Although it has always produced outstanding sf and fantasy—from Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel to Andrei Tarkovsky and Jan Švankmajer—there was a time, back before I was born, when European arthouse cinema was synonymous with both cinematic and science-fictional excellence, when the nouvelle vague gave us Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans visage (1959), Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Alain Resnais’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Weekend (1967). This period is best captured not by Bernardo Bertolucci’s joyless The Dreamers (2003) but, for all its gaucheness, Roman Coppola’s CQ (2001), in which a young American filmmaker in Paris, desperate to be Godard, ends up completing a pop-camp sf movie even more heavily indebted to Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik (1968) than to Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), in which a sexy space-age spy must infiltrate the lunar base of Billy Zane’s Che-like rebel leader.
Over the last couple of years, European arthouse directors have again been drawn to the fantastic and science-fictional. Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love (2003), Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover (2002) and Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 (2004) attempt, with mixed success, to populate their Dickian/cyberpunk-flavoured tales with characters who at least vaguely resemble human beings. Vinterberg manages to produce several genuinely strange and estranging moments, but is undercut by a star-based narrative logic which forestalls complex intersubjectivity and opens the door to the worst kind of greetings card sentimentality; Assayas generates some sense of the perpetual displacement of the subject jetting through the spaces of global capital, but his film is no Pattern Recognition; and Winterbottom’s impressive vision of the future which looks just like the contemporary Third World succumbs to the picturesque (and a really problematic rape scene in which Maria (Samantha Morton) literally asks for it). In Fear X (2002), Nicolas Winding Refn transforms a Wisconsin which already looked pretty alien—positively Canadian—into somewhere distinctly Lynchian, while Mathieu Kassovitz’s Gothika (2003) occasionally rises above the ordinariness required of a Halle Berry vehicle. Although all of these films contain things to recommend them—some more than others—none of them measure up to those of forty years ago or, indeed, to Michael Haneke’s Le temps du loup.
An immaculate MPV glides along a forest road. In it are Georges (Daniel Duval) and Anne (Isabelle Huppert) Laurent, their mid-teens daughter, Eva (Anaïs Demoustier), and her younger brother Ben (Lucas Biscome). Fleeing the city and some never-specified catastrophe, they have calmly made their way to their weekend house in the country; but a family of strangers have already moved in. When the agonisingly reasonable Georges offers them welcome and a share of their supplies, he is killed and Anne and the children are turned away. Despite knowing the Laurents, local villagers refuse them aid or shelter, and so they begin to wander the countryside, first joining up with an unnamed boy (Hakim Taleb) and then with a proto-community dominated by the petty tyranny of property-ownership and commerce—a set-up which does not survive the arrival of a larger group of refugees. Together, these displaced people await the arrival of a train which might take them to somewhere better.
It could be a trick of perspective, but the last few years seem to have produced a number of texts which return to the the kind of post-apocalyptic fiction once dismissed as cosy catastrophes (Wright’s A Scientific Romance (1998), Lovegrove’s Untied Kingdom (2003), Roberts’s The Snow (2004), Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain (2004); the TV series The Last Train (1999); movies such as Reign of Fire (Bowman 2002), Twenty Eight Days Later (Boyle 2002), The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich 2004) and Dawn of the Dead (Snyder 2004)), the best of which display at the very least an occasional flash of New Weird vigour, reinflating—with narrative and, occasionally, wit—a subgenre exhausted by the New Wave. What distinguishes Le temps du loup from them is a quite remorseless austerity, first signalled by the opening titles: small white uncluttered text on a black background, without music or sound. There are no CGI dragons. There are no zombies, enRaged or otherwise. There is no Big Weather. Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile the offscreen murder of Georges with the in-yer-face provocations and hi-jinks of Haneke’s earlier home-invasion movie, Funny Games (1997).
In an accompanying interview, Haneke explains Le temps du loup‘s restraint in terms of not wanting to make a generic disaster movie but a film about personal relationships, of wanting to give the comfortable westerners used to watching the unfolding global catastrophe on TV a taste of what it would be like if it happened to them. In this he succeeds, but not necessarily in the way he intends.
The film relies on ellipses. The nature of the catastrophe is never explained (although livestock burning on a pyre in the background of one shot might provide a clue). We do not see Georges’s death or his family having to bury him; we do not see their expulsion from their home or their theft of a bicycle; we do not see Ben’s discovery of his dead budgerigar or a barn going up in flames; we do not see Anne’s response to the letter Eva writes to her dead father, in which she talks about having to careful around her mother as she is on the verge of cracking up; and so on. Along with these omissions, there are also a number of scenes set in a pitch-black night, illuminated intermittently by the flame of a cigarette lighter or a handful of burning straw, and a number of unexplained events. This eschewal extends even to refusing emotional spectacle: when a sick child dies, there is a 30 second shot of hands fashioning a crude cross and placing it on the grave, followed by a two-and-a-half minute shot of the legs of the people gathered around the grave, the only sound being the mourning cries of the child’s out-of-shot mother—and in the extreme distance, as the mourners move off, the flaming torches of an approaching group of refugees creep into shot, blurs of distant light in the falling dark.
The refusal to show does not extend to the characters; rather, all that the camera does is show us their stunned and stunted responses, and in this Haneke seems to be deliberately pursuing the kind of humanist-realism championed half a century ago by André Bazin. The camera’s cool gaze stays resolutely outside of the characters, but frequent long takes provide the time to watch minute gestures and changes of expression and to ponder motivation and meaning. There is, for example, an aching moment when we can see Eva trying to choose between loyalty to a mother ill-equipped to handle the new situation and the teenage boy who has already learned to strip whatever he needs from corpses (and some time later, we see her growing realisation that the boy is differently, but equally, ill-equipped). In the same sequence, a close-up reveals the sorrowful wisdom of the even younger Ben who, unlike his family, knows there is no point running after a passing train, crying for help. This sense of externality counters Haneke’s desire to focus on relationships, and perhaps only twice produces the kind of the effect on the viewer he seeks. First, and overwhelmingly, is the sense of disconnection: just as the family have no idea what has happened or what will happen next, so the film’s omissions and ellipses makes the experience of the narrative an uncertain one; while it grips, the succession of incidents also produces a sense of being stunned, akin to that experienced by the characters. Second, the conclusion that Ben reaches, the sacrifice he decides to make to save his family, simultaneously comes out of the blue and is inevitable. It is a moment every bit as human and as terrible as the scene in Thomas Disch’s ‘The Asian Shore’ about the young boy struggling to carrry two buckets of water whose shoes come off every time he takes a few steps; and the ground is freezing; and every time he puts his shoes back on he spills more of the water over himself; and he is freezing; and just as Disch’s narrator cannot help because he cannot communicate with the boy, so we cannot save Ben from his decision even though we know it will not work and its cost is unimaginably high.
The low-budget Last Night (McKellar 1998), dubbed ‘the Canadian Armageddon’, stands out among the recent ‘not-so-cosy’ catastrophes, not least because it refuses the apocalypse a post-. Similarly, and like Weekend, to which its long tracking shots might pay homage, Le temps du loup is ultimately not about life after the apocalypse—the survivors are numb, powerless; there is no attempt to rebuild civilisation—but about life during the apocalypse going on around us, mostly unseen. Like Benjamin’s angel of history (and, perhaps, Code 46), Haneke’s film sees not progress but one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage. The closing shot, which lasts for over two minutes, is filmed, the soundtrack implies, from aboard a train as it races through a verdant French countryside. We do not see the train. We do not know whether it is the one for which the characters have been waiting or, if so, whether it stopped to pick them up. We do not even know whether it is real, or merely a fantasy like the one spoken of in the preceding scene (‘maybe tomorrow, there’ll be … a big car racing up. … And a guy will get out and say everything’s fine again. And water will flow in our mouths with roast pigeons and maybe the dead will come back to life’). And while the final shot shows that the land, like the people whose story we’ve followed, endures, it is a land, perhaps significantly, deserted of people.