Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bleak House.

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide".
-Albert Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus"

In Michael Haneke's "The Seventh Continent", a bourgeoisie Austrian family make preparations to migrate, but the nature of the whole film lies in that simple observation by Camus.
OK, perhaps it's not that simple, given how society deals with suicide and any idea pertaining leaving life before time.
But Haneke asks precisely, what is the time and in telling the story of the Schober family creates a piece that defines his entire vision.
We see as husband Georg (Dieter Berner), wife Anna (Brigit Doll) and daughter Eva (Leni Tanzer) go on their normal lives for six years only to end in planned suicide.
Haneke's strict formalism has rarely been so effective (and this was his first feature film!) as he takes on the day by day of the three characters.
The whole movie in fact is contained within the first five minutes, where we see the family go to the carwash and wait patiently while the process is over.

When they leave they make a turn and we see a tourism poster for Australia.
The haunting, physically impossible landscape (see the waves coming from the mountains?) becomes a recurring image of what the Schobers consider the title continent.

After this scene we follow them to their house where we see them engage in routine actions.
They wake up at six in the morning, mom wakes Eva, they feed the fish, have breakfast and then leave for work/school.

Before we know it, its' been almost fifteen minutes and we don't even know what these people look like. Haneke frames every shot so that they appear like disembodied limbs performing mechanical duties.
He questions our need to recognize humanity in others through facial features when he reveals the car as the garage door opens and the headlights take on a sort of anthropomorph qualities.

Haneke makes us ask ourselves why do we think people are less people if they embrace routine. Out of all the reviews I read for "The Seventh Continent" not a single one forgot to mention how the Schobers were mechanical, dull, stuck, robot-like, conformists etc...
The qualities that become the easiest to notice are the ones we're brought up to think of as evil and consuming, yet those are the same ones we take as given in order to establish a place in society.
We learn that life is about struggle and this usually requires us to sacrifice our liberty in the name of getting "places".
Perhaps this vision is more true in our continent where materialism is both worshiped and loathed, so for us to watch the Schobers might sometimes work as a cautionary tale.
Surprisingly though, no one dares to wonder if they were in fact happy.
If suicide wasn't just the next step, as say going on vacation would be to a do-well-family in our countries.
"We've decided to set sail, because except for you, nothing else is holding us here" writes Georg to his parents as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
What results so brilliant about Haneke is that he never judges them in the ways we probably will. Sure his formal frames suggest psychological tendencies that recall ennui, but only because we've grown used to them meaning that.
Some audience members might find the last part of the film difficult to stomach, especially because it involves the death of a young girl.
But what if this young girl was prepared to die?
The way the movie shows it, Eva is perhaps even more fascinated by the seventh continent than her parents.
Sure, children don't have the analyzing capacity of grownups and it can be said that her parents coerced the girl into joining their unorthodox migrating, but that's just one of the many mysteries that make this film so fascinating.

What resulted interesting to me was that the statements made in the movie were almost meant to be observed with the contents of Camus' essay.
I didn't do the reading/watching on purpose, I didn't even know what "The Seventh Continent" dealt with before I saw it and they both make for a profound meditation on existentialism.

"I think that remembering the life we led it is easy to accept the idea of an end" says Georg without a trace of bitterness, regret or irony.
In fact even when Haneke suggests at the possibility of them committing suicide because the media asked them to (we all know how the director feels about the media and violence) this theory comes off slightly overdone because throughout the movie he has made us wonder if the Schobers kill themselves because of their possessions or in spite of them.
Even when we see them go through their home destroying everything they have, we wonder if this is done out of anger and revenge or just to prove the world how meaningless everything was to them.

I usually have conflict respecting the auteur theory, because more often than not, the auteurs' signatures and trademarks become signs of complacency.
With Haneke, especially in this film, it was a bit different. To see a director establish who he was from the first minutes of his first film is to behold the birth of one of the greatest visualists and thinkers cinema has ever had.

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