71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)

Directed by Michael Haneke

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Like The Seventh Continent, this is a film that builds to a particularly violent tragedy, attempting to show the steps leading to that fateful conclusion without ever explaining why.  Both films try to objectively depict the people who head down such a path, but the lack of any apparent motivation suggests that it’s impossible to ever boil down why certain things like these happen.

This film, as with any fictionalized account of something, is subjective, but Michael Haneke makes it feel objective through a very stark style of shooting and editing.  His scenes play out without music or any overt emotion.  Each “fragment” is sandwiched by an abrupt cut to black, as if we are just peeking in on these moments, some noteworthy and others not, in other people’s lives.

We follow multiple characters who don’t know each other, and the film is shot as if it’s a documentary, a camera often left static in the corner of a room while a scene unfolds.  In one of these scenes we watch an old man talk at length on the phone to his daughter and granddaughter, trying desperately to maintain a connection with them.  In another we watch a college student hit ping pong balls spit out of a machine.  If I were to guess I’d say we see him go through several hundred tireless swings.

So many of these vignettes are purposefully monotonous, lulling you to sleep before the abrupt, sudden violence which ends the film.  It’s a striking juxtaposition, and it’s that patience throughout the first 80 minutes that makes it clear Haneke is not glorifying the violence here.

That being said, it’s the violence which is likely used as a hook, a way to justify the monotony like someone offering a free weekend getaway but only after you listen to the timeshare pitch.  The movie wouldn’t exist without the violence, and yet the violence is such a small aspect of the film.  It’s a strange dichotomy that suggests, perhaps, the monotony and violence are intertwined?

It’s hard to say, because throughout the film we look for clues why the murder spree we know happens will happen, and there’s really nothing there.  Once we identify the person who will be the killer (based only on what I knew from the movie’s logline, that he was a college student) we lock onto him and read into everything he does.  Is there any expression of mental illness, of anger, of resentment towards someone or something?  Not really.

The movie presents this man’s journey as one of complete chance, as the movie suggests. In terms of narrative momentum, you could cut out everything in the movie before that fateful vignette which shows the man walk into a bank and shoot people at random.

In this vignette he goes to the gas station but can’t pay for his gas, leading cars behind him to honk and holler that he’s holding up the line.  He tries to skip the line at the bank but is then pushed aside for being so rude.  The man sits in his car and stews, says nothing, then removes his gun and strides into the bank to apparently release everything that’s been building up within him.

But the thing is, was he really pushed to murder just because he couldn’t draw money from the bank?  Was it that simple?  Probably not.

So you go back further, but little in this character’s life suggests he’s capable of this.  He plays ping pong, watches footage of a past match and is chewed out by his coach, hangs out in a computer lab with a friend and plays a game in which you assemble paper squares and triangles to make a cross.

Maybe there is more to it than that, but the impression I got was that there is nothing hinting at what will happen.  It’s as if he was possessed by a vengeful spirit out of the blue.

The rest of the film follows characters whose lives may intersect with each other and who otherwise intersect with the gunman.  The most memorable of these is a young boy, a refugee from Romania who lives on the streets, stealing to get by.  In one scene he meets another young boy playing in the subway, and wouldn’t you know it that other boy is played by none other than Sebastian Stan aka Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s best friend.

The refugee is eventually arrested, but then his story makes it to broadcast and attracts the sympathy of a middle-aged couple that has already adopted one child, a girl that doesn’t seem to reciprocate the love they feel for her.  Soon they will adopt the boy as well, whether because they are so drawn to his story or because they didn’t know what they were signing up for with the girl.

Most of these vignettes seem to happen in between the inflection points in these characters’ stories.  We see the boy being chased by the police in the subway, and the next time we see him he’s being interviewed on television.  His story skips over so much, jumping quickly through time, and yet his is one of the more developed arcs in the film.

Another character, the old man on the phone, is glimpsed through even smaller vignettes.  We see him eating dinner alone several times, we see him on the phone, and we see him waiting in line at the bank just to get some face to face time with the teller, his daughter whom he presumably doesn’t see much.  Though we don’t see (thankfully) who the gunman shoots at the end of the film, we do see that the old man is one of those in line.

Interspersed amongst these vignettes are a series of shots of the nightly news, detailing various tragedies and even massacres across the world.  We hear about revolts and mass murders, a refugee crisis and a controversy surrounding Michael Jackson.  The latter will end the film, as we watch it unfold on the news for the second time, replaying an earlier moment and re-contextualizing where the violence we’ve seen unfold in the film’s reality fits into the greater picture.

After the college student’s massacre (after which he shoots himself), we will see the news coverage of the event, making us try and grasp how vivid those other deadly events the news anchor discusses must be.  Suddenly the movie reframes what is a viscerally disturbing moment and demonstrates how it’s just another piece of the puzzle, something that surrounds us every day but which we only consider briefly.

That’s because after the anchor finishes the segment, she moves onto another story and then onto Michael Jackson, the most notable person discussed on the news even though his juicy controversy has less to do with humanity than what we’ve already seen.

So it seems to me that the film makes an argument that certain violence has been, currently is and will always be, but we don’t know why.  As horrific as it may be, we have become able to tune certain things out, to ignore them or accept them with a degree of distance.  Haneke’s film makes shocking something that should be shocking but which audiences have become desensitized to as the line between fact and fiction (at least in terms of how we consume visual stories) is blurred.

Up Next: Smokey and the Bandit (1977), 6 Balloons (2018), Game, Over Man! (2018)

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