Shock Treatment: Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (’89, Kino) and Lars von Trier’s Manderlay (’06, IFC Films)by Matt Peterson
Michael Haneke debuted with 1989’s The Seventh Continent, and he came out swinging. The beginning of a trilogy once described by the director as a reflection on “the progressive emotional glaciation of Austria,” Continent features a style fully formed. With a cold, static, and judgmental frame, Haneke dares to be boring, employing long takes detailing the monotonous protocol of bourgeois daily existence. Rarely has the banality of middle class family life been presented as this brutal and inhuman. Haneke’s loaded presentation of this ostensibly ordered universe possesses an ominous menace comparable to Roman Polanski at his best.
Michael Haneke draws inspiration from the ascetic naturalism of Robert Bresson; from Michelangelo Antonioni’s cold and distanced presentation of characters, but without his eye for beauty; and from the control and political weight of Jean-Luc Godard’s mid-late ’60s abstraction, but without his eye for color or his fetishizing of beautiful women. Anything these filmmakers provided that might distract from tension, Haneke decisively rejects. Haneke’s mise en scene is confrontational, oppressive, and sterile, though not without its own sardonic grin. Undoubtedly influenced by Bertolt Brecht, both in his approach to craft as well as his inherent political agenda (epater le bourgeois!), Haneke’s most apparent gift as a filmmaker is his mastery of pacing.
The Seventh Continent methodically follows a married couple and their child as they conduct their daily lives: wake up, prepare breakfast, get dressed, get gas, get their car washed, etc. With sparse dialogue, Haneke highlights how little the family communicates. The plot is revealed through a series of letters addressed to the husband’s parents, periodically updating them on their son’s life. As we start to be made aware of the couple’s weariness and lack of fulfillment, we are spared the expected existential crisis. Instead, halfway through the film, the shit hits the fan. Haneke delivers a second half that is as destructive, cathartic, and painful as you will ever see.
The even more disturbing Benny’s Video (’92) details another of Haneke’s key themes: a critique of media, image, and representation, and its relationship to our understanding and processing of violence. Using a stylistic template similar to The Seventh Continent, Benny’s somber realism is the foundation for its discomfort. The title character is played by an adolescent Arno Frisch, here making his debut; who between this and Haneke’s Funny Games, could be the Austrian Malcolm McDowell.
The trilogy’s final installment, 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance (’94), is Haneke’s most abstract, meditative, and cryptic film. He attempts to weave together unrelated stories, juxtaposed against repetitive news reports presenting the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Given its elliptical narrative, Haneke thus ends the series with his most challenging film.
Released individually on DVD by Kino last May, Haneke’s trilogy also comes as a 4-pack with 1997’s Funny Games. All four feature 20-minute interviews with the director, where he is surprisingly open about his intentions.
Lars von Trier’s Manderlay premiered at Cannes (nominated for the Golden Palm), on its way to the New York and Toronto film festivals. Unfortunately, all the festivals didn’t do the film much good, as it went virtually unseen in its limited theatrical run here in the states. All the more disappointing as it’s the second installment in von Trier’s “USA—Land Of Opportunities” trilogy, following 2004’s Dogville (also nominated for the Golden Palm).
The trilogy’s main character is Grace, played in Dogville by Nicole Kidman. Her replacement for Manderlay is Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of actor/director Ron Howard. That the star of von Trier’s second film in a series explicitly crafted to criticize the United States is played by the daughter of Opie and Richie Cunningham is no accident. And it’s not meant to be. It’s no more absurd than casting Kidman as his lead in all three films (she pulled out due to scheduling conflicts). The trilogy takes place entirely on a soundstage with no proper sets or locations. Instead, written in chalk on the blank stage is the word “house” when they’re supposed to be in a house, or “field” when they should be on a field. The films were all shot by von Trier himself with a handheld camera.
While no stranger to provocative experiments when it comes to form, nowhere is von Trier’s love of Bertolt Brecht more evident. (“The Ballad Of Pirate Jenny,” a song from Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, was the inspiration for Dogville.) Here von Trier out-Brecht’s Brecht himself, showing unflinching confidence and comfort putting Brecht’s oft-referenced theories to use.
The film’s rigorous self-reflexive presentation features narration by John Hurt (omnipotent, distant, and unmoved), as well as jarring, ironic, and spoiling chapter breaks with titles such as “Chapter 8: In Which Grace Settles With Manderlay And The Film Ends.” Surprisingly enough, Bryce Dallas Howard is perfectly cast, and credible, as she effortlessly embodies the dangerously naive Grace.
And despite the film’s meticulous presentation, its style is not flatly decadent. It is rather a basis for a powerful, courageous, and compelling attack of, among many things, misguided liberal self-assuredness. Not one to let a film’s style be its only controversy, the plot takes place in 1930’s Alabama, 70 years after the abolition of slavery, on an estate which seems to have not gotten the news. With a cast that includes Lauren Bacall, Willem Dafoe, and Danny Glover, von Trier posits that the abolition of slavery gave those it freed no satisfactory societal infrastructure in which to survive, and allowed for former slave owners to merely find new ways to suppress, and literally re-enslave, African Americans. In one particularly moving moment, Danny Glover’s character tells us, “America was not ready to welcome us Negroes 70 years ago, and it still isn’t. And the way things are going, it won’t be in 100 years from now.” The ill-equipped Grace does her best to help the slaves, attempting to explain freedom and democracy, and establish new working relationships with the plantation owners. It doesn’t go well.
In many ways tighter and more accessible than Dogville (and not 3 hours long), Manderlay was championed by, oddly enough, Roger Ebert, and features excellent use of a David Bowie song.
Matt is currently putting together a book of interviews, On Political Film.