Coming out of the haze and chill of Haneke’s “The Glaciation Trilogy“, his 2001 offering, La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) feels like a walk in the park. Straightforward plot, strange but decipherable characters. Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard your share of stories of repressed individuals who turn out to have the most disgusting sexual fantasies. This is an intense character study of such an individual. Erika is a piano teacher who shares an apartment (and a bedroom) with her domineering mother, and one day meets a student who is attracted to her. Isabelle Huppert is amazing here. You wouldn’t want to cross her.
In the third and final film in his Glaciation Trilogy, Haneke leaves the family sphere and looks at several unrelated characters. Of the three films, 71 Fragments, though still clinical and unattached in its presentation of events, is the most emotional and accessible, featuring characters who could very well be a neighbor or a relative. It shows the degradation of communication in an age when we have all the communication devices we can ever need, our isolation despite the opportunities to connect. I was very much taken by that scene featuring the old man living on his own, talking on the phone with his daughter and granddaughter. It was a “nine-minute, fully scripted” dialogue, but we can only hear the old man, alternately sweet and cruel.
Like the other two films, 71 Fragments also takes a look at the bourgeoisie. Nothing can be more middle-class than stress during Christmas, and altercations at a bank, and how adherence to rules can sometimes make us hoard what little kindness we can impart. When the student, desperate to get money to pay his gas so he could stop blocking the gas station, is turned away “because there is a line”, what happens next makes the bank teller’s and bank customers’ firm stand comical and worthless. What’s a few seconds to spare for a young man so clearly tired, so clearly in need of help? He only wants 300 schillings from his own bank account.
The Austin Film Society quotes Haneke in this entry:
This style of fragmenting his story is in purposeful opposition to “mainstream cinema,” which is peopled by writer/directors who give the impression of knowing everything [about their characters and their situations]. Haneke rails against filmmakers who imply that a character is simply a certain way [a one-dimensionally good or bad person]. Haneke says passionately, “A character is never just this. It’s also that. And all these alsos are often contradictory. That’s what makes life so rich and also irritating. It’s irritating in a work [of art] because we’re used to always having the answer to why someone is like that.”
“You should always rebel against what’s wrong, against evil. You can rebel against that in film by showing it in a way that gives you a desire for the alternative, not in a way that makes it consumable. Dramatic art has never agreed with the status quo.”
Be kind, goddamn it.
So after seeing Caché (2005) recently, and realizing that I am fascinated with Michael Haneke’s stories and directing style, I decided to devote some time to watching his films. All of them, in order, if possible.
The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video are the first two films in Haneke’s so-called “Glaciation Trilogy”, which deals with “emotional glaciation”. It’s such a beautiful, concrete, spot-on term describing the unknowable malaise that affect the families in these two films, slowly but surely stripping them of life. The Seventh Continent in my opinion is the superior of the two, beginning with a shot of a family sitting inside their vehicle in a car wash. What is more pointless than sitting inside a car that is being washed by a machine? Why not just step out and do chores, read a book, enjoy the sunlight? But the family members themselves are like machines, and we feel the deadening effect of their days as we watch them prepare meals, go to work, go to school, eat breakfast, pay at the cashier. If they are happy doing these things we do not know, because Haneke frames the shots in such a way that we only see their torsos. Maybe their eyes are so dead that they are not worth filming. The repetitive shots of cashiers’s fingers typing the prices of the objects they buy at the grocery – like all the other shots that seem so pointless and yet such a part of our own daily lives – become meaningful and sad in hindsight, after we witness the third act. Anne, the mother, only shows emotion in the grocery after the decision (I must not tell you); when the grocer asks, “Are you having a lot of people over?”, Anne bites into a piece of chocolate, her face bright, suddenly so full of life and purpose, and says no.
The brilliance of The Seventh Continent must have spoiled me, because I felt nothing for Benny’s Video. I love the clinical precision of the cinematography, but – and this is disturbing to say – it’s supposed to be shocking but it no longer shocks me, having been shocked by Haneke before. Benny is a 14-year-old boy who is so in love with videos that he’d rather watch a live video feed of the street outside rather than look out of the window. It’s about disconnected youth, a well-off family who only looks closer when something horrible happens, but these are topics that have been tackled before in cinema and elsewhere. I was hoping the film could give me some new insight, but instead it shows a boy watching violent films and listening to metal. (Although one can argue that Benny is a born psychopath attracted to violent media.) It felt too simplistic, and said nothing new to me.