Ed Howard: It isn’t very fashionable to be a moralist in art these days. Films that deal with moral issues in a direct way are often tagged, rightly or not, as preachy and didactic. So in a way Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is an anomaly, a director who unapologetically has a definite moral agenda that he’s been exploring for over 20 years now, closer to 40 if one considers the TV work he made in the ‘70s and ‘80s before embarking on his feature film career in 1989. Not that Haneke himself would probably consider himself a moralist—he’s consistently said that he wants his films to ask questions but not necessarily answer them—but whether his films are polemical or simply explore these issues in more ambiguous ways, there is a undoubtedly a core of forceful moral ideas about politics, media, and human relationships that runs through his entire oeuvre.
In this conversation, we’ll be discussing most of Haneke’s feature films, from his early “glaciation trilogy” (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance), made in his native Austria, to his brutal thriller deconstruction Funny Games, to the films he’s made in France (Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf and Caché) and his return to Austria for the harrowing parable The White Ribbon. It’s a consistently provocative and challenging body of work, and consistently bleak as well, something that’s only reenforced by revisiting all of the director’s films in a condensed period of time. But what’s not often acknowledged is the thread of hope that also runs through much of Haneke’s work, because being a moralist means not only documenting the evils of the world but presenting at least a slim hopefulness that the conditions depicted in these films are not permanent.
Jason Bellamy: At least not permanent for everyone. Haneke’s work does contain slight yet dazzling threads of hopefulness here and there, but for each of those threads there’s at least two instances of unequivocal and irreparable carnage serving as a counterbalance. There’s no bringing back the girl in Benny’s Video, for example, or the boy in Funny Games, or the father in Time of the Wolf, and so on. And so in Haneke’s work, hopefulness isn’t evidence of progress or potential so much as it’s the byproduct of endurance—it isn’t a slate-cleaning sunrise so much as a (momentary?) passing of the tornado. Misery and despair so thoroughly blanket Haneke’s filmography that one could argue quite plausibly that many of his stories’ apparent victims wind up being victors, because the dead are spared from continuing to experience the unavoidable disasters of life.
I’m not entirely sure what my opinion was of Haneke’s filmography before I began preparing for this conversation, but whatever it was I know that I vastly underestimated the suffocating bleakness of his work. That feels strange to say because I went in—having seen his three most recent films and parts of several others—fully aware that Haneke’s movies start at icy and grow colder from there. Yet somehow I was still surprised at the incredible consistency in bleakness of tone and, especially among his early works, deliberateness of style. (Haneke is as singular and as consistent as Terrence Malick but from the other end of the emotional scale.) That said, readers should know that whenever this piece publishes it will be at least a week behind schedule because watching all of Haneke’s films in close succession was such an emotionally trying experience for me that I often needed a few days of rest between viewings. And while I don’t mean that as praise (nor as criticism, for that matter), I suspect Haneke would take it that way.
EH: Haneke certainly doesn’t want his films to be easy viewing, and if we didn’t find his work “emotionally trying,” he’d doubtless see it as a failure. His films are all about complacency and ignorance and denial of guilt, and he clearly doesn’t want his audiences to fall into those same traps with respect to his films. Interestingly, while you were surprised by just how intensely and consistently these films affected you, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but was anyway. Prior to this conversation, I’d already seen all of Haneke’s features, most of them years ago, and though I’d only seen one or two of these films more than once, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on his oeuvre. But I still found myself affected and shaken up all over again, because I hadn’t expected many of these films to be as bracing or as trying the second time around.
His first feature, The Seventh Continent, in particular, was a film that I’d always assumed would be a one-time-only experience, the kind of film that’s harrowing for a fresh viewing but might lose its impact on repeat visits to its bleak, spartan world. So much of the film’s effect rests on its unsettling and ambiguous aesthetic, which conveys the impression that something terrible is going to happen, though it’s not quite clear precisely what form that horror will take. At the same time, Haneke dangles a slim hope that in retrospect is just a cruel red herring, by repeatedly hinting that the bored, alienated bourgeois family of this film will find an escape from their dehumanized existence by embarking on a trip to Australia. Of course, the film’s climax depicts a very different form of escape, one that’s incredibly difficult to watch.
What I found striking this time around was how much bleaker and more affecting the film is with the foreknowledge of its ending, and how rigorous its clinical dissection of modern society is. The film’s basic form—the mechanical repetition of everyday tasks leading to breakdown—is borrowed from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, though Haneke expands his thematic focus beyond the feminine domesticity of Akerman’s film to a study of the family unit as a whole. Haneke is relentless: 10 minutes pass before he clearly shows anyone’s face, and much of the film’s action is conveyed in tight closeups of disconnected hands interacting with various consumer goods. The family is woken up in the mornings by radio news announcements about tensions and violence in the Middle East (the film is set in three consecutive years leading up to 1989, the year it was made). At one point, an old woman tells Anna (Birgit Doll) a disturbing story about her school days, about teasing a classmate so viciously that the girl peed her pants, though even so many years later, the old woman seems more annoyed that the teacher made her clean it up than she is upset for her tormented friend. The story epitomizes the pointless cruelty that so often dominates Haneke’s world, but when Anna relates the story to her family later, they all simply laugh about it over the dinner table. In retrospect, the film’s truly hopeless conclusion is inevitable, because these people are totally disconnected from normal emotions, unable to relate to one another’s suffering or break through the barriers that separate and isolate them.
JB: That sure sounds convincing, but I think it steps too far, because, really, could the grisly conclusion of The Seventh Continent seem “inevitable” in anything but retrospect? Sure, the film is scattered with signs that these people are emotionally adrift, from the episode you mentioned involving Anna to the one in which her scientist husband, Georg (Dieter Berner), has the personal belongings of his former boss removed from his locker, presumably to avoid any personal interaction when his ex-boss comes to retrieve his things. But these are such small signs, wouldn’t you agree? There’s nothing exceptional about them, and thus there’s no reason to expect the conclusion to be exceptionally hopeless. That’s why Australia—with an assist from the movie’s title—dangles out there for so long as a plausible destination for escape and rebirth, to the point that even during the movie’s pivotal scene, in which Georg goes to the hardware store and loads up saws, hammers and other destructive (dismembering?) equipment, there’s room to think that the Schober family might still get away in one piece, even as it becomes apparent that something or someone else surely won’t.
I make that argument mainly to point me here: What defines the Schober family isn’t the way they live but the way they die. These aren’t “developed” characters in any respect. They are distant, unknowable shells—in life and in death. And while some of that is a product of who the characters are, and thus also the ingredients for why they do what they do, it’s also a product of Haneke’s cinematic approach, which, as you already pointed out, pays as much attention to truly inanimate objects as to these nearly inanimate ones. It seems to me that Haneke is in fact deliberately thwarting our ability to trace the conclusion back to any telltale signs, because as discomforting as the conclusion is on its own, it’s even more disturbing if the Schobers seem relatively normal. So while it would be inaccurate to suggest that the grisly conclusion comes out of nowhere, I think the only reason their group suicide (or is it a murder-suicide?) seems retrospectively inevitable is because it also makes for the Schobers’ most expressive action in the entire film. Their means of death explains their lives only because it’s almost all we have to go on.
EH: It’s true, the Schobers are scrupulously normal until the moment when they begin their horrible and extraordinary process of dismantling their lives, and that’s probably part of the point—the film wouldn’t be as bracing without the insinuation that this family is very much like any other family living in the modern world. I think you’re right that Haneke doesn’t want us to link the conclusion to any specific “telltale signs” but rather to think of this ending as one possible end point for the entirety of the existence depicted in the rest of the film. It’s not any one thing or any one symptom that leads to this total destruction, it’s everything that these people experience, everything they see in the world around them.
That includes, by necessity, the dream of escaping to Australia, which is raised as a possibility because the family see a travel agency ad for an Australian getaway outside the car wash they visit periodically throughout the film. Occasionally, Haneke inserts shots of this serene but also desolate Australian beach, as seen in the ad, with waves crashing against the rocks, the sound recalling the roar of the car wash. At one point, this insert is followed by a shot of a lamp turning on as Georg wakes up in the middle of the night, suggesting that this is his dream. Australia is the only hope provided in this film, and it’s kind of a sad, slim hope when one thinks about it, because even this dream is a product of the very society that’s crushing this family: even their dreams are consumerist, couched in the imagery of pre-packaged vacation bliss, and when they imagine the sound of waves, it’s the sloshing water of the car wash that they actually hear.
The car wash is also evoked when the family passes the site of a horrible accident on the highway: rain streaks the windows, and lights blink through the water outside, and the car wash’s roar is evoked by the mechanical grinding noises of the rescue teams sawing through the metal of a crashed car. If there’s any definitive point where a break seems to have occurred for this family, it’s here, though the reasons remain mysterious and unstated. The car crash scene is followed by another visit to the car wash, where Georg and Anna exchange ambiguous glances across the front seat, and their daughter Evi (Leni Tanzer) holds her mother’s hand as Anna starts to sob uncontrollably. It’s perhaps notable that this time, the camera doesn’t follow them outside the car wash to pass the Australian travel ad, because that ad, commercial and artificial as it is, provides the only hope, and as the film’s third act begins, that hope is rapidly fading away.
JB: Indeed it is. It’s difficult to express just how jarring it is when Haneke shows us Georg’s hand grabbing instruments of destruction off the racks in the hardware store: first an axe, then a hammer—oh, wait, not a hammer, a mallet—and then a power saw, a pair of huge scissors and a handsaw. It’s dreadful (especially if you know what Haneke is capable of doing to his characters) and yet, after so much emotional monotony, there’s something playful about it, too; Hitchcock would have chuckled at it, I suspect, and the footage could be inserted into any modern zombie movie without anyone noticing.
It’s an atypically fast sequence—six shots in 20 seconds; Haneke’s version of chaos cinema—as if Haneke wants the scene to end before we’ve even finished asking ourselves the question: “Whoa, what the fuck is going on!?” As soon as it was over, I remembered one of my high school English teachers who, when explaining to us how he could grade papers and watch a movie at the same time, said, “I read your papers and then when I hear a chainsaw or bedsprings, I look up.” It’s not that I found The Seventh Continent boring to that point, understand, but after that scene Haneke definitely had my full attention.
From there it isn’t long before the Schobers start putting those tools to work, and here Haneke takes his time. For about nine straight minutes, we see only shots of the Schobers dismantling their property: pictures taken off the walls, clothes taken from closets and then ripped to pieces (again and again and again), curtains torn down, illustrations cut to shreds, magazines and records ripped, drawers emptied and furniture smashed. During this sequence we see nothing of the Schobers except their hands, which are covered in big work gloves, effectively rendering them anonymous. The sequence ends with the smashing of an aquarium and the image of several fish flopping around on the carpet, gasping their final breaths—a sign of what’s to come for the Schobers.
If I had to describe the two sequences of the film that I’m confident I’ll never forget, it’s those two: the 20-second trip to the hardware store and the nine-minute demolition of the Schober family home. But that second sequence is one that plays much better in my memory than it did as I was watching it, because it’s a tough scene to endure, less for what it shows than for how much time it spends showing it. I’m sure this won’t be the last time we’ll talk about Haneke drawing out scenes of discomfort in a calculated attempt to unsettle the audience, but I think this scene is worth exploring in isolation—not as part of a Haneke trend—and so I ask you this: Does Haneke strengthen his point with each passing second of the nine-minute demolition sequence, or does he smash it until we can’t recognize it?
EH: I’d say in this case the duration is absolutely essential to Haneke’s point. As you note, Haneke shoots this sequence with the same detachment he’d applied to the scenes of the family cooking meals or performing their morning ablutions, focusing only on hands performing mechanical tasks. That’s important: throughout the film the family is defined primarily by their relationships with objects rather than with one another, and when they engage in their ritual of self-destruction, they’re still interacting with objects, acting with the same mechanical precision and abstraction with which they’d lived their ordinary lives. The way Haneke films this, with the closeups of hands and the repetition, enforces the idea that the family is in the process of dying exactly as they’d lived. If the sequence weren’t so long and repetitious, if it were punchier and less deliberate, there would be a risk that it could be taken as a catharsis, and Haneke clearly doesn’t intend it as one: this isn’t rebellion, really, it’s giving up, succumbing to the numbing societal structure that had been beating this family down throughout the entirety of the film.
There’s another thing to note about this sequence, and that’s the shattering of the aquarium, which as you say is a pretty obvious symbol for the impending fate of the Schobers. One thing that bothers me tremendously about this sequence—beyond the obvious, that is—is the fact that these are real fish flopping around on the carpet in front of Haneke’s camera, and they really died for the sake of those shots. Again, this won’t be the last time we’ll deal with the real deaths of real animals in Haneke’s cinema—it’s a common trope in his work—but it’s worth noting here just because it’s the first time it’s come up. As a moral principle, I think the deaths of real animals for the sake of a film are unforgivable and indefensible. Moreover, such moments inevitably shatter the illusion of the fictional narrative, working against the filmmaker’s point because as a viewer, at that moment, I’m not immersed in this family’s destruction of their belongings and themselves, I’m distracted by the filmmaker’s destruction of these living creatures.
JB: Yeah, in the case of the fish I was less distracted (although I was similarly taken out of the scene), because at least I could tell myself that it was possible Haneke let them gasp for a while before throwing them in a tank. (His other animal executions leave no room for such illusions.) But while I think you’ve made a sound argument for the architecture of that destruction sequence, I have to admit that I find its length distracting, even for a Haneke film. Somewhere during the 90-or-so seconds in which Haneke shows us a pair of hands cutting up one clothing item after another, I couldn’t help but think: How does Haneke think I don’t get this already? How many times does he need to underline it? Do I really need 90 seconds of shirt-cutting? Wouldn’t 30 seconds have been enough?
This is a pesky topic to discuss, because Haneke clearly has his own rhythms, and I don’t mean to imply that filmmakers can’t indulge themselves—hell, I’m the guy who loves the creation sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Likewise, just as I don’t think there’s anything inherently “better” about the efficiency of Haneke’s economical shot structure (relative to other filmmakers, his camera is predominantly fixed and his takes are long), I also don’t mean to imply that there’s anything inherently “better” about efficiency of duration—sometimes there’s flavor in the fat. Still, sometimes I get the sense that Haneke becomes less interested in provoking the audience as a means to an end than in provoking the audience as an end unto itself. Put another way, at some point I feel that Haneke is less interested in conveying the Schobers’ pain than in inflicting some on me in the audience.
His next film, Benny’s Video, happens to combine both of the elements we’ve just discussed: The movie opens with some home-video-type footage of a pig being marched outside, held by its tail at one end and a rope in its mouth at the other, and then shot in the head. As soon as the scene ends, the footage is rewound and played again in slow motion. Later in the film, we’ll see this footage again, twice more, once at regular speed and once in slow motion. The execution of the pig is a crucial element of the story, no question, and by playing the footage multiple times Haneke suggests the fascination of the main character, Arno Frisch’s Benny, and perhaps also Benny’s desensitization to the slaughter. But, truthfully, those feel like ancillary outcomes. I can’t shake the notion that more than anything, Haneke just wants to disturb me.
EH: Oh, I think he does, no question. That will be especially apparent when we get to Funny Games, which is nothing if not an exercise in audience torment, but it’s also an element of these earlier films. I should say that Benny’s Video used to be one of my least favorite Haneke films, but I came around on it a little when revisiting it for this conversation. The first time I saw it, I took away the idea, which I saw and see as very simplistic, that Benny’s violence arose entirely from his obsession with violent movies, his fetish for TV and video, as expressed by the fascination with the pig’s death especially. I saw it as essentially a conservative film, like the blame-placing rhetoric about violent video games and Marilyn Manson that inevitably fills the airwaves after any school shooting or other violent act involving young people. In retrospect, although that’s certainly a big part of the film, it’s somewhat more complicated and ambiguous than that. Like The Seventh Continent, this film presents an image of a society in which human relations are deadened, not only by TV but by a whole cultural apparatus that creates distance and disconnection and leads to the disassociated emotions displayed by the characters in this film.
This time around, the key idea I took away from the film was that Haneke’s exploration of desensitization here isn’t limited to the effects of media by any means. What’s most disturbing about this film is that Benny’s violent act—killing a girl (Ingrid Stassner) who he meets and brings to his room while his parents are away—is somehow not a total split in the fabric of society, that life somehow goes on without anything changing. After the murder, Benny eats yoghurt, chats with his friend and makes plans for that night, and goes about cleaning up as if it was just part of his chores, one more activity to keep himself busy for a while, just as the family in The Seventh Continent had enacted their self-destruction with the nonchalance of ordinary household activities.
Benny’s parents (Angela Winkler and Ulrich Mühe), once they learn about the murder, seem concerned simply with allowing life to go on, getting everything back on the track of normality after this violent disjunction. His father, especially, is more concerned, not with the fact of what happened, but with the possible effect it will have on his son’s future, on his career prospects, on his ability to have a comfortable, ordinary bourgeois life of the kind his parents have. The father reacts with efficiency and methodical planning—counting out possible next steps and lists of pros and cons—to the murder, and reserves his anger for insignificant signs like Benny’s haircut.
In this context, Haneke’s desire to disturb and provoke his audience is very understandable. The whole problem that these films are documenting is that people generally aren’t disturbed or shaken up enough by the routine violence that’s all around them. If we’re not disturbed by this film, Haneke would probably say, then we’re uncomfortably close to Benny or the Schobers.
JB: But isn’t that twisted logic? I recognize that Haneke resorts to extreme violence and graphic imagery as a means of shocking us from our complacency and capturing our complete attention, and I respect that for the most part—Funny Games perhaps excluded, but maybe not—he does so not through volume of atrocity (which he obviously perceives as part of the problem) but through intensity. Still, just as François Truffaut argued that “there’s no such thing as an anti-war film,” because battle scenes in movies are inherently exciting, isn’t there something inherently backward about Haneke thinking he can comment on our desensitization without exacerbating it at the same time? Sure, Haneke’s knack for unsettling audiences is enough to make many of us rethink not just our consumption of graphic media but also our willful disconnection from the real-life suffering around us. But, for most of us, I suspect that experience is temporary, and after the moment of reflection passes the unintended side effect lingers on: once we’ve been forced to endure Haneke’s grim emotions and disturbing images, things that we once thought bleak or disquieting don’t seem quite so bad.
Having said that, and agreeing with your reservations about Haneke’s distasteful penchant for slaughtering animals as a means of artistic expression, I can’t deny that the execution of the pig, as much as it offends me, is effective in underlining our desensitization to human carnage, because even before the gun is raised to the pig’s skull, when all Haneke gives us is a squealing pig being manhandled against its will, it’s a much more discomforting scene than the one later on, when Benny shoots the girl with the same gun. True enough, one of the big reasons the pig scene is so disturbing is because we know that the animal isn’t acting, and by that design we should be more disturbed by the pig scene—because the pig’s abuse is real and the girl’s isn’t. Still, as we squirm through the pig’s trauma, sensing its execution before we have any real reason to, Haneke effectively reminds us: this is what cruelty looks like. And in addition to making us consider how we can so be so nonchalant when faced with images of dramatized human-on-human cruelty at the movies, it’s enough to make one wonder how we can watch the nightly news, so often filled with gruesome images of real atrocity, without curling up into the fetal position. With so much real gruesomeness in the world, the killing of a pig should be the thing that doesn’t faze us. Instead, it’s the other way around.
EH: Again, the big sticking point for me there is that the killing of the pig is real, which is why it’s more disturbing, so while I see the point you’re making and that Haneke is trying to make, I don’t think it comes across because it rests on a false equation between real animal slaughter and performative, staged human slaughter. This is what cruelty looks like, perhaps, but it’s the director’s cruelty—it’s always struck me as perverse when a filmmaker uses his own killings of animals symbolically in a film to represent cruelty and inhumanity, because the message he’s really sending is not about the characters or the society they live in but about himself. Not to mention, I have to think that the pig slaughter and similar scenes of animals being killed in Haneke’s films are only so disturbing to us because we’re somewhat privileged urban dwellers—it’s hard to imagine a more rural audience being equally upset by something as routine as a pig being killed. (Of course, the urban middle-to-upper-class most likely to be offended by those scenes is precisely Haneke’s target—and his target audience.)
I also see your point about Haneke’s use of violence contributing to our desensitization rather than curing it, and I think it’s a valid criticism. Haneke is walking a fine line in these films, one that I’d argue he crosses especially in Funny Games, and even though most of the human violence in his work occurs offscreen, he continually risks the possibility that his films are simply adding to modernity’s barrage of violent, dehumanizing images rather than offering a tonic.
Maybe that’s why I find Benny’s Video is most effective and interesting when it’s exploring emotional violence rather than physical violence. One of the most compelling scenes is the one where Benny and his mother are watching TV, on vacation while back home Benny’s father is disposing of the corpse. The mother abruptly breaks down, sobbing and moaning, rolling away from her son. Benny reaches out and tries to touch her but she only flinches away, while he ineffectually asks, “what’s wrong?” Of course, that’s the same thing he’d said to the girl he killed after the first time he shot her. These scenes represent the essential human disconnect at the core of this film: Benny and his mother sit apart on the bed, unable to touch or comfort one another, and Benny’s lame attempt to bridge the gap between them totally fails. He just sits there watching TV while she collapses into her private suffering, and there seems to be no empathy in him, no possibility of this mother and son sharing their emotions rather than remaining separated like this.
JB: Benny’s Video is one of Haneke’s most consistently paced films, and I think the way he captures the girl’s suffering (after the first shot and before the last one) just offscreen might be his best use of a fixed camera. For those reasons especially, I admire Benny’s Video quite a bit. But watching it this time I couldn’t help but see some unfavorable parallels with Lynne Ramsay’s recent We Need to Talk About Kevin. On the positive side, both films provide thought-provoking glimpses of the effect of adolescent crime on the parents of the murderer. But on the negative side, the most glaring similarity between the films is that they leave very little room to see the young murderer as anything more than a psychopath. This is much more exaggerated in Ramsay’s film, but as with the Schobers in The Seventh Continent, Benny’s most descriptive action is one of pure detached destruction, and almost every other scene in the film is designed to underline that detachment.
For me, this is problematic in two ways. First, by ridding Benny of nuance, it’s hard to see him as capable of anything else. And second, building out from that, I think it’s all too easy to make some lazy assumptions about why Benny is the way he is. For example, several reviews I’ve read point out that Benny has, as you put it, an “obsession with violent movies.” But does he? Yes, he obsesses over the pig video specifically. Yes, he goes to the video store often. But the videos he rents and watches are more action oriented than violent—nothing particularly unusual about them. Sure, it’s safe to argue that for Benny, whose room is filled with video equipment, the line between dramatized life and real life has blurred to the point that he can’t differentiate one from the other, but I’m not convinced that has anything to do with the content itself. Rather, I think it has more to do with the behavior, which becomes an indictment of folks who experience the world by sitting in front of a TV. The thing is, I think Haneke invites some of those knee-jerk readings (which, appropriately enough, actually have a lot in common with the “blame-placing rhetoric about violent video games and Marilyn Manson”), because he gives us so little else to cling to, which makes it all too easy to blow the smallest details out of proportion.
EH: I think that’s right. As I said, the first time I saw Benny’s Video, I thought it was lazily suggesting that watching violent media necessarily leads to real-life violence. And while I found much more to admire in the film this time, a second viewing didn’t entirely erase the suspicion that Haneke is at least skirting around the edges of a very simplistic and reductive reading of how people relate to media. It’s very tempting to draw a straight line in this film from Benny’s consumption of those, as you say, rather typical (and typically dumb) American action movies to his violent behavior and sociopathic detachment. And while I now think that’s a misreading of what Haneke is going for, he opens himself up for that misreading because the film is not nearly clear enough about what its actual stance on media violence is. Haneke is often ambiguous in this fashion, usually for the better, letting viewers make up their own minds about the ideas in his films, but in this case I’d say he leaves so much leeway that it’s easy to come to conclusions that are the opposite of what he intended.
On the other hand, at least some of the film’s contradictions do seem intentional. One interesting thing about Benny’s Video is that it’s an early hint of the rather conflicted feelings that Haneke seems to have about the medium of video in particular. It’s video that desensitizes Benny, numbing his feelings through repeatable images of violence, both real and cinematic. But for Haneke, video is also a record, a form of documentary proof that, properly used, can make it difficult to avoid the truth—an idea he’d take to its logical conclusion many years later in his masterpiece Caché. Towards the end of this film, Haneke shows us a video that Benny had shot of a scene that we’d already seen earlier in the film: the shot from inside Benny’s bedroom, his door slightly ajar, as his parents discuss what they’re planning to do with the girl’s dead body. There’s a crucial difference between the two presentations of this otherwise identical shot: earlier in the film, the parents’ voices were muffled from inside Benny’s room, what they were saying couldn’t be made out at all, but when Benny plays the tape for the police, his video equipment, more sensitive than the human ear, has picked up every word perfectly. There’s a disconnection here, a gap between the reality and the video, with the video actually presenting a heightened and expanded reality, containing more information than what could have been gleaned from actually being in the room at the time the video was shot.
This idea is perhaps related to Haneke’s habit of weaving contemporary news reports into his films. His characters generally take no notice of the continual TV news bulletins about atrocities being committed in foreign lands—genocide in Bosnia in this 1992 film—but the presence of these reports provides important real-world context for Haneke’s ideas. Haneke doesn’t offer any solution for how to get people in a desensitized, apathetic society to pay attention to these video records of horrific violence, but it does seem to be important to him that these records exist. It’s probably notable, then, that his next film, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, begins with reports about violence in Somalia and Haiti, and ends with some chatter on Michael Jackson’s plans for a “worldwide comeback” tour. This film is in general very interesting to consider in terms of the discussion we’ve been having about causality in Haneke’s work. The film is based on a real incident in which a man opened fire in a bank and killed several people before committing suicide, and Haneke announces that this bloody event is coming in the text at the beginning of the film. The film is then structured around 71 short, clipped scenes from the lives of various random people who will eventually arrive in or around the bank at the time of the killing spree. The unspoken question is: what caused this event? Is it chance, as the title implies? Did everything depicted in this film in some way “cause” the violence? Or is it really impossible to make sense of such an inherently nonsensical act? Whereas cause and effect were problematic in Benny’s Video, here Haneke makes these tricky questions the core of the film—without answering them, of course.
JB: For me, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is one of the least satisfying Haneke films because I think it’s a whole lot of nothing. You wonder if it’s possible to “make sense of such an inherently nonsensical act as the one at the end of this film,” and I say, of course it isn’t—not if you look for the answers in the places Haneke looks. Of those titular 71 fragments, many have no impact on the eventual shootout whatsoever—from the scene in which a man slowly eats his soup dinner, to the one in which a boy steals a comic book, to the one in which an orphan girl asks to see her new room at her foster parents’ house, to the one in which men unload money at a bank, and so on. Mixed within these ultimately meaningless scenes are scenes in which the eventual gunman throws a temper tantrum when he can’t figure out a puzzle, drills himself in table tennis (for almost three exhausting minutes) and gets lectured by his coach. By contrast, sure, those scenes seem as if they must be revealing, but the truth of the matter is that Haneke never looks deep enough for us to know for sure, and so his examination doesn’t feel like an examination at all. It’s like being asked to find a needle in a needle-less haystack.
All of which has the effect of making 71 Fragments seem less like a statement unto itself than a collection of scenes picked up off the cutting room floor and fed back at us through the projector. You hinted at the disconnect between the news footage sequences and the rest of the action, but really none of it feels connected, and it shouldn’t because it isn’t: yes, several of these individuals wind up somehow involved in the tragic event, but only one of those players has a story worth examining—the shooter. Everybody else is just there. Alas, that’s the way I feel about the news footage in this film, too. It reminds us that there is all manner of awfulness all around the world—wars, ethnic cleansing and even a pop music star who can’t keep his genitals to himself—but to what end? Is 71 Fragments merely a reminder that “acts of insanity,” to borrow a phrase from one of the news broadcasts, happen every day around the world? And if so is that a reminder we need? 71 Fragments is considered the third film in Haneke’s glaciation trilogy, but this film isn’t as distinct as the other two. It’s more like the leftovers that Haneke wanted to chew on a little longer before swallowing. Am I missing something?
EH: I don’t think this is one of Haneke’s strongest films, either—his later Code Unknown adopts a similar “network narrative” style but does so with more substance and depth—but I do think there’s more to it than you suggest. Its style is different from the other “glaciation” films, but its thematic focus on human disconnection and failures of empathy is very clearly in line with Haneke’s first two features. Whereas you see the scenes that don’t directly deal with the gunman as “meaningless,” I think that’s where the core of the film actually rests.
All three of the films in Haneke’s early trilogy are about the gaps between people, here quite literally depicted as the short black spaces that separate each of these short scenes from one another. There are scenes here that present miniature, densely packed riffs on the disconnections explored at length in the preceding two films. In one scene that’s equal parts darkly humorous and deeply sad, a bank manager gets through most of a transaction with an old man with businesslike efficiency and politeness, slightly distracted from her work, and then as she finishes his transaction, she calls him dad and says she’s busy, that she can’t talk. In another scene, a man suddenly tells his wife that he loves her, and all it does is start a fight, as she gets suspicious and accuses him of being drunk. “I thought it might help,” he says sadly, but as their fight escalates he finally just slaps her before they return to eating in sullen silence.
These scenes certainly don’t have anything to do with the shooting that the film is leading to, at least not directly. In another sense, though, Haneke seems to be suggesting that all of these isolated moments are part of the same problem, symptoms of the same disease, outbursts of emotional violence that are caused by the same kinds of wounds that lead to the physical violence of the film’s climax.
JB: I suppose I just don’t find the recipe very daring. Haneke gives us a collection of scenes that show little, explain even less and that don’t really have a point, and he uses them to showcase human disconnection and emotional ambiguity. Well, of course. It’s not that I need every director to go all Fitzcarraldo on us to earn my respect, but this is the kind of filmmaking that the expression “like shooting fish in a barrel” is meant for. Don’t get me wrong: Haneke clearly achieves exactly what he’s going for. I have little doubt about that. So it would be silly to imply that his cinematic approach to 71 Fragments is anything less than successful. But it sure isn’t impressive, and I don’t have a lot of patience for storytellers who underline the unknowability of things by telling us as little as possible. Haneke’s most ardent fans would say I’m oversimplifying, and I understand that, but I’d argue that finding much depth in this film is the result of overcomplication. The benefit of saying very little as an artist is that your fans will rush to ascribe profundity to the vacancies.
As you’ve already indicated, the natural film to talk about next would be Code Unknown, which feels like an unofficial companion piece. But let’s stick with the chronological approach, because I suppose part of my argument against 71 Fragments could also apply to what must be Haneke’s best known (and most notorious) film, Funny Games. The topic of that film isn’t emotional distance (at least not exactly); it’s violence, and specifically violence as entertainment. But much as Haneke “explores” themes of real-world disconnection via dramatic disconnection in 71 Fragments, in Funny Games he examines the extremes of cinematic violence via, you guessed it, extreme cinematic violence. Some might see those as natural approaches. But in some sense Haneke isn’t “exploring” these themes so much as he’s emulating them. It reminds me of that famous Hollywood story about Dustin Hoffman getting all Method-y while preparing for his role in 1976’s Marathon Man by staying up all night and running around to the point of exhaustion, which supposedly prompted a confused Laurence Olivier to quip, “Why not try acting?” Likewise, sometimes I think Haneke gets lost in re-creation, which doesn’t necessarily include investigation.
EH: You may be surprised to find that I agree with you on this one. My initial viewing of Funny Games (the 1997 original) left me exhausted and overwhelmed and battered, which at the time caused me to mistake the film’s cynical manipulations for something more interesting. But each successive viewing of Haneke’s exercise in audience-baiting—I’ve now seen the original and the remake, which are essentially the same movie, twice each—has only made me hate this film more and more, finding less and less to appreciate with each painful viewing. I think the problem, which you hint at, is that Haneke sets out to critique a certain kind of violent movie by essentially making a movie that fits neatly into the genre he’s critiquing. True, though the film feels gory and violent, Haneke actually doesn’t show very much onscreen violence, and he keeps implicating the audience in the film’s action by having the villains (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering) wink and talk at the camera, but in most ways Funny Games, in either version, feels way too close to the kinds of entertainment it’s supposedly deconstructing.
As we’ve already mentioned, Haneke often risks being guilty of the same crimes he’s trying to expose, and I think it’s with Funny Games that he falls headfirst into that trap. Haneke has famously said of this film that he expects people to walk out, and that those who do don’t need the message he’s trying to convey, while those who sit through the whole picture needed his lesson. That’s a pretty paternalistic way to think about one’s own films, but moreover I’m not convinced that the film even achieves its stated aims. There are doubtless plenty of people who miss the film’s point altogether and simply appreciate its violence and its obvious encouragement to side with the killers—I was darkly amused by the IMDb commenter who expressed his love of the film and hoped for a sequel called Funnier Games. The thing is, those most likely to get the film’s message are those who are already familiar with the rest of the director’s work, because taken on its own, without that context, Funny Games could all too easily be mistaken for exactly the kind of manipulative, blood-soaked celebration of violence that it’s actually satirizing.
JB: I feel like I should give you a hug or a Paxil or something, because I have no idea how you’ve managed to suffer through Funny Games so many times. Prior to this conversation, I’d seen brief clips of it, and I’d read quite a bit about it—thanks in large part to think pieces inspired by Haneke’s American remake—but I’d never sat down and watched it because, well, it sounded like torture porn to me, which made it no more appealing than one of the Saw films, which I’ve also avoided. And if not for this discussion, I’m confident saying that I never would have watched Funny Games, not for some political or moral reason but simply because I see no upside in watching any movie that’s designed to put the audience through hell—never mind that Funny Games has the added insult-to-injury ingredient of criticizing those who endure its hell.
That’s the thing that puzzles me most about Funny Games, because I just don’t understand the concept of an artist who wants to drive people away from his art. That doesn’t compute for me. Frankly, I’m not sure something with that design should be considered art. It makes me think, strangely enough, of that period a few years ago when everyone was talking about the online scat porn sensation “2 Girls, 1 Cup” (another thing I’ve never seen, by the way). Around that time, George Clooney was interviewed for Esquire, and mentioned seeing part of the video on the set of one of his movies: “It’s like the rodeo—see how long you can stay on,” he said of trying to endure the sight of two women shitting and puking into the same cup and exchanging drinks of the wicked brew (or something like that; again, I haven’t seen it). So far as I can tell, that’s pretty much the attitude that Haneke had when he made Funny Games, except what’s different is that “2 Girls, 1 Cup” wasn’t designed to revolt—it was designed to appeal to a niche group of sexual deviants (please tell me this is one sexual behavior I needn’t be open-minded about). “2 Girls, 1 Cup” was designed to be a turn-on. And so to me this comparison illustrates Haneke’s gross miscalculation (pun intended): He set out to make a punishing rodeo movie, but the ones he means to offend aren’t the ones who suffer.
EH: I should say, though any respect I once had for Funny Games has been thoroughly worn away by my repeat viewings—and I only revisited both versions because of this conversation; I’m not a masochist—I do see some value in a work of art that’s intended primarily to provoke and to repulse audiences.
There is one scene in Funny Games that I still appreciate, even now, and even if I freely admit that my pleasure in it is a little juvenile. In the film’s opening sequence, the family is driving to their vacation house, playing a guessing game with classical music CDs. After a while, the relaxed, tranquil music is suddenly drowned out as Haneke cuts in some excerpts of the noisier moments from a few songs by Naked City, with vocalist Eye Yamatsuka yammering over the combination of blaring sax and metal-inspired riffing. It’s the first sign of the filmmaker’s intrusive presence in the film, but unlike the later moments when the killers direct insinuating remarks at the audience, it remains interesting because it’s also a sign of Haneke’s commentary on classical culture.
Haneke’s films often contain these references to the bourgeois appropriation of art in ways that reduce the potential of art to be truly meaningful, to provoke emotional and intellectual responses. The guessing game at the beginning of Funny Games is a good example: beautiful classical music recontextualized as a show-offy game intended to prove the intelligence of the players, with the music itself serving as a prop. In Benny’s Video, the walls of the family’s dining room are loaded with tiny reproductions of art, with little context or sign of curation: the Mona Lisa abuts Warhol’s rows of screen-printed Marilyns, suggesting that the only criterion for selection is that the art is famous. These miniatures are so densely packed together and so reduced in scale that any impact, any statement the art might be making, any aesthetic interest, is all but entirely lost. It’s art reduced to a mere marker of taste or status, a symbol of the bourgeois’ empty understanding of art’s real potential. In this context, Haneke’s more provocative, off-putting tendencies make some sense: his characters are often so comfortable and blasé about art that it takes something drastic, like Eye Yamatsuka or Funny Games itself, to provoke any reaction other than a shrug. None of this makes Funny Games any better or any less condescending, but I think I understand Haneke’s impulse in making a film like this.
JB: Provocation is one thing—that’s the pig slaughter scene in Benny’s Video, no matter if you think that moment is a cheap shock tactic, an unforgivable abuse of artistic license, a genius commentary on our desensitization to onscreen violence, or some combination of all of the above. Trying to buck your audience so hard that they fall off and hurt themselves is something else altogether. Most of all, it’s an affront to the unspoken contract between the artist and the consumer. Had I watched Funny Games under different circumstances and not felt a critical duty to suffer through it until the end, I still would have felt an artistic duty to watch it all. Some people feel differently, I know, but my theory is that if I watch a film I owe it to the filmmaker to see it all. I have the right to stop, of course. But if I stop, I don’t have the right to say I’ve seen the film. So what bothers me about Haneke’s approach is that he abuses those cinephiles with the best intentions, the folks who endure it all because they trust Haneke wouldn’t abuse them for the sake of abusing them. Even though he does.
Having said that, I owe Haneke the respect I don’t feel he shows for his audience: There are moments of Funny Games that I found quite powerful, moments that—just for a moment—made me feel that perhaps it was worth it to suffer through all of the quasi-erotic abuse. The best example is the one after the killers have left the husband and wife alone in their home, having wounded the husband, humiliated the wife and killed the couple’s son. First the wife, Anna (Susanne Lothar), helps her injured husband, Georg (Ulrich Mühe), limp out of the living room—her straining to help hold him up, both of them struggling not to look in the direction of their murdered son, whose body lies a few feet away. In and of itself, that moment is a powerful demonstration of human resilience, a demonstration of our ability to compartmentalize in moments of terror in order to survive. I find that inspiring (although perhaps Haneke means it as a criticism), but not nearly as inspiring as what happens not long after that.
As Anna prepares to escape through a window to get help, Georg apologizes to her, because he wasn’t strong enough to overpower the two men and save them. It’s a gut-wrenching apology—he’s been seriously beaten and he already feels guilt—and it brings Anna to tears. She embraces him. Their lives are still in danger, they haven’t had time to really accept their son’s murder, and yet she offers him instant forgiveness and compassion. Amidst a gruesome film, and in the immediate aftermath of a grotesque tragedy, their tearful embrace is as touching a depiction of love and devotion as I’ve ever seen at the movies. It’s a moment that, to borrow your phrase, offers at least “slim hopefulness.”
EH: That is a powerful moment, though it’s a shame that the film as a whole doesn’t live up to the emotional honesty of those scenes. His next film, Code Unknown, marked a change in Haneke’s career, as he began making films in France, with French casts. Haneke has said that leaving his native Austria was a practical decision, because there’s a far better film industry infrastructure in France. But for whatever reason, I think the start of the French period also coincides with a leap in the quality and complexity of Haneke’s work after the singlemindedness of the glaciation trilogy and Funny Games. As we’ve already mentioned, Code Unknown is somewhat similar in style to 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, in that it’s a loose series of stories about various people who are linked only by an incident that occurs in an alley one morning. But Code Unknown is a far more sophisticated and complex film, a sustained study of guilt and responsibility.
The beginning of the film is one long seven-minute take in which Anne (Juliette Binoche) walks out of her apartment, meets her boyfriend’s younger brother Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), walks down the street, stops to get pastry, and then parts with Jean. Still within the same shot, Jean walks back down the street towards Anne’s apartment, stops in an alleyway to watch some performers, and casually drops his trash in the lap of an immigrant beggar (Luminita Gheroghiu). Jean is then accosted by a passerby, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), who witnesses the incident and tries to get Jean to apologize to the beggar woman. Soon Anne returns to the scene and the cops show up, and how it all plays out from that point on resonates throughout the rest of the movie. Whereas 71 Fragments was building up to an act of violence, Code Unknown, which has the subtitle Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, reverses the structure by examining the repercussions of something that happens at the beginning of the film, an incident that epitomizes not physical violence but a more subtle form of institutional, societal violence. The one-take first shot is very important, with the camera flowing up the street and then back again, maintaining the continuity of cause and effect.
JB: I agree, of course, that the initial scene sets the stage for what follows, and the no-cut structure is appropriate for conveying a sense of all these different stories intersecting, as everyone meets in one big (leftward- and rightward-tracking) shot. But we should be careful not to overstate the importance of the cut-free approach. It’s effective here, no doubt. But it would be silly to suggest that Haneke couldn’t have just as easily gotten the point across with numerous shots, numerous angles and numerous cuts, or, hell, even split-screen. This is, after all, a filmmaker who has spent about half his career telling stories in fragments—and he’s been effective that way, too. That said, I think what you’re getting at is that what’s significant here is the contrast between the long introductory scene and the many fragmented scenes that follow it. It’s as if Haneke is out to establish that these are not different or unrelated lives, even if they seem disconnected and dissimilar when viewed in isolation.
The tricky thing about network narratives like this, in which various mostly unrelated stories are linked together by one (or a few) event(s), is that sometimes the “network” aspect dominates our attention, which is to say that the interrelatedness of the pieces becomes more significant than the pieces themselves. In some cases, that’s the whole point. Paul Haggis’ much loved and much reviled Crash, for example, has some wonderful little moments, but I don’t think there’s much question that his film is actually “about” the proximity of those moments to one another more so than about the moments themselves. On the other hand, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel is, in my mind, about the moments themselves, and Iñárritu simply uses a network structure as a means to explore several emotionally similar stories without creating unnecessary divisions between them (although most critics sure didn’t see it that way in the aftermath of Crash). I mention all of this en route to these questions: Ed, do you think Haneke uses a network approach in Code Unknown as a narrative tactic, allowing him to explore these otherwise disparate lives, or do you think the connectivity of these stories is core to what’s being explored? And that said, when you watch or think about Code Unknown, what stands out to you: the moments themselves in isolation or the connectivity of those moments, or maybe something else?
EH: Those are great questions. Although there are moments in Code Unknown that are powerful and affecting in isolation, the real strength of the film, in my opinion, is the cumulative effect. The individual characters here are far more developed than the ones in 71 Fragments, but there’s still definitely a sense that it’s the whole that really matters, while the individual pieces are intended primarily to reveal different aspects of the bigger picture. The different stories are connected, superficially, by a chance encounter on a certain street corner, but more substantially they’re connected thematically, as a broad examination of the human responsibility to respond to injustice.
The key question of the film is, what do we do when we encounter wrong? Do we intervene, speak up, or keep quiet and try to go about our lives as usual? That’s the question Anne faces when she hears a young girl in her building screaming and crying, possibly being beaten or abused by someone in her family. It’s the question Amadou faces when he sees Jean drop a paper bag in the lap of the beggar, though his intervention has unintended effects, while Anne’s failure to intervene has tragic results for the little girl who’s being abused. It’s the question that Anne’s boyfriend Georges (Thierry Neuvic) faces in his work as a war correspondent. Writing to Anne from a war zone, he tells her, “I tried writing often but gave up. I didn’t know what to say.” Haneke accompanies this letter with a montage of war photographs, implying that, yes, it’s difficult to formulate a proper response to something like this, but it’s nevertheless necessary. Haneke’s film connects various forms of moral responsibility, suggesting a link between the kinds of domestic moral questions that people might face in the course of everyday life—responding to the crimes of a neighbor, dealing with the poor, confronting petty cruelty when one witnesses it—and the larger moral questions that define the behaviors of whole nations and races towards one another.
There is often a disconnect between these various forms of morality, and one of Haneke’s main targets here is the hypocrisy of those who have “correct” views about international affairs and politics but don’t apply those morals in the course of everyday life. During a scene in which Anne and Georges go shopping, Georges says that the possible child abuse in Anne’s building isn’t his problem: he didn’t hear the child screaming, he doesn’t know the parents or the old lady neighbor, so he has no responsibility to intervene. But how does that connect back to his work, in which he documents atrocities occurring in foreign countries, and presumably believes it to be important? These connections are the core of the film, drawing lines between war, immigration, racism, and how we treat our neighbors, our lovers and spouses, our friends and families, and the strangers we meet or see in the streets.
All of this adds up to the conclusion that Code Unknown is structurally more like Crash than Babel (at least based on your distinctions between them; I haven’t seen the latter). The difference is that Haneke’s film is far more sophisticated and subtle than Haggis’, and despite Haneke’s reputation for hammering home his points until they hurt—well-earned by his earlier films, for better or worse—he has a much lighter touch here.
JB: It sure sounds good when you write about it. I don’t really disagree with your analysis, but to me what stands out are moments in isolation, even when I can recognize how they connect—narratively or thematically—to everything around them. The most powerful scene, in my opinion, is the one in which Anne is verbally abused and physically intimidated by some young thugs on the subway. This happens on a car fairly full of people, but only one man sticks up for her, and when he does, brave as he attempts to appear, you can tell he’s terrified; he isn’t intervening because he’s a tough-guy but because he feels he has to. That scene is evidence, no doubt, of society’s incredible ability to look the other way in deference to personal interests, but because of the way Haneke frames the scene, leaving his camera focused only on Anne and the old man who intervenes, what stands out isn’t the inaction of the other passengers but the terror of the bullies’ target(s). And so the scene instead becomes about the fragility of peace and security, not one about responsibility.
The same could be said of another scene involving “Anne”—the one in which she’s happily playing in a roof-deck swimming pool and looks up to see that her son is crawling over the building’s edge. It’s a terrifying moment, one that’s this close to tragedy. But it isn’t real; it’s a scene from a movie that Anne is shooting. Much earlier in the film, Haneke plays a similar game, making us wonder if Anne has been captured by some sadistic killer or instead is merely auditioning for a part in a slasher movie. And as convincing as Binoche is in these scenes, I can’t say I know what Haneke is trying to accomplish with them or how they serve the movie’s larger themes. Is Haneke patting himself on the back for getting the audience to fall for these movie-within-a-movie fabrications? Is he trying to imply that those other scenes are somehow more real? I can’t say I detect a motivation beyond basic provocation, which is why the connectivity of the narratives seems fairly insignificant.
EH: Those scenes are definitely ambiguous in their connection to the “real” scenes, but I do think there’s much more to it than provocation. Frankly, though Haneke has certainly never shied away from provocation for its own sake, I don’t think that’s what the fake-outs in Code Unknown are about at all. For me, those scenes fill in the character of Anne in some interesting ways, even though they’re not really about her but about characters she’s playing in movies. As you say, Binoche is very convincing in those scenes, and in some ways those are the scenes in the film where she displays the most raw emotion, where she really breaks down and cuts loose. One gets a sense that she’s saving her emotional expression for performances, that only onscreen does she really unleash those tears and screams that might be equally appropriate in response to the real tragedies or problems in her life. The scene with Anne’s son nearly falling, for instance, resonates with the argument she has with Georges in which she mentions the son he apparently doesn’t see much, and tells him, seemingly just to wound him, that she had an abortion while he was away.
One important theme of this film is the difficulty of communication, as suggested by the bookends with deaf-mute children playing signing games. The film opens with the little girl who eventually dies from being abused, miming cowering in the corner, and the other kids guess a variety of possibilities—including “bad conscience,” a theme that runs through this film and is picked up again in Caché—but they never get that she’s trying to tell them about what happens to her at home. Anne gets more direct communications about the girl’s plight—she hears the screams and receives a letter that might be from the girl or from an old lady neighbor—but she still doesn’t respond, with tragic results. Whereas onscreen she reacts with terror and sobbing to a child’s danger, and is able to rescue him, offscreen she’s much more distanced in her responses, and when confronted with an actual child in danger, she doesn’t even attempt to rescue the girl.
I think this is an extension of Haneke’s examinations of the effects of media, suggesting that in many ways the movies have become substitutes for reality. The movies offer visceral thrills in serial killer slashers like the Funny Games-esque thriller Anne’s acting in, or melodramas that allow viewers to vicariously experience powerful and scary emotions that they might not allow out in their actual lives outside the movie theater.
JB: That’s an interesting theory, although personally I would never criticize a mother for having a stronger emotional response to watching her own child nearly crawl over the edge of a high rise than to hearing what might be—but she’s not entirely sure—the abuse of a stranger. So if you’re correct about Haneke’s intent, he could have made his point more clearly (and more convincingly) by comparing two more similar events.
That said, our inability to agree on what’s happening in Code Unknown sets us up nicely to discuss Haneke’s next picture, The Piano Teacher, which happens to be one of his most ambiguous movies. Based on an autobiographical novel by Elfriede Jelinek, the film’s narrative structure is about as straightforward as it gets: Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a woman who had been raised by her especially strict mother to be a concert pianist and now, in her 40s, still lives with her mother (played by Annie Girardot) while making a living as a piano instructor. Unlike some subsequent Haneke films, the Xs and Os of what happens are easy to recognize: Erika gets involved in a sexual affair with one of her students, a 20-something named Walter (BenoÓt Magimel), that becomes both emotionally and physically abusive. What’s difficult to figure out is how Erika and Walter feel about what happens between them, even though they spend much of the film ostensibly telling one another how they feel. While Walter’s affection for and attraction to Erika is more traditional, Erika’s attraction to Walter is an outgrowth of some unhealthy sexual fantasies that fixate on her own physical abuse—and, indeed, even before she meets Walter, Erika tends to her own urges by taking a razorblade to her vagina.
In large part because we can’t be confident how Walter and Erika feel about what’s happening—are some of their emotional outbursts against one another merely part of the ritual, part of the turn-on, part of the basic attraction?—it’s also very difficult to know how to feel about what we see. The film ends with Walter beating and then raping(?) an almost catatonic Erika, which on paper sounds like an unequivocal crime, except that Walter gives Erika almost exactly what she asks for—no, not what she asks for: what she repeatedly begs for and demands. In fact, based on her detailed requests, if anything Walter goes easy on Erika. The overall effect of Walter and Erika’s twisted relationship is in line with the themes of Code Unknown, as Haneke once again challenges the audience to grapple with our concept of moral absolutes.
EH: Yes, one of the things that’s interesting about The Piano Teacher is how thoroughly it fits in with Haneke’s other work even though it’s one of his rare adaptations of someone else’s writing. The Piano Teacher stands out because it’s the only Haneke film in which sexuality is at the center of the story, but in most other ways it’s very typical of his examinations of communication breakdowns and violence. Like the deaf-mute kids in Code Unknown, Erika and Walter have trouble communicating, even though it seems like sometimes they do nothing else. Erika even writes out a multi-page letter detailing everything that she wants from Walter, but as you say, once he delivers on her desires—out of spite rather than a wish to fulfill her sadomasochistic fantasies—she’s humiliated and terrified rather than turned on. The question is, what does she really want?
It’s obvious that Erika is a deeply repressed woman, and that her sexuality is tied up with her complicated feelings about the domineering mother who habitually rummages through Erika’s purse and harangues her about everything from clothes purchases to Schubert. “This is nothing to do with you,” Walter says to Erika’s mother, right before he locks the mother in a room and rapes Erika, but actually it has everything to do with her. All of Erika’s fantasies involve her mother: being tied up in the room next to her mother, being helpless and so close to the woman who runs her life, except that her mother would be unable to get to her or help her. That’s why, after Walter rejects Erika’s S&M proposals, she throws herself desperately at her mother instead, because in many ways that’s who she was fixated on all along—her mother is mentioned as often in Erika’s letter as Walter is.
JB: That’s a terrific observation, and it explains more than it might initially appear. For example, what is Erika and Walter’s first sexual encounter about if not Erika’s desire to control someone else to the point that even their sexuality doesn’t seem to belong to them? The first time Erika and Walter get physical together, they’re in a public bathroom at a concert hall, and while Walter wants to express his passion physically and verbally, Erika just wants him to obey. Her pleasure comes from making him subservient. And the longer the scene goes on the clearer it becomes that Erika isn’t acting. She isn’t role playing. She’s interested in sex on her terms or not at all.
Of course, as much as Erika’s story examines the repression of her natural womanhood at the hands of her domineering mother, The Piano Teacher is also a comment on our desensitization to violent or otherwise extreme imagery. Erika’s sexual fantasies appear to be lifted from pornographic movies that are typically defined by demonstrations of dominance, and, sure enough, Erika tries on both roles: she’s detailed in articulating exactly what she wants from Walter, and yet her fantasies are built around her own submission. Much as Funny Games is designed to make us question our casual acceptance of graphic violence, The Piano Teacher points out that the eroticism of many fairly typical sexual fantasies that are frequently depicted in movies—pornographic or mainstream—often shatters when brought into the real world. I don’t think Haneke is condemning the sexual rituals themselves, necessarily. He’s simply condemning those who don’t know where to draw the line between fantasy and reality.
EH: I think that’s right. What Haneke is decrying here isn’t necessarily sadomasochism in itself, but the disconnection and alienation that prevents these characters from knowing what it is they really want, as opposed to what they think they want. Both Walter and Erika are responding primarily to ideals rather than reality: Walter to a conventional romanticism in which he’d like to sweep this woman off her feet and have a passionate affair, Erika to the elaborate and violent fantasies she’s constructed as a subconscious compensation for a life in which she otherwise feels she has no control. Neither of them gets what they want in the end, even though, technically, they both get their desires; Erika lives out her bondage fantasy and Walter finally consummates the love he at least once felt for Erika, but neither of them is too happy about this conclusion.
A big part of the problem, for Erika at least, is disconnection from her feelings. Many of Haneke’s films deal with the disassociation of emotions: the killers’ muted responses to violence in Benny’s Video and Funny Games, the shifting of emotion into performance that I discussed in Code Unknown, the denial of guilt in Caché, which we’ll be discussing shortly. Haneke has repeatedly returned to this theme, and Erika fits the pattern as well. There’s very little that moves Erika, very little that wipes away the stern, stoic expression that is pretty much locked on her face like a mask. That’s why the few moments when Erika does betray flickers of emotion are so startling, like the closeups of her face when she’s listening to Walter play for the first time, and, in a very different way, the expression on her face as she illicitly watches a couple having sex in the backseat of a car at a drive-in movie theater. Erika is generally detached and desensitized, and only raw sexuality and the music of Schubert still have the potential to move her—which is perhaps why she attempts to combine the two with Walter.
It’s interesting that Haneke, in this film, is so respectful towards the classical music that Erika loves. There’s little trace of the antagonistic attitude behind his gesture of drowning out classical music with Naked City in Funny Games—though that gesture is echoed here in the weird little scene where the big, bulky hockey players chase the graceful figure skaters off the ice, which has a similar effect to the noisy jazz barreling over the delicate classical music. There’s always been a conflict in Haneke’s work between the classical and the modern, often in the context of mocking the bourgeois habit of appropriating classical art and rendering its beauty and ideas inert. Here, the classical music that Erika loves doesn’t seem nearly as safe or decontextualized as the music played by the family at the beginning of Funny Games—this is classical culture that still has the potential to move and provoke, which is why the closeups of Erika listening to music are some of the most affecting images in the film, the only moments when Erika achieves something like grace.
JB: Music is linked to grace in Haneke’s next film, too, although this time music is the exception to the rule. Time of the Wolf is what you might call a mid-apocalyptic movie, showing French citizens stuck between some unspecific ecological disaster and what seems to be their eventual demise. It’s a dreary film, no surprise, with a color palette dominated by grays, dark greens and dull browns, and it’s without a musical score. But it isn’t entirely without music. In one noteworthy scene, a teenage girl named Eva (Anais Demoustier, who could be the sister of The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley), who has seen her father murdered in front of her and now is fighting to survive with her mother, Anne (Isabelle Huppert again), and brother, Ben (Lucas Biscombe), approaches a stranger at a small train depot where dozens of fellow drifters have come together in hopes of escape, and asks to hear music from his portable cassette player. The stranger smiles and complies, first showing her how he manually rewinds the cassette with his finger, in an effort to save precious battery life, and then handing over his player, which Eva holds to the side of her head to let the classical music play into her ear. As she listens, Eva gazes at the flickering light of a lantern, but dark as the shot is, the mood of the scene is atypically bright.
I’ve started at an emotional high point here, because seven films into this discussion there should be little doubt that Time of the Wolf is full of palpable suffering and despair; Haneke’s bread and butter. In fact, in the scene immediately after the one I described above, Eva witnesses another young girl in the encampment being raped with a knife to her throat. But as grim as Time of the Wolf tends to be, its ending might be the most hopeful of any Haneke film, and thus one of the most surprising. In the penultimate scene, young Ben heads out to the fire that’s been built on the train tracks to slow down any passing train, stokes the flames with fresh branches and then steps dangerously close to the fire. He’s naked, and he looks ready to leap onto the fire as an act of sacrifice—apparently determined to reenact a mythic ritual he’d overheard someone else in the encampment describing earlier. But before he can jump, a man comes rushing up behind him and scoops Ben up in his arms. Ben resists at first, only to break down crying in the man’s arms. “Have a good cry,” the man says. “That will make you feel better.” He rocks the boy in his arms and tells him not to believe everything he hears, and then, as the camera cranes upward and away, he compliments the boy’s bravery. “You’d have done it for sure. Believe me. You were ready to do it. That’s enough, see.”
It’s a beautiful scene, both in execution (that long, retreating shot captures the intimacy of the moment while also suggesting how small, and thus powerless, the man and boy are in the big picture) and in spirit. It’s enough to make you wonder if the cynical and pessimistic Haneke has more hope for the world than his films let on. “You’ll see,” the man says. “Everything will work out. Maybe tomorrow even.” It’s as if Haneke can’t help but be moved by those who remain hopeful in the face of overwhelming horror, chaos and destruction.
EH: Way back at the beginning of this discussion, when I cited the surprising hopefulness that at times balances the overriding horror of Haneke’s work, it was that scene especially that I had in mind, along with the more ambiguous but still strangely hopeful final shot of his next film, Caché. The ending of Time of the Wolf is marvelous in so many ways, but most of it all it’s fantastic because of the way it suggests this sense of human hope even in the face of what seems to be certain destruction. This film is about what people might be like in the absence of the rules and boundaries placed on us by society, and on the whole it is not an especially uplifting portrait of human nature: people kill, steal, horde supplies, exploit the weaknesses of others and generally act in all the terrible ways that people already act before the collapse of society, except that now there’s nothing to hold them back anymore. In some scenes towards the beginning of the film, Anne tries to find food and shelter for her family with the residents of the rural town where the family had kept their vacation home, but with few exceptions no one even opens the door or responds to her pleas, even though these people seem to be friends and acquaintances, people who knew her and her family well. Later, ironically, they find more welcome with some strangers in a train station, forming a new makeshift society that provides a little stability to their lives.
In this context, that shot of Ben and the watchman embracing by the fire is especially powerful. As Haneke pulls back, away from the fire, the darkness seems to close in around it, until the flames, with the boy and the man who saved him silhouetted in front of them, become a shrinking and fragile beacon of light in the dense surrounding darkness of the night. I think for Haneke that light is society, a fragile and imperfect flame that is nevertheless the only light holding back the darkness and despair that would otherwise swallow us all up. It’s through society that we provide frameworks for law and justice, for order, and care for the young and the weak. So many of Haneke’s films are about the darkness surrounding that flame, but this one especially is ultimately about the light in the darkness: the signal fires that Anne and Eva use to find each other while looking for Benny, the flick of a lighter, the flame that they keep burning in the hope that a train will stop.
That’s why, after that scene by the fire, in the final shot Haneke cuts to a shot taken from a train as it goes chugging through the countryside. The meaning of this final shot is ambiguous, and purposefully so. Did the train finally come? Or is this simply a representation of eternal hope, the hope that rescue is coming, that the train will arrive and take off all the survivors to some vaguely defined safe place?
JB: Don’t forget the flickering flame of the lantern that Eva looks into as she listens to the music; indeed, there is a strong light-in-the-darkness theme running through Time of the Wolf. As for the final shot, I must admit I wish it weren’t there. The previous shot—the retreating view of the man and boy in front of the fire—is so graceful, so touching, so powerful, that it would be difficult for any scene to follow it. And so even if one interprets that final shot to represent that the man’s hope isn’t foolish, that the train is coming, cinematically speaking it’s such a mundane visual that it doesn’t feel as meaningful as I think Haneke wants it to be. In short, he had the perfect ending already. (Although, a closing credits sequence over that final train shot would have been effective.)
As for the larger themes: At the risk of beating one of Haneke’s dead horses, I think the familiar morality play that unfolds in this film is unusually interesting. In films like 71 Fragments and Code Unknown, Haneke’s examinations of right and wrong, of involvement and indifference, of selective ethical standards, and so on, create depth, but they also make the films feel rather academic, as if they should come with discussion group questions at the end. Obviously I’m very much in favor of movies that challenge us and make us think, but for whatever reason I find the questions posed by Haneke’s films more engaging when they’re seamlessly embedded within the structure, rather than laying out there on the surface. Time of the Wolf is built on Haneke’s most fantastical narrative, as it implies a disaster the likes of which mankind has never seen, but it feels particularly real because Haneke seems more willing to let his characters operate within that narrative, rather than using them as diagrams in a larger thesis. Over time, Haneke has become a storyteller who wants to grapple with moral and ethical issues, whereas early in his career it was the other way around.
EH: I think that’s true, though I’d say that the shift started with Code Unknown, which is far more character-based than the early films while dealing with the same thematic currents that have always animated Haneke’s work. I don’t want to suggest, of course, that Haneke’s more abstract, theoretical approach in his “glaciation trilogy” is invalid, or that films with a more academic slant don’t have merit, because I certainly don’t think that’s true as a general principle. In Haneke’s case, though, I think his films have definitely grown richer and more complex as he’s fleshed out his ideas with more substantial characters who seem to exist for more of a reason than to prove one of the director’s points.
Haneke’s next film, Caché, continues this trend. Although the film is typically rich in thematic subtext—about guilt, the French treatment of Algeria, and the denial of responsibility—it explores these ideas through the personal experiences of television host Georges (Daniel Auteuil). Georges and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) begin receiving mysterious videotapes taken from outside their house—an idea possibly borrowed from David Lynch’s Lost Highway, though Haneke takes it somewhere very different—and Georges gradually connects this strange form of harassment to an incident from his youth, in which he lied about the Algerian orphan Majid, who his parents had been on the verge of adopting until Georges’ lies caused them to send the boy away.
This is an obvious metaphor for French denial of the atrocities committed during the Algerian independence movement, and Haneke makes explicit reference in particular to a massacre that occurred in Paris on October 17, 1961, when an undetermined number of protesting Algerians (including Majid’s parents in the film) were killed by Parisian police and dumped in the Seine. The French government denied the incident for a long time (just as Georges seems almost amnesiac about his mistreatment of Majid) before belatedly admitting, in 1998, that 40 people were killed, though unofficial estimates have always placed the toll at 200 or higher. This is not the first time that Haneke has built a film around real historical events or news stories, but whereas his earlier films might have examined this incident directly and polemically, here Haneke gets at the historical context more obliquely, through the personal guilt and avoidance of responsibility of one man who represents this larger societal denial.
JB: Yeah, Caché is a terrific example of Haneke engaging with difficult issues without allowing his film to feel overly academic. The references to the 1961 massacre are overt, but the film doesn’t require the audience to know anything about that event, or even to care, in order to feel challenged by Georges’ very personal story (of course, knowing about the 1961 massacre certainly deepens the significance of Georges’ story). Similarly, Haneke borrows elements from his previous films but employs them with a lighter touch. For example, the videotape scenes remind of Code Unknown in that we can’t immediately tell if the event is happening “live” or is the playback of a recording, but the scenes don’t seem to be so much “about” that audience manipulation; the sloppy execution of a chicken is still difficult to watch, but at least Haneke doesn’t replay it three more times as in Benny’s Video; Majid’s death is gruesome and shocking, but Haneke doesn’t linger with the carnage to the degree that he does in The Seventh Continent or Funny Games or several of his other films; and so on.
The first time around, Caché is effective as a rather straightforward mystery—one in which we can tell that the de facto detective, Georges, is withholding information while still aligning with his quest to understand what’s going on. Over subsequent viewings, the intrigue of the investigation erodes a bit because it becomes clear that Caché is one of those mysteries that relies too much on characters avoiding obvious questions. (For example, when Majid claims to have no knowledge of the videos or threatening cartoon drawings, Georges manages to avoid doing what I think anyone would do in that situation: ask Majid to come up with at least one scenario in which anyone else could be responsible.) But that only allows the character study to become all the more apparent. As you already indicated, Caché is—especially in terms of Georges’ personal story—about guilt and denial of responsibility. But if I could combine those two and reshape them just a bit, I think Caché is about the everlasting power of moral truth. Georges has spent his life trying to forget his mistreatment of Majid, and when he can’t do that he finds ways to justify it. And the thing of it is, his justifications aren’t entirely bullshit: Georges was just an insecure young boy when he concocted stories about Majid that caused this relative stranger, who was intruding on Georges’ sense of security, to be exiled from a family that he technically never belonged to. In the big picture, Georges’ misbehavior is easy to forgive—in fact, within Haneke’s world of gruesome violence it’s hardly worth noting. But what Caché suggests is that Georges feels the act is unforgivable, that even at that young age he violated his own morals, and thus he can never free himself from his own, private shame.
EH: It’s a private shame that threatens to become public, dragged out into the light of day. Light and dark are again used as symbolic opposites, but whereas in Time of the Wolf this rubric embodied the opposition of hope and despair, here Haneke opposes the darkness of what’s private and hidden (which is what Caché means) to the light that exposes the truth. After Majid’s suicide, Georges goes to the movies, hiding in the darkness of the theater, then returns home to his darkened house, hiding in his bedroom, refusing to let his wife turn the lights on. He finally tells her the full story in this scene, but in a sense he’s still hiding in the shadows, unwilling to have the light of conscience shined on his actions, unwilling to truly take responsibility. In the next scene, at Georges’ office, everything is bright and white, with the sunlight pouring in through large glass windows, everything open and illuminated. Here he can’t hide, can’t duck the responsibility, and when Majid’s son (Walid Afkir) confronts Georges there’s a threat that his secrets will be exposed. Georges says he doesn’t care, that he has nothing to hide, but although you’re right that Georges’ boyhood crimes are forgivable, especially since he was just a kid, and kids often act horribly, he’s still embarrassed and frightened, nervous that his actions will become known and judged. As much as he denies feeling any sense of responsibility, he is clearly ashamed of this whole affair and his part in it.
Haneke is exploring the ways in which the sins of the past continue to haunt and corrupt the present, both at the personal level and at the institutional level. Georges’ life falls apart, really, because he has never properly dealt with what he did as a kid, so he can’t move on from it, can’t escape it. He is simultaneously wracked by guilt and locked into denial, unable to accept his responsibility for the trajectory of Majid’s life and yet unable to overcome the feelings of shame and guilt that are obviously affecting him. For Haneke, the worst sin is forgetting. Georges and his mother forgetting about Majid is an obvious metaphor for the French forgetting about the ignominious history of their country’s treatment of Algeria, while the connections of that tragedy to the larger history of Europe generalize the issue beyond specifically French failings. (One interesting footnote is the fact that Maurice Pepon, the police chief who ordered the 1961 Paris massacre, was also a prominent Vichy official responsible for deporting Jews from France during World War II.) Just as the videos force Georges to remember, to consider his actions and their effect, Haneke’s film is intended as an uncomfortable reminder of past atrocities that many would like to forget.
JB: That’s certainly the way Haneke intends it. But to some degree I think he outsmarts himself. Although the mystery design of Caché keeps the film from feeling overly didactic, it also inspires questions that Haneke has no interest in answering. Haneke would say that’s because he’s focused on deeper things; in fact, he has said that. In a 2010 interview with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, Haneke summarized his approach to Caché perfectly: “The question of who sent the videotapes isn’t important at all. What’s important is the sense of guilt felt by the character played by Daniel Auteuil [Georges] in the film. But these superficial questions are the glue that holds the spectator in place, and they allow me to raise underlying questions that they have to grapple with. It’s relatively unimportant who sent the tapes, but by engaging with that the viewer must engage questions that are far less banal.” While I agree with that last sentence, I think Haneke goes too far in discounting the mystery as “superficial.” Because while Haneke is primarily interested in Georges’ guilt and denial, he needs to recognize that he’s also raising some interesting questions about emotional terrorism and retribution. I don’t think it’s insignificant to wonder: Who finds Georges’ relatively minor childhood crimes so unforgivable that they think he deserves to suffer for them so many years later? And is the motive purely related to Georges’ past sins, or does it have more to do with his current celebrity, or perhaps something else altogether?
All of that leads us to Caché’s famous final shot, which shows kids talking and milling about on some stairs outside of a school. Just under two minutes in length (before the closing credits start to roll), the anchored composition seems to show nothing in particular, except that to the careful observer it shows quite a bit: from the lower right corner of the screen, Majid’s son walks up the stairs to the top left corner of the shot where Georges’ son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) is standing, talking with some other boys. Majid’s son (Walid Afkir) seems to ask Pierrot to talk with him privately, and so they walk down the steps to the lower left corner of the shot, chat a while, and then go their separate ways. We hear none of their conversation, and, in fact, because Haneke keeps moving the boys around the frame and away from action that’s likely to attract our attention, some people watch all or much of the shot without even noticing or recognizing the boys. But it’s clear that the boys know each other and that their relationship seems friendly enough (Majid’s son smiles several times and Pierrot appears comfortable with him). What isn’t clear is how they know one another, how long they’ve known one another and what they know about one another. Because some of the secretly-shot videotape footage was taken from inside Majid’s home, we have to conclude that either Majid or Majid’s son (or both) was involved in sending Georges the tapes and drawings. Pierrot may have been an accomplice, but maybe not; it’s possible he has no idea that Majid’s son and his father are in any way linked.
This scene has been analyzed and written about by several critics (including Roger Ebert), and while some of that analysis is simply a fun cinematic exercise—following an evidence trail to see if it leads anywhere—I think there’s more to this mystery than closure. That is, I don’t think our desire to know if Georges’ son is terrorizing his father is just an empty question borne of mystery novels and Scooby Doo cartoons where the truth always comes out in the end. Caché is plenty challenging by its actual design, and I hate to be greedy by asking a very good film to give me even more to grapple with, but do I think Haneke loses something, or at least misses an opportunity, by discounting the motives of the crimes as superficial.
EH: I see your point, but I don’t really agree. The mystery in Caché is deliberately ambiguous and all but unsolvable, the many attempts to solve it by various critics and viewers notwithstanding. Furthermore, I’d say that it’s not because it’s entirely irrelevant that Haneke leaves the mystery unresolved, no matter what he claims, but because leaving it unsolved is itself essential to the film’s ideas. To solve the mystery, to tie it back to a specific person or persons who sent these videotapes—some combination of Pierrot, Majid and/or Majid’s son is the most likely solution—would be to imply, contrary to the film’s themes, that this is primarily a personal vendetta, that Georges’ guilt and its resonance with real-world atrocities could be understood in terms of revenge and punishment. That’s not what Haneke is after here at all.
In fact, the most compelling theory about the film’s mystery that I’ve heard is that Haneke is the one who sent the tapes, a theory that, personally, I’d interpret metaphorically rather than literally. What’s most interesting to me about Caché is how often Haneke destabilizes audience expectations by shooting scenes in ways that suggest a hidden camera, so that there’s always this uncertainty about what’s being taped and what’s not. The first time Georges goes to see Majid, their argument is filmed from the kind of distant, static vantage point that’s associated with the videotapes, and indeed it’s soon revealed that this conversation has been taped, although in this case we seem to be seeing the conversation live rather than on tape. That alone is interesting, because earlier in the film when we’d seen the scenes on the videos, we were watching them with Georges (he even rewinds and fast-forwards), whereas in this scene we’re watching from the point-of-view of the hidden camera itself rather than the point-of-view of Georges playing back the videos. When Georges returns to Majid’s apartment to witness Majid’s suicide, the scene is again filmed from a similar vantage point, albeit this time so head-on that it’s hard to imagine how any camera shooting this scene could be hidden.
This ambiguity extends into the scene, late in the film, that shows Majid as a boy being dragged, kicking and screaming, away from Georges’ family’s farm. This scene also evokes the style and perspective of the videotapes, though of course it would have been all but impossible for there to be a camera there. Instead, this must be another of Georges’ dreams or memories of his childhood, although even there there’s some uncertainty, since the rest of Georges’ memories of Majid as a child turn out to be twisted false memories that reflect the lies he’d told about the boy (that Majid was bleeding from his mouth, that he advanced threateningly on Georges with an axe) rather than the reality. In all these ways, not only does the film not explain who was sending the tapes, it consistently calls into question what’s being filmed and why, conflating unmediated reality with both video records and memories. But whereas memories can lie—and Haneke shows us several memories from Georges’ perspective that are eventually revealed as false—videotapes have an accusing objectivity that’s hard to avoid. It doesn’t really matter where these tapes come from; just that they exist, stirring up all this complicated history.
JB: Don’t get me wrong, these tapes are far more important as a tool to explore Georges than as a gimmick of a whodunit. I don’t disagree with that at all. And yet, if we take that angle of approach and decide that it doesn’t matter where the tapes come from, then we must also agree that Caché’s famous final scene doesn’t matter either. Because that scene isn’t about Georges’ shame or guilt. It isn’t about ignoring one’s past. It tells us nothing about denial. All that scene does is deepen the mystery—and, unlike previous scenes, we can’t argue that the scene with Pierrot and Majid’s son serves as some kind of narrative bridge between deeper “underlying questions,” because as the last scene in the movie there’s nothing for it to bridge to. And, look, that’s fine. Again, one of the things I enjoy about Caché is how neatly Haneke weaves his probing examinations of human behavior into a whodunit. His films needn’t be one or the other. But at the same time, if Haneke wants the audience to walk away thinking about Georges’ behavior and not the mystery of the terrorism inflicted on Georges, he ends his film with the wrong scene. Better to have flashed back to that view from Georges’ childhood home and the memory of Majid being dragged away, kicking and screaming.
Before we move on to Haneke’s most recent film, The White Ribbon, I want to note something else about that final scene: Without critical assistance, it’s in danger of being overlooked. When I saw Caché for the first time, on the big screen, I didn’t notice Pierrot and Majid’s son until just before they started wandering down the steps together. And over the next 30 seconds or so, I heard members of the audience gasp as they noticed the boys talking for the first time. As I noted earlier, with so much action going on in the frame, away from the boys, they’re easy to miss. And I think more and more people are going to miss them when they see the movie for the first time on a smaller home-theater screen. Seeing this movie for the second time in preparation for this conversation, I remembered that the boys talk to one another during the scene, but I couldn’t remember where on the screen they were. And watching from the comfort of my couch, looking toward my 42-inch TV just a few feet away, I’m not kidding: I couldn’t find them. When I backed up the scene and watched it again, I spotted them, and I realized that previously I’d managed to keep examining the spaces that the boys had just left. It was bad luck. Nonetheless, I knew there was something worth looking for, and my experience was evidence that even an attentive viewer could easily overlook what happens in that scene. In recounting this story, I’m not disparaging Caché. Rather I’m offering this up as a general reminder: sometimes we don’t all see the same movie.
EH: I don’t believe that the final scene is only relevant to the whodunit mystery aspect of Caché. Sure, Pierrot and Majid’s son meeting like that raises all sorts of speculation, but as with the question of who sent the tapes, why these two young men are talking and what they’re saying is less important than the very fact that they’re talking. For me, that last shot is an expression of the elusive hopefulness we’ve sometimes noted in Haneke’s work. If the bulk of Caché is about the unresolved guilt of Georges and his generation, that final shot suggests the possibility of change for future generations. At the root of much of the suffering in this film, as in Haneke’s work in general, is a lack of communication. Georges’ inability to talk honestly and openly about what happened in his boyhood, either with his wife or with Majid himself, strains his relationship with his family and leads to the tragedy of Majid’s suicide.
While Majid kills himself and Georges gets swallowed up by his guilt, in the final shot the two men’s sons meet and, though their relationship is ambiguous and we have no way of knowing what they’re saying to one another, it’s obvious that some kind of communication is occurring here. In my opinion, the final shot of Caché is similar to the light-in-the-darkness ending of Time of the Wolf: ambiguous, bittersweet, leaving the future very much uncertain, but allowing in that sliver of hope that the cycle won’t be repeated, that things will change. Pierrot and Majid’s son, whatever they’re saying, seem relaxed and friendly with one another in a way that suggests they’ve moved beyond the divisions of the past, that they can talk comfortably. Thus, this scene isn’t a bridge between the narrative and the subtext; it’s a bridge to the future, its meaning uncertain and ambiguous but containing at least a possibility that this generation won’t repeat the mistakes of their fathers.
Of course, Haneke never wants to make things that easy or that tidy, which is why the scene is so ambiguous—I admit that my reading of it is only one possibility, and doesn’t necessarily preclude some more pessimistic interpretations—and why Haneke makes it so easy for even attentive viewers to miss the implications of the scene altogether. The meeting is there to be seen or not, and the same goes for the feeling of hope that might be embodied by this unheard conversation. I think this too is part of Haneke’s point: while suffering is omnipresent in his world, hope is rarer and more elusive, only to be found by those who really go looking for it.
JB: I must say, I never considered such a hopeful conclusion to this film. Building off Time of the Wolf, it’s not without precedent. But given that bleakness and aggression are more in line with Haneke’s default setting, I find it much more convincing to conclude that there’s something sinister in the relationship between Pierrot and Majid’s son, even if it’s only known by one of them—that is, even if Majid’s son is simply using Pierrot in some way. After all, Haneke has never been shy about associating evil and youth. He does it in Caché with Georges’ story at least (and maybe also with Pierrot and/or Majid’s son). He does it in Benny’s Video and Funny Games. And he at least nods that way in The White Ribbon.
His most recent release, The White Ribbon is at once a departure for Haneke and a summation of his career. It’s his only period piece, set in a small German village in the years before World War I. It’s his only black-and-white film, full of gorgeous compositions by Christian Berger, his cinematographer for Caché, The Piano Teacher and Benny’s Video. It’s his only film with a narrator, allowing a schoolteacher (Christian Friedel, with Ernst Jacobi providing the voiceover) to take us through the events retrospectively but without much benefit of hindsight. And it’s his longest film by almost 30 minutes. But the film throbs with evil, some of it perhaps inflicted by children, some of it most certainly inflicted by adults, all of it unmistakable and yet somehow indistinct, which makes it quintessential Haneke.
As in Caché, The White Ribbon is full of mysteries that Haneke has no desire to solve, but I wonder if you agree with me that the mysteries are even more ambiguous in this film. Sometimes it’s difficult to even figure out what’s a mystery and what only feels like a mystery because of connections that we humans tend to make—sometimes falsely—as we grapple with all that we can’t explain. Ebert put it nicely in his review, which I think might be one of his strongest of the past several years: “[Haneke’s] films are like parables, teaching us that bad things happen simply because they…happen. The universe laughs at man’s laws and does what it wants.” To me, that’s what The White Ribbon is about—about all that we can’t control, and about our desperate attempts to prove otherwise.
EH: You’re right that The White Ribbon is even more ambiguous than Caché in its mysteries. Furthermore, despite the connections between the two films, they are essentially very different forms of mysteries. In Caché, though we don’t know who’s sending the videotapes, we can probably assume that the tapes are originating with a single source, with one person or several people working together, while in The White Ribbon, evil seems to emanate from everywhere and nowhere. Moreover, though whoever’s sending the tapes in Caché is psychologically tormenting Georges and Anne, the purpose of this harassment seems to be to call attention to Georges’ past, suggesting that there’s a moral imperative behind the videos that is utterly lacking from the cruel, violent acts that occur in the small town of The White Ribbon.
Indeed, The White Ribbon might be Haneke’s most unsettling film. This is the Haneke film that epitomizes his bleak worldview, in which most people are essentially cruel, violence is senseless and unavoidable, and even children can’t remain innocent for long when subjected to the pointless cruelties of their parents. Haneke has often been interested in the generational reach of violence: the way that the Schobers’ daughter is sucked into their self-destruction in The Seventh Continent, the deaf-mute girl unable to communicate her torment in Code Unknown, the mostly silent boy who tries to sacrifice himself in Time of the Wolf, and the ambiguous way that Georges and Majid’s pasts affect their sons in Caché.
Here, the passing of warped values from one generation to the next is made especially explicit. When the mentally handicapped boy Karli (Eddy Grahl) is savagely beaten in the woods around the village, whoever attacked him leaves a suggestive note beside the body: “for I, the Lord, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generation.” After another beating of a child, when the son of the Baron is hung from a barn’s rafters, the schoolteacher’s fiancée Eva (Leonie Benesch) asks, “Who does things like that? Beating a child like that?” The unspoken answer is that this violence is an outgrowth of the more routine physical and psychological violence that runs throughout this town, often directed, like many of these crimes, against children. Many of the town’s fathers beat their children for minor infractions, the town doctor is sexually abusing his daughter, and the pastor ties his son to a bed at night to prevent masturbation. The town’s children are victims of both horrible public outbursts of violence and the more private torments inflicted by the adults in their lives, and it’s implied that this general atmosphere of neglect and punishment warps these children, who seem to be responsible for at least some of the film’s horrors. They learn violence and hate from watching their parents, and pass their own suffering on to others.
JB: Sometimes. In one significant exception, the farmer’s son disobeys not only his father’s example of acceptance but also his direct orders when he destroys a cabbage patch in retribution for the mysterious death of his mother, who fell through a floor while working. And in other cases the boys and girls seem to have evil brewing within them. The pastor’s children, for example, come off as suspicious and deceitful even before the oldest children are adorned with white ribbons to symbolize their misbehavior. But appearances can be so deceiving, and if nothing else that’s what Haneke underlines again and again and again. Re-watching The White Ribbon for this conversation, it struck me that it would actually make for a surprisingly appropriate double-feature with Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, which is all about demonstrating just how little we often learn from seemingly straightforward little bits of evidence. For instance, in the case of the doctor, who gets injured in the early going when his horse trips on an almost invisible wire strung out in the open, it seems certain that someone must have deliberately tried to injure the doctor—perhaps even the peculiar kids, one of whom is seen shortly afterward walking along the railing of a bridge, tempting fate to see if God wants him to die. But by the end of the film, enough seemingly random disasters have happened that it isn’t difficult to imagine that the doctor’s fall was an accident (perhaps the kids were playing with the wire but didn’t intend to harm anyone) or that maybe the kids weren’t involved at all (the doctor has people in his immediate family who would have motive to try to hurt him, we eventually learn).
The way I’m describing the movie, you’d think it was a Lynchian head-trip. But it isn’t. This is a different kind of ambiguity. It’s less abstract, more elliptical. We never struggle to make sense of what is happening, we simply can’t explain why it happened, or who caused it. We don’t have all the information, and as much as we fumble around in the dark hoping to find it, at some point we must accept that we know very little. And I think that’s part of the lesson Haneke is trying to teach here: that even if things could be explained, sometimes we must accept that we’ll never have enough information to understand.
EH: That lesson is especially important in terms of the specific historical era that Haneke is evoking here. Much has been made of the fact that the film is set in the years before World War I—towards the end of the film, the villagers learn about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which is what decisively pins down the time period—and that thus the generation of German children depicted here would be adults, and likely Nazis, during World War II. But far from imparting a simplistic moral about these childhood traumas setting the stage for the horrors of the Third Reich, the film is suggesting, as you say, just how difficult it is to understand the nature of evil.
Certainly, Haneke isn’t drawing any simplistic conclusions here, but The White Ribbon is subtly seeded with suggestions of what’s to come for this country and these people. The actual white ribbons, which the pastor puts on the arms of his children to remind them to do good, ironically evoke the armbands of the Nazi era, these supposed icons of childhood innocence and purity tangled up with more sinister connotations. Similarly, after the funeral of a local farmer, Haneke cuts to images of pristine, tranquil snowy plains while the narrator says, “None of us suspected it’d be our last New Year in an era of peace, and that this year would bring a radical change, of a magnitude we couldn’t foresee.” The snow, so pure and white, drapes the film in a crisp, clean look that is very much at odds with the ugliness of the events that occur within these white expanses.
JB: Agreed. The white ribbons also, of course, remind of the Jewish Star of David—the idea of marking those who should be punished or cast out. On that note, there’s no doubt that historical context is important here. After all, this is Haneke’s only period piece, so it’s safe to assume that he isn’t choosing this period at random, and, as you point out, there are references near the end of the film that pin down the time period clearly. But it’s also no accident that for the majority of the movie’s running time, Haneke is mostly cryptic about the setting (time and place); Haneke isn’t implying that the Nazi movement sprang up from this little village so much as he’s suggesting that we could look at any little village at any point in history and find evil pumping through it. Having said that, I also don’t think it’s an accident that Susanne Lothar appears in this film as the verbally abused midwife. Sure, Haneke routinely reuses actors from film to film, but it seems especially fitting that Lothar, who was the target of so much verbal and psychological harassment as Anna in Funny Games, once again finds herself playing a woman who gets viciously mistreated as sport. It’s as if Haneke is suggesting that before there were the two young thugs of Funny Games there was the doctor of The White Ribbon, and so on to the beginning of time.
Speaking of beginnings: Way back at the start of this conversation you brought up the “slim hopefulness” Haneke often subtly provides “that the conditions depicted in these films are not permanent.” Sure enough, there’s some of that in The White Ribbon, thanks mostly to the character of the teacher, who somehow manages to meander through the village and its tragedies without getting touched by them. So as we head toward the end of this discussion, I wonder what you think of The White Ribbon’s final shot. The film closes with the teacher providing narration about the start of the war, his enlistment and even the war’s aftermath. Meanwhile, Haneke gives us a fixed shot of the villagers assembling for church service, looking straight ahead toward the altar and, thus, straight into the camera. The teacher mentions that this specific event was, for him, a rather positive occasion, because he knew he was about to be joined with his future wife. But he describes the service, occurring just after declarations of war have been announced, as a “solemn” affair and says, “Now everything was going to change.” Ed, the change that’s coming to these villagers is the arrival of war, but it’s hard to dispute that this is a village in desperate need of change. So, I’m curious, do you consider the end of The White Ribbon to be hopeful, mournful or something else?
EH: One interesting thing about this film is the way that the schoolteacher and Eva seem to exist apart from all the evil and violence plaguing this town. The schoolteacher is the one narrating the story, but none of the violence affects him directly, and apart from his attempt to intervene at the end by telling the pastor he suspects the kids, he is simply an observer. The romance between the schoolteacher and Eva is the embodiment of hope in The White Ribbon, precisely because these characters are so separate from the rest of the events in the film. Even the tone of their scenes together is quite distinct from the bleakness of the film as a whole; there’s a sense of sweetness and even some low-key comedy in the scenes between these two shy, kind people who slowly, hesitantly fall in love with one another.
In one scene, the schoolteacher goes to propose to Eva and is comically frustrated by the insistence of her stern father that they should wait a year rather than marrying immediately. In another scene, the couple goes for a picnic and Eva resists his idea to go off the road to an out-of-the-way spot, not because she thinks he’d actually take advantage of her but because it wouldn’t look proper. Their story is a rare bright spot in a film that is otherwise almost entirely unrelenting in its depictions of people treating each other with cruelty. (Another such character is the pastor’s youngest son, who touchingly offers to replace his father’s bird after another of the pastor’s children kills it.) There’s an old-fashioned morality and sense of tradition in this romance that, despite the historical setting, seems to be missing from the rest of the town—except perhaps in the much colder, more violent but equally old-fashioned form of morality embodied in the pastor’s treatment of his children. We have a tendency to idealize the past, to think that the past was a simpler and sweeter time, but The White Ribbon strips away that sentimentality, retaining almost exclusively the harsher aspects of the past. Only Eva and the schoolteacher, with their proper, sweet romance, embody the idea of the past as a more innocent time.
Throughout the film, there are these brief flashes of genuine human decency, as contrasted against the general atmosphere of abjection, and also against the pastor’s hypocritical conception of what it means to be good and pure. Without these examples of goodness and purity, The White Ribbon would be even darker and more cynical about human nature. As bleak as the film is, Haneke at least includes some characters who don’t give in to the general malaise, who simply go about their lives, fall in love, try to help other people when they can, and don’t let the corruption of the other townspeople touch their own souls. At the same time, the film would almost be easier to take if not for these bright spots in the darkness. The very fact that the evil of the town doesn’t touch everyone, that there remain good people who aren’t corrupted, creates a sense of danger hanging over the end of the film. You ask if the end of The White Ribbon is hopeful or mournful, and really it’s both—hopeful on the personal level for the schoolteacher and his fiancée, mournful in that Germany, and Europe with it, is about to be plunged into decades of war and suffering. But there’s also a sense that the mournfulness, the evil that runs through the film, is poised to smother the much more delicate and precarious goodness represented by people like Eva and the schoolteacher. There’s hope here, to be sure, but whereas in Time of the Wolf the light of the signal fire seemed to be holding back the darkness, here the light seems very much in danger of being snuffed out, the darkness of history closing in on those characters whose decency and innocence runs against the tenor of their times.
JB: The last words of the schoolteacher’s closing narration, the ones he finishes uttering just seconds before his on-screen character signals the church choir to start singing, are, “I never saw any of the villagers again.” I think you’re right that this conclusion is both hopeful and mournful, and also grimly beautiful—contradiction in terms intended. The White Ribbon won’t be Haneke’s last film, but since it’s the final film of this discussion I couldn’t help but notice how neatly that line of narration could apply to the end of so many Haneke pictures, much the same way that Werner Herzog noted that “Into the Abyss” could have been the title of almost any movie he’s ever made. Looking back, the endings of Haneke’s films are almost always about some kind of escape. Sometimes it’s an escape through suicide (The Seventh Continent, 71 Fragments and The Piano Teacher), sometimes it’s through some other kind of death (Funny Games) or near death (Time of the Wolf) and sometimes it’s through the acceptance of past wrongs (Benny’s Video and Caché). But over and over again, Haneke’s films end with characters reaching some kind of turning point or breaking point—and depending on how they reach that point, sometimes the ending seems mostly hopeful (say, Benny’s Video and Time of the Wolf) and sometimes it seems just sad (Funny Games, 71 Fragments and The Piano Teacher), and sometimes it’s a combination of both (Code Unknown and The White Ribbon) and sometimes it’s hard to tell (Caché).
Given how often the only escape in Haneke’s films is death, it would be easy to decide that he’s excessively cynical about this world and pessimistic about our ability to change. But instead, he strikes me as a filmmaker who is cynical about this world and yet admires those who don’t succumb to the gravitational pull of its darkness. Haneke’s films aren’t hopeful; that’s going too far. But, indeed, there’s hope in them. And given that his films, as diverse as they might seem from a distance, so consistently wrestle with the same issues, I get the sense that maybe Haneke himself is trying to persevere and is using cinema as his motivation to keep going.
The 25 Best Films of 2019
Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony.
This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.
More than ever, we live in an era in which people choose their own news and are hyper-focused on their own niches, which offers a paradox: While there’s freedom in such a lifestyle, it’s also deeply isolating. This context partially explains the exhilaration of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, insular works that, in their popularity and acclaim, recall the audience-unifying glories of ‘70s-era American pop cinema, and of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, an intoxicating, perhaps reactionary fantasy that rues the fading of a diseased patriarchal life that was nevertheless responsible for the comforts of pop culture.
Quentin Tarantino’s tender and transcendent film is, most explicitly, a paean to Hollywood’s ability to control an undivided public’s attention via he-men westerns and musicals and TV arcana. Tarantino, dangerously and daringly, glorifies a less obviously political cinema, implicitly regretting the divisions that would mark the ‘70s and the present. Such division fueled movies this year, that, while troubling, were undeniably in sync with America’s bitter underbelly, such as Todd Phillips’s Joker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete.
Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony. One example is Harmony Korine’s extraordinary, absurdly overlooked The Beach Bum, a lurid and beautiful poem of privilege and self-absorption. Another is Bong Joon-ho’s smash hit Parasite, which suggests that every oppressed person oppresses someone lower on the food chain. This year, as political divisions deepen, cinema became more and more inventive with satirizing capitalism while simultaneously rendering its narcotic charms. There were also moments of immersive tranquility and introspection, offered by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, among others.
Do we suffer from too much? Are there too many films, too many hot takes, too much detritus to wade through? In an age of endless excess, the critic’s, and the audience’s, job is to discern patterns and meanings, to whittle chaos down to manageable stimuli. The best films of the year found artists grappling with this very chaos, mining the emotion of the spectacle of the political. Chuck Bowen
Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.
25. The Gospel of Eureka
In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka doesn’t mention this fact, nor does it seek to explain why a town deeply rooted in Christian faith also has an outsized population of gay and non-binary citizens. The documentary isn’t a study of juxtaposition so much as an exploration of how the many strands of a person or location’s identity can’t easily be disentangled. Eureka Springs, both haunted by and economically beholden to the legacy of noted Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith, proves a vivid backdrop through which to explore how neighbors overcome difference and embrace progress. Like October Country, Mosher and Palmieri’s latest is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance. Where their earlier film wondered how both the economics and personal trauma of war reverberated through a family struggling with decades of abuse, despair, and rebellion, this one communicates an atmosphere of persistent connection despite seemingly incongruous belief systems and lifestyles. The Gospel of Eureka’s overriding theme is mutability, and its one true enemy seems to be any form of dogmatism. Christopher Gray
24. Chinese Portrait
As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged. The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions. Diego Semerene
23. The Competition
Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form. While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs. Semerene
22. Ad Astra
Throughout Ad Astra, James Gray uses the grand metaphors of science fiction to mourn the distance between a father and son that’s so often internalized as self-alienation. This repression, Gray underlines, has utility in a rationalized society: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the perfect astronaut because nothing unnerves him, as testified to by his diligently recorded pulse rate, oxygen levels, and the other defining statistics of his thoroughly technologized body. The inhuman coldness his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), foisted upon him is precisely what enables him to survive his epic quest from Earth to Neptune. Among Ad Astra‘s more universal themes is coping with and moving beyond the sins of previous generations, with overtones that evoke the climate catastrophe that global capitalism has prepared for us. When Roy finally finds his elusive target, floating out there somewhere around the rings of Neptune, Gray captures a heartbreak that will be familiar to many: a confrontation between a grown son and his erstwhile hero, both appearing suddenly small, frail, and all too fallibly human. Pat Brown
Gaspar Noé’s Climax reminds us how pleasurable it can be when a filmmaker essentially discards plot for the sake of unhinged formalism. The film works on two levels, as it’s a celebration of body and movement, featuring astonishing and painful-looking choreography, as well as an examination of the sexual resentment that drives a mixed-race dancing troupe. In early passages, actors more or less speak to the camera, a device that suggests a blunt clearing of the air. Later, when the dancers succumb to the effects of LSD-spiked sangria, Climax becomes a brilliant fever dream, an orgy of raw, flamboyantly colored psychosis that’s truer to the spirit of Dario Argento’s Suspiria than Luca Guadignino’s recent remake. Above all else, Climax feels pure, as Noé cuts to the root of his obsession with the intersection between sex, violence, and power. It’s a horror musical of hard, beautiful nihilism. Bowen
Slant’s Best Films of 2019: The Runners-Up and Individual Ballots
These are the films that just missed making it onto our list of the best films of 2019, and our contributors’ individual ballots.
From Chuck Bowen’s introduction to Slant Magazine’s Top 25 Films of 2019: “This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.” Click here to read the feature and see if your favorite films of the year made our list. And see below for a list of the films that just missed making it onto our list, followed by our contributors’ individual ballots.
26. The Plagiarists
27. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
28. The Lighthouse
29. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
30. End of the Century
31. Ray & Liz
32. The Wild Pear Tree
34. In My Room
35. Agnès by Varda
36. Her Smell
37. Dragged Across Concrete
38. The Image Book
40. Asako I & II
41. I Lost My Body
42. Gemini Man
44. In Fabric
46. The Mountain
47. Our Time
48. Little Women
49. The Dead Don’t Die
1. The Irishman
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Her Smell
4. The Beach Bum
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
7. Marriage Story
8. Pain and Glory
10. The Competition
Honorable Mention: High Flying Bird, One Child Nation, American Factory, The Souvenir, Grass, Ray & Liz, Dragged Agaainst Concrete, Uncut Gems, The Gospel of Eureka, Ash Is Purest White
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2. Uncut Gems
4. Marriage Story
6. The Gospel of Eureka
7. The Farewell
8. The Souvenir
10. Ad Astra
Honorable Mention: Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Irishman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ash Is Purest White, John Wick 3: Parabellum, The Beach Bum, Knives Out, Luce, Synonyms, Us
1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Irishman
4. High Life
5. La Flor
6. The Souvenir
7. An Elephant Sitting Still
10. Black Mother
Honorable Mention: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Ad Astra, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Pain & Glory, A Hidden Life, Asako I & II, The Wild Pear Tree, Little Women, End of the Century, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
1. Uncut Gems
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. High Life
6. Ash is Purest White
7. Pain & Glory
8. In My Room
9. Gemini Man
10. The Competition
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Atlantics, The Beach Bum, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, Diamantino, Marriage Story, Ray & Liz, The Silence of Others, Under the Silver Lake
2. Long Day’s Journey into Night
3. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
4. Black Mother
5. Ad Astra
7. The Competition
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Irishman
Honorable Mention: The Souvenir, An Elephant Sitting Still, Parasite, Asako I & II, End of the Century, Marriage Story, The Gospel of Eureka, The Beach Bum, Dragged Across Concrete, The Plagiarists
4. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. End of the Century
9. Ash is Purest White
10. Dark Waters
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Asako I & II, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, An Elephant Sitting Still, La Flor, Gemini Man, The Irishman, The Souvenir, Uncut Gems
1. Uncut Gems
2. Marriage Story
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
6. A Hidden Life
7. In My Room
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
9. End of the Century
10. Ash Is Purest White
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Diane, An Elephant Sitting Still, Her Smell, The Image Book, Parasite, Peterloo, The Plagiarists, The Souvenir, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
1. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
2. The Lighthouse
3. A Hidden Life
4. To Dust
6. In Fabric
7. Pain & Glory
10. Rolling Thunder Revue
Honorable Mention: The Mountain, Diamantino, Rezo, The Wild Pear Tree, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, Her Smell, Birds of Passage, Hail Satan?, Leto, The Silence of Others
Joshua Minsoo Kim
1. The Plagiarists
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Chinese Portrait
4. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
5. Uncut Gems
6. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. Suburban Birds
9. Black Mother
10. Marriage Story
Honorable Mention: Atlantics, Grass, Honeyland, The Irishman, The Lighthouse, Non-Fiction, Our Time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ray & Liz, Varda by Agnes
2. The Irishman
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
6. The Plagiarists
7. The Mountain
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Beach Bum
10. Dragged Across Concrete
Honorable Mention: The Hottest August, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, Atlantics, Empty Metal, Uncut Gems, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ad Astra, High Life, Our Time
Sam C. Mac
1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. Chinese Portrait
5. The Beach Bum
6. Uncut Gems
7. Asako I & II
8. The Gospel of Eureka
9. A Hidden Life
Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Grass, 3 Faces, Peterloo, Our Time, Transit, The Plagiarists, Shadow, In Fabric, Suburban Birds
1. The Irishman
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. Pain & Glory
9. The Dead Don’t Die
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Black Mother, Diane, Dragged Across Concrete, High Flying Bird, Marriage Story, Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Rolling Thunder Revue, Uncut Gems
1. Agnès by Varda
2. The Wild Pear Tree
3. I Lost My Body
4. Ash is Purest White
5. The Competition
6. Chinese Portrait
9. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, 3 Faces, Atlantics, What You Gonna Do When the World Is on Fire?, Knife + Heart, Non-Fiction, Celebration, The Image Book, Black Mother, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
1. Uncut Gems
2. La Flor
4. The Souvenir
7. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
10. The Beach Bum
Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Ash is the Purest White, Black Mother, Diamantino, A Hidden Life, High Life, Honeyland, The Hottest August, The Irishman, Marriage Story
2. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
3. La Flor
4. The Irishman
5. Pain & Glory
7. The Gospel of Eureka
8. Chained for Life
9. Under the Silver Lake
Honorable Mention: The Dead Don’t Die, The Farewell, Gemini Man, A Hidden Life, High Flying Bird, Knives Out, In Fabric, Our Time, Shadow, Transit
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Image Book
4. The Lighthouse
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. High Life
7. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. The Irishman
9. The Gospel of Eureka
Honorable Mention: Ash Is Purest White, Chinese Portrait, Climax, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Hustlers, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Mountain, Our Time, Los Reyes, The Souvenir
Review: Seberg Is an Ill-Defined Ode to an Icon of the French New Wave
Throughout, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of Jean Seberg’s history.2
During her return to Hollywood in the late 1960s, Jean Seberg became a visible supporter of the Black Panther Party. This put her on the watch list of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., and, hounded by their surveillance and muckraking, she would die of an apparent suicide in 1979. It’s a tragic story, but on its face, it’s not material for a political thriller, even if Benedict Andrews’s Seberg tries halfheartedly to make it one.
In transforming Seberg’s life into a plot-heavy narrative of secrets, intrigue, and betrayals, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of her history. And, along the way, they do something of a disservice to the actress’s memory by stopping short of depicting her tragic end—concluding the film, of all places, at the end of a redemptive arc for Jack Solomon, an F.B.I. agent played by Jack O’Connell.
Kristen Stewart plays Seberg as a basically honest but somewhat impulsive woman whose fragility is almost always apparent, given the unsteady gazes and fidgety movements that are Stewart’s trademarks as an actor. It’s a performance that lacks a certain specificity. Even if Seberg suffered from doubts, she could put on a certain small-town Midwestern solidness, as is apparent in interviews from the ‘60s. Stewart’s indifferent imitation of the real Seberg’s diction-coach-inflected Midwestern accent also sticks out for its inconsistency, constantly pulling the viewer out of 1968 and muddling our sense of who this woman is meant to be.
But if Stewart’s Seberg is vaguely drawn, she’s a Rembrandt portrait in comparison to the cardboard F.B.I. agent that Andrews and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse construct as the secondary main character. The film constantly intercuts between Seberg’s activism and bid for Hollywood stardom and Solomon’s surveillance of and growing sympathy for her. A decent, milquetoast G-man, Solomon essentially exists here to recuperate the image of the F.B.I., even as he’s portrayed as being in charge of the campaign against Seberg. While his hypermasculine colleagues trade racist jokes and exploit their male privilege—patently illustrated in an extraneous scene in which his partner, Carl (Vince Vaughn), essentially commits domestic abuse over dinner—Solomon is set up as the idealized model of an F.B.I. agent, a consummate professional interested only in uncovering crimes.
Admittedly, some of the more interesting parts of Seberg come from Solomon’s research: As he watches iconic moments from the actress’s career, recreated by Stewart, he begins to assemble a portrait of a woman damaged by both Hollywood’s and the federal government’s efforts to control her life. In scenes that might have had more impact if either character had more definition, Seberg imprints herself on Solomon through black-and-white footage and surveillance tapes, and, at times, Seberg gestures toward a Hollywoodized version of The Lives of Others. Eventually, Solomon begins informing on himself, making anonymous phone calls to Seberg to tell her she’s under watch. But Solomon is too conveniently good, too isolated from the reactionary “boy’s club” culture of the F.B.I., for his transformation to carry much weight. Furthermore, this fabricated character functions to glom a handy moral redemption onto a story that would not appear to have many good feels readily available to it.
In fact, there’s much here that feels too convenient. For one, the filmmakers downplay the radicalness of supporting the Black Panther Party and their allies in 1968. The story is told from a perspective in which lending such support is almost transparently the right thing to do, even if it flies in the face of Hoover’s F.B.I. This is admirable, in a sense, but it gives us little impression of the tumult and uncertainty of American society in the late ‘60s. For a film about a period of unrest and the icon at the center of Godard’s aesthetically groundbreaking Breathless, it’s also markedly conventional. Andrews plays it safe with his framing and storytelling, not capturing much of a sense of atmosphere in his depiction of a society and a Hollywood institution undergoing waves of turmoil and reorganization.
Furthermore, the filmmakers’ choices regarding narrative focus are telling: Solomon’s half of the story drives the most important pieces of the plot—since it’s the surveillance that ruins Seberg’s relationships and fractures her sanity. Meanwhile, her lover, the black radical Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), and his wife (Zazie Beetz) are turned into functionaries of the main white characters. Surely these historical figures, too, experienced mental anguish at the hands of the F.B.I.’s surveillance apparatus, but their oppression, when discussed here, becomes mere background to Seberg’s breakdown. Once again, black liberation becomes white people’s story, as Seberg’s connection with a movement composed principally of black people is subordinated to the film’s gratuitous interest in planting a good man in the F.B.I. Unable to imagine and unwilling to explore what oppression truly feels like, it contents itself with saying the right things and centering white people as the sole agents of history.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Vince Vaughn, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney, Gabriel Sky Director: Benedict Andrews Screenwriter: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Black Christmas Takes a Simplistic Stab at the Battle of the Sexes
Sophia Takal’s remake elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics.1.5
Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian horror classic Black Christmas depends, for effect, on the terrifying unknowability of its killer, and delights in a twisted web of psychosexual tensions. As a proto-slasher film set in a sorority house, it’s also surprisingly celebratory of female agency and empowerment, particularly through its normalized depiction of women discussing abortion a mere five years after Canada officially legalized the procedure. Sophia Takal’s remake, however, elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics, transforming what was once a terrifyingly ambiguous male threat upon unsuspecting women into an explicit and hackneyed embodiment of the patriarchy itself in the form of a fraternity of hooded, Skull and Bones-esque alpha males.
Takal and co-screenwriter April Wolfe obviously aim to update Black Christmas for the Me Too era, but they settle for hollow wish fulfillment rather than meaningful social critique. When Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the most politically active of the core group of sorority girls in the film, steps up to a group of emphatically evil frat boys—“You messed with the wrong sisters!”—it’s apparent that the filmmakers are less interested in actually dissecting the precepts and effects of college rape culture and the patriarchal dominance still coursing through our institutions of higher learning than they are in clumsily upending that male authority with increasingly pedantic signposts of “don’t tread on me” girl power.
It’s a shame because Takal exhibits a deep sensitivity toward her main protagonist, Riley (Imogen Poots), which is particularly evident in the film’s depiction of the young woman’s trauma from being drugged and raped three years ago by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the former president of DKO, Hawthorne College’s most prestigious fraternity. It’s both moving and amusing to see Riley, after years of not being believed, and several of her sorority sisters perform a clever twist on “Up on the Housetop” at DKO’s Christmas party, for the way it calls out rape culture and deliberately embarrasses Brian upon his return to campus. But following this scene, Black Christmas’s condemnation of toxic masculinity is dulled as it goes about painting both its male and female characters in broader and broader strokes.
Carey Elwes’s misogynist Professor Gelson, who’d be twirling his mustache if he had one, is a virtual clone of acclaimed psychologist Jordan Peterson, and he’s surrounded by a fleet of interchangeable, cartoonishly villainous dudebros involved in some shady dealings at DKO that shift from the harmlessly cliché to the patently absurd. The women of this remake don’t exactly fare much better, as they’re constantly lauded for their strength and loyalty—most ridiculously in a lengthy digression during which the sorority sisters are compared to ants—yet with the exception of Riley, they never rise above their paper-thin conceptions.
The filmmakers’ overly simplistic depiction of good and evil is mitigated to some degree by the presence of Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), the awkward white-knight character whose compassion and respect for Riley serves as a much-needed, though muted, contrast to the rampant machismo and fragility that defines so many of the film’s other male characters. But as the large horde of black-masked and hooded men spread across campus, slaughtering sorority girls with reckless abandon, Black Christmas builds to a strained confrontation between the sexes that doesn’t fall into any sort of gray area when it comes to its depiction of male-female conflict. Instead, the film hammers home the same simplistic, however valid, points about male sovereignty on college campuses that it’s already made at least a dozen times.
With this third act’s introduction of supernatural elements linked to a mysteriously powerful black liquid that leaks from within the college founder’s bust, Black Christmas goes completely off the rails, setting up an action set piece that makes the “Marvel Women assemble” moment from Avengers: Endgame seem slyly deployed by comparison. Takal is gleeful in her depiction of the patriarchy getting its comeuppance, but her expression of female empowerment is misguided for succumbing to revenge fantasy, suggesting that the path toward equality lies in the very same forms of violence that men have enacted upon women for centuries.
Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Madelaine Adams, Zoë Robins, Ryan McIntyre Director: Sophia Takal Screenwriter: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 92 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jumanji: The Next Level Finds a Series Stuck in Repeat Mode
The moments in which the film’s blockbuster stars play memorably against type are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action.1
Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: The Next Level visibly strains to justify its existence beyond the desire for profit. The wild success of its predecessor guaranteed another entry in the series, but there’s so little reason for its characters to return to the video game world of Jumanji that this film struggles to orient them toward a collision course with destiny.
Now scattered to the winds of collegiate life, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) keep in touch via group text as they plan a reunion over winter break. Kasdan shoots these moments with excruciating pauses that would seem a deliberate reflection of the awkward cadences of texting were the characters’ in-person conversations not every bit as stilted and arrhythmic. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that Spencer, already so anxiety-ridden, is driven to such insecurity over the possibility that the members of his friend group went their separate ways that he reassembles the destroyed Jumanji game in order to feel some of the heroism he did during the gang’s earlier adventure.
Soon, Spencer’s friends discover what he did and go into Jumanji to get him, the twist this time being that everyone gets assigned to a different player than they were last time, complicating their grasp of the game’s mechanics. But making matters worse is that Jumanji also sucks in Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), who gets assigned Spencer’s old hero, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), as well as Eddie’s estranged business partner and friend, Milo (Danny Glover), who’s placed into the body of zoologist Frankling Finbar (Kevin Hart).
The sight of Johnson and Hart shaking up their stale partnership by play-acting as old men briefly enlivens The Next Level after 40 minutes of laborious setup and leaden jokes. Watching the Rock scrunch up his face as he strains to hear anyone and speaking every line in a high, nasal whine with halting confusion does get old after a while, but there’s an agreeable hint of his tetchy, anxious performance in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales to be found here.
Hart may be even better, tempering his exhausting manic energy by running to the other extreme to parody Glover’s deliberate manner of speaking. The actor draws out every sentence into lugubrious asides and warm pleasantries even in the midst of danger. In the film’s only laugh-out-loud moment, Milo spends so much time spouting asinine facts that he fails to prevent Eddie from losing a player life, prompting a baffled and anguished Milo to lament, “Did I kill Eddie by talking too slow, just like he always said I would?”
But such moments, in which the film’s blockbuster stars play against type, are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action. There’s no sense of escalation to The Next Level, with each set piece almost instantly collapsing into a busy spectacle of eluding stampeding animals, running across rope bridges, and taking on waves of enemies. There’s no weight to any of these sequences, nor to the game’s new villain, a brutal conqueror (Rory McCann) who embodies all the laziness of the writing of antagonists for hastily assembled sequels.
Likewise, for all the emphasis on video game characters who can be swapped out on a whim, it’s the players themselves who come across as the most thinly drawn and interchangeable beneath their avatars. None of the kids have any real personality, merely a single defining quirk that makes it easy to identify them when their avatars mimic them. And when the film pauses to address some kind of character conflict, be it Spencer and Martha’s ambiguous relationship or Eddie and Milo’s attempts at reconciliation, it only further exposes the film’s meaninglessness. The original 1995 film, disposable as it may be, finds actual pathos in its menacing escalation of horrors and the existential terror of contemplating a lifetime stuck in the game as the world moved on. The Next Level, on the other hand, is a moribund, hollow exercise, dutifully recycling blockbuster and video game tropes without complicating either.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Awkwafina, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann Director: Jake Kasdan Screenwriter: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Chinese Portrait Is a Grand Reckoning with the Passage of Time
The drama here is in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t.3.5
As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged.
The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions.
The drama here is also in Chinese Portrait’s very concept, which is similar to that of Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, where motion is born out of prolonged stillness, and to that of Susana de Sousa Dias’s works on the effects of Portuguese dictatorship, Obscure Light and 48, where stillness is all there is, photographs namely, and yet so much moves. Wang’s film also bears a kinship with Agnès Varda’s later work, where a human being is made singular in a fast-moving world by standing still and recognizing the device that records them. Both Varda and Wang seem to see sacrilege in taking the camera for granted. A couple of tableaux in Chinese Portrait derail the notion of the individual embossed from their habitat by the camera’s insistent gaze, as in a group of men kneeling down to pray, their backs to the audience, and a later segment of a crowd standing entirely motionless in the middle of an abandoned construction site, sporting scarves and winter jackets, staring at the camera in unison.
Something remains quite alive and oddly “natural” within the documentary’s portraits as Wang’s mostly still subjects inhabit the gap between staging and posing by appearing disaffected. Or perhaps they’re stunned by modernity’s deadlock. Everyone seems perpetually in transit yet perpetually stuck. Wang’s fleeting portraits feature Chinese folk confronting the lens in their everyday environments, but not all of them react to the camera’s might in the same way. Some stand still and stare while others look away, but they’re all largely aware of the recording device singling them out as muses of the landscape.
The portraits offer evidence of differing temporalities in this numbingly fast world, too convinced of its universal globalism. Evidence of conflicting temporalities within worlds, too, as some subjects in the same frame bother to stop and others go on about their lives. In a provincial alleyway, various men sit on stoops from foreground to background. Some stare into the horizon—that is, a cemented wall, the film’s most recurring motif. Others refuse to allow the viewers to be the only ones looking. Several bathers on a sandy beach stare at the off-camera ocean, except for one man wearing a large fanny pack, certainly staring at us behind his shades. At a construction site, an excavator digs while another worker sits on a slab of concrete, gawking at us as we gawk at them. A man rests his hands on his hoe to look at the camera with a half-smile, like someone from the 1980s, who may approach the cameraperson to ask what channel this is for and when he can expect to be on television.
Through the sheer power of blocking, the methodical positioning of elements in the frame, Wang reaches back to a time when there was an interval, a space for waiting and wondering, between an image being taken and an image being seen. Another temporality, indeed, captured by cameras, not telephones. That was back when sharpie scribbles would don the tail end of film reels, which are kept in the frame here by Wang, as one portrait transitions into the next. The filmmaker’s urgent reminder seems to be that it’s not all just one continual flow. Time can actually stop, and we can choose to look or to look away.
Director: Xiaoshuai Wang Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 79 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019