Happy End? Obviously the only sensible reaction is “yeah, right”, at least if you’ve seen anything by the notoriously un-chipper Austrian Michael Haneke before. On average, a sitting with Haneke will bring about as much sunshine into your life as a spin of Manic Street Preachers’ fearsome nineties downer, The Holy Bible. Haneke’s work shares quite a few ideas with that LP; the human race as accomplices to atrocities hidden in plain sight; a desire to unmask dark truths concealed beneath a veneer of respectability, and the impossibility of burying a guilty conscience. Neither flinch in holding up a mirror to immoral behaviour. There’s even a stylistic correlation in their meeting of the unfathomably cryptic with the brutally frank.
Happy End; dir.: Michael Haneke; France/Austria/Germany 2017, 107 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★★/5
Happy End treads familiar Haneke turf, but does so with a greater sense of resignation than before and is perhaps his bleakest work to date. The director’s previous films have generally included a shocking slap in the face that somehow felt constructive, as if the director felt there was scope for us to react to a wake-up call and improve, something not quite consistent with the nihilist he is often described as. This is conspicuously absent from his latest effort. Instead, there is despairing black comedy, even a touch of farce, and monstrous characters that, perhaps for the first time, Haneke has given up on helping.
Having previously demonstrated a fascination with surveillance cameras and their ability to blur reality and fiction, Haneke extends his interest to social media and smartphones in Happy End. The film’s typically austere opening sequence shows a short series of live videos from a mobile. The phone’s owner will be revealed as 12-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin, who upstages a hefty cast), who, if we are to take her at her word, slips her Mum an overdose after a trial run on her pet hamster. With her mother hospitalised by her ‘suicide attempt’, Eve returns to her father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), and is reintegrated into her wealthy extended family in Calais.
As usual, there are two principals named Georges and Anne Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert), in this case father and daughter. Anne has taken over the running of the family’s construction firm due to Georges’ worsening dementia, and is romantically involved with an English lawyer (Toby Jones) who is handling their UK expansion. Anne also employs her errant son Pierre, whose negligence causes an industrial injury, which they try to cover as an accident. Also in the family are Thomas’ second wife Anaïs and their new baby. All live in a pretty impressive mansion staffed by Moroccan servants.
There’s less a plot than a bunch of excruciating sequences that could appear on a Haneke hits compilation, whether it be Pierre’s attempt to bullshit his way out of a lawsuit, Thomas sexting his bit on the side, Eve the potential matricide tending her new-born half-sibling, or France’s most surreal karaoke turn. Haneke’s familiar cold, impassive long takes offer the audience no hope of escape. Events culminate in a family celebration of Georges’ birthday and, needless to say, take a similarly diabolical turn. It is only at this point that the film explicitly addresses the elephant in the room – the Calais Jungle, still active when shooting began on Happy End.
Haneke has been quite open about the circumstances of his mother’s death, in particular his rejection of her request for assisted suicide, something he regrets. He’s now a strong advocate of legalised euthanasia. This story inspired the astonishing Amour, and the events are clearly still on his mind here, indeed Happy End includes a post-script to Haneke’s 2012 Oscar winner. Here though, we are asked to further consider such challenging notions as rational suicide and humane murder via some truly outrageous juxtaposition, and in particular the relationship between the aging Georges and the troubled youngster Eve.
At the turn of the millennium, Haneke made Code Unknown, a film that saw him musing on developing globalisation and the modern, multicultural metropolis at a time when the political far-right was making a breakthrough in his native Austria. Among other things, the film wonders how these expanding liberal cities might cope with the challenges presented by multilingual communication, intolerant attitudes and, as Haneke himself put it, “the coldness of the consumer society”. Code Unknown was also concerned with how we define reality in the media; at the time the likes of Big Brother were probably the greatest cause for concern. It makes for prescient viewing now, though the man himself would doubtless detest such a suggestion, as he tends to treat such simplistic interpretations of his wisdom with Dylanesque hostility.
Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that Happy End perhaps offers us an insight into how the minds of those who may feel they tried to warn us of an approaching cliff must view the world in light of modern events and debate – presumably as one that is now plummeting towards the ground. Happy End perhaps lacks the precision brilliance of Hidden or the soul-bearing honesty of Amour, but it feels like the perfect Haneke film for the time. Settle back with Uncle Mike then, for this tale of death, suicide, lying, cheating and ignorance that is hopeless, cynical, horrifying and brilliant. I’d just advise you to have Paddington 2 on standby for afterwards.