There are a handful of filmmakers who can make a Cannes lineup feel major, simply by their presence, and Michael Haneke, only the second director ever to have won his two Palmes d’Or for consecutive films, is one of them. And being as the winners were his last two, The White Ribbon and Amour, to say he comes into the 2017 Cannes competition with form is an understatement. Happily, Happy End delivers: it’s a film whose themes put it squarely within the continuum of Haneke’s filmography, yet it also distinguishes itself from much of it in the deployment of unexpectedly approachable dark wit and thriller-ish sensibility.
Director Michael Haneke
Anne Laurent Isabelle Huppert
Georges Laurent Jean-Louis Trintignant
Thomas Laurent Mathieu Kassovitz
Eve Laurent Fantine Harduin
Pierre Laurent Franz Rogowski
Anaïs Laurent Laura Verlinden
Lawrence Bradshaw Toby Jones
Unfolding in scenes of such diamond-cut precision they practically clink against each other, Happy End dissects one wealthy Calais family: Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the octogenarian patriarch Georges Laurent, who has passed over the family construction business to his daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who is in turn grooming her feckless son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) to step up in future. Anne’s brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a doctor, married to Anais (Laura Verlinden) with a baby son and, from a previous marriage, 12-year-old daughter Eve (played with great, unsmiling self-possession by Fantine Harduin). The Laurent residence is a large, exquisitely appointed Calais mansion (as bourgeoisie, they couldn’t get much more haute), run by live-in servants Rashid (Hassan Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari), whose presence gives the film its stomach-flutter of racial unease.
Thomas is also having an affair, depicted by Haneke in a series of messenger chats, in which the kinky acts so graphically described stand in stark contrast to the clinical glow of the screen and scoreless click-click-clicking of the keyboard. The push-pull of technophilia and technophobia is a familiar Haneke motif, and it’s present here right from the arresting opening, delivered as spookily voyeuristic cameraphone footage. The cameraperson is Eve, who, after her mother is hospitalised following a mysterious drug overdose, moves in with the Laurent clan.
Haneke-ian flourishes abound, such as scenes with the action staged so far away it’s difficult to make out, and there are even direct nods to previous works. In particular, a reference by Trintignant’s Georges to an event that actually happens in Amour makes one briefly wonder if this is an attempt at a Haneke Cinematic Universe. But the real core of the film is the manipulative, malevolent Eve, whose budding sociopathy feels like it’s the Laurent family’s chickens coming home to roost; like she’s the sublimation of, and the punishment for, generations of hypocrisy and unthinking complacency.
For a satire on bourgeois values that essentially sees privilege as a terminal disease whose symptoms include boredom, indolence, alienation, lovelessness, pettiness and perhaps even sociopathy, and to which the only honest response is suicide or euthanasia, it’s very funny. And those who relish the endurance-test didacticism of some of Haneke’s previous work may therefore regard Happy End as an uncharacteristically soft take. But his forbiddingly severe intelligence has been proven time and again in the past, as has his facility with provocative demolitions of the French class system. So this time it makes a refreshing change to see him take time out from laying the explosive charges around this opulent Calais residence and, to reference the Sia song that is used to brilliantly bizarre effect in a highly memorable karaoke scene, go for a quick swing on the chandeliers.