Thursday, August 31, 2006

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (Haneke, 1994)

You’ve no doubt seen this kind of film before. A variety of seemingly unrelated people, each struggling with the day-to-day obstacles and disappointments of life, are drawn together by a single critical incident. Short Cuts, Magnolia and 21 Grams would be just a few noteworthy examples of this kind of storytelling which strives to underscore our interconnectedness and our fragility in a world that has a momentum too large for any one human to completely control. However, rarely has this structure been executed so masterfully as in Michael Haneke’s third film, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance.

From here, I will proceed with caution so as not to lessen the impact for anyone who plans to view the film. Even though Haneke tells us at the very beginning where his film will end, there is remarkable tension in the way that he introduces the various players and then slowly moves the pieces together. However, there is really no puzzle to 71 Fragments, no artificial plot twist to anticipate, nor any political subtext to translate. What the film does have though is an unnerving atmosphere of inevitability. Watching 71 Fragments, I wondered to myself how Haneke is able to achieve a mood that is so cold, so clinical and yet so captivating. My conclusion is that it is because his camera simply does not flinch. In any given scene, we may see emotions laid bare or a sudden act of violence or perhaps just someone engaged in an everyday activity of utter simplicity. Like a poker player, Haneke provides the viewer with no visual or auditory clues that would allow us to anticipate what is about to occur. 71 Fragments contains no underscore, precious few close-ups and a minimal amount of camera movement, reinforcing a perspective that is dispassionate - sometimes distressingly so.

Adding to this sense of detachment, Haneke provides a brief, but certainly noticeable pause between each of his scenes. The pause lasts barely more than the amount of time it would take to count one thousand-one; yet, this small stylistic choice forces us to consider the importance of each chunk of new information and how it relates to the incident that we know will eventually occur. Another critical factor contributing to the film’s suspense is that we have no idea how long each of these scenes – or fragments – will last. At times Haneke interrupts midstream just as we are getting involved in the moment – even in the middle of a sentence. At other times, he holds the camera on his actors for a duration far longer than we initially think he should. We think we understand what the scene is communicating, grow impatient as it seems to drag on and then eventually are startled to discover the scene evolve into something completely different. During that time, we experience a series of emotions and find ourselves in deep in thought. It is for this reason that Haneke’s films can feel so draining. Those who have seen the virtuoso long sequences in Funny Games and Cache will know what I am talking about. 71 Fragments contains at least two such scenes, neither of which I will spoil here.

In Haneke’s resolution, he finally finds a place for a joke. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the sort of joke that is likely to make you laugh out loud. On the contrary, it is a kind of cosmic joke that speaks volumes about the value of our lives and the overwhelming momentum of the human race as a whole. Haneke ends his film with probably one of the last faces you might expect to see and yet finds a way to use this persona to discreetly guide our interpretation towards his film’s overriding purpose. If it seems as if I have told you next to nothing about the film’s plot and characters, it is intentional. Never fear. They are certainly deeply compelling. But I will leave it for you to hopefully experience Haneke’s work as I did – as freshly as possible.



Post a Comment

<< Home