From the foreboding dead-silent opening credits, shown in the simplest of manners, to the near perfect quasi-optimistic fire breathed finale - Michael Haneke has created his greatest film to date. An unpredictable visceral monster of a movie - and if you want to keep that sense of shocked awe that you will almost undeniably get when watching The Time of the Wolf, then don't read on - just go experience the film, no matter how much effort it takes to get there (I travelled three hours to The Cinema Village in New York City to see this film).
Haneke, who gave us such creations as the smoothly sociopathic Funny Games in 1997; the thickly layered existentialism of 2000's Code Inconnu; and the sickly voyeuristic Piano Teacher in 2001, has now added The Time of the Wolf to his dark stable of wild, yet completely (almost maniacally) structured films. Haneke's past films have been an ever-growing series of near-nihilistic diatribes upon a sick and wasteful society that may or may not be worth saving, but with Wolf, he's gone that one fateful step further, and with the sound of one gunshot, puts us, without any warning whatsoever, right in the center of the armageddon, never once even attempting to explain just what happened to the world.
The story begins as the perfect little nuclear family (led by mother Isabelle Huppert) arrives at their summer home to find a family of squatters there. One gunshot later and the Bourgeois fantasy is shattered, and Anna (Huppert) is on the run with her two children through a hazy unspecific post-apocalyptic world that has nothing kind to offer them and no reasons as to what has happened to the secure society they used to know.
Breathtakingly stark cinematography follow these wanderers as they search for food and shelter and safety and in a pitch-dark Blair Witchesque swoop these bewildered nomads (and we as the audience) are thrown into the void once again. In a night that is blacker than any they have ever known, Anna bellows for her son to come to her - "Bennnnny!!!!!" - as only a pinprick of light (a distant tiny fire) is illuminated upon the darkened screen. As we watch and listen, we know that we are no longer in our own secure world, but instead we are there with Anna as she desperately cries for her little boy - and there is no turning back for any of us.
Isabelle Huppert as Anna is warmly brilliant as always, but it is Anaïs Demoustier, as her daughter, Eva, who is the emotional fulcrum of the film. It is Eva, a fascinating quagmire of voices all thrown together into this debuting young actress, who has the daunting task of holding what is left of her family together. Even with her own mother, she is playing mother and acting as the matriarchal figure in both her mother's and her little brother Ben's lives - while they all fight for a lost sense of normalcy.
Never once does Wolf falter from its steadily exhausted tightrope walk of incessant danger and ever-encroaching finality. A film engulfing the seriously fantastical subject of the end of civilization but filmed beneath a milky grey sky with Haneke peering through the homagical camera lenses of Tarkovsky and Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman. A bleak, quietly thunderous masterpiece ranging through the entirety of the human emotional scale. [08/01/04]