Getting Under Your Skin
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
“My kind of horror isn’t horror anymore,” the spookshow icon Boris Karloff lamented in his last movie, the 1968 thriller “Targets.” Chainsaw killers and zombies may have been Karloff’s immediate successor, but his true inheritance may be found in the works of the Austrian art-house director Michael Haneke. The Haneke retrospective opening Friday at Anthology Film Archives suggests that the exacting auteur lauded for last year’s “Caché” long ago perfected his subgenre: the horror movie about modernity.
Mr. Haneke’s slow-burn menace and analytic violence get under your skin. His tonal sangfroid and coldly clinical compositions are a relentless reproach to Western bourgeois complacency. Sometimes this intimidating insistence seems like the most salient quality of his oeuvre.He can get repetitive, even a little preachy, and his humorless formal control can be like stepping into the gleaming functionality of a Williams-Sonoma store staffed by a madman with a great sales pitch but an uncomfortable facility with the knives.
The global art house’s introduction to Mr. Haneke was his 1997 film “Funny Games” (July 15 & 22), which boasted all of his soon-to-be familiar calling cards. A home-invasion squirmfest indebted to “Straw Dogs” and “Cape Fear,” the film locks the audience in a country cottage with two clean-cut psychopaths and the upper-middle-class family they have confined.Torture, torment, and winks to the camera follow. The coup de grâce comes when the pair thwarts an escape attempt by rewinding the very movie they are in.
Mr. Haneke’s combination of visceral unease and dispassionate perspective was a surefire provocation, but not the attention-grabbing of a novice. The earliest film in this series and its harbinger, 1989’s “The Seventh Continent” (July 14, 19 & 22), is less a movie than an imploding self-destruction device. As a well-off family of three unhesitatingly sets about killing themselves and sledge-hammering their worldly possessions, the comfort of explanation or narrative buildup is withheld. In one of the purest of Mr. Haneke’s negations, he agonizingly crops the characters’ heads for what seems like most of the movie. Breakfast becomes a ritualized world of disconnected gestures and kitchenware.
As his career progressed, Mr. Haneke began to project the death wish of the family in “The Seventh Continent”outward.”Benny’s Video”(July 15, 20 & 23) entangles a couple in the horrific murder committed and videotaped by their son (Arno Frisch, later, perversely, one of the “Funny Games” fiends). Their protective but despicable reaction betrays the demoralized acts that civilized people can commit when no one is looking.
“71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance” (July 14 to 20) weaves its matrix around the days before a freak shooting spree in a bank.The ragged mosaic flits through the crowd from a Romanian street urchin to a needy grandpa and a bland adoptive couple, never alighting for long on anyone. A Haneke standby, the purgatory of a running television broadcast — especially when beaming news of the Bosnian war — opens and closes the mix.
The two early works look like templates for the surveillance potboiler “Caché” (July 18 & 22) and the globe-trotting everything-is-connected multinarrative of 2000’s “Code Unknown”(July 16 & 21), which even has its own bereft Romanian. Picking at the scab of the French-Algerian War, “Caché” shackles together ugly national and personal secrets, much as the German-language “Benny’s Video” does when a son rebelliously shaves his head and his father scoffs at the “concentration camp” look. In its total artistic unity of form and content, “Caché” marked Mr. Haneke’s Almodóvar moment, but lacking the latter’s sense of possibility, it might also be a cul-de-sac.
The movie that saves Mr. Haneke from himself is 2001’s “The Piano Teacher” (July 16, 21 & 23). Usually obsessively confident in his own screenwriting, Mr. Haneke here trusts a writer and, at last, a performance: one a genius, the Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, whose novel the film is based on; the other a woman I could watch letting paint dry, Isabelle Huppert.
Is it a coincidence that Mr. Haneke’s only truly moving drama is about a sadomasochistic artist? In any event, broadening his focus on sexual taboos, instead of violence or global privilege, proves liberating. The camera is also more limber, even nodding to Ms. Jelinek’s obstructionist prose by letting Ms. Huppert spend one emotional scene sitting with her back to the camera. (One can only wonder about the success of Mr. Haneke’s 1997 adaptation of Kafka’s “The Castle,” not included in the series.)
Ms. Huppert rejoined Mr. Haneke in 2003’s “Time of the Wolf” (July 17 & 23), another change of pace.This post-apocalyptic libertarian endgame has an ambitious affinity to “Shame”(1968), directed by the Norse god of the art house, Ingmar Bergman. “Time of the Wolf” seems like the intriguing, logical outcome of every previous unforgiving world Mr. Haneke brought to the screen — and yet is somehow less pessimistic.
Mr. Haneke looks set to keep remaking these worlds.Word is that his next film, his first in English, will be a remake of “Funny Games.” That’s perplexing, but perhaps a new tune lies in a cultural key change, like the conversion of his early German-language works into French. In the meantime, Anthology’s retrospective lays out the original items for our steely-eyed inspection and rapid repression.
Through July 23 (32 Second Avenue at 2nd Street, 212-505-5181).