Where are you from? The city?
— Georges (Daniel Duval), Time of the Wolf
When I’m alone, I’m way happier.
— Runaway (Hakim Taleb)
The end of the world as we know it tends to look the same in the movies: fires rage, asteroids crash, big waves roll. And somehow, the little dog survives. While such visions allow viewers to imagine the survival of the fittest, the most moral, or the least unkempt — all traits displayed by the characters with whom you’re invited to identify — they also offer few surprises for all that comfort. In Michael Haneke’s version of this story, things are different.
Time of the Wolf (Le Temps du loup) begins as Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert), her husband Georges (Daniel Duval), and their kids, 13-year-old Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) and younger Benny (Lucas Biscombe), unpack their shiny SUV, settling in for a holiday in their woodsy cabin. Inside, they learn their seeming routine is altered irrevocably: another family has taken up residence, the husband, Fred (Pierre Berriau) waving a shotgun as he demands water and “supplies,” while his wife (Valérie Moreau) frets and cradles a wailing baby. It’s unclear just what has driven them to this desperate tack, and your confusion is mirrored by Anne and Georges. When he attempts to placate the intruder, to make a deal of some sort, the shotgun goes off and the camera cuts to outside, where Eva turns her head at the sound. Back inside, Anne’s face is splattered with blood. She throws up.
And that’s the set-up. No blaring alarms or worldwide warnings, no airborne attacks by aliens, and no tv news reports to provide even rudimentary exposition. Anne and her children are on their own, their survival a matter of will and luck. As Haneke puts it in a brief interview on Palm’s mostly frill-less DVD, “I didn’t want to do another disaster film. I wanted to do a very personal film about inter-person behavior. Especially nowadays if you turn on the tv, you’ll see in every bit of news, a little bit of the end of the world. But it’s always far away, affecting other people. And I wanted to do a film about out superfluous society who feels good and comfortable who is watching the end of the world on tv because it’s far away, and give it a taste of what it’d mean if it happened to them.”
Just so, middle-class mom Anne must now negotiate what appears a wilderness of worry, augmented by the fact that you can’t see most of the action. For one thing, much of the film is literally dark, as they struggle without electricity and sleep, weep, and huddle together in caves and murky interiors. As with Georges’ death, the film grants no spectacle of violence or even emotional trauma, only the wearying efforts to push on, to manage brief relations with hostile others or finesse an exchange of services, food, or fuel. They’re chased off by a first group, sheltering in a cave and headed more or less by the vaguely sinister Mr. Azoulay (Maurice Bénichou), underlit so that the shadows from his glasses reshape his face monstrously.
Lack of community and basic shelter and sustenance is only the beginning. On meeting an unnamed “feral child” (Hakim Taleb), it becomes clear to Anne, at least, that she and the kids now inhabit an environment without reason, justice or responsibility, a third-worldish lack of law or justice, is only From here the family follows a train that is miraculously still in working order, all the way to another gathering of fearful folks, holed up in a railroad station. Led by the quiet-seeming Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet), they too try to maintain — or imagine — a social order, a set of “rules indispensable for living together in a more or less civilized way,” and yet their arrangement is shaky at best. One of Anne’s new acquaintances at the station, Béa [Brigitte Roüan], wonders aloud if Koslowski is one of a mysterious collection she calls the Just, and describes as 36 “protectors,” put on earth by God to keep harmony and ensure safety. Anne nods, unconvinced. End of scene.
Though resolution is hardly the end here, other exchanges in the station are considerably more vociferous, including a fight between worn-down Thomas Brandt (Patrice Chéreau) and his angry wife, Lise (the extraordinary Béatrice Dalle, Betty Blue back in 1986). Their mutual impatience and rage erupts into violence (he slaps her) and something of a show for their alarmed audience. Here Anne reveals her own breaking point, bursting into tears and begging for peace, “if only for the sake of the children.”
But the children have their own ideas of how to get through the trauma that now defines their lives. The good mother, however passionate and dedicated to her children she seems, poses problems. Unnerved by Anne’s increasingly erratic behavior, Eva longs for stability and adult sense-making. And so, finding a pencil and paper in the station’s office, she writes to her dead father. “I don’t know if you can see or read or hear this now, or if you can perceive anything,” she writes, her lilting voiceover suggesting her suddenly mature resolve. “But I want to believe you can. So I’m going to try, quite simply. It’s really difficult to find words for all this, but when it’s impossible to talk to anyone, it feels so stifling…. That’s why I’m writing, because it seems so jumbled.” As she scratches at the paper, the camera shows a series of still, desolate images: a grey day outside the window, keys to some unknown door still hanging on a hook, a broken refrigerator, door open to reveal bugs on a bagel, and a wall pinned with photos of people now gone, a bill to be paid.
Such cinematic “correlatives” reveal the desolation now afflicting Eva, whose mighty efforts to maintain a surface calm and security. Growing old too fast, she’s yet a child, and it’s her view and sensibility that help to shape the film’s heartbreak and relentless shows of courage. Connecting with others even when this seems unwise or impossible, the kids make a future seem inevitable.