Time of the Wolf (2003)

2004-06-25 (Limited release)

Within the first four minutes of Time of the Wolf (Le Temps du Loup), a family vacationing in the French countryside is split apart by shocking violence and faced with unspeakable horrors. Welcome back to the Michael Haneke, the Austrian director/French favorite whose films are unflinching examinations of human cruelty.

Haneke’s last film, The Piano Teacher (Le Pianiste, 2002), dismantled classical European aesthetics (Schumann and Schubert, a Viennese music school) within the contexts of sexual deprivation and familial and teacher/student power struggles. His newest twists that most common Hollywood genre, the disaster film, into something unfamiliar, uncertain, and subtly shocking. In The Piano Teacher and Funny Games (1997), Haneke implicates the audience in the violence depicted onscreen; by watching, we were endorsing the scene before us. The movies indict both our passivity as viewers of ultraviolent films and our responsibility for enjoying them.

Time of the Wolf takes a slightly different tack. More impressionistic and descriptive than the previous works, filled not with unflinching close-ups but with foggy long shots, Time of the Wolf leaves more to the viewer to decide. As the film’s theme — inhumanity — becomes clear, we see our own roles in this nightmare.

Anna (Isabelle Huppert), her husband Georges (Daniel Duval), their sullen teenaged daughter Eva (Anais Demoustier), and beatific blond son Ben (Lucas Biscombe) make their way to their isolated house in the country with a van full of supplies. Here an armed man (Pierre Berriau) kills Georges and steals the van. Thus begins the nightmare. Anna and the children go from house to house, searching for help, and are repeatedly turned away or ignored. Wandering the countryside with a bike, a lighter, and meager food and cigarettes, they sleep in abandoned sheds and wonder at piles of livestock burning in the fields. Haneke never reveals the “truth” about these eerie events, but only follows the family though foggy fields and dark woods, limiting our vision to theirs, illuminated only by a small lighter flame or grey-green moonlight.

The family encounters others, who are as frightening as their unknown circumstances, with one exception. Eva befriends a young, slightly feral boy (Hakim Taleb), who follows the family, staying at a distance at times, helping at others. He provides some few instances of kindness. As counterpoint, the family finds a small commune, the only vestige of the “civilized” life they once knew, led by the loutish, gun-bearing Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet). Encamped at an abandoned railroad station, they wait for the possible salvation of an incoming train. Life persists, alternately boring and terrifying, amid this survivalists’ society.

Time of the Wolf‘s lack of explanation creates a pervasive confusion for characters and audience, depicted in beautifully dismal cinematography. Koslowski, the fat emperor of his apocalyptic domain, solicits sexual favors in return for food; village tough guys accost a Polish family, falsely accusing them of murder and illustrating the general xenophobia that pervades the French countryside; a rape occurs by dim moonlight in the midst of a multitude of sleeping bodies. Since most of the characters stand by during such cruelties, all but the young and strong (Eva) and the innocent (Ben) seem malevolent, if only in their passivity.

This is the disease that befalls those facing apocalypse, a hunger that strengthens the will to survive and weakens the soul, that awakens instincts and encourages ignorance. This disease spares no one but the most socially conscious individuals. Thus it is Eva, who shields her brother’s eyes from the nighttime rape, and who stands up for the mysterious boy against the rest of the commune dwellers, who emerges as a heroine. Young enough to not be fooled by the false “civility” that Koslowski represents, she recognizes the boy as more human than those abiding by the commune’s rules, which are born of fear and repression.

Still, her social consciousness is of little pragmatic use in this metaphorical and literal night, punctuated only by occasional bursts of fire and violence. This is, after all, the time of the wolf, when selfishness and cruelty seem the only means of staving off death. The most “successful” characters are mercenaries who journey on horseback from makeshift settlement to makeshift settlement, selling water out of giant plastic jugs. When asked to provide some for a dying baby, the traders merely raise their eyebrows and direct the parents back to Koslowski, telling them to ask their fellow commune dwellers for mercy.

Time of the Wolf is disturbing precisely because its cruelties stem not from nightmare, but from a waking life, from the warfronts in Rwanda and the Sudan and countless other areas, present and past. To situate this disaster would make it familiar. In the abstract, it remains an allegory for rich nations ignoring victims of disaster, leaving them to exploiters like Koslowski and the mercenaries. Only those who can think outside of their immediate confines, like Eva, who make their moral decisions instead of seeking comfort or reacting to fear can maintain a sense of selfhood. Others wander in perpetual night, hungry, soulless wolves.