After viewing Michael Haneke’s masterpiece The White Ribbon, I came to the conclusion that Haneke is my favorite director of the past decade. From 2001’s The Piano Teacher on he’s consistently proven himself not only as a filmmaker merely to watch, but as a director to argue about akin to Lars von Trier and Roman Polanski (before the cinematic debate turned personal). Like von Trier, Haneke trains his cold lens on people desperate to make order out of mayhem. And in a way, Haneke is an anthropological Polanski, forever concerned with the evil we can’t see, with that which lies beyond the frame. He wants us to hear the words left out of the script, to feel the heaviness of absence—to ponder that which is missing.
Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner is set in northern Germany just before WWI changes the lives of the tale’s very Protestant villagers forever. The stock characters include a nerdy narrator schoolteacher, a rich baron, a strict pastor, a sadistic doctor, a suffering midwife, poor tenant farmers and—most importantly—the offspring of these varied human sources who all suffer equally and painfully. Beginning with the doctor’s bad fall from a horse that trips over a wire strung nefariously between two trees, a string of mysterious “accidents” occur that are each more disturbing and bizarre than the last. All the while these possible crimes go halfheartedly investigated since no one ever seems to have seen or heard anything (and no good religious person would dare speak evil anyway). In other words, witnesses are never present because they don’t want to be. These townsfolk are terrified to look in the mirror and maybe see a monster staring back.
In turn, all of the characters from the cruelest to the meekest are caught in a vise of fear because nothing untoward is acknowledged, not even class strife. All feeling is stifled, and this repression breeds repression. An atmosphere of terror, which leads to a panicky desire to control, is passed down from one generation to the next. This brings the audience to see the Fascistic future not as an aberrant outcome, but as the only logical conclusion. Haneke, like von Trier, is interested in delving into the chaos that reigns when the Dionysian spirit itself is forced underground. In The White Ribbon any talk of the irrational—as from the girl who claims to have dreams that come true—will be met with punishment. A cop who questions the crying child after one especially heinous crime practically spits, “I don’t believe in witches and sorcerers.”
Ingeniously, The White Ribbon is not a whodunit but a “Where did the original sin begin?” In Haneke’s world there are no neat and tidy lone gunmen, only a community made up of likeminded individuals constantly reinforcing one another’s behaviors—even when those behaviors are abhorrent. Those growing up in a community of collective abusers can’t help but become abusers themselves. Dysfunction is a “disease” of society, not just of one person or of a single family. Even the absolutely adorable pastor’s son who promises to release a wounded bird he’s rescued (his mere smile elicited a righteous round of “Awwww” at the screening I attended) ends up putting it in a cage—a gift to his domineering dad. He’s so enamored with his controlling father he simply forgets the right thing to do. Indeed, if a child is raised to follow a strict authority figure without question, that child inevitably will grow up to believe that not thinking for oneself is not only normal but necessary.
In addition, Haneke continues to mine his ongoing pet theme that consistent punishment creates an insatiable craving for punishment. (It’s why the sadomasochistic relationship between the doctor and the midwife—who serve as scapegoats at the end for the sole reason that their leaving town makes blaming them convenient—lasts for years.) When the pastor claims that caning his children will hurt him more than it does them he’s also training those kids to embrace punishment as a catharsis that will cleanse both victim and victimizer. Haneke heightens the tension of the caning scene by lingering on a closed door (we hear the sounds of torture but don’t see it) in the same sadistic way the pastor draws out his punishment by telling the kids they will be caned for disobedience—tomorrow evening. In so doing, we come to identify with these characters, with the fright caused by an awareness of inexplicable dread that we are unable to see in tangible form. By manipulating imagery—shots are framed nearly imperceptibly off kilter—Haneke has trapped us in his web. He’s crafted an existential thriller in which we the audience are forever losing our balance.
While much has been made of Haneke using The White Ribbon as a literal statement of “This is how Nazism happened” the director is far too smart for that. What Haneke never does—and which tends to drive a lot of critics nuts—is offer concrete answers. The director has no interest in serving as an audience’s strong father figure leading us to simplistic explanations. That is how Nazism happened. What he does do is rather meticulously examine pre-existing conditions, present possibilities like a theoretician. Ultimately it’s up to us to do the hard work of thinking for ourselves. Haneke’s never going to give us the benefit of that other catharsis that occurs when you can name the unknown, define the fear, and thus destroy it. That behavior can get addictive—the compulsion that stirs the heart of every serial killer.
Film criticism requires one to be objective about a subjective experience. Corneliu Porumboiu, the director of the Rashomon-like 12:08 East of Bucharest (which took the Cannes Camera d’Or in 2006), mines the often absurd, nuance-averse territories of life in his Un Certain Regard-winning Police, Adjective by focusing on the literal “letter of the law.” Wearing its Pickpocket influence on its sleeve, Porumboiu’s film follows undercover cop Cristi (an understated Dragos Bucur) as, day after monotonous day, he trails fairly harmless, hashish-smoking teens, one of whom stands to do serious jail time for offering the illicit substance to his friends. In a moral quandary probably familiar to many an arresting officer expected to enforce our own controversial Rockefeller Drug Laws, Cristi must choose between his job and his conscience. What should one do when old laws haven’t caught up with new attitudes? Do you partake in that which you believe is wrong?
While Porumboiu’s filmmaking can be overly analytical and self-conscious at times, a bit too calculated in its nods to Neorealism, the director smartly universalizes his rural Romanian tale through deft camerawork, including a long opening sequence that is all images and no dialogue. The patient long shots perfectly place Cristi in the context of this post-Soviet any town in transition, where the only sounds are ambient, cellphone ring tones recognized the globe over. Slowly, the bureaucratic red tape piles up and the excruciating minutes tick by until judgment day arrives in the form of Cristi’s boss played by the diabolically thrilling Vlad Ivanov (who with a name like that was bound to be cast as the evil abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). In a hilarious scene that culminates in a reading and discussion of the dictionary, a very un-liberal revelation occurs. As ludicrous as the law may seem, Cristi’s equally ridiculous, by-the-book superior turns out to be making the most sense. Cops are trained to carry out the law, not debate it. The police force, like the military, is no place for conscientious objectors. In the end, the unsentimental Porumboiu knows that Dirty Harry is for Hollywood. And that, in this highly subjective world, Police, Adjective will not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay
After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.
Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.
Will Win: BlacKkKlansman
Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.
On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)
Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.
As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.
Will Win: Green Book
Could Win: The Favourite
Should Win: First Reformed
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.