In the past couple of weeks I have watched two excellent films on similar themes, ‘Time of the Wolf’ (2003, Michael Haneke) and ‘The Road’ (2009, John Hillcoat based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy).
In ‘Time of the Wolf’ a French family flee to their countryside home after an unexplained catastrophic disaster. On arrival at the house the family discovers that the house is already occupied by intruders, there is an altercation during which the father is killed. The mother (Anne) takes her two children (Ben and Arina) away from the house and moves through the village asking for supplies. Eventually the family make their way to a train station where camp with a group of refugees. They wait for the arrival of a train which will they hope will take them to a better place, although it is uncertain when (or if) the train will ever arrive. In the aftermath of the disaster clean water is scarce and most of the animals have died. Life at the camp becomes increasingly harsh as fear and survival instinct force all structures of conventional society to break down. Violence and mob law prevails. When the family responsible for the death of Anna’s husband arrive at the camp, she immediately accuses them publicly – but with absence of proof nothing can be done. Arina befriends a young boy, but he is cast away from the camp after he is accused of stealing. Lying awake one night Arina and Ben witness the rape of a young girl while a knife is held to her throat – the next day she commits suicide. Finally at the end of the film Ben overhears a story about a group of angels jumping into the fire to save humanity. Alone at night Ben builds a fire, takes off his clothes and prepares to jump into it – but is prevented from doing so by a guard just in time. The guards holds him and tries to comfort him.
I’ll be honest, ‘Time of the Wolf’ really gave me the creeps; I watched it right before bedtime and had nightmares. I watched ‘The White Ribbon’ by Michael Haneke some time ago and it seems that he is rather at adept at portraying creepy intense children. Ben (played by Lucas Biscombe) loses the ability to speak as a result of trauma, so this is an exquisite and almost silent performance. The very final scene where Ben almost leaps into the flames was incredibly powerful and will remain in my mind long after the finer details of this movie have begun to dissolve.
I read several reviews of this film and found quite a lot of complaining about the nature of the disaster – which is never fully explained. Personally I think that this lack of explanation works effectively with the confusion, fear and uncertainty of the situation. It also fits in with reality . . . speculatively. I think. In the wake of an apocalyptic disaster all communication lines beyond the face to face close down, and it is not so much what happened that is important – but how to survive the aftermath.
‘The Road’ was written by Cormac McCarthy in 2006, and released as a film in 2009. The themes are incredibly similar to ‘Time of the Wolf’ although I would argue that this film is a bit more ‘hardcore’, probably because it extends years into the aftermath of the disaster (as opposed to weeks) and really plumbs the depths of the human will to survive. The characters are not given names in the book, but referred to as ‘boy’ and ‘man’ or father/son. This is the same in the film; and is a clever device because it hints at the anonymity and humanity of the story. These guys could be your dad or your son, they could be you.
The man (Viggo Mortensen) wakes one night to find that there has been some kind of disaster, outside everything is burning. Through a series of flashbacks we see his life before the apocalypse with his wife, and slowly chart their life in the years of the aftermath up to the present situation. His wife was pregnant before the disaster, and later gives birth to a son. As the years pass the earth begins to dies, the small animals are gone and the trees are dead – things become difficult. Rather than be assaulted and killed by a roaming gang, or live in hardship on the road the wife leaves – and presumably commits suicide. Knowing that he cannot survive the winter where he is, the man sets out on a journey south to the coast with his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in tow. They travel through a grey, desolate, post-apocalyptic world; afraid and suspicious of every other human being that they encounter. Cannibal tribes hunt in packs along the road, and the boy and his father do their best to avoid them while scavenging for food in empty houses. Along the way they encounter gangs, thieves, and a blind old man who muses on what it would be like to be the last man alive.
Similar to ‘Time of the Wolf’ the exact nature of the catastrophe is not revealed. And yeah, it works well here too. The nature of the disaster is not really relevant to the story. Suicide looms in both films as an escape from terrible situations, in both instances it seems that death might arrive soon away, but the characters are left to consider how much suffering they will have to put up with in the mean time.
2011, Directed by Lars Von Trier starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård and Kiefer Sutherland.
Let me start by saying that I have never seen a film by Lars von Trier before, and I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting into.
The open seven minutes or so are a series of slow moving and surrealist snapshots; a woman stares on unblinking while dead birds fall from the sky, two planetary bodies are shown colliding with the smallest being obliterated, a shot of Breugel’s is shown slowly disintegrating. If this sounds too avant-garde for you, then back away now; this isn’t going to be your thing.
The film is split into two parts following the lives of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainbourg). It begins with the chaotic wedding reception of Micheal (Alexander Skarsgård) and Justine. The couple arrives two hours late to the reception, and it’s clear from the outset that things aren’t going to improve. Justine begins to feel alienated, sinking into depression and gradually becoming more hostile towards her husband and guests. It’s tense to watch, and fine acting from Dunst who manages to pull off the balance between being brink of tears while trying to smile through her emotional pain. Ultimately she fails, and things quickly begin to break down.
Following the disintegration of Justine’s marriage and subsequent break down in mental health Claire encourages her sister to come and stay with her family. While this is happening it is revealed that a planet called Melancholia is heading towards earth on a possible collision path. While struggling to care for her deeply depressed sister Claire becomes nervous about the approach of the planet, and is wary of her husband’s insistence that it narrowly avoid hitting earth.
As Melancholia begins to loom large in the sky Claire begins to panic, fearing for the safety of her husband and young son. In contrast Justine displays an almost zen like calm, viewing the oncoming apocalypse or narrow miss with indifference and equal measures of hostility. Apparently Lars von Trier derived the idea for the film from the observation that severely depressed people often remain calm in stressful situations. Justine is wrapped up in a ‘Melancholia’ that of course has nothing to do with planet, and is totally indifferent to the outcome of her fate.
Melancholia deals with some serious themes; family relations, love, depression, death – human beings under pressure. The colours are muted and moody, and there’s plenty in here to get and art lover excited. I was reminded of Alain Resnais 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, because of the similarity of the grounds, although perhaps there’s also something in there about the way people can filter their own reality.
All things considered, Melancholia meets my approval and I’ll be exploring what else Lars von Trier has to offer. This certainly seems like an appropriate movie in wake of the looming 21/12/12 apocalypse suspicions. Happy pre-apocalpytic viewing everyone!