25 August 2002 | Nriks
Far from recommended viewing -- especially for those suffering from depression.
Perhaps the most painful and miserable film in the history of cinema, Michael Haneke's 'The Seventh Continent' is like a full-blown punch to the stomach. Like watching someone bleed to death, this nihilistic debut feature from one of European cinema's most singular visionaries is slow, painful to look at, and far, far from enjoyable. Beginning with a credit sequence that shows a family vehicle moving through a car wash, in real-time -- taking about ten-minutes in total for the car to be hosed down, waxed and buffed, before they pull out of the garage and drive away -- is a sequence as infuriating as it is hypnotic, and expertly sets up the idea of cleansing that will be central throughout, with Haneke returning to the car-wash motif many-times during the early stages of the film.
The oppressive mood and subject matter is unsurprising when you consider Haneke's involvement. Never a director to shy away from more down-beat aspects of life, his films have dealt with everything from torture, to screen-violence and more recently incest, making him the least likely filmmaker to be heading up the call-back list for 'Charlie's Angels 2' (although he might have a chance with the next 'Scary Movie' sequel). With 'The Seventh Continent' he chronicles the downward spiral of a seemingly normal middle-class family with intricate, almost surgical precision. He shoots the film entirely in locked-off close-up, meaning a full twenty-minutes go by before we see anything remotely resembling a human face -- this is because Haneke is more interested in the actions of the family rather than who they are, the message simply being that this could be any family in any country on any street -- even yours.
The use of repetition works well, but after the first hour it does becomes obvious. We see the family get up, brush their teeth, wash, have breakfast, get in the car, go to work/school, come home, have dinner, go to bed -- and then the whole thing starts over again, always returning to the same set-up or shot. However for all the cleverness and thought that has clearly gone in to making the film resonate to such a degree I doubt Haneke's message is going to reach that many people. The film is far too overwhelming, and I'd imagine most viewers' will be reaching for the video remote or looking for the exit after the first hour or so. Acting is sub-par for most, mainly because much like Haneke's 'Funny Games' he doesn't really respect his players, merely uses them to promote his message. However the detached mental state depicted in the final build-up, in which moments of loud confusion are transformed into a crippling silence, are completely effective.
Style aside though, and under close scrutiny 'The Seventh Content' begins to fall apart. Save for a couple of clever stabs at visual symbolism -- tropical fish lie on the damp ground after their tank is smashed, slowly dying as they flutter about the floor in a painful attempt to grasp the last few moments of life -- the film never has the answers to its questions or the much needed depth to the characters plight -- are we just supposed to accept that they have naturally come to this conclusion in their life? This is all purposeful on Haneke's part, and it's hard to properly explain these flaws without giving too much away -- which, with a film like this would be wrong and detract from the bizarre surprises that build as the film approaches its climax. In short, 'The Seventh Continent' is an interesting but extremely flawed feature, not the masterpiece other would have you believe and definitely not recommended to those already suffering from depression.