The Back Row Manifesto’s Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade (2000-2009) will be unveiled over the course of the month of December (and now on into January). Think of it as a sort of misguided advent calendar without the little chocolate surprises. Either way, thanks for reading and please check back every day over the next few days for the full list. The introduction to the list can be found here.
The final four…
Fifteen years into his career as a director of television films, 1989 saw Michael Haneke announce himself to the world of cinema; his feature debut as a director, The Seventh Continent, marked the arrival of a new voice, one that would spend the next decade making German language films that explored the responsibility of the individual as it relates to the suffering of others. In 1990, in the wake of his brutal and often misunderstood Funny Games, Haneke made a major shift in his work, abandoning not only the German language (for the time being, anyway) but also the specificity of bourgeois Austro-Germans in favor of a new European sensibility. Haneke shifted his concerns to France in 1990’s Code Unknown and moved to the front lines of a rapidly changing European identity as it came into conflict with post-colonial migration and its history of racial homogeneity. Code Unknown remains a seminal European film of this decade (a confrontation between Juliette Binoche and a young man on a metro says more about the race and class tensions in Paris than anything else I saw) but, sandwiched between it and Haneke’s subsequent The Time Of The Wolf and his huge breakthrough Caché, Haneke made a masterpiece, the one film that ignores many of his traditional concerns and tells instead the classic tale of a Freudian collapse in the throes of sexual desire.
It is difficult to watch The Piano Teacher in the context of Haneke’s work and not feel as if he was operating in a whole new place, one that eschewed the moralizing of his typical degradations in favor of a far more humanizing approach to his character’s suffering. And while he would return to the grandeur of his pet social themes in his subsequent works, any relationship between the broken-hearted longing of Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert, in the performance of the decade) and some vague judgment about the social conditions of wealthy, art loving European “bo-bos” (bohemian bourgeoisie) completely misses the mark. For the first, and, as a fan of Haneke’s work, I think the only time, the issue of a culturally specific identity is cast aside in favor of literary depth and the exploration of a character that has yet to be rivaled in his work. Gone is the narrative leapfrogging across stories and time, gone are the social conditions that drive individuals to acts of external cruelty, gone are the sometimes aloof judgments about the guilt of societies handing down punishments upon unsuspecting protagonists, all of it replaced with the painful exploration of a masochistic soul that only wants to escape from the domination of her mother and give everything of herself to her reluctant lover.
Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher
Isabelle Huppert is brilliant in the title role, and it is this performance, arriving some 30 years into her now 40 year career, that will prove to be her definitive role. I recently wrote about my thoughts on Huppert’s screen presence, one that dominated the decade in international cinema and promises years of greatness to come:
“Huppert seems to me the perfect embodiment of…a stubborn (French) tradition; she is an actress that can drive you away with the upward tilt of her head and the subtle twist of her jaw, only to draw you back in the moment her eyes flash an ounce of the pain that seems to flow like mercury beneath her skin. Huppert uses her diminutive stature like no other performer; her fragility, those tiny arms and legs, only deepen the confusion over the fact that she dominates every frame she occupies. There is no performer more brave than she (I truly believe she would do anything at all in service of the truth in a character) Huppert (uses her) innate tension, this frail threat, to great effect. (She) longs for a normalcy that evaporates before her very eyes, a normalcy that also includes nonchalant exploitation. And yet, despite the knowledge that you’re watching a pushy rich French woman act incredulous,… you know that (she) is suffering, too; Huppert moves you to tears and scares the absolute shit out of you all at once.”
There is no greater example of Huppert’s genius than The Piano Teacher; the film literally reads like a litany of brilliant set-pieces for the actress to do her thing: A sequence in a pornography shop (remember those?) where, seeking a connection to her own repressed sexual desire, she lifts a soiled tissue to her nose with a tiny gloved hand, the moment when she finally allows the man who proclaims his love for her know the depths to which she would go to fulfill her need to be dominated by him, the moment that immediately follows when he beats her and attacks her mother, the moment when, her need for sensation and release at a breaking point, she commits an act of genital self-mutilation on the edge of a bathtub (take that, Charlotte Gainsbourg), the film’s final moment when, broken-hearted at the concert hall, she takes measures to break her own heart for good. I could go on and on and on; this film is one of the rare cases when material, performer and Director all coalesce into absolute perfection and, not surprisingly, it is all in the service of a great character, a broken soul unlike any in Haneke’s body of work.
Spoiler Alert: The Final Scene Of The Film…
I was surprised to see Haneke’s fine new film The White Ribbon make its way onto so many lists of the best of the decade; despite the approbation of the Cannes Jury (presided over by, surprise surprise, Isabelle Huppert) in awarding it the Palme D’or, it is not, for my money, the greatest of Haneke’s films. Guilt and audience culpability lay at the center of everything Haneke makes, and yet, despite his great Erika Kohut, he often forsakes the complexities of individual characters, the idea of a sole protagonist, so that he may spread the blame around, indicting not an individual but society itself. What separates The Piano Teacher, what makes it really special, is that the Director finally gains proximity to the individual soul, the stuff of great fiction, and uses his talents in the service of her desires. And while Haneke remains one of the most vital voices in modern film, all of that winking and beard stroking doesn’t amount to much in the face of his former triumph; while I would never prescribe that an artist repeat himself, audiences may wish to revisit his greatest film in order to see what might yet be if the finger stops wagging long enough to let us back into the hearts and minds of great characters.
23. Quiet City by Aaron Katz
22. Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski
21. Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
20. Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
19. Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang
18. Platform by Jia Zhang-Ke
17. Tarnation by Jonathan Caouette
16. Lilya 4-Ever by Lukas Moodysson
15. Far From Heaven/ I’m Not There by Todd Haynes
14. Sideways by Alexander Payne
13. Into Great Silence by Philip Gröning
12. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner by Zacharias Kunuk
11. There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson
10. Zodiac by David Fincher
9. Beau Travail/ 35 Shots Of Rum by Claire Denis
8. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Julian Schnabel
7. Time Out by Laurent Cantet
6. Mulholland Dr. by David Lynch
5. Climates by Nuri Bilge Ceylan