France/Austria (2017) Dir. Michael Haneke
In what must be a cruel joke if not a straightforward case of human error, this latest offering from serial provocateur Michael Haneke has been categorised as a “comedy” by the rental service who sent it to me. From the onset there is no indication that this is a comedy and by the end confirmation is irrefutable it is no laughing matter. Then again, this IS Haneke we are dealing with here.
Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) is a precocious 12 year-old girl with a disturbing hatred of her mother, whom she poisons with an overdose of her anti-depressants which she filmed on her mobile phone. While her mother is in hospital, Eve moves to Calais to stay with her estranged father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), now remarried to Anaïs (Laura Verlinden) with a baby.
They share a manor house with patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), Thomas’ sister Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski). Far from being the happy unit they appear to be they all have secrets they are keeping from one another and Eve‘s arrival coincides with the slow and painful implosion of the Laurent clan – or is she just another part of it?
In case anyone felt Haneke had gone soft with his moving tragedy Amor rejoice in the fact that the ironically titled Happy End sees him back on acerbic, taboo busting form – maybe not Funny Games levels of deviance but a similar mischief is there. Some may find humour in this film and its portrayal of hermetic discordance but if it is there then it must be so black that UKIP supporters are petitioning for it to be deported.
Haneke has created a dysfunctional and empirically solipsistic bunch with the Laurents. There is something genetically unnerving about this lot as the voyeuristic opening of Eve filming her mother performing her nightly ablutions whilst narrating her disdain via onscreen text prior to uploading to YouTube illustrates – and this is before she murders her hamster on camera by way of a trail run to poisoning her mother.
On first inspection the family dinner at Chez Laurent seems amiable enough but Georges is slowly succumbing to dementia and Anne is worried Pierre has a drinking problem. Thomas and Anaïs appear rock solid, especially now they have a newborn baby boy but we soon learn that Thomas is having a fling with someone called Clare, sharing rather perverted private messages with each other.
Because Haneke’s narratives are rarely straight forward, we are left to get the gist of the subplots that carry the main characters through their journey towards a downward spiral, beginning with Pierre and Anne running the family construction business. When an accident on a worksite injures a worker, Pierre tries to absolve himself of any responsibility leaving cool-headed Mum to step in and overrule him.
Meanwhile Georges is unhappy about losing his marbles so he decides to commit suicide, failing first time round when he drives his car into a tree. Getting help to finish the job drives Georges to despair but he may have inadvertently found his co-conspirator in sweet faced Eve, who after all, has form in sending people on their way. Not the most conventional way for a confused grandfather to bond with his granddaughter.
Okay, I admit that having actually typed that last plot line out it does read like a gallows humour comedy but Haneke doesn’t once offer even the slightest wink to the audience to let us know if this was his intent or not. At least we can ascertain that this is the deconstruction of a bourgeois family and their insular money and status driven existence who don’t know how to be human in the outside world.
Somewhere in the middle of this is a relationship between Anne and British shareholder Lawrence Bradshaw (Toby Jones) but this is a Curzon-Artificial Eye releases and regular readers will know that they refuse to accommodate hard of hearing folk with subtitles for any English spoken dialogue so I couldn’t follow Jones’ mumbling or Huppert’s thick (but alluring) accent in their scenes together.
Taking its presentation style from Hidden, long single takes from a voyeuristic distance and no musical soundtrack to create a permanent sense of dread and foreboding, the audience is always on edge even in the more amiable times. Because of the characters’ dark sides – Georges hints he is the same man from Amour and Eve’s demand for sole attention – we genuinely think the worst of them until no-one left is trustworthy.
Yet none of this gives any hint of what is to come or if the titular happy ending will be delivered but if you know Haneke, you can probably work it out for yourself and on that front, he doesn’t disappoint. However there is something amiss that makes this a great Haneke film. It might be it the choppy editing – we suddenly join some pivotal events out of nowhere in the aftermath which only serves to confuse – or the density of the script, something keeps the audience out of sync at all times.
Reuniting Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert after Amour is just the start of the great cast Haneke has assembled here, and that includes young Fantine Harduin as Eve, the Damien Thorn of the family everyone tries to protect from the grimmer side of the family but is the worst offender. German actor Franz Rogowski brings the angst as Pierre whilst Toby Jones is debatably wasted in his role (did he really need to be English?), not to mention punching above his weight, as Huppert’s love interest.
There is no denying Michael Haneke is a one-of-a-kind director and his films will continue to polarise opinion as long as he keeps making them. Happy End will either be his latest masterpiece, a return to his provocative best or an uneven but curiously intriguing vanity project that might reveal its rewards upon further viewings.