Saturday, March 14, 2009

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)

According to the acclaimed online film journal Senses of Cinema, Michel Haneke's 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is "one of the most challenging narrative works of the 1990s." That is one helluva claim. While I do not agree that it is the most challenging narrative work of the 90s, it certainly is tough to follow especially on a first viewing.

71 Fragments is about a bank shooting. Well actually, it is about the events leading up to the shooting. As the title suggests, the film is presented in a series of 71 seemingly unrelated vignettes. As with most of Haneke's films, there is not a complicated plot. The film simply shows random events in the lives of a few characters before the shooting. The way that the plot is presented is what makes the film so challenging.

Welcome to episode 3 of Mitch's homework. As the entire plot is laid out via intertitles at the beginning of the film, I don't think there are any spoilers. With that said, you might not want to read this if you haven't seen the film.

Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) is as fragmented a film as the title suggests. At the start of the film, an intertitle tells of a massacre at a bank in Vienna, Austria. The audience is given very few details about the murder-suicide except that the perpetrator is 19 years old and is presumably male due to his name, Max. Aside from this, the identity of the shooter is a mystery to the viewer. The rest of the film in one of two ways: as a news story, or as a short and seemingly random scene. Together, Haneke uses these two narrative elements to challenge the viewer about the true definition of tragedy.

Even though the film is about a brutal murder-suicide, Haneke’s wide-angle cinematography lacks both personality and emotion. 71 Fragments is mostly void of emotion, and as a result, it comes across as a cold and cynical reflection of the lives of the characters leading up to the massacre. Rather than encouraging the viewer to identify with or sympathize with any certain character, Haneke’s cinematic choices hold no bias toward any of the characters. The audience is aware that a massacre will occur at some point during the film, but they are not aware as to who the murderer will be. This anonymity allows the viewer to view all of the characters on the same unbiased level; this is echoed with Haneke’s emotionally disconnected camerawork. Even when Max (Lukas Miko) kills three people in the bank, it seems matter-of-fact, no strong emotion is felt. This is achieved through the camerawork: Max is the only character seen in the shot and there is no reverse shot to show the victims. It merely seems as if Max is firing into nothingness.

Throughout 71 Fragments, the main characters rarely receive close-ups while interminable shots of Tangrams and Pick-Up-Sticks dominate the conversations of certain students. In doing this, Haneke shows that actions, rather than appearances, define a person. As a result, the viewer remembers these characters for what they did, not for who they were or for what they looked like. Even the Romanian refugee (Gabriel Cosmin Urdes) is defined as a vagabond in the first scene before the audience learns anything about him.

71 Fragments is interspersed with clips from what seems to be a local news channel. As with most news programs, the headlines are always presented in the same unprejudiced manner. Stories about war and death are presented in the same way as a story about Michael Jackson. Not only do these news clips add a realistic element to the film, but they further demonstrate the objectivity Haneke is attempting to achieve with the film. Images of guerrilla warfare and murder are juxtaposed with the images of banal everyday tasks being performed by the main characters. Haneke presents war as a constant, an item that appears on the news every day. The general public has become desensitized to mass murder in the form of war, but still sheds tears over the murder of a few civilians. In stripping the emotion out of the latter event, Haneke calls attention to the neglect that the former receives. 71 Fragments is Haneke’s challenge to reconsider the definition of tragedy: four random, unrelated people dead in a bank shooting or thousands displaced and massacred at the hands of international governments.

71 Fragments really is not a fantastic film. Its message might be important, intelligent and insightful, but it is extremely hard to interpret especially when the viewer is simply attempting to figure out the narrative. The film fails to make its point while simultaneously failing to entertain.

Grade: B-

No comments: