It must be half an hour into The Seventh Continent when we finally get a good look at the faces of Georg, Anna, and Eva. In that half hour we occasionally hear them talking, one mostly off-screen character to an entirely off-screen character, so perhaps what is so remarkable is that seeing this family, all at once, unhidden, does not remove the distance we perceive between them, nor does it strengthen the bond we have with them. This is a film that knows exactly what it wants to do and gives you no stepping stones along the way.
That distant, unaffected look is created through a series of remarkably composed and yet mundane, static shots. Mostly they are close-ups of a characters feet or hands, of a door handle, or of money changing hands. Occasionally they’re longer shots of a garage door or terrifying excursions through a car wash in which the harsh, unending sound of water on metal sounds like torture. This rhythmic direction sustains a screenplay that couldn’t be more than 40 pages over 104 minutes, and it is proof that mastery of pacing and montage can mean just as much as plot or character development. That this decision is one of Michael Haneke is not terribly shocking today; the director of the chilly Caché (2005) and mysterious The White Ribbon (2009) has a reputation now for leaving causes and psychological exploration to his audience, but the effect here is still astonishing. His removed tendency is perhaps most extreme with The Seventh Continent, but that the extremity does not, until the climactic but repetitive scene, grate in any way is quite remarkable.
The film unfolds in three parts, the first consisting of a day in 1987, the second of a day in 1988, and the third a fateful day in 1989. In the first two we see simple routine in Haneke’s fragmented, alienating style: Waking up he daughter, eat breakfast, a business meeting, write to the parents, go through a car wash, shop, etc. 1988 is a bit different than 1987, but it’s similar enough to suggest suburban ennui and materialism as “explanations” to the consequences Haneke emotionlessly depicts in 1989. It’s nigh impossible to clue-in to what is important here, as the enclosed framing and lack of dialogue make every detail seem inconsequential. Big breakfast tables and big promotions must be important if we see them, but no change in editing, additional dialogue, or especially weighty scene makes us think that. Picking one day out of each of two years and noticing they are similar is hardly a cause for alarm. It’s only Haneke’s entrapping style that suggests any kind of suffocation.
Hence, Haneke’s directorial chops are already present, but the writing that anchors and lends importance to much of his later work is not. The Seventh Continent feels like an exercise in formalism more than it feels like a commentary on any of the issues it seems so nonplussed with. There is a lot of suggestion in The Seventh Continent, from the aforementioned upper-class norms to Haneke’s trademark distaste for media and the titular reference to Australia, which we see in an unappealing and artificial image multiple times as the ideal escape. Why such a well-off family resorts to the extremes that they do instead of moving to Australia is a question that is perhaps too hard to answer. It could be said that the ugliness of the shot of Australia remarks that it would not matter, but then why bother including it in the first place if it does not have a chance to matter? There are lots of unanswered questions that Haneke prefers unanswered, but if he trusted himself as a writer as much as he trusted himself as a director the stakes would be high for the audience and not just himself. His questions would be at least as compelling but far less obtuse.
What elevates the film from one simply admirable on a technical level to one worthy of the discussion it provokes is, strangely enough, fish. Taking care of the fish is the one variable from year to year, and the gentleness with which it is treated is a major contrast to the ugly, inescapability of, for example, the car wash. It is the only thing that keeps the family of compulsive liars and emotionless routine-followers together is concern for the fish. In fact, the climax of the film goes on for longer than it needs to, the audience will “get it” in far less time than Haneke gives it, but when the fish are suddenly involved, everything seems to hit the way it really needs to. It’s a simple emotional grapple, but in many ways, it makes The Seventh Continent realize its own potential.
For all the possibilities depicted, for all the mastery of composition and editing, there is simply not enough to work with. The story is removed of nuance and the hints are removed of evidence. Such minimalist treatment of both cause and effect is difficult to crack and, more importantly, unrewarding to do so. Haneke would explore many of the same themes again (Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance form an unofficial trilogy with The Seventh Continent, while Cache and Funny Games contain several similarities) with more specificity. It’s a beautiful thing to watch unfold in its maddeningly calculated fashion, and the rigor of the style alone makes basic answers of suburban boredom and consumerism more worthy than they are elsewhere, but The Seventh Continent is primarily a genius finding his footing with enough raw skill to still stay balanced.