The Seventh Continent, 1989

A faceless and unassuming family waits in oppressive silence, passively watching the rhythmic, mechanized motion of detergent sprays, high pressure washers, and rotating brushes as their vehicle travels through the monotonous cleaning cycles of a car wash before driving away, past the idyllic coastal image of a billboard advertisement for Australian tourism. The drudgery and automated ritual of urban existence would seem to commute to the outside world as the parents, George (Dieter Berner) and Anna Schober (Birgit Doll), awaken at 6:00 a.m. to the sound of a radio broadcast, shut the bedroom door, brush their teeth, dispense fish food in the aquarium, and eat breakfast with their daughter, Eva (Leni Tanzer). One day, Eva irrationally feigns blindness to a school teacher, perhaps out of loneliness, and is punished by Anna in an impulsive act of violence. From this innocuous episode, the emotional cracks within the Schober family’s seemingly mundane life begins to surface.

The Seventh Continent is a visually sublime, deeply haunting, and understatedly incisive portrait of alienation, repression, passivity, and loneliness. Reminiscent of the early films of Chantal Akerman, especially in the rigorous disembodied framing of the title character of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (as the protagonist systematically performs her household chores), Michael Haneke uses narrative ellipses, methodical repetition of tasks, and fragmented episodes in order to underscore the tedium and vacuity of the characters’ lives. In contrast to the cropped framing of hands in Robert Bresson’s films that evoke transcendence of physical existence through the performance of tactile, manual activity, Haneke’s presentation of ritualistic actions reflect the inertia and psychological paralysis that leads further into the darkness of isolation and profound despair (note the extended duration of interstitial black screens throughout the film, and the pervasive, ambient distraction of television and radio programming). The repeated imagery of purification and cleansing further reflect the characters’ figurative attempts to transcend the banality of their existence: the car wash, the episodes of George bathing, the rainstorm that pervades the second chapter (1988) of the film. Ironically, as the Schober family collectively strives to shed their empty and meaningless lives, they retreat further into the void of oblivion – disconnected from the physical reality of their oppressive environment – towards the isolating landscape of the indefinable seventh continent.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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