Film of the week: Happy End is a welcome departure for Michael Haneke

There’s much in the director’s latest that recalls his previous work, but this oblique, often hilarious film also marks a shift to a lighter tone, making it his most interesting work since 2005’s Hidden.

Adam Nayman

from our December 2017 issue

Isabelle Huppert as Anne Laurent in Michael Haneke’s Happy End

Isabelle Huppert as Anne Laurent in Michael Haneke’s Happy End

In what has to be considered a minor upset by Cannes standards, Happy End was the first Michael Haneke joint to leave the festival without a major prize since 2003’s Time of the Wolf (unofficially ruled ineligible since jury president Patrice Chéreau appeared in a cameo). With the possible exceptions of Lars von Trier and the Dardennes, with whom he forms a sort of holy – or, for some, unholy – trinity of contemporary award-bait auteurs, no European filmmaker has been as decorated at Cannes over the past decade and a half. And so Happy End’s empty-handed haul, in a consensus off-year for the main competition, was taken, both on the ground and at a distance, as evidence of failure.

Cut to several months later, and it looks as if Happy End is Haneke’s most interesting film since Hidden (2005), and also superior to his back-to-back Palme d’Or winners The White Ribbon (2009) and Amour (2012), which succeeded mainly in making their creator’s bitterness more tasteful, if not downright palatable. (Suffice to say that seeing the author of an anti-establishment tract like 1989’s The Seventh Continent smiling on stage at the Oscars generated some cognitive dissonance.) Happy End employs the same jagged, deliberately disorienting style of works such as Benny’s Video (1992) and Code Unknown (2000) – complex films that hold up even in the wake of their arguably pernicious influence on 21st-century global art cinema (no less than Quentin Tarantino, Haneke is apt to take the rap in some circles for the sins of his imitators).

Happy End unfolds in short, oblique scenes, including a number of video recordings whose authorship is either mysterious (à la Hidden and its unlabelled videotapes) or purposefully disembodied (as in security footage of an industrial accident). Context is absent; exposition is non-existent. This return to form(alism) is self-conscious, and one way to read – and quickly dismiss – Happy End is to characterise it as a greatest hits album of sorts, with all the old Haneke classics, from sociopathic teens and monstrously self-involved bourgeois parents to class warfare, racism and assisted suicide in one handy tracklist. Such a characterisation, while not inaccurate, ignores the subtle but significant shift in the material towards a lighter, though hardly benign, seriocomic tone.

Previously, the presence of humour in Haneke’s films was a cruelly theoretical proposition, as in the wicked situationist gags riddling Funny Games (1997), a film that still stands as the height of its maker’s pedantry. Not only is Happy End less imperious and prescriptive than its predecessors, it’s also more generous, both to its characters and to the audience. Because its ensemble has been conceived in terms of idiosyncratic individuals rather than stand-ins for larger forces, it seems far more possible than in the single-minded White Ribbon or Amour that different viewers will take different things away from the experience.

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges Laurent

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges Laurent

As in Code Unknown, Haneke provides multiple points of entry into the narrative: Happy End disperses its point of view across a large group of characters, any one of whom could plausibly qualify as the main protagonist. Isabelle Huppert projects her usual low, steady centre of gravity as Anne Laurent, a driven real-estate developer who is outwardly the sturdiest branch of her clan’s gnarled, ingrown family tree.

She’s sharper than her soft-boy brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), a prosperous doctor who’s been forced to bring 13-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin), his daughter from a previous marriage, to live with him and his second wife and their infant child; she lords it over her own son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) with some of the acid condescension she displayed as the alpha-mama in Elle (2016). And yet Anne’s attempts to downplay a workplace calamity and Huppert’s powerhouse acting ultimately exist to the side of what’s really fascinating in Happy End, which is the slow, steady, unsettling bond that forms between Eve and her heretofore all-but-estranged grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

It’s strongly implied, as Happy End goes on, that Trintignant is playing the same Georges Laurent he did in Amour, a bit of continuity that is (intentionally) undermined by the fact that the daughter figure played by Huppert in that film was named Eva, not Anne. This intertextual funny-gamesmanship doesn’t detract from the fact that Trintignant is allowed to be much wittier this time out; instead of acting slow-burning grief at his wife’s physical and mental dissolution, he expertly essays the impatience of a man who’d rather be dead himself. There are several scenes in which Georges, who is confined to a wheelchair, tries to arrange his own demise, and all of them are played for mordant, deadpan comedy, including a slow tracking shot following him as he rolls down a street and tries to provoke a group of dark-skinned men to attack him – an outrageous tableau rendered more provocative by the muffled sound design.

Mathieu Kassovitz as Thomas Laurent

Mathieu Kassovitz as Thomas Laurent

Georges’s death-wish intersects comfortably with his granddaughter’s morbid pathology. It’s made clear from the outset that Eve is a potential murderer: she force-feeds her pet hamster antidepressants and films the results on her iPhone. It’s also implied that she may have been responsible for her mother’s near-fatal drug overdose – a mystery that isn’t all that mysterious. As sensitively played by Harduin, Eve isn’t a culturally symptomatic figure like the eponymous TV junkie of Benny’s Video. Rather, she’s a perceptive, believably resentful young teen, pondering her imminent entry into a world of adults that’s disappointing from every angle. Georges’s apparent confirmation of her suspicions – that to grow old is to drift ever further from any kind of plausible innocence – balances cynicism against an implicit empathy.

And so it goes with many of the film’s best moments, which open up beyond (or beneath) their surface scepticism. A clandestine online correspondence is at once embarrassingly florid and movingly confessional; a scene where Eve is asked to mind her infant half-brother pulses with anxiety as well as tenderness; a stunt at a well-heeled family gathering is outrageous in ways that embarrass its perpetrator as thoroughly as his intended targets.

It’s this same quality of embarrassment – of people feeling exposed to themselves or to others – that accounts for Happy End’s queasy hilarity. When petulant, self-pitying Pierre does a karaoke rendition of Sia’s chart-topping Chandelier (a well-chosen song, as it’s about feeling out of control), his exhibitionistic abandon is either pathetic or cathartic, take your pick.

At his worst, Haneke is a scold who makes cinema to excoriate – his characters, his audience, the whole rotten world. Happy End evinces the same scepticism as Haneke’s other movies about a wealthy Western ruling class insulated against certain wide-angle realities, and yet for once, the critique feels light-fingered and not heavy-handed. The film suggests nothing so much as a compressed season of some heaving, melodramatic soap opera, parcelled out in glistening, judicious digital-video shards. Following Amour, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see another Haneke film, but the modest but genuine breakthrough of Happy End feels a bit like a fresh start.

 

  • Sight & Sound: the December 2017 issue

    Sight & Sound: the December 2017 issue

    Robert Pattinson in in the Safdie brothers’ Good Time; plus The Florida Project; Mudbound; Gloria Grahame, Annette Bening and Film Stars Don’t Die...

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