April 2010

Arts & Letters

As long as it’s black

By Luke Davies

Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ and Jan Kounen’s ‘Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky’

Michael Haneke is an unforgiving film-maker who explores suspense in various permutations without ever quite creating a thriller. Yet despite being an intellectual, even conceptual, director, his films hold us gripped in the stomach. His theatre of operations is the unflinching depiction of violence, and his films simmer with examples of human barbarity. For Haneke, the real drama – the suspense contained in both small-scale human interactions and in the great upheavals of history – lies always in the latent and the imminent. This makes him an austere, singularly ‘European’ director, the descendant of a lineage going back through Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer. If the great excesses of American cinema are baroque, Haneke is a mannerist master.

He came to international attention in 1992 with the disturbing Benny’s Video, in which a young man from a bourgeois family literally withdraws from the world, taking in the view outside his window only via a video camera patched through a television, and immersing himself in violent movies and speed metal. Benny’s Video has an acidic zing to it, and an awful, clinical cruelty, which builds to the protagonist’s senseless murder of a young girl. Yet the film doesn’t feel gratuitous; it makes apparent that Haneke is a film-maker who can use the very medium of his storytelling to reflect upon both itself and the medium at large. Here, implicitly, the great tradition of Hollywood schlock and gore – the pornography of violence, perhaps – was being eviscerated, and not by abstract argument or polemic, but from within: we sank into the film’s dread centre at exactly the same moment we knew we were being forced to question our relationship with violence as entertainment.

Funny Games (both his 1997 Austrian original and 2007 shot-by-shot American replica) polished and developed this subterfuge. People who dislike it tend to dislike it strongly; many argue it is exploitative, as well as no fun because it steps outside itself (a character breaks the fourth wall to address the audience several times). The film is terrifying, yet the comical, self-referential edge Haneke also manages to achieve means you’re more likely to come away in admiration of its brilliance than soured by its nihilism. A far more problematic film for me was The Piano Teacher (2001): for the first hour, I was on the edge of my seat, excited by its bold and caustic storytelling; in the second hour, the self-hatred of teacher Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) became far too much.

Like David Lynch, Haneke draws the macabre and the skew-whiff out of the everyday. While Lynch’s “daymares” are personal psychodramas, however, Haneke paints on a larger canvas. His 2005 film Hidden, which kept the audience guessing right up until its opaque ending, touched on racism and France’s past in colonial Algeria. His latest film, The White Ribbon (screening as part of the Audi Festival of German Films, 21 April–2 May, then in national release 6 May) explores even wider issues.

“The grown-ups of 1933 and 1945 were children in the years prior to World War I,” Haneke has said. “My film doesn’t attempt to explain German fascism. It explores the psychological preconditions of its adherents.” The circumstances used to explore that dark era are specific to one small town, one handful of macabre events. Clearly, something led to the twentieth-century's greatest moral catastrophe. But Haneke is more interested in lateral metaphor than narrative causality; as an artist rather than a historian, he seeks out resonances rather than roots.

It is 1913. A doctor in a small village breaks his collarbone when his horse is felled by a hidden wire. The police investigate. The rest of the town gossips and speculates. No clear culprit is immediately apparent. A series of shocking events then begin to pile up on each other. The film continually shifts focus between diverse sets of characters: the doctor and his mistress and children, the baron and his family, the pastor and his frightened clan, and, occasionally, the voice of the narrator, the village schoolteacher, who relays the film’s events from a future vantage point.

“I think I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village,” we’re told at the beginning. “They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.” Haneke’s journey towards clarification is an oblique one, but there’s something profoundly disturbing in the simplicity of this parable, shot in a sublimely gorgeous black and white.

The women – and girls – in this world exist primarily through the gaze and volition of the men. It’s a bleak life for all the children, but there seems to be an extra chill reserved for the girls. There’s deep trauma in Haneke’s film, and no small trauma to be raised in a bleak, repressive Protestantism that makes the Scottish elders in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) seem like veritable gadabouts. Central to this thread of repression is the portrayal of the pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and his family. He’s an awful, rigid man, who metes out floggings to his children for the most innocuous transgressions. The children respond blankly, but they do have an odd habit of turning up – always politely concerned – when the most troubling things are going on.

There’s a vague Village of the Damned meets Children of the Corn vibe, though The White Ribbon is neither sci-fi nor horror – and Haneke is deadly serious. The battle between parents and children is central to the film. Hitler, who is an enormous presence in the film if for no other reason than the initial voice-over, felt betrayed by the Fatherland, which he believed squandered 1000 years or more of glory leading up to the ignominy of World War I. Haneke takes a tiny slice of the pre-war era – a village in Germany, a world within a world – and shows some of its secrets and lies, in particular its violence. As an extended exercise in creating and maintaining dread, the film is very successful. But if you like resolution, you might want to avoid it.

It’s also 1913 in Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (released nationally on 15 April). On the opening night of his now-revered ballet The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) is backstage and very nervous, soothed somewhat by his wife, Catherine (Elena Morozova). Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) is in the audience, all wide-eyed in anticipation of a good night out. Diaghilev is also there, as is a neurotic Nijinsky, prepping his dancers. The camera glides down corridors, swoops out over the gathering audience and explores the backstage hubbub, creating a sense of frenetic, yet graceful, exuberance: practitioners and consumers, all of them privileged, gathering to feast at the table of art.

The first 20 minutes of the film are spent on the ballet’s famous rejection by its audience; the descent into riot is a great scene of growing chaos, lavishly mounted. Afterwards, backstage, all is emotional devastation. When Stravinsky complains that the dancers weren’t dancing in time, a bristling Nijinsky exclaims, “They danced perfectly in time to your crazy music!” Coco, it seems, loves both the production and the hoopla of disapproval. Mouglalis plays Coco with a languid, lanky, amused energy. Later, she shows a very masculine, bull-headed side in her business dealings, but for now she’s simply young and full of fierce ambition.

The film leaps forward seven years, to 1920. The Russian Revolution has driven Stravinsky, Catherine and their three children out of Russia to Paris. “The world tilted and we ended up here,” says Stravinsky. Coco is now close to the massive success that will be hers, but is reeling from the loss of her English lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel, in a car accident. “She makes even grief seem chic,” comments one character. Stravinsky and Chanel meet, and she invites him to stay at her house outside Paris. Thus the scene is set for the crux of the film (based on the 2002 novel by Chris Greenhalgh), which surmises that during this time the two had a short-lived affair that inspired bursts of creative energy from both of them.

Who knows if this is true? It is certainly fun, though perhaps not for the hapless, perceptive Catherine. The offer of the house is wonderful, but Catherine feels outclassed by this cool woman and her penetrating stare. “You don’t like colour, Mademoiselle Chanel?” she asks of the house’s stylish design. “As long as it’s black,” deadpans Coco. (In reality, Catherine had her hands more than full, right up to her death in 1939, coping with Stravinsky’s affair with Vera de Bosset, which lasted nearly two decades.)

Building her fashion house, creating Chanel No. 5 and being alert to the erotic potential that surely lies deep within the slightly stitched-up Igor seem to keep her occupied and focused.

It’s a cool film, temperature-wise, so these brief erotic flares are its strength. Everything starts with the knowing gaze; something is in the air when the leads first meet. Later, Stravinsky gives Chanel a piano lesson – music as sublimation in its purest form – and from there the tension builds through a series of setpieces. The first time they make love is the first time we see Stravinsky, albeit only briefly, dishevelled. Coco, meanwhile, merely segues from elegant to naked-and-elegant without so much as blinking.

Mikkelsen mostly plays Stravinsky as a brooding, sulky genius, so it’s great towards the end of the film to see him drunk and angry for a moment. There’s an obligatory fight with Coco, of course, though it all feels a little strained, as though the film is looking for an arc of passion that just isn’t there. “You think a man is worth two women? You can’t even compose without Catherine correcting your work.” “You’re not an artist, Coco, you’re a shopkeeper.” Ouch. Karl Lagerfeld and the Chanel estate were heavily involved in the film, so it has the stamp of approval, but perhaps that’s what makes it feel a little safe. It is visually sumptuous and sensuous. Its implication that Chanel and Stravinsky were both revolutionary in their own fields makes sense enough, and the film is certainly fun as an origin myth of sorts. That their (presumed) affair brought both revolutions together in a single passion is a more questionable conceit. But it gives the film a centre; its charm outweighs its froth.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Cover: April 2010
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