Time of the Wolf, the new film from French director Michael Haneke, begins with the same simple, unassuming style of credits that begin his other films. It's a signal that you're back in Haneke's lab.
He has a habit of playing with his viewers, forcing them to construct meaningful associations between random, prosaic moments in Code Unknown, or letting someone survive an ordeal in Funny Games (note the title) only to rewind the film and let the scene play out again, this time killing the character. Individually, his films might seem mystifying or coldly indifferent to the ugliness they present. But even The Piano Teacher's endless rude shocks seem, in the context of his other work, a good-natured attempt to give us something other than the usual --- even when, as with Funny Games, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
He is no mere provocateur, but Time of the Wolf, mostly absent of the trademark jolts that might otherwise carry it, offers little else. (His most cogent intellectual points are usually tied in to the jolts in any case.) Taking place in a societal breakdown following some unknown event, the semi-apocalyptic scenario would seem to promise plenty of emotional punches to the gut the way a blockbuster delivers explosions. But Haneke seems to less subvert these expectations than just be in a sleepy mood, content to document a sour, eventless depiction of how mankind might react to such a situation.
When Isabella Huppert and her children are violently cleaved of their patriarch and their supplies at the summer home they have escaped to, they set out to forage for food, water, and shelter. Although their trials are bereft of emotional impact, this is the best part of the film. Haneke gives us a realistic version of the more overwrought imaginings explored in other films. It's not a lot, this realism, but it's enough.
But when the abbreviated family finds shelter with a bunch of others decamped in a train depot, Time of the Wolf takes an unfortunate turn for the familiar. People stuck in one place together, squabbling, has been a dramatic convention for some time, reminding me most of '50s teleplays. The predictable carping and sniping and divisiveness among the group, hardly original or interesting, is mainly the focus of the rest of the film. I kept praying for the family to leave and go wander silently through the forest, anything --- but alas, they don't.
Things pick up a bit at the end with a memorable and poetic scene, and while it's not enough to make the movie, it at least promises that Haneke's sense of style has not left us. With a final shot that is paradoxically as cathartic as it is ambiguous, he reminds us he is one of the most interesting things going on in cinema today and rewards us with a moment of subtle beauty and emotion after the long slog.
Time of the Wolf screens at The Dryden Theater on Saturday, August 31.
--- Andy Davis