Sunday, August 16, 2009

MIFF 2009 Review: The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon
Dir. Michael Haneke
Year: 2009
Aus Rating: N/A
Running Time: 144mins

As some people will be aware, I have a strange relationship when it comes to Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. Of the films from his resume that I have seen, opinions run wild from the excellence of Hidden to the appalling Time of the Wolf. I have routinely felt that he is a director who feels he is better than you, me and everyone we know. Although his recent shot-for-shot remake of his own dire Funny Games proves that, perhaps, he's not as smart as he thinks. All this brings me to The White Ribbon, a movie that feels like none other than Haneke has made.

This latest, the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes earlier this year, feels distinctly different to his previous work. Not so much more conventional as it is made with more conventional ingredients. There's a love story, notably pretty cinematography and a fluid flow made out of less stagnant shots. Of course that doesn't mean the movie is any more mainstream than The Piano Teacher. There is a mystery that doesn't get resolved, there are disturbing themes of violence and sexual repression and other goodies just like it. If Hidden couldn't break him out of the arthouse ghetto then I doubt this will.

A man riding his horse gets tripped by a hidden wire in the opening scene of The White Ribbon, and so starts the series of mysterious events that plague the villagers in this pre-WWI German town. And while they prove quite fascinating Haneke seems to lose interest, as I was certain he would, and instead decides to focus more on the lives of these townsfolk. There's a religious teacher, the adulterous Baroness, the nosy school children, the mean-spirited doctor. It could almost count as a soap opera if it weren't for all the displays of pretension and worshipping of arthouse deities. The mysteries are always there, mostly kept to the background, but he has other things on his mind. What they are I can't quite say.

That may come off as negative, but I actually quite liked The White Ribbon in a general sort of way. I battled sinking eyelids throughout early parts of the film, but once I got over my enjoyment went up. Perhaps "enjoyment" isn't the right word, actually, since there's not much here to enjoy if the typical sense, but the world that Haneke makes here is a great study and one that is filled with tension, danger and even, at times, delightful frivolity.

However, and there tends to always be a however when it comes to Haneke and I, I can't help but feel that The White Ribbon is yet another case of a director putting too much onto the audience when there, perhaps, might not be enough there to warrant it. I am sure Haneke has all sorts of ideas inserted into this movie, which he also wrote, but yet again a director has gone down the path of ambiguity to disguise it and, judging from the people sitting around me at the MIFF screening, I'm not alone in thinking that it's not there on the screen. It's all well and good for a film to be a metaphor or an allegory or whatever Haneke intentended this film to be, but if he expects the audience to pick up all of the slack then I don't know if he has done his job.

There are moments here that with just minor tweaking could have really changed the entire film. Whether that be making it more sinister or having less of a wondering eye in regards to certain plot points. He also provides narration, but that barely helps since it usually acts as nothing more than a literal narration of what is on screen. By now fans of Haneke can probably see anything they want to see in one of his movies, but I'm not entirely positive that with this film it actually is there. No amount of stunning - and I do mean stunning - cinematography (by Christian Berger) or solid acting (my personal favourite being who I believe is Leonie Benesch, but character names are all a blur here so I can't be entirely positive unfortunately) can hide that. For me The White Ribbon falls squarely alongside Code Unknown. Respectable and well-intentioned, but flawed by a director who is too busy being mysterious instead of actually just telling a story. B-

1 comment:

Paul Martin said...

Glenn, I think you're looking too hard or trying to read things that aren't there. I didn't see any of the flaws you see - for me it's close to flawless.

In some respects it's very different to Haneke's other films, but in others it's pure Haneke. That the narrative is shared across so many characters is new ground, as far as I am aware. It's more of an ensemble piece.

The film works on different levels. We have the teacher's narration of events as he recalls them, conscious that time has distorted the facts. On this level, it appears to be a mystery, a whodunnit with regards to the wire and the various acts of apparent and actual retribution.

I think this is just a hook to grab the audience's attention and take it down a rabbit hole. It's a whodunnit like Hidden in which we can debate endlessly about whodunnit. Was it the daughter who set the wire? Was it the housekeeper? Does it really matter? That we are wondering and debating it enhances the experience, like it did with Hidden.

All this is, I believe, a pretext or a dramatic arc to engage the audience while presenting what Haneke is really about. He is depicting on a micro level, a community's interaction as a metaphor for the greater society. We see how the various elements of the establishment relate to each other and their families and Haneke is giving some clue as to why society is the way it is, and why the about to explode war unravelled the way it did.

I'm told that Haneke says his film tries to explain all horrors right up to the current day.

In short, the film is all about the journey and not the destination. For me, the journey is immensely fulfilling and the film represents a real maturity in Haneke's work. It was the closest thing to a knock-out at MIFF 2009 for me.