Directorspective: 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)


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71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance was Haneke’s third feature film, and the closing chapter of his “Glaciation Trilogy.” It chronicles fragments of several different characters’ lives in unconnected storylines, until they intersect in a shooting at a bank. Some of the characters we meet are a Romanian runaway street-urchin who’s living on the streets in Vienna, a couple who can’t conceive and are looking to adopt, an overworked student, and one of the guards at the bank.

The title is very literal – we see bits and pieces of the character’s lives in fractured vignettes, leading up to the shocking climax, which the film informs us of in its opening titles.

The fractured method of storytelling means that we see the characters in a variety of different settings, with very little context to what’s happening or who they are, and the constant cutting between different storylines, rather than devoting large chunks of the film to one character before moving onto the next means it feels like it’s a much longer film than it actually is. I’ve no doubt this was Haneke’s intention.

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For the majority of the film it’s hard to really determine what the movie is trying to say or do. It’s not building up to its climax, because it’s already given it away. It’s not trying to evoke tragedy from the loss of the characters’ lives, because we never really understand who they are. For the most part the film has the characteristic coldness and distance from its characters that we’ve come to expect from Haneke, but there’s a mounting dread that continues to build throughout all of those scenes, even though there’s nothing specific in the scenes that can be pointed out as signifying the tension to the viewer (except for the knowledge of the film’s foregone conclusion.)

The approach of having a scene start in the middle and cut off before any mini-narrative can be developed is frustrating; it constantly feels like we’re having plot information withheld from us and that we’re being cut off from gaining access into the story. This fragmented storytelling means that you sit there wondering what the film is really doing, because you already know what it’s building towards.

My conclusion is that it’s simply presenting the characters as actual people who have actual lives that don’t easily fall into a narrative just because they’re in a film. The “chance” of the title is a grim one; in that it was simply chance that they all end up in the bank at the same time. Haneke’s fear of violence means that, by his own logic, the climax is terrifying because it happens to ordinary people. For the viewer, not being able to understand who these ordinary people are means that there’s no investment into fearing the inevitable shooting.

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Despite my lacklustre descriptions here, it’s not a worthless experience to view. More generous reviewers have described the fragmented story as a “mosaic” which is fitting in the sense that smaller parts make up the bigger picture. For me, it’s just a problem that the bigger picture is, at the end of everything, not particularly involving.

Some of the scenes are interesting despite their ephemeral nature, some of them are entirely tedious (the static shot of the shooter playing ping-pong seems to run for an eternity and offers absolutely no relevance), and as a result, the film often comes across as though Haneke was playing around with his artistic sensibilities to see what he could do and what would work. Some of it does, some of it doesn’t. At the very least, the climactic bank shooting is a bold scene of effective and efficient filmmaking, but at the end of it all, we’re introduced to a concept that didn’t really need a feature film to explain: people getting shot at random isn’t a good thing.

But there’s more to it than that. 71 Fragments… closes off Haneke’s “Glaciation Trilogy” which also comprises The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video.

The films all cover off the alienation and the socio-cultural malaise of Austria that Haneke wished to explore. And he does explore it, just with his typical distance from the film.

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The Seventh Continent examined how those who don’t assimilate into the status quo of such institutionalised mundaneness are destroyed by its oppression; Benny’s Video examines what such a society can produce and why it needs to be discussed.

71 Fragments on the other hand examines the cultural differences at the time that that either influenced or set Austria apart from its neighbours. One of the characters has fled Romania and is living in the streets of Vienna; the film is peppered with news reports about the constant plight of citizens on the ground in warzones (Bosnia, Somalia et al). Scenes of Michael Jackson’s molestation trial seem to comment (however opaquely) to the shooter, a seemingly mild-mannered student who snaps under the pressure of…well we’re never really sure what, but there seems to be an answer in the sense of a society dragging its citizens down by their feet that the film creates.

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At the risk of offending those with brows held high, this trilogy is at its best when it’s at its most conventional. Benny’s Video has the familiar cause-and-effect nature of storytelling that means it’s easier to understand where Haneke’s coming from. The Seventh Continent is mystifying until its shocking climax, but at least has a central point of explaining the characters’ context.

71 Fragments… on the other hand is too abstract to really ground itself with any specific relevance. The fragments we see are of course indicative of the fragments of real life that are lost in such an event as the bank shooting that rounds off the film; with the knowledge of the previous films in the trilogy, it’s a listless exploration of what Haneke clearly felt to be an oppressive regime of mediocrity and entrenched laissez-faireism. But ultimately, as a filmic experience it’s one that leaves a viewer cold and detached. This may be deliberate, but I can’t be certain.

But at the end of this, is it a good film? It’s definitely not Haneke’s strongest, but it is one of his more creative in terms of what he’s doing with the film format. It’s not a film that I regret watching, and there are some superb moments to be seen, but I feel no real need to ever see it again.

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