What we see in Happy end is a crescendo of emotions in full Hanekian mode. There are no heroes, no villains, everyone is simultaneously victim and executioner. Including young people. But in the end, what does being good or bad mean?
Michael Haneke at his best
Five years on from his last feature film, Amour, which won the Palme d’Or and the second Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Austria (the first was awarded only in 2008 to Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters), Master Michael Haneke has now presented us with another of his works, also presented in competition at the Cannes Film Festival: Happy end, a feature film that is simultaneously magnetic and cruel, a worthy summa of the Viennese filmmaker’s filmography, with leading actors from his previous works such as Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant.
The setting is Calais. The apparent equilibrium of an upper middle class family seems to be dangerously shaken: the company founded by the elderly father – and run by his children, Thomas and Anne – has to answer for a serious accident involving one of its workers. In the meantime, twelve-year-old Eve, Thomas’ first-born daughter, will join the family, since her mother is in hospital.
And so, with the issue of immigration and the economic crisis in the background, this most recent work by Haneke, perfectly in step with the times, finally gets underway. And it manages to overwhelm, fascinate and hurt us from the very first minutes, when we read, through the screen of a mobile phone – reminding us of Benny’s Video (1992) – the young Eve’s intentions of giving a strong dose of sleeping pills to her mother, who has been depressed for a long time. But this is only the beginning. Because, in fact, in spite of a quite disturbing opening, what we see in Happy end is a real crescendo of emotions in full Hanekian mode. And Michael Haneke, while creating a script that never ceases to amaze, continues to stage violence and vileness of all kinds. Haneke doesn’t show us what is happening. We can only guess at it or, in some cases, listen to it. This happened likewise in The White Ribbon (2009), in Funny Games (1997) and Funny Games U. S. (2007), as well as in the above-mentioned Benny’s video – just to name a few examples – and also in Happy End: we don’t see the moment when the young girl poisons her mother, but we guess it from what she has written on her mobile phone; we don’t see her death, but only the moment when their old house is sold. The only gory moments that are shown to us – the accident at work and the beating of Anne’s son by one of the company’s employees – are filmed from afar, absolutely with a fixed camera, softened but simultaneously harsher than ever.
And then there’s her: the great Isabelle Huppert, here more cruel and ruthless than ever. A role she is particularly good at, given her algid, slender but also extremely fascinating physique. Haneke, as a good connoisseur, has believed in her over and over again: he did so in 2001 with The Piano Teacher, as well as in 2012 with Amour, where Huppert starred with two other great cinema legends: Jean-Louis Trintignant, also an excellent co-star in Happy End, and the late Emmanuelle Riva. And since you can’t change a winning team, two disturbing characters such as Anne and her elderly father become the pillars of one of the works on which Haneke seems to have focused most. At least until now.
In a rich and varied work, special attention must also be paid to the act of watching. From the very beginning we see how mobile phones are nowadays witnesses of reality. It is up to them to introduce us into the story. There is the typically post-modern awareness of watching, of being powerless spectators in front of what happens before our eyes. And precisely the spectator becomes aware, little by little, of the impossibility of acting, facing a humanity that becomes progressively colder, more hypocritical, more ruthless. There are no heroes, no villains, everyone is simultaneously victim and executioner. Including young people. But, in the end, what does being good or bad mean? Was Eve really so reprehensible when she gave sleeping pills to her mother or, if we try to observe the facts from another point of view, was it nothing more than a sort of (certainly questionable) act of love? Haneke seems, at one point, to suggest the answer, even by citing his previous work, Amour. All this, we must admit, with a certain complacency. But there it is. On the other hand, in Happy End, which can rightfully be considered the summa of the Viennese director’s filmography, some impromptu but also self-ironic moments of self-celebration were to be expected. And then, after years of respectable career, Haneke has become widely acknowledged, so extreme but also so authentic. The facts are these. Love him or hate him.
Original title: Happy End
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Country/year: France, Austria / 2017
Running time: 110’
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassowitz, Fantine Harduin
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cinematography: Christian Berger
Produced by: Les Films du Losange