as a random act of inexplicable violence, but the recurring news clips throughout the film, all of which show a steady stream of violence and horror, suggest that the media has created a culture in which people have accepted violence as a regular solution to problems, the only way to be heard in a society that isn't interested in hearing about anyone's minor problems. The details of the film's multiple stories help cement this idea. The bank teller doesn't care to hear about her father's failing health, and she only asks him how he's doing when he shows up at her work because it is instinctive for her to ask this to customers. When he actually answers her, she is annoyed and explains that she doesn't have time to be bothered. The foster family adopts a psychologically damaged girl, but is too impatient to actually help her; she isn't able to quickly fill the spot they've made for her in the way they want it filled, so they easily replace her with another candidate. The armored truck driver prays devoutly to God, but the prayers fail to cure his daughter or save his life. When he quietly and unexpectedly tells his wife that he loves her during dinner, she responds with suspicion and confusion until he slaps her. The only moment of genuine connection in the film is at the train station, when the Romanian boy pretends to be in a swimming pool with another young boy across the tracks. Perhaps these two boys are still too young too have learned apathy and disregard.

The only heartfelt minute out of one hundred.

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is a film about emotional frigidity, but the film itself is too cold and impenetrable to be enjoyable. Besides the scene with the two boys at the train station (and another brief moment when the Romanian boy makes friends with an immigrant Polish newsman despite the language barrier), the film is heartless and mechanical. (In one scene, for instance, the future murderer practices ping pong by himself for five or more minutes of uncut screen time. Maybe that's supposed to show us how lonely his life is? But shouldn't any athlete practice his sport? What's really so bad about that?) The Seventh Continent and Benny's Video were disturbing and dreary, but by showing the very worst of lives, those films encouraged us to choose different, happier lives. 71 Fragments is bleak for bleakness's sake, insisting that violence is a part of our world and that meaningless suffering eventually comes for all of us, whatever we do. Someone tell me where the shred of hope is in that because I'm at a loss to find it.

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Gabriel Cosmin Urdes, Lukas Miko, Udo Samel)

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