I remember reading a number of science-fiction novels, most of them published in the Seventies, which showed civilization coming to an end not through nuclear war or disease, but simple fatigue: Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Such stories are usually used as a demonstration of a bleak survival-of-the-fittest social philosophy — institutions are arbitrary creations, men are ultimately animals, etc. — and even if the insights aren’t exactly new, they’re usually cast in a way that makes them at least riveting as drama.
Temps du Loup is a film made more or less in that vein, about a time ostensibly not so far from now, when things have indeed fallen apart; it’s, as they say, every man for himself and God against all. But it is not about a disease that has a miracle cure, or a heroic trek to restore the protagonist with his family; it follows a group of survivors doing nothing more than the best they can to survive, and ends on a deliberately inconclusive note. The process is more important than the outcome here.
Loup opens with Anne (Isabelle Huppert), her two children and her husband arriving at a country summer home. Right away we can tell they are not here on vacation: their tones are flat and urgent, their faces tense. Someone else has broken into the house before them, and he shoots Anne’s husband dead before they can even figure out if he wants anything. Anne and the kids flee, and eventually end up in the company of a group of others who are squatting in the switch room of a train station, waiting for … answers? Rescue? Trains come through every now and then, but pass coldly on by without stopping, and there are vague plans to blockade the tracks and force them to stop.
Anne's family, fleeing from unspecified disaster, find themselves at gunpoint in their own summer home.
Her husband will be the first to die, and the rest of the family will be cast out on its own.
There are no specific details about what has gone wrong. There are hints that the water has become contaminated and that livestock are dying, but the movie is also constructed in such a way that those things seem merely like symptoms of much larger problems. It’s maddeningly vague, and effectively frightening for that very reason: if the problems were more specific, the movie would become a mere thriller with a mechanical solution, and it’s not. The only solutions are immediate and desperate, like the sobbing woman who will gladly trade her body for a jug of water — a scene that might have seemed maudlin if it were not so dispassionately observed.
There is one scene in the film that is masterful, and it comes early enough to give us a full sense of the existential dread the characters are facing. Anne and her children, hiding in a farmhouse, awaken to discover that Ben, the boy, has gone missing. They start pitiful little fires with the aid of her cigarette lighter. They call Ben’s name, again and again, in voices that are tinged raw with hysteria. Then, after many minutes of almost no editing at all, just simple observation, Haneke cuts and we see the aftermath of their carelessness: they have burned the whole building down. They are not “survivor types”, but those they meet that are seem to be missing the connectedness to other people that would make such a thing worthwhile.
Compassion sets Anne apart from many of the others, even when it might be counterproductive.
Through it she is able to find connectedness with other refugees and prolong their survival (or at least their comfort).
The three of them bring a disruptive element wherever they go: compassion for their fellow man, even when it has not been immediately earned. When they encounter an angry young man with a cut hand, he threatens Ben even though he has nothing to gain by doing so (and they everything to lose). They offer to treat his wounds, and are rewarded if not with his sympathy then at least with information about what is going on and where they might go. “I’m happiest when I’m alone,” he insists, and goes out of his way to prove it by stealing someone else’s glasses so he can start a fire for himself when the sun comes up. The problem with compassion, in his case, is that he’s obliged to return it, and he seems to have forgotten how to do that — along with most everyone else.
Not everyone is cruel or selfish. There is Béa, with whom Anne swaps cigarettes for food, who advises Anne about what to trade and what to hang onto, and who speaks of the “Just” whom God have appointed to watch over man. By contrast, there is Mr. Koslowski, the self-appointed leader of the cadre at the train station: he offers help-of-a-sort but in an angry, self-important way, and sticks resolutely to the rule of there being no free lunches anywhere — even when it alienates the very people who might be of use to him. Then there are the hordes of others who only understand hunger and fear: “We respect the rules or we may as well give up,” someone says at one point, only to be slapped with: “What have you got to give up?”
Anne's daughter forms a tentative connection with one of the more feral survivors, a boy barely older than her,
while her brother, Ben, becomes increasingly remote and disconnected from the goings-on.
Loup was directed by Michael Haneke, currently (and deservedly) famous for his movie Caché, which commanded great praise at Cannes. He was also responsible for the Man Bites Dog-like Funny Games, a movie I’m still not sure I like, and the more accessible Code Unknown and The Piano Teacher. His tactic here is to leave out everything that does not absolutely belong — no music, no unneeded camera movements or editing, and no framing devices like fake newsreel footage or narration. The Road Warrior, probably one of the most famous things-fell-apart movies, used both of the latter to good effect but for totally different ends.
For all of its grit and violence, though, that movie was essentially mythology and fantasy; this one is blunter and more realistic about what might happen — both for ill and for good. There is cruelty and paranoia and despair, but there is also goodness, and in the end there is even a spark of hope that comes from a wholly unexpected place, much as it does in real life.