Michael Haneke's Les Temps du Loup (Time of the Wolf or Year of the Wolf) is perhaps his least regarded and least discussed film for good reason. The movie mistakes pretension for seriousness, with a meandering, enigmatic plot that never begs any interesting questions, a large ensemble of loosely sketched characters, and none of the horror, suspense, or cinematic thrills that typically mark the post-apocalyptic genre. Michael Haneke believes that his film is the most meaningful of an overdone genre, yet none of its cursory themes ever take hold and at the most fundamental level it fails to resonate, entertain, or provoke.
Of all genres, the post-apocalyptic fantasy is perhaps the format that carries the most symbolic weight. Night of the Living Dead is an intense examination of anarchy and how self-interest, survival, and teamwork do not always intersect. Serendipitously, it is also a statement about race relations. Children of Men explores xenophobia and the nihilism of having no future, and in a profoundly moving climax it juxtaposes the universal reverence of creating life with mankind's thoughtless pursuit of destruction. Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead both satirize mindless consumerism and lifeless routines. Day of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Starship Troopers, and 28 Weeks Later all present horrifying depictions of military rule, fascism, and war. The Road examines trust and sacrifice. The Road Warrior, and its most rudimentary, is a condemnation of oil dependence. I could go on, but the list would be very long. My point is that most dystopian films criticize some destructive element of society, be it mass media, group thinking, anti-environmentalism, drugs, or what have you. And most of these films also manage to be exciting, in fact some of the most exciting of all films.
Time of the Wolf offers no new insight, and it does so with a stillborn plot. The film has little visual flair, except for some haunting scenes of roving bands silently moving by torchlight in the distance. Haneke's depiction of the French countryside is misty and gray, but it's not far removed from present reality. It's his way of saying that for many people in other countries (say, Somalia) his depiction of the "end of the world" is their present world, a life of poverty, rape, anarchy, and hopelessness that they must live with daily. By not explaining the origins of the apocalypse and by having the conditions thrust suddenly and awkwardly on the film's central characters--a mother (Isabelle Huppert) and her two children--Haneke suggests that this dystopia is not as far off as we would like to imagine. Beyond this, he offers no clear message about what we must avoid in order to avoid destruction. We must imagine for ourselves what must be undone in order to change our fate (stop polluting? stop warring? end class inequality? end ethnic racism?), but why do we need to imagine this when there exist ample films that imagine these things for us? Since the writers of the Hebrew Bible wrote grizzly prophetic visions like those in Isaiah and Daniel, people have been imagining the end times, how rapidly they are approaching, what might cause them, and what we must do to avoid them. Time of the Wolf offers very little to this established train of thought, instead merely depicting outcomes that are far more resonant in other films.
A man who has had almost no prior screen time is randomly murdered, and when his killer is later accused before a crowd he escapes penalty since the crowd is incapable of justice without evidence and structure. A young girl is raped and then she is either murdered or she commits suicide; the rapist is never revealed or punished. People commit robberies that others are accused of, and stress and prejudice become controlling factors of some people's behavior. Characters are introduced and dropped, none of them ever reaching two or more dimensions. It's all very realistic, but ultimately drab and tedious.
Out of everything, few moments are memorable:
When a woman (Luminita Gheorghiu) asks another (Huppert) for a cigarette, she readily offers a tin of food in exchange. Later, out of some remnant of politeness, she offers the woman a puff of the bartered cigarette, then stares longingly as a lost-in-thought Huppert lets the cigarette turn to ash. Having been returned the cigarette, she smokes it to the filter, knowing that the exchange has not been fair and that she may never again have another cigarette.
A father's burial is edited over, but when his son's parakeet dies, the mourning ritual is highlighted, perhaps illustrating the child's attempt to confront the larger, more difficult issue by treating the smaller issue with excessive care.
And in the film's climax, that same son builds a fire and prepares to thrust himself into it as a sacrificial lamb. Having overheard a description of such a religious ritual from an old man who swore by its religious effectiveness, the boy attempts to solve the world's problems. The scene is an instant of genuine insight into child psychology, revealing the boy's inclination to believe that everything is his fault and his readiness to fix things with a superstitious gesture of no real value.
Yet despite these brief moments, the film is a pretentious bore, uninspiring, selfish, and forgettable.
Time of the Wolf (2003)
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Isabelle Huppert, Luminita Gheorghiu, Anaïs Demoustier)