Monday, June 12, 2006

the seventh continent: fiction vs. fact

the seventh continentan average middle-class, white-collar austrian family is depicted in a typical day from three successive years. the last day, though, is anything but typical. problem is, they lead incredibly boring, mundane lives. they don't really live: they do stuff. feet go out of bed and into slippers, teeth get brushed, meals are prepared and eaten unceremoniously, work and school are attended. and so on the day of the third year we are shown, the family carries out their decision to put an end to it all -- for good. they sell the car, withdraw all their money from the bank, tell inquirers that they are emigrating to australia (hence the film's title), write a note to the in-laws, prepare one last meal and proceed to destroy all of their possessions before swallowing poison.

aside from the roughly ten minutes or so when we see the family ripping up their clothes, tearing up books and photo albums, breaking LP records, flushing all the money down the toilet and taking a sledghammer to all their furnishings (a sheer delight to watch!), my initial thought was ho-hum, postmodern nihilism, what a bunch of self-indulgent crap. even the scene where the husband upchucks his first round of poison and proceeds to guzzle a new glassful: how very sid and nancy i thought (1986, three years before "the seventh continent"). i nearly wrote the film off altogether. something, perhaps the titles at the end of the film saying the in-laws did not believe the family's suicide note and ordered a police investigation that turned up no evidence of foul play but was nevertheless listed the deaths as an unsolved case, compelled me to scan through the interview with director michael haneke and i'm glad i did. clearly the end titles did not sink in. this was not a pure fiction: haneke based the narrative on a newspaper account of a factual occurrence.

what is it about the factuality of these events that made me essentially do a complete turnabout in my feelings about the film? i can't really say, and i don't know that i've ever had an about-face like this in my impressions of anything. there's a brilliant moment in the interview where haneke talks about when this film was shown at cannes, the audience howled in protest over the money-flushing scene. haneke says the police on the scene found the money in the pipes and plumbing after the fact, which is how they knew the family attempted to dispose of their money this way. i mean, how stupid? clearly these people did not think everything through. but haneke remarks instead how telling it is about us that we can watch a family kill itself and not raise a whimper but destroy money and people cry foul!

the seventh continenti guess part of why i changed my feelings about the film is how the facticity makes it all literal while fictionality makes it too ironic? i'm not altogether sure how strongly i would recommend the film because it is rather painstaking -- unlike the majesterial deliberateness of bela tarr in "the werckmeister harmonies," "the seventh continent" borders on studied tedium. (in this sense it's closer to "the brown bunny" but without the blowjob.) but nevertheless i'll certainly check out the other two films in haneke's "glaciation trilogy" ("benny's video" and "71 fragments of a chronology of chance," also released on DVD from kino last month). there's also an interview with christopher sharret and an essay by matias frey online at senses of cinema that i'm going to check out.

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