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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

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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