George and Anne Laurent arrive at their holiday home with their family in tow, and are just about to start unpacking when they discover two strangers in their home. It’s not Funny Games all over again, just the start of Time of the Wolf, one of the most unusual of Michael Haneke’s films.
The strangers in the home end up forcing the family out, accidentally killing George in the process. Anne (Isabelle Huppert) then takes charge of leading her two kids to safety – in a world that has been beset by some bizarre apocalypse, or perhaps more specifically, a break-down of society.
We learn very little of this, except that most of the water around is now undrinkable, and food is scarce. The story tracks Anne and her children, Eva and Ben for a little while, as they find shelter and hold out against the night. In one great scene, Ben goes missing in the night from a barn they’ve been sheltering in, and Anne sets out to find him. There’s no light except for the handfuls of hay she burns to create an impromptu torch, and Eva stays at the barn keeping a bale alight. As Eva sets out into the night, the film follows the two spots of light at different intervals creating a fascinatingly disorienting effect.
They recover Ben the next day and join the company of a lone drifter boy, who is abrasive and espouses a sense of survivalism which fools no one, as he’s as equally scared as the rest. They traverse the French countryside for a while, before arriving at a railway station, where they hope to be able to get a train back into the city, where life is apparently better.
Once they arrive at the railway station, they join the company of several other survivors, a family of immigrants who are trying to keep their traditions alive as much as they can, and another band who are trying to create a new sense of order and regimented society, with varying degrees of success.
After some time, the survivors are joined by a much larger group of survivors, whose numbers turn the railway station into a small commune of sorts. While there’s more interaction for everyone, there’s more confrontation and tension, different groups start to show their different moralities and priorities, etc.
The drifter boy that Anne, Eva and Ben toured around with for a while shows up again, and he and Eva have a little fledgling-romance sort of thing for a while until he starts stealing stuff from the camp, Anne enters into a state of mind somewhere between extreme laissez-faire and outright catatonia and has little to do for the rest of the movie until the couple who shot her husband show up at the station, in a scene that goes nowhere.
Eventually, just when you think they should rename the train Godot, it arrives, and our survivors ride back into the city, or at least it’s implied that way.
Time of the Wolf is a frustrating movie. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold it to the same standard as Haneke’s other work, and to expect every subsequent work to be a searing masterpiece, but there’s so very little in this movie that can be really held up to scrutiny.
Most of Haneke’s films have a message behind them, or a direct focus on themes or underlying ideas – Time of the Wolf seems like he’s been playing around with cameras and sounds for demo reel footage and cobbled a movie out of it. I pointed out the scene with Anne searching for Ben specifically, because it’s one of the few scenes that feels like there’s some active direction.
Much of the film is poorly staged, and it’s very difficult to follow which characters are which, and the murky lighting in the railway station doesn’t help matters either. Notable stars like Isabelle Huppert and Beatrice Dalle show up in the film but have so very little to do except bide their time on set (Huppert is particularly wasted, given that she has such access to her emotions and could have done a lot in a setting like this with a better character).
I also really didn’t like seeing a horse get killed on-screen (I don’t particularly care for animal cruelty) and there seems to be little purpose for its inclusion in the film except to pay homage to Andrei Tarkovsky doing similar things in Andrei Rublev (much of the film has a Tarkovskyan feel to it, so that may account for the listless plot).
Anaïs Demoustier as Eva gives a great performance, and in the entire film seems to be the only one attempting to convey a character aware of her surroundings. She’s the only active character, whereas everyone else plays their roles reactively without anything to react to.
But the main problem with the film is that it has no drive. It’s not about what it takes to survive, nor is it condemning the nature of humanity once society or order breaks down. It’s not a plot-driven film where the characters must journey from point A to B and what they learn along the way, nor is it a thematic film about these people stuck at a railway station biding their time for their salvation in the form of the train (and the film is bereft of metaphor, so it has little to no existential concern).
The problem with this film is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be, but also that it can’t really be anything. Haneke’s detached and clinical style doesn’t help matters at all, and there’s no inlet for audience connection with the film, save for Eva, who has a very direct plotline that doesn’t tie in the rest of the film alongside it, and so stands out as one good thing in a jumble of other weaker ones.
It’s a strange film. It’s not wholly worthless, and for those who are interested in Haneke’s work, or enjoyed films like The Road, there may be a fair bit to take away from it.
But, and it may still be unfair to hold these expectations, for a filmmaker like Michael Haneke who – whether you like his films or not – has a distinct style and method, and always seems to have a drive and purpose behind his films, Time of the Wolf is uncharacteristically voiceless.