Thursday, 10 January 2013

A Short Review of Le Temps du Loup (2003)

I recently got my hands on this little French-language gem, directed (and written) by Austrian director Michael Hanneke who, it appears, is a bit of a household name. The English title translates the French one: Time of the Wolf. The story is quite standard post-apocalyptic fare: some unknown cataclysm (IMDB comments point out oblique references to nuclear war here and there, but it’s never spelled out) has upheaved the social order, and we follow a family trying to survive and make sense of their new rather hostile environment. The movie is entirely set in the French countryside, beautifully realized in all its bleakness and chill. The central location, where most of the film takes place, is a train station, where a diverse group are waiting, hoping against hope that a train will come and take them away.

The movie begins innocently: the Laurent family arrives at their summer cottage somewhere outside of Paris, their car stocked up with supplies. When they enter they are immediately faced by a man with a gun. A very nervous man, who asks them about what food they have and how much gas they have in the car (“very little”). The fact no-one says anything about the police at this point, and the fact that the housebreaker is accompanied by his wife and child – who immediately loot the Laurent’s bags for something to drink – is perhaps the first suggestion something is very wrong indeed.

The husband tries to bargain – he manages to send the children to safety outside, and then continues, sounding very reasonable indeed: sharing food, putting down the gun, talking about it. And then bam, he’s shot and killed, blood splattering over Isabelle Huppert’s character Anne. Just like that. There is no gore, no shots of brain matter, in fact we do not see the father and husband again, nor do we see the aftermath of that whole scene. The next thing we know Anne has taken her two children and their bike and is trekking down the road with little but the clothes on their backs.

This beginning scene sets the mood: talking isn’t going to help. Being reasonable isn’t going to help. But it’s not a question either of some kind of Mad Max-esque gang versus still-civilized families with children either: just normal people in abnormal circumstances. When Anne goes to her neighbors to explain what happened, they basically shrug: “You know how things are now.” Indeed we do.

Whereas American apocalypses often very quickly create an us-versus-them mentality, where there are good guys and bad guys, and where the bad guys are very obviously bad (e.g. Mad Max) and violence is taken for granted, Le temps du loup is much more subtle than that. At the train station where Anne and her children eventually end up, most of the people seem perfectly normal. Scared and stressed, they blow up at one another, squabble over who has authority over whom, and protect their own to the exclusion of everyone else. The leader is a man named Koslowski, who seems to lead only because he has a gun in his pocket – a gun, interestingly, that is never even shown. Yet the mere mention of it is enough to make him, an otherwise very unassuming and uncharismatic figure, the ‘leader’.

Koslowski’s leadership is undermined when another group arrives, a group so big that when Anne asks them “who are you?” they all reply with “aren’t you with us?” The original group is entirely subsumed into this new group, which carries with it animals, guns and some kind of organization. At this point they stumble into the man (and his family) we met in the beginning, who shot the father. They try to exact some kind of justice, but the murderer vehemently denies everything, making it a case of his word against hers. An incredibly frustrating impasse, made even more so because it always feels like civilization, the old world, the rule of law and all the other things we take for granted are just so close.

The cover image of the film is a dramatic one – a naked child outlined against a blazing fire over railroad tracks. This is also the penultimate scene in the movie. The child is the younger of Anne’s two children, Ben. He intends to throw himself into the fire, offering himself up as a sacrifice in order to make things better. The basis of this belief comes from a storyteller and trickster they call the ‘razor eater’ that came with the new group. Among his stories is one of self-immolators who do just that in order to make things better, woven into an odd pseudo-religious narrative of the thirty six “Just”, people without whom the world would immediately cease to exist (this is apparently based on a semitic tradition of exactly this – 36 men who through overt or covert acts of good and justice keep the world from spiraling into the apocalypse). He is saved from this fate at the last moment by one of the guards, who despite Ben being entirely mute still recognizes the attempt for what it is. He tells him that his intentions were enough, that he was very brave, that maybe tomorrow a car or a train will arrive and someone will step out and tell them everything will go back to normal. The fact that this guard, this saving angel, is also a racist asshole who tried to kill an apparently innocent Polish man several times for alleged crimes makes the whole end scene doubly ambiguous. Where are the good guys? Where are the bad guys? What’s going on!

This is perhaps not as much a review as a notation of mood. The final scene of the movie is several minutes long, and consists of just the self-same French countryside passing by, watched from the window of a train. Is the train arriving, at long last? Has it already passed them by, leaving them behind? Are they already on it? My feeling was one of calm; if nothing else, it suggests trains are still running. Most of the movie consists of these long stretches of silence, with people staring into fires or into the dark of the night and, most importantly, not saying anything. Just being quiet. No-one communicates, and the actual main protagonist of the movie, Eva (Anne’s daughter) says as much in a letter she writes to her dead father (the only person, apparently, she can try to communicate with). She tries to befriend a thieving runaway who is probably much her same age, but he proves to be unreliable, selfish and, above all, a lone wolf. Although, like all characters in Le temps du loup, far from entirely unrelatable.

The mood of silence, of despair, of coldness and darkness is, I feel, supplanted by the one I felt the most strongly: the feeling of injustice. The feeling that something very unjust is happening. In whatever conversations the characters have amongst one another, this same feeling is topmost. It is unjust Koslowski leads merely because he has a gun. It is unjust the poor Polish family’s child dies. It is unjust a probably mentally ill woman is raped and then later commits suicide. The water merchants are unjust. Even the purported leader of the larger group is unjust – as he says himself, he’s not ‘really’ the leader, he just “organizes things”. No-one takes responsibility, no-one carries the blame. Or then everyone does. What is suggested throughout is, in short, that perhaps the 36 just men are no longer around; all it takes after all is that one disappears for the whole world to be consumed by its sin.

The Road, both the movie and the book, are of course also unjust in many ways. Most post-apocalyptic narratives are. But most of them have also introduced, and solidified, a new status quo. In The Road, it is absolutely clear that no-one but the father and the son are allowed into that duo. They may share their food sometimes and they may show compassion and empathy with others they meet, but in the end, there is no-one but the two of them. The behavior of others, however ghastly and monstrous, must also be understood as a symptom of the new status quo: if you are caught by the bad guys in The Road, they won’t mince words: they will kill you and eat your body. In Le temps du loup, there is (not yet) any such status quo. Most people still want to adhere to old rules of morality and decency – such as the man who, despite his glasses being stolen, does not want the thief thrown out into the woods. Others, such as the water merchant who steals this self-same man’s watch for no other reason than that he can, seem to want to impose a new order on things, but it is all still too fragile, too new, too uncertain. Most importantly, we can see the slide towards what we see as the new post-apocalyptic status quo, and it’s terrifying. The bottom line seems to be: this could be us, tomorrow. Us tomorrow with all of our old problems and unresolved issues and petty disputes and useless skills, not to mention the piles upon piles of evidently traumatized children amongst the families, staring hollow-eyed at the new world. And as such, the topmost feeling must always be one of a great injustice being done: “What have we done to deserve all of this?”

And thus, the great post-apocalyptic challenge: “What have you done to prevent it?”

Le temps du loup (IMDB):
The 36 Just (Wikipedia):