Michael Haneke, the auteur’s auteur from Austria, is going for his record third Palme d”Or with Happy End (after Amour and The White Ribbon) and he is obviously in with a big shout.
Happy End is one of his French language productions, set in Calais among a dysfunctional haute bourgeoisie family. It’s like a very high class soap, shot by a pitiless master film maker, a cruel God turning his withering contempt for these people into high art.
And that’s both the beauty and the beastliness of Happy End. None of the characters are even pitiable. Isabelle Huppert is the dutiful stressed daughter Anne, in charge of the Laurent family construction business now that the paterfamilias, played by Jean Louis Trintingant (is this family somehow related to the one in Amour?) is suffering from dementia.
Her brother is a shifty, cheating doctor, played by Matthieu Kassovitz in a rare acting role, who now takes in his estranged daughter from his first marriage following her mother’s sudden hospitalisation.
Anne’s son is a drop-out and unstable rebel who nevertheless is employed at the family’s latest building site, and is indeed probably negligent when a dreadful industrial accident happens at the film’s start – all filmed in one static security camera shot, a dramatic, quietly horrifying moment caught without any comment and probably a metaphor for the whole film, a giant hole into which society is collapsing.
Haneke observes in long, cruel takes, keeping these dreadful people at a distance. Meanwhile, there are gentle reminders of the immigrant crisis in Calais, relegated to the background and the edge of frame – always check the edge of the frame in a Haneke movie, because that’s where the action is.
I almost didn’t like Happy End, even thought on exiting the Palais that, heretical as it might be, this wasn’t very good. It felt like Haneke bingo, all the cameras and screens and different ways of seeing, ticking the boxes of what we expect in his movies. It’s almost too conscious of its own status as a masterpiece. And yet it is still a masterpiece, every shot toxic with meaning, every line of dialogue cutting to the bone and the soul like a precision instrument.
It’s hard to love, hard to watch, hard to care for anyone, yet still achieves a power and grace that’s impossible to deny – that’s where Haneke’s genius lies, challenging cinematic language and all its accepted cliches until you don’t quite know what it is you’ve seen or if you were even looking for it.
Whatever, Happy End’s unsettlingly bleak mysteries have been haunting me all week, until I can see little else in my frazzled mind’s eye.