An unnamed apocalypse lies at the center of Michael Haneke’s very underrated Time of The Wolf. The unnamed, and unexplained disaster (hinted at one point to have poisoned the water) only adds to the anxiety and dread that shrouds both the characters and eventually engulfs the audience by seriously fucking with expectations. The film begins not unlike his controversial 1997 film Funny Games, with a young bourgeois family (the so called ‘million dollar family:’ husband, wife, one boy, one girl) driving to their isolated cottage somewhere in rural France. They find, while unpacking their gear, another family holed up in their very-much-private property. The other family, like dark doppelgängers (and foreigners to boot) quickly lay waste to the idyllic nuclear family, dispatching Dad and leaving Mom and the children to fend for themselves in the harsh world.
When I first encountered Time of the Wolf at the Toronto Film Festival in 2003, I wasn’t very much aware of Michael Haneke, the connection was more that the film was an unconventional apocalypse film that was riffing on Ingmar Bergman’s “Hour of The Wolf,” at least insofar as the title. And the film starred the staggeringly talented Isabelle Huppert. Had I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the time of watching Time of the Wolf (which of course would have been impossible because the book had not been written then), it would have been apparent that in an elliptical way, Haneke has spiritually made an adaptation of that film, with much of the spirit and tone of the novel intact, only in a more desiccated and icy fashion – a strength of the director (on startling display in his recent Nazi allegory The White Ribbon). There is much fire in the film, in particular both a stark set piece involving Anna’s (Huppert) character trying to find her missing son against the backdrop of a flame engulfed barn and the same son in silhouette against a towering bonfire. But the flames here are cold and isolating, not the warm communal fire of community or hearth. For a while, it appears that the family is going to meet shut doors or unvarnished threats and carry out the duration of the film walking along fog shrouded roads and fields. Eventually they hook up with an orphan child who seems to be pretty savvy on survival instinct, if not to big on social grace or morality (the ‘new man’ in a brave new world). His suggestion is to get to one of the outpost train stations after they spot and fail to stop a functioning train. The child fades back into the shadows when the family arrives at one of these stations however. A makeshift community offers a strange and interesting microcosm of French society as they throw obstacles on the tracks hoping to stop, but not derail the next train that passes through. A hopeless and defeated bunch that basically only find the energy to either bicker or barter. Racial tensions flare up, and a woman enthusiastically confesses her belief in strange prophecy.
Unlike nearly every entry in the post-apocalyptic subgenre of filmmaking, Time of the Wolf never feels less than real. It threatens often to make the picture mundane, if such a subject could ever be rendered so. Huppert starts to fold inward and while still fiercely protecting her younglings, she spends much of the film reeling in over her head. A bicycle is clung to like a life-line (and in the now trade-economy with water food and batteries at a premium, this form of transport is probably is a powerful chip) even as many people trip over it. The last vestiges of civilization in this camp struggle with their own prejudices and fears, while the orphan child on the periphery leeches and causes further conflict. A stolen goat makes for some strong tension between Anna’s daughter and the young rebel. A casually witnessed sexual act and a horse felled for food (the animal itself likely killed during the production – it is that real looking) serve to remind of both the violence, indifference and raw selfishness in a world no longer ordered towards civilization. An act of both ignorance, selflessness and faith provides the penultimate scene with its tower bonfire and dark shadow is as iconic of an image as any in the directors quality oeuvre.
And, yet, Michael Haneke ends the film on a seductive (if esoteric) positive note. Just to leave the viewer even more disoriented and confused. If you are one of the many that feel that John Hillcoat’s version of The Road is too glossy and slick, or misses the forest for the trees, Time of the Wolf is the real deal: A disorienting and anxiety laden kick to the gut.