The follow review is the first entry in Ronan Doyle’s Michael Haneke Director Spotlight.
Framed in darkness, seated in silence, a middle-class family proceeds slowly through a carwash. They are Georg, an engineer rising in his firm; Anna, co-owner with her brother of the opticians where she works; and Eva, the couple’s young daughter. The scene plays out beneath the film’s opening credits, but it is so much more than simply a convenient juncture at which to list the filmmakers. Each passing second makes ever more apparent the family’s collective silence, and the concomitant gulf between them. Why do they seem so remote? What is it about these people’s lives that seems to have made them so distant?
The Seventh Continent is divided into three sections across three sequential years 1987-9. The first of these introduces us to the family and their routine, Haneke’s static camera focusing upon their actions: the alarm clock is turned off; feet slot into slippers; curtains are drawn open; teeth are brushed; shoes are tied; the child is awoken; fish are fed; breakfast is eaten. Even in showing these for the first time, the film makes clear that these are functions that have become almost automated. It is some six minutes before we get a clear view of any of the family’s faces; the focus on what they are doing rather than on the people themselves draws our attention to the austerity of their ritualistic lives, and the minimal interactions they undergo with each other.
The film’s editing reinforces the rigid structure to this typical day, a black screen separating each significant element of the routine: dropping Anna at work; dropping Eva at school; pulling into a designated parking space. This is an episodic life, built around the same few events repeated daily. The production design reflects this too, the homogenous whites and dull palettes of the house and workplaces a literal manifestation of this banality. One of the film’s most memorable shots takes a wide lens to Georg’s office, seeming to draw its ceiling toward the floor and create an image of oppression and confinement.
Commercialism’s vacuousness provides a good deal of Haneke’s fuel, his shooting of the family’s shopping experience a precise and extremely effective example of isolation among a crowd. There are wordless exchanges with butchers and cashiers, the camera looks upon money changing hands and the furious tapping of buttons, we cut from one empty interaction to another. We may be surrounded by other people in life, but Haneke here shows the incredible impersonality of our society. When Anna’s brother breaks down in tears during a dinner with the family (their mother has recently died), nobody knows how to react to this outburst of visceral emotion. Their lives are so shrouded in disaffection that they seem incapable of dealing with any degree of real feeling.
In the film’s second section, set a year later, we see repeated almost exactly the same shots as the first. This time they follow a sex scene between Anna and Georg, perhaps simply to demonstrate that they are not wholly incapable of passion. Little has changed since the previous year, the routine still precisely intact. Georg’s move into middle management is marked by an awkward interaction with his ousted former superior in a scene that highlights the lack of compassion of the commercial business world. The section concludes as the family drives slowly by the scene of a fatal accident, the camera here moving for the first time in the film to take in the sight of covered bodies lying dead on the road. This serves as the film’s turning point, followed immediately by a repetition of the opening scene memorably marked by Anna’s fitful inability to restrain her sobs.
To discuss the film’s remarkable third part would be to spoil the effect of seeing it unfold, a great deal of its effect rooted in the slow realization of what it is that is about to happen. The significance of restaging the film’s beginning is to cement this as the family’s new beginning. The carwash provides an interesting metaphor for their life in many ways: propelling them slowly forward in an automated process as they sit silently, allowing it to control what happens to them. It is again repeated in the film’s closing scene: a rapid succession of previous images structured around a shot of a blank television. There is here a striking final punch that adds a pungent aftertaste to The Seventh Continent: the recurrence of screens. The television screen; the window screen; most importantly of all, the screen upon which we see the film itself: The Seventh Continent is a haunting and harrowing portrait not necessarily because of what we see unfold, but because Haneke tell us that we are essentially in the same position as Anna and Georg, sat before a screen; that their life is not so different from our own.
Showing the first incarnations of many of the issues that would inform Haneke’s later work, The Seventh Continent is an incredible debut, a difficult look at the existence not just of very real characters, but of us too. This is a film that subjects its audience to rigorous emotions and painful realizations, a brutally honest and unrestrained mirror held up before us. As cold as the life it depicts, this is no easy watch, but its value may well be inestimable.
[notification type=”star”]94/100 ~ AMAZING. Showing the first incarnations of many of the issues that would inform Haneke’s later work, The Seventh Continent is an incredible debut, a difficult look at the existence not just of very real characters, but of us too.[/notification]