Saturday 18 November 2017

Happy End (France/Austria/Germany 2017: Dir Michael Haneke)

Some critics have suggested that after the emotionally scarring tour de force offerings The White Ribbon and Amour, adulte terrible filmmaker Michael Haneke has let audiences off lightly with his latest, Happy End; I couldn't exactly agree with that; it's just that the trademark enormity of his usual narratives is slightly more occluded this time round.

Perhaps taking its name from Kurt Weill's 1929 opera of the same name about warring families, Happy End is an initially elegant chamber piece revolving around a dynastic group - the Laurent family - who have made their money in construction. Head of the family George has onset dementia and an all absorbing death wish, and the fortunes of the business are slowly transferring to his daughter Anne, who is herself grooming her feckless and self-hating alcoholic son Pierre for a greater role in the company; at the same time she is cementing a relationship with British business man Lawrence Bradshaw, one which has more of the boardroom than the bedroom about it. Anne's brother Thomas, who has remarried after splitting from his vulnerable former partner (who, as the film opens, has just overdosed and is in hospital), is also having a sexting relationship with a musician. Thomas's daughter from that relationship, Eve, is perhaps the centre of the story; she has been moved away from her mother's residence into the Laurent family home, after revealing to the audience a less than angelic disposition (feeding ma's anti-depressants to the family hamster with predictable results - and don't worry, it's a CGI hamster that karks it - at least I think it is).

Most of the drama takes place in the Laurent family home, a slightly out of time baroque manse that speaks of privilege and bourgeois entitlement. The Laurent family feel more like squatters than rightful occupants, and part of the intensity of this film is generated by the growing awareness of the moral corruptness of the family members. Haneke is a master of this technique; letting you put the pieces together very slowly, and when you eventually understand the extent of the rot in the Laurent dynasty, realising that on screen nobody is behaving any differently than when you first met them - there is no dramatic final scene, just more of the same, piled in front of the viewer to stifling effect.

Happy End is a statement about families, the corruption of the innocent, but also tellingly the state of France. Early in the film there is an accident at a Laurent construction site (a fabulous and almost balletic scene where a disaster - the slow collapse of part of the site - occurs slowly and quietly at the edge of the frame, perhaps symbolising the shaky foundations of the Laurent dynasty) which the family manage to overcome reputationally by paying meagre compensation to the accident victim's obviously down at heel family. The film is set in Calais, and the refugee crisis in the country is also referenced, in a typically awkward Haneke moment: Pierre, clearly exasperated to the point of madness by his family's rarefied existence, gatecrashes the wedding of Anne and Lawrence with a group of refugees, to add a degree of reality to the vapidly photographed wedding party. Anne's subsequent apologetic accommodation of the refugees at a spare table is, one assumes, a nod to that country's treatment of immigrants.

Haneke's control of his actors, and the glacially observed details of their lives revealed in often static camera shots, is nothing new for this director. Slightly unconvincingly he frames some of the movie through the lens of a camera phone, and uses a strange CG effect for the scenes where the family are eating on the terrace of the house with the sea as a backdrop. If these techniques, and lengthy scenes of texting taking place, are to add further distance to the already vacuous lives in front of us, well it wasn't necessary. The cast do their jobs well. Haneke regulars Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant play Anne and George respectively (the latter turning in a borderline comedic role which sours during his last reel confession). But the star of the piece is Fantine Harduin as the 12 year old Eve, delivering a deadpan performance with manipulative eyes staring out from under her fringe; her capacity for future evil reminded me of the young future dictator in Brady Corbet's 2015 film The Childhood of a Leader.

So while Happy End may not be vintage Haneke, it's nevertheless a well structured and absorbing two hours, and it's good to see this filmmaker still producing movies for adults that make no concessions to popularity or comfort.

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