Cannes 2009: White Ribbon review

Audience applause was muted for Michael Haneke’s new film last night – though there was a small ovation from the TF camp.

Showing in competition, The White Ribbon is the German auteur’s first Cannes entry since 2005’s Best Director-winning Cache (Hidden).
Like that masterwork, this is another whodunit – albeit of a very different flavour.

It’s set in a village in Protestant northern Germany on the eve of World War I. Narrated in hindsight by schoolteacher Lehrer, it opens ominously with a horseriding fall apparently caused by sabotage.

More unpleasantness follows: floggings, eye trauma, arson… seems someone is meting out punishment for crimes unknown. But who?

Haneke is in no rush to finger the culprit. He’s in no rush full stop, unfolding events over two and a half hours at a pace as glacial as the gleamingly crisp black and white photography.

There’s no music, the camera’s mostly static and the opening credits make Woody Allen look like Watchmen.

The austerity would verge on absurdity if it weren’t for Haneke’s exquisitely taut control of every frame. For a film that burns so slow, there’s not one inch of slack.

Fans of his work will know to brace for impact at every turn – yet while sights (and sounds) disturb, there are no shocks on a par with Hidden, Funny Games or The Piano Teacher.

In fact – whisper it – there are a few laughs, even if they are midnight-black (the scene where the doc pummels his mistress with put-downs is cruelly hilarious).

Some touching moments, too – a falteringly romantic carriage ride (exhilaratingly shot) or a gesture of infant kindness that wouldn’t shame a Disney flick.

Darkness is always gathering though, as Haneke burrows beneath the surface to reveal the corruption and hypocrisy at the core of the male-dominated, child-repressing community.

So why the tepid audience reaction? Could be down to the ending. For all the portents, the film is never portentous, yet you feel you want something bigger and bolder than the flurry of ‘then this and this and this happened’ exposition-bites we fade out with.

But if the tie-up isn’t perfect, White Ribbon’s made from material that haunts, grips and immerses.

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