Happy End, 7th December 2017
Michael Haneke is a light-hearted fellow. At least that is what he claimed in a recent interview I read. I still have my doubts. Mind you he clearly has a sense of humour. Albeit of the dark variety. As his films reveal. It is a very specific sort of humour, as he provokes and prods you into sniggering at the absurdity of his characters and their situations. I admit it is a little bit more hidden in Cache (ha ha) and The White Ribbon, and most apparent in Funny Games, but it was there also in Amour.
With Happy End, (obviously there isn’t one), the pointed comedy really comes to the fore whilst the everyday horror is dialled down, though don’t worry Haneke fans not by much. All of Mr Haneke’s obsessions are piled up, surveillance, invasion, transgression, alienation unhealthy dependencies, duplicity, secrets, collective and individual guilt, family dysfunction, domestic servants, end of life choices, but here they range across a dynastic family. Like in a soap opera mini-series. Well actually quite unlike.
The magnificent Isabelle Huppert plays the unforgiving matriarch, Anne Laurent, who runs the family construction company in Calais. Her ageing father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) wants to die. Her younger surgeon brother Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz) has to look after his 12 year old daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) after Eve’s mother (Thomas’s first wife, whose face we never see) has apparently overdosed. Thomas is having an affair unbeknown to his younger second wife, Anais (Laura Verlinden). The negligence of Anne’s useless son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) has left the family company exposed but Anne’s English lawyer fiancee Lawrence (Toby Jones) is there to smooth things over.
The haute-bourgeois family all share the same manor house which is looked after by Moroccan servants Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari). Like I said, just like a mini-series. Except that Mr Haneke isn’t interested, obviously, in offering us the requisite genre cliches. The imperious Anne has only criticism and scorn for Pierre. Georges’s dementia is interrupted by bouts of lucidity. Eve, an extraordinary performance from Fantine Harduin, (maybe she will be the next Isabelle Huppert), is alarmingly imperturbable as she watches her nervous father or connects with her grandad. Please avoid Eve. The family treats Rachid and Jamila with misplaced familiarity, undercut with casual racism, and they obviously resent this.
Mr Haneke can’t be doing with the conventional ways of dramatising and filming this tale. The light, internal and external is harsh. Long range shots abound so that action, and conversation, is concealed. Social media visuals pop up. Scenes begin and end abruptly or jump forward. Close ups come when you least expect. The camera often follows the subject. The presence of the refugees in Calais is apparent but only intrudes into the family right at the end.
So it is a Haneke film. No mistake. But without the punch in the guts of his previous works which leaves us having to put the pieces together, if we are so inclined. It feels like he is needling you into seeing something that isn’t quite there in terms of form, structure, story, plot, character but at the same timing saying all of this guilt, damage, psychosis, anger, deception, is really just ordinary. Well if you are posh that is.
I saw another black comedy this week that sometimes does its best not to look like one by another writer who loved showing off and referencing himself. Titus Andronicus. Preposterous comparison I know though, to be fair, both portrayed families I would studiously avoid becoming involved with and both ended with unfortunate celebratory banquets.