Technology moving like it does, the world has changed irrevocably since Michael Haneke last made a film that wasn’t a) set ages ago (2009’s The White Ribbon) or b) about the elderly (2012’s Amour). Snapchat arrived in 2011, while Facebook’s user base has more than doubled again since Amour won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
His new movie, Happy End, is Haneke 2.0, in which the techno-curious 75-year-old director who mined the sinister potential of videotape in Benny’s Video (1992) and Hidden (2005) turns his steely glare on the social media age.
Where Hidden began with chillingly still footage surveilling a Paris apartment, Happy End’s equally creepy first shot is on a smartphone, as 13-year-old Eve Laurent (newcomer Fantine Harduin) spies on her mother, and then coolly poisons her, her textspeak augmenting the scene.
Eve’s father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), meanwhile, is busy cheating on his girlfriend with a cellist, with whom he conducts filthy late-night Facebook chats. With his ex-wife in hospital, Thomas brings the young poisoner to live with his ageing father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and sister, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), in their plush mansion. Georges shares some of Eve’s death impulse, his lips visibly curled at the idea of sustaining his own life a moment longer, while businesswoman Anne is facing a possible legal battle after a worker at her construction firm suffers a near-fatal accident.
Watch the trailer for Happy End
Calais is the backdrop to this twistedly amoral soap opera, where the Eurotunnel has brought both huge wealth to construction firms like Anne’s but also refugees in their thousands – a crisis that was dominating headlines as Haneke was developing Happy End.
After the gravity of his terminal illness drama Amour, however, it will relieve many to learn that Haneke’s latest is also a comedy – themes of matricide, the migrant crisis and middle-class obliviousness to it notwithstanding. In person, too, Haneke is a good deal less severe and more down-to-earth than you might imagine, as I found when we met up.
The gap between Amour and Happy End was the longest between any of your films. Was that because Happy End was a long time gestating?
No, it was simply because in the meantime I wrote a different film called Flash Mob, but I couldn’t cast that properly, and that took a very long time. Writing the new script for this also took a fair amount of time.
Did the huge acclaim for Amour – including winning the Palme d’Or and the Oscar for best foreign language film – make it harder to follow up?
Not really. I always set myself the same standard and challenge, so it’s not more or less difficult in that sense. Perhaps it’s actually less difficult because it’s easy to get money as a result.
Although they’re very different films in tone, I was intrigued by Happy End’s continuities with Amour in terms of the same actors – Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert playing father and daughter again – and the same character names. What did you intend by using similar character names, Georges, Eva and Anne?
Simple reason, it’s my lack of imagination. In all my films, the characters have the same names. I came up with those names a long time ago for a television film. After all, they all come from the same head.
Happy End is very much an ensemble drama, with lots of intriguing characters. Which of those was the first one to take shape in your mind?
The story of the girl who poisons her mother was in the previous script, already. So that’s what I took over from that project. I found it in the newspaper, so that’s the starting point.
The actor you found to play her, Fantine Harduin, is really quite extraordinary. What were you looking for when casting that character?
I wanted a 13-year-old girl who you would imagine could poison her mother. I didn’t want some nice or naive young girl. It worked with Fantine because she had something about her face, something unusual, something mysterious, and that was the key thing.
Did it take long to find her?
Yes, it did. We tried 60 or 70 different girls. It always takes a long time. In the case of The White Ribbon, we had to audition 7,000 children for the parts.
Her character mediates her life through her mobile phone. Were you already very familiar with how young people use their phones or did that take a certain amount of research?
Well, I’ve got one myself, as you can see [Haneke takes a smartphone from his trouser pocket], but I did have to research when it came to Snapchat and so on.
I’m not an expert in mobile phones, but I use one for arranging rendezvous, for normal telephone calls and so on. We’re all helpless now without one. We can’t think for ourselves any longer. We use the internet on them to find information, and what’s the result? Ultimately, we’re getting more and more stupid. But I couldn’t survive without one either.
You’re thought of as a filmmaker who engages with technology and yet your last couple of films were either set in the past or dealt with very elderly people. Technology’s moved on leaps and bounds in that time. Did you specifically want to engage with social media at this point?
Those other two films were an exception in that sense. But if you’re making a film about our society today you can’t avoid social media because it dominates our life. It’s not that I’m particularly fixated on the media or on technology in that way. It’s a social issue.
Does it worry you the way social media is so dominating?
I’m not particularly afraid of that, no. But like anyone else I am afraid that there will suddenly be no electricity coming out of the socket: we won’t be able to eat, we won’t be able to do anything, we won’t be able to survive. That’s certainly worrying. And, of course, there is the question of criminality, cyber criminality, but I’m not specifically alarmed about social media. It’s a broader question about technology in general.
The film is one of the first I’ve seen that really explores the difference between our public selves and what we get up to privately, digitally, on our computers and our mobile phones. Are you concerned about that split between our online personalities and our outer personalities?
The amazing thing about it is the fact that social media have, to some extent, taken on the role that was previously the role of the church. Previously, if you did something bad in life you would go to the priest and you would confess. Now you go to a forum and you either expect to be forgiven or perhaps you expect to be punished and to be outed for what you’ve done. That was what was so interesting about the story of this little girl – there is a religious aspect to it.
With its satirical depiction of the darkness in bourgeois life, as well as the presence of Huppert and even the repeating character names, this film reminded me of Claude Chabrol’s work in some ways. Are you a fan of his films?
I’m not a great fan of Chabrol, to be honest. Many years ago, I found the early films like Les Cousins (1959) very chic and so on. But, no, I’m not really a great fan. He’s technically very adept, but his films are not something that interest me particularly.
But when you’re casting great actors like Trintignant and Huppert, do you ever intend to invoke their past films?
No, that’s not my intention. You could describe it as a bonus. What I think about in those cases is the role itself. In the case of Amour, I certainly wrote that part because I wanted to work with Trintignant because I loved him as an actor. I’d already encountered him because he read the narration in the French version of The White Ribbon. With Amour they were obviously both famous actors, she perhaps a little less so, but also very famous as a result of Hiroshima mon amour (1959). And it was often interpreted that that was part of the film, but that was not my primary intention.
How important is Calais as the backdrop for the film?
At the time I wrote it, Calais was everywhere in the press. It was a focal point of all the discussions that were going on [about the refugee crisis]. And of course, it lent itself, for that reason, to the film. It was the ideal choice because it’s addressing the question of our ignorance of others. It’s about egocentrism within the family, at the workplace, in the circles in which we move, but also the nation as a whole, the way in which the misery of others is irrelevant to us individually. It’s all about our own little routines in everyday life.
I couldn’t have made a film about migrants themselves because I don’t know them.
Yet because the migrants don’t have speaking roles, were you concerned about depersonalising them?
Yes, that’s exactly how they’re seen by us: as an abstract danger, a depersonalised danger. As soon as somebody has a personality you enter into a relationship with them on an emotional level, and then it’s not as easy to dismiss them.
There’s a memorable moment when Pierre, Anne’s wayward son, lets loose with an eccentric karaoke performance of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’. What inspired that?
I originally just wrote in the script, “karaoke scene”, but it turned out that the actor couldn’t sing. So we wondered how to use his physicality in the film. Just at that moment, by chance, on the internet I saw this famous video of a girl of about the same age as the girl in the film who dances to that song. And it’s been viewed millions of times and there are parodies of it online, and we decided that we would do that instead. So he tries to parody it and that’s how it starts. It was great fun to do that scene.
Watch the video for ‘Chandelier’ by Sia
Do you find yourself browsing YouTube quite a lot?
Yes, I do look at YouTube.
What takes up most of your time on YouTube?
Well, you can find so many classical music recordings that you can no longer get on disc in any way and that’s absolutely marvellous, and biographical films, for example, biographical documentaries about filmmakers. Dozens of them on Tarkovsky, for example. So I can watch those on a big TV, almost as a film. There’s a fantastic choice of material out there.
Does the piracy element of that concern you?
I don’t know if they’re illegal or not. Can they be on YouTube if they’re illegal?
I think the rights holder is responsible for asking YouTube to take them down in those instances.
Yes. Every film of mine, for example, when the DVDs are sent for the European Film Awards or whatever, it always ends up on the internet the next day. But there’s an institute out there which has the task of finding them and then having them removed.
There’s a thought-provoking scene near the end when Trintignant talks about how affected he was by seeing a bird of prey being injured, and how seeing things in real life is more moving than on screens. Are you suggesting that we should all spend less time watching films and on YouTube?
No, I wouldn’t say that’s the case. Obviously, it’s more productive to live than to view, but you can also do both of those things.
Are you concerned that young people who grow up watching screens maybe don’t know where to find the line?
I’m not so sure about that. With the students that I teach and the young people that I meet, I don’t get a sense that they’re victims of the media in that way.
We are all victims of the media, but in another sense. The question is the truthfulness of the information that we get on TV, in the news. We believe that we’re informed about global events, but ultimately, we don’t know anything. We believe it, but we can’t judge the truthfulness of what we hear. We believe that we know something, but that’s where the possibility of manipulation comes in. It opens up the door to manipulation, particularly manipulation of a political kind.
A simple example that I often give is a farmer in a mountain village before television and before the internet. He knew that village, knew the mountains, and then went to and would also know the neighbouring village. Now, that same farmer will have a TV and a computer and believes, at least, that he knows the world, but really, he knows nothing more than he actually knew before because what you need is personal experience to know something. It’s not knowing otherwise, it’s just believing that you know something, and that’s the danger. For example, I only believe that I know something about Afghanistan from the television, but I don’t actually know about it.
How can we guard ourselves against being manipulated by the media?
You can’t really be protected. You have to be sceptical and be attentive and keep on the lookout.