Imagine a mind map. You remember the kind. Scribbled in your exercise books with an over-sized subject surrounded by ideas you copied directly from a tattered old textbook. If one was to create a mind map on Michael Haneke (which I’m sure at least one film student has done), it would include terms like voyeurism, bourgeois family dysfunction, suppression of guilt, memory, and the wrath of the repressed. His latest offering, Happy End, is just that: a mind map of previously explored ideas scribbled in the notebook of an aging filmmaker that offers little new information, but distils the central ideas spread throughout his oeuvre.
The Laurents are a wealthy family living in a palatial estate in the French port city of Calais. Anne (Isabelle Huppert) has been put in charge of the family construction business due to her father, Georges’ (Jean-Louis Trintignant) decaying health. Anne has strained relationship with her adult son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), due to his drinking problem. Her surgeon brother, Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz), also lives there with his new wife, but their life is interrupted when his daughter, Eve (Fantine Harduin), is forced to live with them after her mother overdoses in suspicious circumstances.
On the surface, their lives are as polished as the cutlery around their dinner table. But each has their issues. An accident at the construction site due to Pierre’s incompetence results in the death of an employee, Georges desperately searches for someone to help end his life to avoid impending dementia, and Thomas is engaged in an affair with a cellist that we are privy to through a series of lewd messages over social media (one memorable message reads, “I want you to piss on my smiling face”). If it sounds like a soap opera it is, but one akin to the wicked parlour walls of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 more than an episode of Days of our Lives.
Events are shown through different points of view with Haneke’s trademark cold detachment. He is preoccupied with surveillance and social media, particularly how lives are mediated through screens where one only sees what they wish to. This is shown through surveillance footage of the construction accident, ominous videos taken from Elle’s phone (reminiscent of Benny’s Video), and the dull click of the keyboard while kinky social media messages fill the frame. Long-time cinematographer Christian Berger frames scenes from deliberate distance in static wide-shots that have you searching for the subject, paranoid that you may miss a singular, important moment. Like the opening shot of Anne and Georges Laurent’s home in Hidden (notice the identical names), these shots imbue mundane events with mesmeric control
Of course, these moments are nothing without actors, and the performances are great. It goes without saying that Huppert, Kassovitz and Trintignant are excellent, as is Toby Jones in a small role. But the star of the film is Fantine Harduin, who is dazzling as Eve. Early on we have her pinned as a teenage sociopath obsessed with death, but as the film proceeds, cracks appear in our preconceptions. My heart fluttered in one scene rife with implicit tension where Eve soothes her crying brother, yet, later in interactions with Georges, she resembles a quiet and scared little girl. Is she a malicious monster in sheep’s clothing? Or a confused and lonely sheep amongst wolves, worthy of our compassion? In true Haneke form, it is never clear. Franz Rogowski is also magnificent as Pierre, particularly during a drunken rendition of Sia’s Chandelier that makes Napoleon Dynamite look like Michael Jackson.
All of this takes place inside a bourgeois bubble that refuses to be popped. Refugees are shown in the background, roaming in packs, waiting in hope of crossing the Eurotunnel. In one sequence, Anne’s iPhone remains central in the frame as she drives past Sangatte refugee camp without a glance. In another, BBC footage of the refugee crisis is drowned out by family conversation. The family servants are a hardworking Moroccan couple, who are admonished and soothed with a box of chocolates when their daughter is bitten by the family dog. In hands other than Haneke’s these subtle moments could feel hastily-pencilled in, but one feels their presence on the edge of every frame; just out of sight. After all, it’s where these characters live.
That is, until its perfect ending. Haneke manages to bring together the myriad relationships and themes in a farcical and cringe-inducing finale at the white-washed wedding of Anne and Lawrence. There is no bloody demise or shocking act of violence like so many of his previous films, but what comes made those within the screening I attended gasp and giggle alike. And the final sequence is one that has lingered with me since and can be ranked amongst the best of his career. Haneke has been exploring these issues since The Seventh Continent, his debut in 1989 (look at the character names). While you may get more thematic depth from earlier films, here they are concentrated with unique poise and potency that only time and experience can provide. Study this mind map, there is lots to learn.