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An inspired and uncompromised experiment in apocalyptic anxiety, Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf is conceived as a headlong rush into the unknown, and so the less prior knowledge you have of its content and textures, the more the film will grip you like a waking dream. How to compel audiences to witness this desperate scald without bludgeoning it with hype? Stop here, and go in unsullied. Few films you’ll see this year will shake your timbers as rigorously.
As in Haneke’s offensively high-handed earlier film Funny Games, Wolf begins with a family trip gone suddenly predatory. Confronting a rifle-brandishing family squatting in their vacation home, the movie’s nuclear unit (led by mom Isabelle Huppert) is immediately sundered and heads into the countryside, looking for help it never finds. (Haneke’s title is from the Elder Edda, referring to the chaos leading up to the Ragnarok.) “You really don’t know what’s going on?” spits one unhelpful villager, and panic sets in for protagonists and audience alike.
Starving, frayed, and tripping into a night that swallows them whole (summoning a pitch-black Blair Witch affect broken only by the appearance of distant torches or bonfires), Huppert and her two children suddenly inhabit a poisoned-water, carrion-strewn landscape on the edge of social anarchy. It’s achieved economically—we see only what real flames will show us. By the time we glimpse the first pyre of burning cows, the characters are already hurrying past it. Eventually, a teenage scavenger (Hakim Taleb) leads them to an abandoned train depot, where a helter-skelter capitalist commune has been erected by a primeval lout (Olivier Gourmet), and where the family fades into a burgeoning crowd that must buy drinking water from armed vendors on horseback.
The film is unrelentingly visceral but decontextualized—the unspecified period and locale have been boiled down to the survivalist essentials. And as much as it smacks, in its broad strokes, of post-apocalyptic sci-fi (shades of Cornel Wilde’s neglected No Blade of Grass), the more immediate evocation is of post-revolution third-world famine-states, to which a globalized and disaffected Europe may be closer than it thinks. Resonances fly effortlessly, everything has a metaphoric payload, and Haneke’s incisive visual choices keep our concerns front and center.
World cinema’s premier doyenne of emotional damage, Huppert just does not fuck around—her fierce Mother Courage hugs the scary gray zone between maternal devotion and mercenary self-preservation. Her angry gaze is wielded like a flamethrower. But as the film progresses, Huppert’s mom becomes lost in the contentious struggle to reformulate some kind of primitive social fabric, and Time of the Wolf is allowed to roam and refocus, rather beautifully, on any of the other dozens of survivors, including the children. As streamlined and despairing as it is, Haneke’s movie shifts its priorities from the self to the many, and the penultimate tableau is an unpredictable vision of love in the ruins.
It seems clear now that the sophomorically confrontational early films that made Haneke a festival name were in fact juvenilia, and that with Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, and Time of the Wolf, the ice-cool Austrian has found a new dignity and respect for his audience’s vulnerability. In today’s digital bog of empty light and marketing deceptions, this is what early-millennium Euro art-film masterpieces feel like—lean, qualmish, abstracted to the point of parable but as grounded as a gravedigging.