Michael Haneke’s days as the go-to guy for gruelling existential torment still lay ahead of him in 1992, when he made Benny’s Video, but it would be wrong to say that the writing wasn’t on the wall. That picture concerned a teenage voyeur so desensitised by visual media that he could kill a schoolfriend and not feel the least remorse. The blame was put at the feet of the frigid parents who had bought him a video camera, and who then helped him conceal his crime.
The finger is still pointing in the same direction in Happy End, which opens and closes with voyeuristic footage shot on a mobile phone by the 12-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin). After witnessing her mother taking an overdose (“Imma call an ambulance,” she texts), the child goes to live in the magnificent Laurent family house in Calais with her father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), who is too preoccupied with his new wife, baby and lover to provide the succour she needs. No point looking to her calm but clipped aunt, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), whose construction company is embroiled in legal and financial troubles. Eve’s uncle, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), is volatile and dissolute, though his energetic karaoke version of Sia’s “Chandelier”, complete with handstands, will be the performance to beat as we head into office party season.
Joining Eve in viewing the family with a quizzical eye is her great-grandfather, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who wants desperately to die but can’t find anyone to do the job. There is grim humour in Trintignant’s performance, jaundiced and crusty but also kind, and in Georges’s clueless approach to suicide. It is to the long-serving and faintly camp family hairdresser that he turns in search of a pistol and ammunition; the poor fellow splutters and protests while Georges looks on like a disapproving priest in the barbershop uniform of black gown and white neckband.
Suicide was the subject of Haneke’s 1989 debut, The Seventh Continent, in which an entire family kill themselves, and also his 2012 masterpiece, Amour, which starred Trintignant as another man named Georges. The director seems to be encouraging us to regard the new picture as a semi-sequel: this Georges, like the earlier one, smothered his terminally ill partner (or so he claims), while Anne, the wife played in Amour by the late Emmanuelle Riva, is now the name given to Georges’s daughter. Euthanasia was presented as an act of love in Amour; in Happy End suicide becomes a way for the powerless to establish agency. Admirers of RD Laing will applaud the argument that truth is represented by those whom society considers to be unbalanced: the senile Georges, the distressed Eve and the crazed Pierre (who brings the world of the Calais “jungle” to the family’s doorstep). They are alone in their perceptiveness. In practice, though, the bond between Eve and Georges brings the film closer to Little Miss Sunshine than one would ideally have wanted Haneke to get.
Following the triumph of Amour, Happy End feels like a collating of thematic and stylistic offcuts from Haneke’s career – colonialist guilt left over from Hidden, the butterfly-effect structure from Code Unknown. The picture sets up a rather obvious contrast between the coldness of interpersonal relationships, represented by extended wide shots in which distant figures interact inaudibly, and the online messages where intimate feelings are exchanged on a computer screen next to ads for salmon recipes and sheet music. Haneke shows how technology has elided the space between public and private lives but isn’t so disapproving that he won’t use texts as a screenwriting tool to fill in back story and motivation.
What he does very well is expose the areas where class, race, economics and morality intersect revealingly. The most effective scene shows Anne reprimanding Rachid (Hassam Ghancy), her live-in Moroccan butler (or “slave” as Pierre puts it), for “allowing” her dog to bite his daughter. She has brought sweets for the girl, who is crying and bleeding, and advises her to eat one every time it hurts. That’s her philosophy in miniature. Pay-offs for injured parties, medication for depressed children, a bonbon when life smarts.
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world