I won’t tell you the plot of The Seventh Continent; I hate it when reviewers do that, if it’s a movie I want to see. The film is based on a real event reported in Austrian newspapers in 1989. Considering that the film is by Haneke, it is not revealing too much to say that the movie takes ordinary life and patiently deforms it into something extraordinary, terrifying and – what makes it more terrifying – gratuitous.
The DVD also included an interview with Haneke. One thing he said was the sort of revelation which makes you think, “Of course, it’s obvious, I should have thought of that before.” In this case, it was Haneke’s saying that he saw film-making more like composing music than producing a drama.
I have been categorizing movies either as examples of drama (the vast majority of films) or of visual art (Bela Tarr’s movies; some of Gus van Sandt’s, notably Elephant and Gerry, Sukorov’s Mother and Son and, to some extent, Tarkovsky). I would have put Haneke in the drama camp, uneasily, though. Film is a linear art, taking place over time, just as music is. Now that I think about it, the great works of early avant garde cinema, Brakhage, notably Dog Star Man, and the films of Victor Grauer and Harry Smith are visual music.
Film is unique in combining drama, visual art and abstract linear exposition (which is a clumsy way of trying to describe a more comprehensive music than just music as sound). All films use all three elements to some extent, but drama usually predominates. Music (abstract linear exposition) as cinema presents a line of visual (rather than aural) passages coalescing into themes, with variations, repetitions, transitions (as from major to minor “keys”), all skillfully paced, and building up to a satisfying finish – tragic, consoling, nihilistic, absurd, heroic, sweet, stoic, spiritual – that is cathartic in some way.
Haneke’s films should be watched in the way one listens to music.
I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to remember other films I’ve seen and liked recently that are similarly “musical.” Thinking of a movie as a piece of music, I can see that Bela Tarr’s movies, with their long takes, which are a sort of visual minimalism, are as linearly beautiful as they are visually beautiful.
Haneke, in the interview included on the The Seventh Continent DVD, says that it is important, in order to maintain the audience’s interest in ordinary, everyday actions (which are the overwhelming element in a Haneke film) for the filmmaker to be extremely precise, careful in every detail. There is a morning scene that is repeated in The Seventh Continent: three toothbrushes – two adult-sized, one child’s – in three glasses. A hand chooses one of the toothbrushes and squeezes toothpaste onto it. That is all: no face looking out at us from the mirror, no turning on of the tap, no brushing of the teeth. The passage is riveting. At each repetition it is more riveting.
There is a long take of a bowl of breakfast cereal. We have watched the cereal being placed in front of the child. We have watched the mother sprinkle it with sugar and pour milk over it. Now we watch the spoon in the child’s hand as it stirs the cereal desultorily, occasionally lifting some cereal out of the bowl. At last, with most of the cereal left unfinished, the bowl is pushed away; the child does not want any more. The effect is ominous; it is as if in this repetition of a familiar melody (we have seen the child eating her cereal before) played by the strings, a melancholy horn has joined in.
Another “melody” in the film is a shot of the husband’s left shoe, with the husband’s hands pulling, then tying the laces. It is not prolonged, but the action is so precise and detailed that we recognize a similar scene later on and can compare the two. In the first shot, the husband’s raised foot rests on a steel electric radiator; in the repeat of the shot, the foot is supported by the edge of a bedside. Does the difference mean something? If so, it’s vague. The important difference between the radiator and the dressing table is not in their meanings; but in their tones. The radiator is under a window and the morning sun is shining through venetian blinds. The table has some clutter and is in shadow.
I am not sure why ordinary and familiar activity, rendered with precision, is like a series of musical notes. Haneke emphasized that precision what was required. A series of complex, hard to distinguish sounds in an unclear relation to one another occurring at a pace to fast to follow carefully would not seem like music to listeners. In the same length of time that Haneke gave to his toothbrush scene, a guy could be shown getting out of bed, going into the bathroom, brushing his teeth, putting on his clothes and leaving the room. The scene might move forward the film’s plot, but would not, in itself, be engrossing.
One amusing, or horrifying, (both, actually) bit of the Haneke interview – not having to do with film-as-music – is a story he tells about the showing of the film at Cannes. He warned the director of the festival that there would be two scenes in the movie that would upset the audience. One scene shows tropical fish flopping around and dying after a home aquarium is destroyed. The other scene shows a hand tearing up money, lots and lots of money, and flushing it down the toilet. Haneke says that the Cannes official agreed that dying fish might be upsetting, but scoffed at the idea that the money-down-the-toilet scene would bother the sophisticated Cannes crowd. As it turned out, some of the audience left in disgust during the long shot of the money being flushed down the toilet. Haneke points out that they were more upset by that than by an unnaturally cruel crime that also occurs in the film.