Laura CliffordA family drives up to their summer cottage in what looks like a weekend getaway from the hubbub of big city life. When they walk inside they are greeted by a crazed looking man pointing a rifle straight at them. Dad (Daniel Duval) sends his daughter (Anais Demoustier) and son (Lucas Biscomb) outside and tries to reason with the man, then…crack! A rifle shot resounds and the father lay dead on the floor. The killer orders the mother, Anne (Isabell Huppert), and her kids, empty handed, out into a post-apocalyptic world. They have entered the “Time of the Wolf.”
There is a medieval, Judgment-Day-is-upon-us tone to “Time” that has society reverting back to its basic, pre-modernism days when electricity, never mind computers, did not exist. Power is measured in physical strength and cunning where the holder of a handgun wields life and death control over the weak. As society begins the slow and painful process of rebuilding after an unexplained mankind-shattering disaster, we follow Anna, Eva and Ben as they struggle to survive in a now-hostile and terrifying world.
The acting is minimalist on all levels. I don’t know whether it is director Michael Henake’s intent or not but there is, throughout the film, an emotionless delivery to the performances. Anna, witnessing her husband’s sudden demise, throws up but never seems to grieve. The same goes for the children. This flat, near lack of emotion may be a statement of the shock that would pervade in the survivors of catastrophic calamity. But, then again, maybe not.
I watched this on a screener tape and, during the extended and frequent scenes where nothing happens – people sitting, silent, around a fire for minutes at a time, for instance – I felt no need to pause the “action” as I got up to use the little boy’s room or get a drink and felt that I missed not a thing. Some judicious editing to tighten the pace would have helped this provocative post-apocalypse tale of survival. The 109 minute runtime should have been closer to the 90 minute mark.
Shot in Dogma 95 style with only natural light to illuminate things, cinematographer Jurgen Jurges uses the darkness to build tension and fear for the players, and for us who experience the same confusion. We want to know “who’s there!” in the gloom just as much as the characters. When things move to the “civilized” gathering, lighting becomes harsher and illuminates the hidden natures of man. Survival is replaced by the struggle for power in the new society.
“Time of the Wolf” is a thought provoking story that unleashed, in my mind, the ramifications of what would happen to us if the whole system came crashing down and there were no computers, no electricity, no gasoline and little food and water. Helmer Haneke paints his picture of this catastrophic event as a microcosm of our consumerist society. As the pieces, following the unexplained disaster, fall into place and people start to come together in larger and larger number in a small village, conflict flairs as the locals resent the invasion by “foreigners.” Quasi-religious leadership, The Just, rises in prominence and the local strongman is rumored a member of the all-powerful 36. Society begins to rebuild itself, but will it learn from its past mistakes? While not a happily-ever-after story, there is a glimmer of hopefulness.
As expected, images of suffering and survival are harsh and sometimes shocking. Haneke doesn’t pull his punches as the little family wanders by a huge pyre destroying the remains of horses and cows. There is some powerful stuff buried in the meandering story. I give it a B-.
The Laurent family arrive at their country vacation home to find an intruder (Pierre Berriau, "Safe Conduct") brandishing a rifle as his family cowers behind. Georges (Daniel Duval, "Will It Snow for Christmas?") tries to negotiate a sharing of resources, but the panicked man shoots spraying Anne (Isabelle Huppert, "The Piano Teacher") with her husband's blood. This wasn't the beginning of a vacation, but a hunt for refuge in the "Time of the Wolf."
If one is familiar with the work of Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke, there was only one way that opening scene could have played out, but unlike the in-your-face shock satire of "Funny Games" or the emotional and sexual downward spiral of "The Piano Teacher," "Time of the Wolf" retreats to observe a post-apocalyptic society at arm's length.
After being turned away by an acquaintance or two, Anne and her children Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) and Ben (Lucas Biscombe) begin a journey on foot, finding shelter in a farmer's shed. The family is in shock, the loss of their husband and father unremarked upon except for Ben's hysteria at having his pet parakeet escape its cage. When Ben disappears and Anne braves darkness to search for him, Eva is helpless to put out a fire that engulfs the shed, but the next morning Ben reappears with a strange older boy (Hakim Taleb) who leads them to train tracks.
The foursome arrive at a depot which has become a gathering spot and microcosm of rural government, led by the domineering Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet, "The Son"). The mistrusting boy takes to the woods where he is visited by Eva, who surreptitiously brings him food. Various survival dramas play out at the station until another fire reunites the grieving Ben with an ironic father figure.
Haneke never tells us exactly what has happened 'in the cities,' although the biggest problem faced, procuring an untainted water supply, hints at nuclear or biological warfare. His story uses the wolf as a multi-tiered allegory - for the instincts of the survival state, the cruelty of nature and, quite possibly, the abuse which caused the boy to run away from home (is his father the brutal Koslowski?) While Haneke's storytelling is slow and his actors subdued, he draws the viewer in through strong imagery (Jürgen Jürges of Haneke's "Code Unknown" and "Funny Games" is the cinematographer). Fire is a prominent theme, a symbol of both destruction and rebirth (one unsettling early scene shows Anne and her children rushing past a pyre of cattle in a darkened town). Ben's blood streaked face (he suffers nosebleeds) at film's end recalls its violent beginning. The director keeps his family unit enshrouded in darkness or fog, tightly framed, until the arrival of the boy brings us a first glimpse of landscape and nature.
"Time of the Wolf" is a director's vision, not an actor's piece, (despite the presence of such stars as Huppert, Gourmet, Béatrice Dalle and actor/director Patrice Chéreau). Humankind and animals are cruel to themselves and each other (be forewarned of a shot of a horse being killed in closeup), especially when survival is the motivator, but what of vague conspiratorial references to the '36 Just?' It is disappointing that Haneke's ideas are not more clearly stated, but "Time of the Wolf" intrigues nonetheless.
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