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.
Happy End is distributed by Transmission Films in Australia and will be released in cinemas nationwide on February 8th. You can purchase tickets at Dendy Newtown, Palace Central and Hayden Orpheum, amongst other locations. Please comment below what you thought of the film, or let me know via twitter @jayd3l. Thanks for reading.
Austrian director Michael Haneke explains that his 2005 film Caché is “a tale of morality dealing with how one lives with guilt. Do I accept it? And if I don’t what do I do? And if I do, what do I do?”. Cache explores the disruption of Georges and Anne Laurent’s bourgeois life by mysterious videotapes, though it quickly becomes apparent that the story is an allegory addressing what historian Jean-Luc Einaudi termed the ‘Battle of Paris,’ the police pogrom on 17 October 1961 of hundreds of Algerians participating in a peaceful demonstration in opposition to the French occupation of Algeria. Haneke uses this historical event that has been wiped from the French collective memory to frame his exploration of racism, violence and guilt in a postcolonial context from the point of view of the privileged white middle class. This essay argues that Haneke purposefully does not suggest solutions to the ingrained postcolonial guilt that France suffers from. Instead, he uses the character of Georges who incarnates postcolonial France to investigate the French colonial past and postcolonial future, to ask questions concerned with memory, forgetting, and dealing with trauma; on both a personal and national level.
Georges’ refusal to accept responsibility for his actions against Majid as a child acts as a parallel with current postcolonial France, who Ezra and Sillars explain is ‘neither wholly responsible for, nor wholly untainted by, past events’. The film establishes two central lies, perpetrated by George at the age of six: telling Majid that George’s father insisted that he behead the rooster (let us not forget that the rooster is the symbol of France), and telling his father that he’d seen Majid coughing up blood at night, a symptom of tuberculosis. These lies lead to Georges’s parents deciding not to adopt Majid, and he is sent away to an orphanage. These lies resurface when childlike drawings of these events are attached to the voyeuristic videotapes being sent to the home of Georges and Anne.
Wood argues that the lies of Georges have been transformed into an emblem of French colonial guilt, which ‘has turned from personal to symbolic.’ While to an extent she is correct, in no society can a six -year-old be legally or ethically held responsible for his actions, and his motivation is clearly an ordinary if unsavoury childhood impulse. Surely France’s negligence of its past wrongdoings cannot be related to the plight of a six-year-old child? A more accurate analysis is that it is not the fact that Georges lied as a child, it is his refusal as an adult to acknowledge the shattering effects of his earlier actions that is the true ‘crime’ committed.
In the film, Georges verbally announces ‘I refuse to have a bad conscience,’ an outright protest against accepting responsibility for his past actions. But his ultimate act of refusal happens in the final scenes. He retreats into his bedroom, taking two tablets (or cachets, a play on words with the film’s title), before closing his thick curtains to the outside world, and metaphorically, to the past.
Haneke uses Georges’s refusal to accept responsibility for past actions as a metaphor for France’s similar refusal in regards to the Algerian War. In December of 2005, French President Chirac rejected calls that he should apologise for acts of torture committed during the Algerian War of Independence. Human rights scholar Elazar Barkan explains that the recognition of historical injustices is crucial in establishing the first step to “validate… victims’ memory and identity,” in order to “transform the trauma of victimisation into a process of mourning and to allow for rebuilding.” The parallels between Georges and postcolonial France are uncanny. Georges clearly serves as an allegory for France’s post-colonial guilt, denial, and refusal to accept traumatic events in its past which restrict the ability to rebuild.
The aesthetic, stylistic and narrative components of Caché entice us to identify with Georges, and forces audiences to become complicit with the guilt and simultaneously see the error in his personal qualities. As a crime thriller, it encourages us to look for clues to discover who sent the tapes and from the first shot inside Anne and Georges’s home positions audiences with our ‘victim’ Georges. The sequence, filmed in a single take, lasts three minutes. The camera is mobile, but insists on sticking with Georges which aligns audiences with his actions and thoughts. The camera pans only when he moves across the kitchen, is static when he stands still, and follows closely behind his head and shoulders as he moves from dining room to kitchen. As Haneke’s camera puts importance on Georges over Anne and Pierrot, suspense is created. We become further embroiled in the detail of the family’s life, and in Georges’ involvement in the tapes. It soon becomes evident that Georges is not the innocent victim so often depicted within the genre.
As explored earlier, Georges is not a sympathetic character, though Caché ensures that we identify with him as the protagonist. Repeatedly, we are kept at a distance by the central character’s evasiveness, though there is the undeniable feeling of being drawn to him. This brings tension to the audience and adds to the film’s unsettling tone. Audiences have no choice but to witness and identify with George’s denial and refusal to feel guilty. Yet we can simultaneously see the error in these qualities and acknowledge our own complicity in the denial.
The aesthetic of the film also links contemporary racial tension and ideological tensions. This point is quite clearly conveyed when Georges runs into the black cyclist. His violently assertive and confrontational reaction to this minor incident alludes rather heavy-handedly to France’s modern treatment of different races. Georges is eager to pass the blame onto the black cyclist, and does not accept his part in the incident. Parallels to the grander themes of the story are clear.
Haneke explains that he uses this audience alignment to promote change audiences, as he emphasises the relationship between the repression of historical memory, and its relationship to the repression of personal memories. Georges is unable or unwilling to see himself in any role other than the victim, and this sentiment is paralleled when one sees Georges as an allegorical figure representing postcolonial France. We also see the racial and ideological tensions when Georges collides with the cyclist, and the scene where he ignores the global news. Positioning the audience with Georges simultaneously positions them with France, and as audiences become disconcerted and acknowledge complicity in both Georges and France’s racial xenophobia and denial of historical events, they can come to understand the implications of their own personal and cultural denial.
Caché reinforces the colonial ideals of what Celik calls ‘saving the natives,’ particularly during the traumatic scene of Majid’s suicide. Postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon recalls the trope of the untutored, suicidal and confused “native children” unable to prevent themselves from self-harm. Fanon underscores the troublesome logic of the colonizer, who “imposes his power on the native through the claim that his absence rather than his presence will cause the native to revert back to beastiality.” From Fanon’s description and Majid’s suicide, it could be said that in killing Majid, Haneke implies that the effects of post-colonialism are similar to the effects of colonialism. Celik explains that ‘it is again the presence not the absence, of colonial conditions, of a colonial gaze, that leads to violence.” Therefore in the suicide scene, Georges’ very presence is the catalyst for violence, much like the colonial presence of France in Algeria.
Majid’s suicide, then, can be seen as a protest of the colonialist ideals in French society. Majid rebels against these ideals by slitting his throat in front of Georges, creating a physical wound that Georges is unable to ignore, deny or forget. There is no hiding from this wound like Georges hides from the psychological wounds of his past. This wound is also one that reaches out to the spectator. This is the single most shocking cinematic moment I have seen, and this Haneke’s intention. The director uses Majid’s suicide in such an explicit way as to force viewers to face their own buried past, as Georges must view his with Majid, and as France must view its own memories of 17 October 1961.
The scene is bloody and disturbing. As Georges leaves the static frame we, as the audience, are left to our own devices to register what has taken place. The symbol and visual imagery of blood splattered across the wall is the same that adorns the film’s poster, which evokes the bleeding nation. Haneke admits it symbolises the history of violence that has, until recently, been ‘repressed in the French collective conscious’. Though interestingly Paul Gilroy has issues with Majid’s suicide, seeing it as “an exclusively aesthetic event, devoid of all meaning apart from what it communicates about Georges.” I disagree.
Much like the hidden of the title is not the point of the film, the suicide is not about Georges, it is about the audience. Before slitting his throat, Majid says to Georges, ‘Je voulais que tu sois present’ (I wanted you to be present). Just as Majid wants Georges to be present, Haneke desires that the audience be present, and to a greater extent that society be present. He wants people to be affected by the horror of the act he represents. Caché demands that we become not just passive observers, but active participants. Haneke uses the suicide of Majid to force both Georges and the audience to bear witness to the effects of colonial and post-colonial society, to recognise and bear witness to cultural trauma in order to promote change.
This idea of change becomes prevalent as the credits roll. During the last scene, we see Pierrot and Majid’s sons, two characters that have no right knowing each other. They share a conversation on the school steps. Interpretations of this moment are boundless, with no concrete truth. Did they create the tapes? Wood (2006, p.40) asks if this final revelation is a sign that Georges’ punishment has only just begun? Perhaps the question is ‘do you believe that change is possible?’ While Haneke is known for his pessimistic views of society, undoubtedly the scene can be read as hinting towards the possibility of collaboration and renewal in younger generations.Though my personal preference would be this optimistic view, it does not seem to fit in such a sombre film. While the subject evades one true answer, it is interesting to note that the meeting only takes place after Majid’s death. Does the past need to be buried to open the way to future? The film offers no easy resolutions and chooses to leave things in suspense. Possibly the importance of the ending isn’t in the answer. It stays unresolved, much like France’s postcolonial guilt.
In an interview with Cineaste, Haneke uses the extended metaphor of a ski jump to explain his films relationship with audiences.
“A film ought to be like a ski jump, but it is the viewer who must do the jumping. To enable the viewer to do so, the jump has to be constructed in a certain way that lets the viewer fly.”
This succinctly summarises the brilliance of Michael Haneke’s cinema and the brilliance of Caché. Audiences initially identify with the bourgeois couple Georges and Anne, though steadily begin to feel guilty at their alliance with this clearly immoral man and finally realisation dawns. Audiences recognise their moral duty that Georges neglects to accept.
In the same interview, Haneke explains that as an artist, the only thing you can do is thematize things, not suggest solutions. Perhaps frustratingly so for some, that is what Haneke achieves with Caché. While only mentioning the events of October 17, 1961, once, through the allegorical figure of Georges, Caché manages to investigate France’s colonial past and postcolonial future. The film is concerned with memory, forgetting, and dealing with trauma; on both a personal and national level. As much as Georges is an allegory for France, France is an allegory for all colonial countries. No viewer is free from the themes explored by Haneke. Caché succeeds in forcing audiences to bear witness to personal and cultural trauma. It reminds us that in order to stop the cycle of violence, racial disharmony, and guilt, we cannot close our curtains to the world like Georges. We must face our historical and personal trauma in order to begin the process of rebuilding.
Celik, Ipek A. “”I Wanted You to Be Present”: Guilt and the History of Violence in Michael Haneke’s Caché.” Cinema Journal 50.1 (2010): 5-980.
Chow, Vance.”Trapped Beneath the Surface: ‘Hidden’.” Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine 149 (2006): 60-63.
David Kaye, U.S. Department of State, Richard B. Bilder. “The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices. By Elazar Barkan.” American Journal of International Law 95 (2001): 744-997.
Einaudi, Jean.L. (1991) La Bataille de Paris , 17 Octobre 1961, Seuil, Paris.
Ezra, Elizabeth, and Sillars, Jane. “ Hidden in plain sight: bringing terror home” (2007): Screen Vol. 48, P. 215-221.
Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de le terre , 1961), trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 211.
Gilroy, Paul. “Shooting Crabs in a Barrel.” Screen 48.2 (2007): 233-35.
Haneke, Michael. (2003) ‘The world that is known: an interview with Michael Haneke,’ by Christopher Sharrett, Cineaste, V ol. 28, no. 3, pp. 28-31.
Haneke, Michael. (2005) ‘Collective guilt and individual responsibility: an interview with Michael Haneke,’ by Portron, R., Cineaste , vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 50-51.
Hubner, Laura. “Tension, Transition and Tone in Michael Haneke’s Caché. “ Studies in European Cinema 9. (2012): 99-108.
Mcfadden, Cybelle H. “Franco-Algerian Transcultural Tension and National Allegories.” South Atlantic Review 74.2 (2009): 112-28.
Price, Brian, and Rhodes, John David. On Michael Haneke / Edited by Brian Price and John David Rhodes. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2010.
Virtue, Nancy. E. “Memory, Trauma, and the FrenchAlgerian War: Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005).” Modern & Contemporary France 19.3 (2011): 28196.
Wood, Robin. “Hidden in Plain Sight: Robin Wood on Michael Haneke’s Cache.(FILM).” Art forum International 44.5 (2006): 35.