Director: Michael Haneke
Screenwriter: Michael Haneke
Runtime: 107 mins.
Australian Release Date: 8 February 2018
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 23 January 2018.
Austrian director/writer Michael Haneke once again casts his disturbing, unemotional eye over the mores of the haute bourgeoisie in his latest film Happy End. Creator of Amour, White Ribbon, Funny Games and others, his is a particularly unsettling vision that rarely fails to be intriguing, and his new work is very much in the same vein. Indeed, he has been criticised in some quarters for returning to the same well-tilled earth, of failing to break new ground, and yet he always seems to disturb something new and disquieting in his field. Happy End may not be Haneke’s best work but it still manages to pack a nasty punch.
In scenes reminiscent of his 1992 movie Benny’s Video, the picture opens with a woman being filmed via a mobile phone as we hear the thoughts of the unseen photographer. Before long we realise that the ‘filmer’ is a teenage girl, Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), and the ‘filmed’ is her mother and that we are, in fact, watching a crime take place. Soon after, Eve is taken to live in the Laurent family mansion by her estranged father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his new wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), where she is sniffily appraised by her semi-demented grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant)… and found wanting. The Laurent family pile is in Calais, site of the infamous refugee camp known as ‘the jungle’, and the home is also occupied by Eve’s aunt Anne (Isabelle Huppert), and Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski). The Laurents own a construction firm that Anne manages and a crisis emerges after a serious accident at one of their building sites, badly injuring a worker, and Pierre is blamed. Feeling hardly done by, Pierre moves into a barely furnished flat and starts drinking heavily. As this predicament plays out, and Anne’s lover Lawrence Bradshaw (Toby Jones) gets involved, we gradually learn that almost everyone in the family has a secret of some kind. Despite the outward appearance of being close-knit, it seems the Laurents hardly know each other at all. A line from the press-kit states succinctly, “All around us, the world, and we, in its midst, blind”, and this rather neatly encapsulates the Laurent dynasty and the blindness that almost leads them to the edge of disaster.
By shining a light on this European family is Haneke telling us something of the state of modern Europe? True to form, he doesn’t give away his meaning easily. Through the lens of his regular cinematographer Christian Berber and by the editing of Monika Willi, who Haneke has also worked with previously, we often seem to be taking two steps forward, one step back, as we realise later the significance of scenes we have glanced over earlier. It’s a clever technique and it leaves you wondering even after the lights have come up. Happy End, like much of this great director’s work, is as exasperating as it is intriguing, but you know you haven’t wasted your time in the master’s company.