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Happy End exposes the areas where class, race, economics and morality intersect

Director Michael Haneke shows how technology has elided the space between public and private lives.

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. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist