Combustible Celluloid
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With: Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet, Beatrice Dalle, Patrice Chereau, Maurice Benichou
Written by: Michael Haneke
Directed by: Michael Haneke
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 109
Date: 05/20/2003

Time of the Wolf (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pre-dawn of the Dead

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Munich-born, French-dwelling Michael Haneke's work is nothing if not challenging.

The first film I saw of his, Code Unknown (2000), I found shockingly brilliant, with mesmerizing extended takes exploring all kinds of inner torments, class struggles and frustrations with identity and celebrity.

His follow-up, The Piano Teacher (2002) was far less satisfying, and struck me as a one-dimensional, unreasonable portrait of a masochist. Nevertheless, Code Unknown passed by with barely a whisper and The Piano Teacher became a huge art-house phenomenon, even snatching up our San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert).

When I came to Haneke's new film, Time of the Wolf, the buzz out of New York was very good, but again I found myself distanced and disappointed.

Huppert stars once again as Anne, the mother of two children who, with her husband, arrives at a vacation cabin loaded with food and supplies. A desperate gunman shoots the husband, forcing Huppert and her children to hit the road with nothing more than a bicycle and a lighter.

It turns out that some kind of futuristic apocalypse has happened and that everyone has turned into arguing savages, bartering for water, food and a place to stay. But a cynical teenage boy with better survival instincts comes along and gives them a bit of a hand.

By the end of the film, a little community has sprung up in an abandoned train station, the hope that a train will come and take them away slowly dwindling.

Time of the Wolf is unrelentingly depressing, but Haneke handles it with far more care and balance than he did The Piano Teacher. Still, I couldn't help thinking of two remarkably similar films from earlier in the year that tell this same story with more wit and compassion.

Andre Techine's Strayed takes place during WWII, in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Paris. A young mother and her two children escape into the woods and must forage for food and shelter, and a cynical teenage boy comes along to give them a hand. Techine envelops his characters in a small world, ignoring the horrendous details of what was going on outside. He even manages to build up a modicum of beauty and hope among the horror.

Even better is Dawn of the Dead, a remake not quite as good as the 1978 original, but passable enough for our purposes. By inventing a zombie threat and packing the disparate survivors into an abandoned shopping mall, the film manages to comment with wit and excitement on the same ideas that Time of the Wolf treats so seriously and glumly.

Time of the Wolf features some stunning work, though. Most of the picture takes place in the blackness of night or in the dark pre-dawn or post-dusk, and the film's superb lighting is appropriately frightening and dislocating. Haneke does not waste a single shot and his handling of actors is every bit as expert as seen previously. Huppert comes across here much more beautiful and emotional than in The Piano Teacher, even with less to do.

Yet I can't really recommend such a soul-deadening experience, especially when the other two films get the same ideas across much more satisfyingly.

DVD Details: Palm Pictures has certainly put together a handsome-looking DVD package, and they'll need it to get people to watch this striking, but dreary film. The soundtrack is presented in both 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Stereo, with optional English subtitles. Extras include interviews with both Haneke (3-1/2 minutes, in French) and Huppert (4 minutes, in English), as well as 7 minutes of great behind-the-scenes footage (with no subtitles). The disc also includes weblinks and trailers for this film and three other Palm releases: Springtime in a Small Town, Last Life in the Universe and Reconstruction.

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