Sunday, February 13, 2005

Les Justes

Most of our experiences with horror in the cinema are metaphoric. In everyday life, there are no ravenous aliens waiting to tear us to shreds, no vengeful ghosts bringing doom to us in our homes late at night. The devil is not lurking in the shadows, ready to possess our bodies. These are all frightening scenarios, but when we relate to them in the cinema, we do so according to the conventions of metaphor - as representations, generally speaking, of our real-world desire to be safe, both physically and psychologically.

In this respect, it can be said that most horror films play upon our nostalgia for childhood, for that time when fantasy and reality were still inextricably entwined, a time when we felt that there really was something in the darkness that wished us ill. Growing up gives us a new view of our world, and while the perspective of adulthood (for most) removes the irrational fantasies of youth, it does nothing to eliminate the very real existence of everyday horrors.

That man has a gun. What can I say to him to prevent him from shooting me?

There is no food and the water is undrinkable. How am I going to survive?

It is imperative that they believe me, but they do not. How can I convince them that what I am saying is true?

These kinds of fears are more real, or at least more immediate, because they address situations that the real world may actually thrust upon us. These are grown-up fears, made all the more terrifying when the tenets of reason that we have taken such cares to develop cannot be applied to dispel them.

German filmmaker Michael Haneke recently gained world recognition with his film The Piano Teacher, which won the Jury Grand Prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, but it was a departure from his usual focus: the threat of real-world horror. I first became aware of Haneke when I saw his 1997 film Funny Games, a uniquely unsettling piece about a suburban family who are inexplicably tormented by two young men with no apparent motive. The scene it sets is made all the more terrifying by the plausibility of the premise – there but for the grace of God go I is an understandable reaction to the film.

Haneke’s latest film, Time of the Wolf, seems to pick up where Funny Games left off. In its opening scene, a middle-class French family enters their summer home to be inexplicably confronted by a stranger and his own family. The man is carrying a gun, and he sets the film in violent motion by using it.

While Time of the Wolf shares this image of shattered domestic tranquility with Funny Games, it develops it in an entirely unexpected direction. Forced by the menacing family to flee their home, the mother, Anna (Isabelle Huppert) and her children Eva (Anaîs Demoustier) and Benny (Lucas Biscombe) return by foot to their small town in the French countryside. An ominous fog fills the streets, which are strangely empty, save for piles of cattle carcasses burning in the darkness. Knocking on neighbors’ doors for help produces either no response or whispered demands (threats?) to go away.

As the mother and her children seek shelter and food, it soon becomes evident that some form of cataclysm has taken place. Strangely, though, its true nature is never revealed to us. We see no evidence of actual destruction, but we are told that the water supplies and rivers are contaminated. Was the event biological? The fact that we are never given an answer, that there is no rational explanation, simply adds to a mounting feeling of dread. Inevitably the trio comes across a group of survivors, and while their discovery gives us hope that the film’s fairy-tale horrors will be dispelled by this last vestige of society, we are dismayed (though perhaps not surprised) to discover that they will in fact only be replaced by more practical – more real – fears.

As in his previous films, Haneke here shows himself to be a filmmaker in stark control of both camera and cutting. Rigid frames, ice-cold dolly moves, and a methodical, deliberate pace provide perhaps the only comfort the film gives us: a sense that behind the horrors exists some semblance of reason – even if it is only in the form of a passive, omniscient observer of the action.

Equally deliberate is Haneke’s use of light, which is a character here more so than in his previous work. Serving the theme of society as a beacon in the darkness of savagery, an early, seemingly interminable scene finds Huppert stumbling through an absolutely pitch-black countryside in search of her son, the only light available to her (or to us) given off by handfuls of hay she carries with her and sets alight one at a time. It is a haunting image: her small, desperate, terrified face glowing intermittently out of a darkness which seems to want to swallow her alive (as it may already have done to her son).

Even the daylight here seems to fuel an ominous tone. Muddy and diffuse, it gives the film a sense of having been shot underwater. On a practical level, the mysterious cataclysm has made all electrical light defunct, but in this world, even the light of the universe itself seems to have been dimmed. In the village, a white fog fills the streets, obscuring visibility and making its residents appear like ghosts in the mist. At the train station where survivors gather, waiting in desperation for a train that will never come, the countryside seems eternally shrouded in grey cloud cover. Huddled inside the station for warmth, the survivors seem to peer at each other out of an inky gloom.

Traditionally, civilization has been viewed as something that protects us from our real-world fears. Agreeing amongst ourselves not to hurt each other seems to provide a relief from them, whether real or imagined. In Time of the Wolf, Haneke makes no claims regarding this observation, but he does make it clear that the lack of civilization is a certain cause for terror. We are shown that when it is removed, nothing remains to prevent us from enacting horrors upon our neighbor – or to prevent them from harming us. In the face of such a collapse, a reversion to our primal selves becomes inevitable.

It seems inevitable then, too, that mythology works its way into Haneke’s bleak world. In the new community, we witness the slaughter of horses, dogs and goats, and while it is rationalized by the survivors as a necessary step for preserving the water supply, Haneke’s dispassionate observation of the acts lends them a primal, sacrificial quality.

If this ritual sacrifice is for us (the audience) only metaphoric in nature, it is nevertheless reiterated by the film’s community in the form of a whispered myth, referred to as Les Justes (“the Just”). Though no one has ever seen one (many claim to know someone who has), we hear that there are apparently 36 of these chosen people, and they keep our world going by being alive. If even one of them dies, the world will end. Later, we hear that one of them was spotted in town, stripping down before throwing himself into a fire. The person telling the story seems to think that it is this bizarre act of self-sacrifice on the part of the Juste, rather than his survival, which is meant to be our salvation. The ironic contradiction in interpretations is of course significant: if the citizens of this devastated place are to believe the myth, then it is either vitally important that these Justes die, or that they live. Not knowing which is the correct belief in turn adds to the maddening uncertainty of the survivors' lot.

While some of the adults whisper these stories with absolute conviction, Anna and a number of the others take them with a grain of salt, unsure whether to abandon their skepticism in favor of the bizarre hope they suggest. But Anna’s son, Benny, who has become silent following his wander through the darkness early in the film, is still a child, unencumbered by the logic of adulthood, and he has also heard the stories. Awakened by one of the relentless, gruesome bloody noses he spontaneously suffers throughout the film, he wanders again out into the night, drawn by the light of the community’s signal fire.

To Benny, it seems there are things in the darkness that wish him and his family ill. And in Haneke’s film, a world stripped of the uniquely adult trappings of civilization and society, it is easy to believe that his reasoning is just.