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The opening shot of an SUV places Time of the Wolf as clearly as any image could: This is the modern world. We’ll soon learn that the story transpires in a country where most people speak French, but no other establishing details are offered, and they’d be superfluous anyway. The modern world is about to go medieval, and where and how people lived before are things that just won’t matter anymore.
Time of the Wolf is a disaster movie, but it differs in several significant aspects from Hollywood’s idea of the genre. Most American disaster movies are merely car-chase flicks writ large: Instead of crashing a whole fleet of police cruisers, films such as The Day After Tomorrow gleefully smash human civilization. Austrian-bred writer-director Michael Haneke doesn’t have the inclination—or the budget—to do that kind of damage, but he accomplishes something most mainstream commercial filmmakers wouldn’t dare: Rather than depict a vast but comfortably remote spectacular, he plunges the audience into the action, denying so much information that the gap between viewer and character almost vanishes. You aren’t actually there, of course, but the film convincingly suggests that you could be next in line.
The immediate victims of the movie’s unexplained apocalypse are the members of a bourgeois urban family, neatly balanced into mom, dad, girl, and boy. That symmetry is upset as soon as the foursome arrives at its cabin in the country, which has been claimed by armed squatters. An attempt at reasonable discourse ends with a rifle shot; in the time it take to cut from him to the kids, Dad is dead. Cast out from their refuge, Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her two children, Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) and Ben (Lucas Biscombe), hit the road with just a bicycle, Ben’s parakeet, and a single coat for the three of them.
After receiving little or no help from several village acquaintances, Anne and the kids encounter a feral, unnamed teenager (Hakim Taleb) who possesses the survival skills they lack. He accompanies them, sometimes at a distance, as they follow railway tracks to a provincial station where a desperate, barter-oriented mini-economy has developed under the rough control of Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet, The Son’s father). This is human society in microcosm, and it’s not pretty. A makeshift brothel has already been established, with ethnic hostility soon to arrive. Untainted water is precious, but no one offers to give any to a foreign woman whose baby is sick.
The relationship between the teenager and the family suggests André Téchiné’s recent Strayed and—given the sexual tension that develops between the boy and Eva—Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. Yet this strained alliance doesn’t prove to be the crux of the narrative, whose focus shifts between the characters. (Among the bit players are Betty Blue star Béatrice Dalle and directors Brigitte Roüan and Patrice Chéreau.) Huppert’s unflinching performance as a woman in the grips of psychosexual obsession carried Haneke’s last film, The Piano Teacher, and for a time she’s central to this one, as well. But other people come to the fore, and the riveting final scene turns on someone whose significance seemingly receded after the movie’s first half.
The director, who employed violence with confrontational impudence in such early films as Funny Games and Benny’s Video, conjures an aura of hushed menace with near-black night scenes, an essentially music-free—though hardly silent—soundtrack, and brief instances of bloodletting. Though the landscape is European, the circumstances suggest Sudan, Cambodia, and other places whose deprivations seem alien to most Westerners. The film’s victims are usually not human—this is not an experience for softhearted animal lovers—but at any moment they could be. Neither civilization nor the requirements of a PG-13 rating are present to bar a potential horror.
The movie takes its title from the Nordic fable of Ragnarok, the final battle that will destroy the Earth, and the people who gather at the depot quickly construct new myths and invent new gods. A woman tells Anne about a group of mysterious superhumans called the Just; a man extols the Brothers of Fire, who immolate themselves for the redemption of mankind. People need myths, the director suggests—although he apparently doesn’t. Time of the Wolf is as unblinking as The Piano Teacher, but is more powerful for flipping that film’s premise: Rather than continuing to study extreme psychology, Haneke here observes what can happen to the SUV-owning family next door under extreme—but by no means impossible—circumstances.
The pertinent disasters are emotional in Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s captivatingly austere Distant, a film that comes from the edge of the Third World yet feels more Parisian than Time of the Wolf. But one thing the two movies share is a subtle mastery of sound, and Distant opens with a long, unbroken take in which the crunch of a foot through crusty snow is as important as the rural landscape. Eventually, a man enters the frame: Yusuf, who’s as alone in this spare composition as he will be when he reaches teeming Istanbul.
The movie’s first words are a phone message from an Istanbul resident’s mother. Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir) is home, but he doesn’t answer. A successful yet disconsolate photographer, Mahmut is apparently uninterested in what’s happening in the village where he was born. That village is on its way to him, however, in the form of Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), his cousin. Laid off from a failed factory, Yusuf plans on finding adventure and fortune as a sailor. The job, he tells Mahmut, will pay him in U.S. dollars and will be found in a week. Mahmut doesn’t argue. He just announces the several house rules—smoking only in the kitchen, for example—that Yusuf will soon break.
It’s unclear exactly how long it takes Yusuf to realize that he won’t get a job on a ship, although it’s certainly longer than a week. But the potential of his quest is illustrated on his first full day in Istanbul, in which Yusuf trudges to the harbor. It snowed overnight, and every sound is eerily amplified, yielding a symphony of ambient noise. Along the way, Yusuf passes a partially capsized ship crammed uselessly into its slip. If that’s not a metaphor for the Turkish shipping industry, it’s certainly a reliable portent.
Work is better for Mahmut, but he no longer cares. “Photography is finished,” he tells friends at a cafe, before launching into a discussion of one of Distant’s influences, Andrei Tarkovsky. (In the next scene, Mahmut and Yusuf watch Tarkovsky’s Stalker on TV, though Mahmut switches to porn when his guest goes to bed.) What’s really finished is Mahmut’s marriage: Although he’s been divorced for a while, he’s come to accept that Nazan (Zuhal Gencer Erkaya) is gone only now that she’s remarried and planning to emigrate to Canada. The loss of Nazan and the quest to rid his large, somewhat shabby apartment of mice seem to be the central issues of Mahmut’s life. When he gets an assignment in Anatolia, a jaunt on which he takes Yusuf, it seems like the occasion for a possible breakthrough—or at least that’s the role road trips often play in low-key existential documents like this one. But the journey is no more eventful than a visit to the neighborhood market, and it doesn’t alter the cousins’ dynamic whatsoever.
As Distant gradually demonstrates, Ceylan is not in the breakthrough business. Neither Mahmut’s nor Yusuf’s life and underlying loneliness will fundamentally change. Although Mahmut has a lover and Yusuf is restricted to admiring glances, neither has significant rapport with a woman. Fittingly, it’s Nazan who titles the movie: After meeting Mahmut in a cafe for a farewell, she calls to apologize for being “somewhat distant.”
Tarkovsky’s slow-paced, fastidiously composed films are not meant for video, and neither is Distant. The movie requires the full cinematic experience, and that definitely includes enveloping audio. The best kind of control freak, Ceylan shot and co-edited the film in addition to writing, directing, and producing it. He doesn’t want anything to mar the downbeat ambience, whether syrupy strings—indeed, the only music is overheard—or contrived reconciliations. Less storytelling than mood-spinning, Distant is proof that the business of capturing the world in sound and image is far from finished. CP