Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Michael Haneke's 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance has a theme common to many Art Films -- modern life is a wasteland of alienation. People don't communicate with their fellow men and families are dysfunctional. Kids go astray for lack of values or behave as if they wish they'd never been born. Haneke singles out television as the key destructive influence, an evil eye pouring fragments of despair and disillusion into our lives.
We've seen all this before, but Michael Haneke's innovative vision presents a narrative broken up into 71 fragments, little scenes or static shots that move between various mini-dramas. These fragments eventually dovetail into a stylish but pessimistic conclusion. To its credit, the film's scattered parts add up to more than a cynical exercise in style.
Austria, 1994. TV news clips show fighting and atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, and Michael Jackson accused of child molestation in California. Foster parents have a difficult time with a young girl who remains withdrawn and uncommunicative. A Romanian boy slips into the country and tries to live in malls and subway stations, stealing as he goes. A childless couple is moved when they see the boy interviewed on television. A student is frustrated by his dorm-mates and their betting games. A bank clerk makes it difficult for her father to see his granddaughter. A soldier steals handguns from a military armory and peddles them in coffeehouses.
The fragmented scenes range in length from a few seconds to a few minutes and are clearly meant to suggest a feeling of random selection. They're separated by brief bits of black screen and cut abruptly on and off without apparent regard to what's happening on screen; dialogue lines are sometimes truncated and TV news reports seem chaotic. Some individual fragments tell us essential information while some have much less importance to the narrative line. The style isn't as radical as it looks, for the fragmented pattern is just a different way of inter-cutting a number of seemingly unrelated scenes, a practice initiated by D.W. Griffith back in 1916's Intolerance.
Despite its experimental scene transitions, 71 Fragments functions like a conventional drama. We quickly pick out the main characters and decide which ones to be concerned about. The stolen guns suggest that violence is on the way, a familiar narrative device for building suspense. We immediately take a liking to the little Romanian thief Marian Radu (Gabriel Cosmin Urdes). He's attracted to a German comic book -- skipping a porn magazine on the same rack -- and sits studying the pictures. He doesn't care that he cannot read it. We share the boy's surprise when he realizes his shoplifting activities have been observed by mall cameras.
We're also moved by the attempts of the concerned foster parents (Anne Bennent, Paul Brunner) to get their new little girl to open up to them. She's bravely silent and pulls away when they try to touch her. We finally see her smile when she's watching live, honest entertainment -- some noisy seals having fun at the zoo.
Other narrative threads introduce darker content. Most of the characters live in cramped apartments with television sets their only windows to the outside world. A man slaps his wife for harping at him at the dinner table. An unhappy woman feeds her baby. In a lengthy static shot, the grandfather gives his daughter grief on the telephone as they bicker over his emotional access to his granddaughter.
Although most of the film keeps our rapt interest, some of Haneke's choices are predictable Art film dodges. He'll hold to excess on shots of a couple lying restless in bed or a man playing ping pong, playing with the notion of how long it takes a single action to become monotonous -- or whether we will discover something new in the frame. In the student dorms, puzzles and games allude to the film's own riddle. Students compete in the game we Americans call Pick-Up Sticks - it's hard to remove one stick without upsetting the others. One student bets colleagues that they cannot solve a puzzle that assembles various paper shapes into a Christian cross. Somebody works out the puzzle as a 3-D animation on a computer screen, symbolically imprisoning Christ in another TV-like electronic device. The images of crosses remind us that this is an Art film. Are they symbolic of lost faith, or simply of death?
The final act of 71 Fragments is basically a coldly stylized replay of the fateful final morning in Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. We see each of our main characters getting ready to go out and eventually converging at or near a bank. A student who bought one of the stolen guns is in the neighborhood, having trouble accessing the cash to pay for the gas he's just put in his tank. Maybe the bank will help him before he loses his patience. Since this pattern is a familiar thriller convention, we know exactly where Haneke's film is going.
Michael Haneke wants to hold his characters at arm's length but when their lives are at stake his experimentalism seems an unwelcome obstruction. Yes, the media world's lack of perspective is grotesque, but is it really sapping our humanity, as Haneke proposes? The few positive human connections made in Haneke's fragments are what we really remember, and we can't help thinking that the film's selectivity has produced a warped picture of reality.
Director Haneke refers to this film as the last of his "Glaciation Trilogy." We're informed that its brief outburst of violence is tame compared to some of his other pictures.
Kino Video's 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is a fine enhanced transfer of the 1994 color film. Christian Berger's sleek images of city environments are well rendered, as are his close-ups of significant details and the extreme angles seen in the final confrontation. The English subtitles are removable.
The big extra is a 23-minute interview with the director, who comes across as a friendly and articulate fellow fascinated by his narrative games. Reviewers tend to pigeonhole the film as a critique against pervasive television culture, whereas Haneke's illuminating observations show his creative interest in every aspect of his subject.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Interview with director Michael Haneke
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 16, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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