Thursday, June 18, 2009

Artists I Like: Michael Haneke (pretentiousness warning!)

"My films are intended as polemical statements against the American 'barrel down' cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus."

Funny Games (2008 film)Image via Wikipedia

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 24:  Director Michael Han...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Michael Haneke is an Austrian director who has grown famous as a director of films which often are aimed at pointing out what he perceives to be problems and failures in modern society. He often shows the banality and tediousness of suburban life and intersperses that with extreme violence. This blend of boredom with terror sometimes leads to very conflicting critiques of his work. I have read often on the internet observations from "real people" who watched his films and felt they were terribly boring, "nothing happens" is a phrase you see over and over when reading user reviews on Netflix for example. On the other hand, professional critics, those who don't like his films anyway, often describe his films as overly violent, The New York Times described Funny Games as "a sophisticated act of cinema sadism." It's these exact same extremes that have made me a huge admirer of his work.

My introduction to his work was the U.S. version of Funny Games. This version of the film is a shot for shot remake of an earlier, Austrian one. The movie is the story of a well-to-do family visiting their lake house who are accosted by a couple of seemingly upper class young men who throughout the movie terrorize the family. The plot is similar to a number of "home invasion" films such as The Strangers or Them but Haneke's goal and style are much different. There is no onscreen violence in Funny Games at all, aside from one very important scene late in the movie but the effect of the violence when it does happen (offscreen) is chilling. The focus is on the people being hurt, their faces as they watch family members being terrorized or their reactions after the violence occurs. There are no action sequences, violence happens in short bursts but the impact lasts for several minutes after. The violence is never explained either, the antagonists throughout the story offer stories a few times but always immediately contradict themselves just moments later with an alternate reason for their terrible acts. In the end viewers have more questions than answers and are not offered a nice wrap-up that is normally given at the end of a thriller or horror movie.

Initially after seeing the movie I wasn't sure what to think and really didn't think I liked it at all. It took me several days to realize that I couldn't stop thinking about it and the effect it had on me. Funny Games is a film that is aiming to inspire a different sort of emotion in the viewer than your typical film. Generally speaking, movies are looking to amuse or thrill or possibly shock, Funny Games inspires a feeling of dread and, oddly, guilt. It's this difference that makes Haneke one of the most artistically successful filmmakers in the world. After having my interest piqued by Funny Games my wife and I decided to seek out a few other Haneke films. We started with the original version which had been made 10 years earlier in Austria. The original version is shot for shot the same movie as the American one and because this movie was always intended to be a critique of American cinema I prefer the U.S. version but both are great and even after the seeing the movie a second time I had almost the same reaction as the first time.

Cover of Cover of Cache (Hidden)

Next up we watched Cache (Hidden) which was, at the time, his most recent Austrian film. Like Funny Games, Cache is, on the surface, a straight forward thriller and really shows off Haneke's skills in cinematagrophy and building tension masterfully. The plot of Cache involves another terrorized family of three who discover one day, via a videotape left on their doorstep, that someone is watching them. Not long after the video tape the family begins receiving drawings that take the husband back to some events during his childhood.

Here again, Haneke is taking what could have been a relatively typical movie and inverting our expectations. The idea of who is the protagonist and antagonist in this film is a tough one as it flip flops a couple times during the movie. The last scene in particular is mysterious and casts doubts on nearly everything that had happened up to that point. Cache is easily Haneke's most critically acclaimed movie and it's easy to see why, everything about it executed to perfection. It's his best "looking" film with a great cast and, in a rarity for Haneke, it actually has a plot and a story to tell. Cache is presently being remade for American audiences and we'll see how that turns out.

We watched Le Temps Du Loup next which really reminded me more than anything of The Road, the novel by Cormac McCarthy. (Just to be clear though Le Temps came out years before The Road, it just so happens I had read The Road first). It's a dark, depressing story (that part could probably go without saying for Haneke) set in a post-apocalyptic future. A mother and father are attempting to navigate this new world with their two children and the story deals with their everyday life just trying to survive. This film is a good example of what a lot of people

Cover of Cover of Le Temps du loup [Region 2]

dislike about Haneke which is that he is, some would say, boring. I can see this point of view, for example in Les Temps there is a point in the film where he focuses his camera on a group of people at a funeral from the waist down and just leaves it there for three or four minutes. Nothing happens at all here, no talking, no music (there is almost never any music in a Haneke film) and no action, just standing. For me, by the time he starts pulling stuff like this in his films I have generally already bought into it completely. These scenes, and he does stuff like this frequently, add to the general sense of doom and dread that his movies inspire, others disagree and they say it's just boring and I guess I really don't have much argument for that but I do think there is a point to it which I believe he made very clear in his first film The Seventh Continent.

The Seventh Continent is Haneke's first movie but the last I watched and here again he is dealing with another relatively well-to-do family who are terrorized. The difference here is that they are not being terrorized by any outside forces, rather they are being gradually beat down over the course of three years by the sheer mundanity of their own lives. There are endless shots of members of the family eating breakfast or shopping or going through the car wash with little or no dialogue. Eventually small cracks start to appear, the mother begins crying for seemingly no reason for example. The family falls deeper and deeper into depression or "emotional glaciation" as I've read Haneke say in interviews about his early films. The movie builds to a climax which is in no way surprising but is still one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen in a movie. Haneke states in his description of The Seventh Continent that it is "a story of mental short-sightedness" which makes sense. His characters don't see any way out of their emotional rut aside from the extreme route they choose.

There are other Haneke films I've yet to see. I will work my way through them slowly, I would never subject anyone to a Haneke marathon. Just in the past couple weeks a new Haneke film was shown at Cannes, The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d'Or. If you've seen any Haneke let me know what you thought and if you haven't give it a shot some afternoon when you feel like something a little different, I can guarantee you won't have fun but you will definitely have an interesting experience.

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