Cannes 2017: Michael Haneke’s Happy End

On Film / The Daily — May 22, 2017

“Michael Haneke is back to many of his old tricks in Happy End, which enfolds the child psychopathy of Benny’s Video, the bourgeois nightmare of Hidden, the euthanasia theme of Amour, and the racial discomfort of Code Unknown into a curious, disconcerting and sometimes insidiously effective greatest hits tableau,” announces the Telegraph’s Tim Robey.

Happy End is a satirical nightmare of haute-bourgeois European prosperity,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “as stark, brilliant and unforgiving as a halogen light. It is not a new direction for this filmmaker, admittedly, but an existing direction pursued with the same dazzling inspiration as ever. It is also as gripping as a satanically inspired soap opera, a dynasty of lost souls.”

“Michael Haneke is modern cinema’s tomb raider of abject gloom,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies, where he introduces us to the cast, “an affluent family of costal French industrialists, the Laurents. Ice cold Anne (Isabelle Huppert) is head puppet master, pacifying members of the clan and keeping business dealings bubbling over. Brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is bunking over with his depressed daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin), whose mother (his ex-wife) is critically ill in hospital. Family black sheep Pierre (Franz Rogowski) vents his frustrations through gymnastic karaoke, while Anne’s cantankerous father George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is in constant search of the title’s illusive happy end.”

“Haneke reminds us, too, that just down the road from the Laurents is the Calais migrant camp,” notes Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. “[I]f we’re to read anything into the Laurents’s diseased privilege, we should assume Haneke is talking about much more than just one family. This is a state-of-modern-Europe morality play.”

Variety’s Peter Debruge finds that “there’s almost no trace of the humane, empathetic sensibility that somehow snuck its way into Amour to be found here—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering the director spent most of his career spelunking the ice caves of his own cynicism, successfully unsettling us with what he found there.”

At Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell notes that “Happy End marks Haneke’s fourth union with Isabelle Huppert, which famously began with 2001’s The Piano Teacher, one of the indomitable performer’s signature roles. He allows Huppert to be unleashed once again as an icy matriarch whose main concerns are some underhanded maneuverings with the family business she now runs singlehandedly. An unfortunate workplace accident, shown by the company’s security footage, seems to be the turning point for Anne to make a decision on firing her troublesome son as a manager, which leads to a spiraling meltdown of alcohol, violence, and an incredibly animated karaoke performance of Sia.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Deborah Young finds it “hard to pin down the theme of the piece. Is it the poison of power and money that is passed down from generation to generation? The lack of love or any other type of emotional connection among family members? The virtual enslavement of the servants and the hypocrisy of pretending to care about their welfare, but then not sending their little girl to get rabies shots when she’s bitten by the watchdog? The problem is that it’s all of the above, a general social malaise involving the upper class, the lower class and the new outcasts—the African migrants stuck in Europe dreaming of a better life.”

“Working with trusted collaborators in DP Christian Berger, editor Monika Willi, the always reliable Huppert (who has at least one clear-cut insta-classic scene to add to her career highlight reel) and the brilliant Trintignant, Haneke moves the Laurents like pieces on an aesthetically-pristine chess board,” writes Nikola Grozdanovic at the Playlist. “The camera is either gliding along with them or stuck frozen in place to reveal (in many cases, purposefully avoid revealing) the tragedy unfolding on screen. All throughout, Haneke’s awareness of our spectating gaze is as surgically precise as ever; conversations are drowned out by traffic, key moments are kept in the far foreground, and faces are kept off screen. Happy End pulsates with purpose in every frame.”

IndieWire’s Eric Kohn finds it “fascinating to watch the 75-year-old Haneke explore how modern-day technology has only further exacerbated the tendency for people to retreat into their lonely worlds, with the use of the camera-phone videos and social media planting the director’s voyeuristic fixations into the 21st century.”

“The lukewarm reaction to [Sunday night’s] press screening of Happy End, signaled by a smattering of polite applause and a mild chorus of boos, likely dashed a great many hopes that it will at least be considered the festival’s popular favorite,” notes Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com. “Happy End is a thinner and more scattered piece of work than might be expected of Haneke at this stage in his career. None of these characters are clearly defined, and each serves an ambiguous purpose in a larger story that feels incomplete rather than open-ended.”

“Ultimately, this will count as an interlocutory title in the director’s impressive filmography,” predicts Screen’s Lee Marshall.

Updates, 5/23: “Attacking the bourgeoisie has become rather formulaic for this perennial visitor to Cannes,” writes Richard Porton for the Daily Beast. “At this point, it might be more shocking for Haneke to, say, remake It’s a Wonderful Life than to engage in another assault on his viewers’ liberal pieties. . . . Haneke’s Code Unknown, released seventeen years ago in 2000, was a much more trenchant examination of European’s animosities towards dark-skinned immigrants.”

“But unlike the layered fragments of something like Code Unknown, which intersect and build as the film progresses, there's a flatness to the overall picture, here, that underwhelms,” finds Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook. “And divorced from the context of a more layered structure, the unrelenting worldview begins to feel cheap, the emotions that it wants to elicit somewhat unearned.”

At the Film Stage, Giovanni Marchini Camia agrees: “Surprisingly, considering [that] Happy End feels like a summation for the director, it’s also his most restrained work—and his flattest. . . . A major issue is that the characterizations don’t reach very deep and in the absence of a robust context or involving narrative, it’s actually the references to Haneke’s previous films that flesh out what is otherwise a rather perfunctory condemnation of the bourgeoisie equipped with the usual symbolic connotations.”

“Formally, Haneke remains on top of his punishing game,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “Few living filmmakers make more foreboding use of stillness, of quiet, of an ominously static frame; to study one of his careful compositions is to become seized by the hanging promise of violence—the feeling that something terrible could and probably will happen in any given moment. His moral horror freezes the blood as reliably as any conventional thriller. . . . The most damning thing you could say about Happy End isn’t that it’s a drag (one goes to a Haneke movie to have their spirits exquisitely dampened) but that it’s a drag we’ve seen before.”

“Still,” writes Richard Lawson for Vanity Fair, “it’s fascinating to grapple with Happy End, a sly and elusive film that features some of the most innovative, and unsettling, depictions of social media I’ve yet seen on screen—including a terrific final shot that’s a darkly hilarious glimpse of what may be the end of civilization, seen through a Snapchat lens.”

More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 4/5), Ali Moosavi (Film International), and Bénédicte Prot at Cineuropa, where Fabien Lemercier interviews Haneke: “This film was born out of a certain bitterness on our way of living, this way we have of not looking beyond the end of our noses in this world around us. And it’s not a French problem, I could have made the same film in Germany, Austria or elsewhere. The subject matter is the way we live, the autism that afflicts us.”

Updates, 5/24: “Unlike, say, the bourgeois couple in Caché, who were at least capable of feeling guilty for their complicity in the repression of the French Algerian population, the Laurents will not be called to account for their crimes against humanity, or even to acknowledge them,” notes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “If Haneke avoids obvious jolts and payoffs here, it may very well be because he sees his characters—and by extension, his viewers—as well beyond the reach of shock, guilt or redemption.”

Happy End's various dangling plot threads may be immediately puzzling, but they ultimately form an involving, deceptively empathetic portrait of personal grief as it's experienced in a desensitized first-world society,” writes Simon Abrams at the House Next Door.

As Eve, Fantine Harduin steals the show, argues Douglas Greenwood, writing for AnOther: “She’s morose, emotionally fractured and intimidating, managing to outshine her older co-stars and spellbind her audience with her poise.”

Happy End is one of the films discussed in the latest Film Comment Podcast (59’45”).

Update, 5/25: “Haneke’s integration of the ways we communicate and conduct our lives via phone and laptop feels uniquely effective,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “After long take after long take watching these characters’ lives slowly fall apart, the deceptively placid screen of a Facebook sext or Snapchat video fits right in.”

Update, 5/26: “Haneke has delivered the Haneke film that Haneke-haters see in their heads when they think of a Haneke film,” writes the Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri: “a series of disjointed, narratively oblique episodes showing people being inhumane to each other. . . . Haneke’s not unfeeling; he usually just asks audiences to meet him halfway. But with the cold, messy, and fundamentally irritating Happy End, I can’t help but feel he’s abandoned us entirely.”

Update, 5/27: Writing for Paste, Tim Grierson focuses on “where Happy End parts company with Haneke’s earlier work. In the past, a cosmic comeuppance had occasionally reared its head to smite down the privileged. If such a karma correction awaits the Laurents, we don’t see it in Happy End. Family members die in this movie, and others are left worse off. But the idea of the Laurents—eternally wealth, eternally safeguarded from the strictures and ethics of regular society—remains immaculately preserved. It’s bloody frustrating, and yet Haneke remains such a master that, at the end, he gets you to laugh about the whole thing.”

Update, 5/28: Ioannis Kanonakis for the International Cinephile Society: “A master of cinematic discomfort and unease, Haneke constructs not only a scathing social commentary about society’s hypocrisy and the dehumanizing effects of digital technology, but also a subversively—and unexpectedly—funny take on indolence and complacency among the bourgeoisie, in what could be considered the pinnacle of his intellectual quest as well as a culmination of his favorite themes. A tale about self-destruction, sociopathy and the superficiality of an entire society, Happy End is one of the most intriguing and progressive achievements of the year.”

Update, 5/30: “Haneke doesn’t even pitch movies to Huppert anymore; he just asks her to show up.” Jada Yuan talks with them for Vulture. And it makes for a pretty fun read, too.

Update, 5/31: BFI programmer Geoff Andrew lunched with Haneke a few days after the premiere, “and he seemed in very good spirits, despite a number of critics—the French, especially, it appeared—having complained that it was just another Haneke film. ‘What do they expect?’ he laughed. ‘After all, I’m not someone else. I’ve been Michael Haneke for many years, and I don’t imagine that what I do is going to change very much now!’ Nor should it.”

Update, 11/4: “Eve’s ability to process the counternarratives of adulthood magnifies the fallacy of maturity, which is that when you get older, you don’t become a better or happier person, but just necessarily more agile and clandestine about fulfilling your motives, wherever they fall on a spectrum between the individualistic or utilitarian,” writes Steffanie Ling in the Brooklyn Rail. “Eve is a camera for the audience who processes her family’s image against the more placid one they wish to impress upon her.”

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