Happy End

February 10, 2018
A friendly family get-together in Michael Haneke's 'Happy End'

When Michael Haneke calls a film Happy End, one anticipates a thoroughly miserable experience for everyone concerned. Forewarned is forearmed. If you go into this movie expecting a withering indictment of the cold-hearted French bourgeoisie you might even squeeze out a snicker or two at the sheer awfulness of the dramatis personae.

It’s to be expected the bourgeoisie will take a beating in a Haneke film, no less than in one by Luis Buñuel. The difference is that Buñuel plunges his characters into slapstick absurdity whereas Haneke makes them feel bitterly real. Indeed, it’s the veneer of normality that adds an extra frisson as one dirty secret after another is revealed.

Haneke is not willing to blame everything on the prosperous middle classes. Happy End is also preoccupied with the desensitising properties of social media which allows each of us to be the star of our very own movie, or to treat the world around us as if it were no more than a fiction.

The story begins with Eve (impressive newcomer, Fantine Harduin) an innocent-looking girl of 13. She is shooting footage of her mother on a mobile phone and rehearsing all the usual complaints teenagers have about their parents, before showing us a video of her hamster which she has drugged with her mum’s anti-depression pills. Before too long the mother is in a critical condition in hospital after a drug overdose, while Eve has gone to live with her father and his new family.

We realise that Eve is as much a ‘bad seed’ as the little blonde girl in Mervyn LeRoy’s classic 1956 movie of that name. Unlike Eve, LeRoy’s pigtailed Rhoda, who didn’t have access to social media, took an ingratiating approach with her elders. Eve keeps a blank expression, feigning indifference while spying on the grown-ups.

Meet the Laurents, who live in an elegant mansion near Calais. Eve’s father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a surgeon, recently married to a younger woman, Anaïs (Laura Verlinden). They have a new baby and seem like a happy couple. Eve’s grandfather, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is the old, embittered patriarch. With the loss of his wife and his own deteriorating health, he wishes only for death.

In today’s cinema there is an entire sub-genre of films that tells us how rich and exciting the world is for the elderly, who are forever finding new love and reflecting on lives well spent. Haneke, however, has never spent a single night in the Exotic Marigold Hotel. The bleak, unflinching portrait of old age he gave us in Amour (2012), is continued in the character of Georges, played with the same masterly severity by Trintignant.

Next around the dinner table is Eve’s aunt, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who runs the construction company from which the Laurents draw their wealth. She had planned to leave the business to her son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), but a crisis at work exposes his emotional fragility and estrangement from the family. The difficult stuff is left to Anne and her lawyer, Lawrence (Toby Jones), who is also her fiancé. The Laurents are waited upon by two North African servants, Jamila and Rachid (Nabiha Akkari and Hassam Ghancy), who are treated with kindness and condescension by their employers.

It takes Eve little time to hack into her father’s laptop and find a trove of kinky emails he has exchanged with his mistress. Meanwhile, everyone has an increasingly difficult task trying to forestall Georges’s suicide attempts. Just as worrying is Pierre, who has become a drunken menace, ready to insult and embarrass his family at any social gathering. Not content to wallow in his own misery he becomes obsessed with the plight of the guest workers and refugees that cluster in Calais.

Haneke draws the contours of these personalities in a few memorable scenes, notably a conversation between Eve and Georges where we realise she has inherited the harsh, pitiless side of his character. They recognise each other’s darkness with a kind of silent satisfaction. Just as striking is a sequence in which Pierre sings along to Sia’s Chandelier in a karaoke bar, even mimicking the dance moves of the pubescent nymphet in the video.

Although he is the only family member with a pronounced feeling for others, Pierre appears foolish, even infantile. In the world of the Laurents, competence and efficiency are the core values. They are gracious in their manners and adept in the art of keeping up appearances. Haneke lets us sample their distance from life by holding a shot for an unnaturally long time, or by framing incidents on the screens of mobile phones. Everything in this realm is mediated, nothing feels natural.

The brooding tensions come to a head in a final act set in a seaside restaurant, where Anne and Lawrence are hosting their wedding reception. Inevitably Pierre causes a scene, but it is a sly, deathly conspiracy between Eve and her grandfather that leaves us chilled to the bone.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8Jn1AIzcBQ

Happy End
Written & directed by Michael Haneke
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Fantine Harduin, Mathieu Kassovitz, Franz Rogowski, Laura Verlinden, Toby Jones, Hassam Ghancy, Nabiha Akkari
France/Austria/Germany, rated M, 107 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 10 February, 2018