Tuesday, July 29, 2008

DVD of the Week: "The Seventh Continent" (Michael Haneke, 1989)

I was joking around with some people from work yesterday about how every director's first feature film is always there best. (This was spawned by Jonathan Rosenbaum's assertion in the new Cinema Scope Magazine that his favorite Gus Van Sant film is a 12-minute short he made before his first feature.) With lower expectations and untamed minds at work, my bold statement has some merit, although it, of course, is not always true. And it's not quite true for this weeks DVD of the week, The Seventh Continent (1989), the first feature of Austrian director Michael Haneke. The Seventh Continent along with the more recent Cache (2005) are Haneke's masterpieces, and if forced to choose one I may take Cache, if only because it was at the 2005 Telluride Film Festival where I saw Cache, met Haneke, and changed my way of thinking from Film Production to Film Studies. Nevertheless, The Seventh Continent is, in many ways, just as assured and resonates with many of the themes that Haneke's oeuvre has dealt with.

This personal bit aside, The Seventh Continent is a bold and daring first film that immediately announced Haneke as a provocative force in the international film community. Although it was mostly unseen (at least in the States) until it was released on DVD a couple years ago, it stands out from the rest of Haneke's early work (and from the majority of any of his work, for that matter.) A strong and unrelentless portrait of urban postmodern isolation, the film is becoming more impactful and frightening with each passing year. Apparently based on true events, the last half of the film left me bewildered and stunned. Even for people unfamiliar with Haneke or even for those who have not been fans in the past, The Seventh Continent is a film to be reckoned with and without a doubt one of the best and most important films of the 1980s.

by James Hansen


Ed Howard said...

This is one of those films that is pretty much resistant to criticism. It's such a strong and uncompromising statement of nearly complete nihilism -- on the one hand there's no rational response but to hate it, even while its power is impossible to deny. In that respect, I'd put it in the same category as Haneke's later Funny Games (the original, not the remake, which I haven't seen). It's a formal exercise where the unrelenting structure communicates the director's points about modern hopelessness in the face of a numbing commercial society.

That said, I find much more to like about Haneke when his films are less deterministic. Cache, The Piano Teacher, and Time of the Wolf are equally uncompromising and, in their own ways, equally bleak, but they also have some human warmth, some emotion, and they offer their characters the luxury of choice, a way out of their misery. The Seventh Continent and Funny Games offer no such choices; they're determinist exercises that pace the characters towards an inevitable fate. Haneke's better films offer up the possibility of hope, even if his characters still end up in self-destruction and misery. If The Seventh Continent says, "this is what people are doing to themselves today," Cache goes much further by saying, "this is what people are doing, and this is how things could be made better."

James Hansen said...

Thanks for the comments, Ed. I agree for the most part about what you said here about the film's determinism, yet I found there to be much more in terms of depth in "The Seventh Continent" than dictatorial formal exercises like "Funny Games" or even the less interesting "Benny's Video". "The Seventh Continent" works its way to the numbness and, despite being horribly bleak, I think it lingers on a hope that there is another option out there. These characters may not find it, but there is something. I don't find that same sensibility in most of Haneke's earlier work (or either version of "Funny Games", I suppose).

I certainly agree with the comments about "Cache"... add those as another reason that it stands out in all of Haneke's work. I wasn't a big "Time of the Wolf" fan, if only because it was so drone that it was difficult for me to stick with. The characters may be more human, but the film didn't have the same life. And I should have mentioned "The Piano Teacher" as another Haneke masterpiece...it's got it all as well.

Thanks again for the thoughts!

Ed Howard said...

I'll agree with you that The Seventh Continent is the best of Haneke's schematic works, followed closely by the elliptical, episodic 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. I'm curious though, what exactly do you see as hopeful in Continent? To me, the film sets up these characters only to tear them apart in the second half. Cache really places the choice in the hands of the protagonist -- that's a film about the consequences of the choices we make, the consequences of oppression and violence coming back to haunt the oppressors. And it's about the possibility of change in the next generation. That's a stark contrast to, say, Benny's Video, in which the next generation has already been corrupted and defiled.