Haneke’s Happy End

December 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

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A recent radio discussion of Michael Haneke’s Happy End concluded that, as ever, he aims to punish the bourgeoisie, characters and audience alike. Though I don’t see his films in quite those terms this prompted me to anticipate something akin to the claustrophobic rigours of Amour or The White Ribbon, perhaps even the horrors of Funny Games or The Piano Teacher. But Happy End struck me as one of Haneke’s least ‘punitive’ films. It brought to mind his Code Unknown, another film that shows us the world beyond the enclosed one of a family, couple or group, and where we also have a sense of physical spaciousness and light, an effect less liable to implicate the audience in either crime or the punishment here patently self-inflicted by the principals.
First we see images and text mediated through a smart phone with an unidentified voice-over, followed by a surveillance video of a building site where workers and machines plough along until a sudden disastrous collapse. Other screens appear in the course of the film, digital means whereby things are revealed or suggested.
We are in Calais and the building site belongs to the wealthy Laurent family, introduced at an uneasy dinner table: Georges, a decrepit and muddled 85-year-old (Jean-Louis Trintignan), his daughter, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), in whose hands he has placed the family business, his son Thomas, a surgeon, daughter-in-law Anaïs, and Anne’s son, Pierre. The on-site collapse arises as a problem to be dealt with, legal liabilities to be warded off, since one of the workers has been badly injured. It has caused Anne to cancel a trip across the Channel to see her fiance-to-be (Toby Jones).
Throughout, perspectives shift between these and other characters in the household: Rachid and Jamila, a Moroccan couple employed to look after it, and 12-year-old Eve, the daughter of Thomas from a first marriage.
The camera’s movements and placing keenly show and deliberately thwart what we might want to see, or else they open up an ambiguity. As Anne, Huppert’s face is frequently confined to profile, mid-shot or shadow, and what we are privy to in close-up is her public face: corporate, social, or dealing with the servants. She rules the family mansion as well as its business interests, conciliatory manner at the ready. By contrast, her brother has a face devoured in recurring close-up, its look of hangdog helplessness reminding me of Malenkov’s in The Death of Stalin, out of his depth as a ruthless dictator. In Thomas it’s the needily apologetic look of a weak man abdicating responsibility for the harm he’s done or is about to do to his children or his wives.
Both Thomas and Anne are morally unknowing, he driven by the selfishness of narcissism, she by the expediency of the profit motive. Even her engagement to the Toby Jones character (I didn’t catch his name, just ‘Darling’), a finance lawyer, appears nothing more than a tepid business arrangement for the convenience of cross-channel deals. They appear together only twice, fleetingly and in public settings. Jones has a solo moment in London, toying with his dinner in front of BBC News, when Anne phones for a chat about the building site problem. His goodbye smile at once freezes to an alert concern provoked by a report on striking oil-rig workers in Aberdeen.
Meals in the film never get to be enjoyed. Dramatic interruption or loss of appetite see to that. (A punishment indeed, recalling The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).
Love and affection don’t belong among the Laurents, while deceit, hypocrisy and manipulation triumph at every turn. The younger members of the family most visibly suffer the consequences, beyond repair it would seem. Eve might be the conscience of the film were it not for her own criminal tendencies; Pierre has no self-worth.
The ensemble work is fluent, actions damned or questioned through small gestures and little pieces of dialogue, with occasional passages where emotional distress leaks out. Haneke is generous with these characters (as in Code Unknown), inviting us to consider their flawed humanity and, at times, to laugh at their discomfiture. It’s Trintignan‘s Georges who supplies a blackly comic running gag with his repeated foiled attempts to find a final exit from the hell of decrepitude and family, and it’s he who takes us into the light of the sea and the streets, where some Calais refugees get a walk-on part. Their encounter with Georges is in long shot, across a busy road; we can’t hear any dialogue but we can draw conclusions. Refugees have a second brief role as pawns in the Laurents’ ongoing drama.
In comparing this film with Code Unknown I realise that the latter has an entirely different dynamic, so much that Happy End is its inversion, a film whose characters stay trapped in a closed circle so that no chance event can touch or change them, whereas Code Unknown was all about contingency, the effect of chance on the lives of disparate people. Both have a female protagonist (Juliette Binoche in Code Unknown) called Anne Laurent – the most emphatic of several echoes Haneke creates between this and earlier films.
Happy End has a lightness I’ve never seen before from him, but it nonetheless has bite and quite literally so. The first blood is drawn by the mansion’s guard dog – another character whose face we hardly see, though it’s clear from the outset that he’s dangerously fierce. We’ve observed Anne’s stingy payout to the family of her incapacitated employee, delivered as kind, caring capitalism, but when she bares her teeth in earnest we witness how vicious her politesse can be.
The film really demands a second viewing to do justice to its finely balanced scenes and visual pleasures. Haneke’s use of light and shadow achieves a painterly eloquence without being lavish – that high, brilliant light of the French channel coast to be found in Boudin and, later, the Impressionists. His cinematic connection to the New Wave is also apparent. This time he’s a director to rejoice in, and certainly not to dread.
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