Cannes 2017 review: Happy End (Michael Haneke)

Five years after the premiere of his Palme d’Or winning masterpiece, Amour, Michael Haneke returns to the Cannes Film Festival with Happy End, a deliberately opaque and fragmentary tale of an alienated family that almost seems experimental within the entirety of his oeuvre. This unflinching look at privilege, racist undertones, modern-day ennui and moral degradation initially feels frustratingly vague and incomplete; Haneke’s bold and factual, anti-psychological depiction of a specific period in the family’s life transcends the limits of individual condemnation to become a sui generis view of the existential numbness and collective (communal) guilt of modern society.

Set in Calais, Haneke’s subversive drama examines the seemingly uneventful life of a wealthy family and progressively dissects its structure to the point of absolute obliteration. The octogenarian patriarch, Georges Laurent (played with scornful detachment by Jean-Louis Trintignant), trapped in an existential crisis, feels disgust at his wheelchair-bound condition. His workaholic daughter Anne (an icy and acerbic Isabelle Huppert) is the head of the family construction business, and is trying to deal with her alcoholic son, Pierre (heartbreakingly performed by Franz Rogowski). Anne’s brother, Thomas (an earthy and subdued turn by Mathieu Kassovitz), also attempts to reconcile with his daughter from a previous marriage, Eve (a revelatory Fantine Harduin), who stays at the mansion of the Laurent family during her intoxicated mother’s hospitalization.

Desperately seeking affection and suffering from severe depression, Eve and Pierre are the last glimmer of hope in a society that has been distorted and ruined by their parents. Their behavior can be interpreted as an allegorical form of direct punishment of the previous generations. Furthermore, as in Benny’s Video, we witness the disillusioned younger generation becoming addicted to social media and digital technology, which turn out to be their only means of communication. It is not surprising, then, that the film’s fragmented narrative is bookended by chilling Instagram-like live videos that depict bizarre acts of violence.

Images of immense power linger in the mind: the frightening sight of the vast unknowable sea; a man’s physical and emotional breakdown on the dance floor; the disturbing live video recording of a woman apparently obeying the orders of an unknown perpetrator before she goes to bed; an old man casually asking strangers to help him put an end to his life; an extended, sexually explicit correspondence on a Facebook-like message chat. Haneke’s overwhelming use of still static shots allows a detailed visual examination of each frame’s meticulous mise en scène. Beautifully filmed by Christian Berger, the suffocating yellow-lit or hauntingly shadowy interiors create a sense of impending doom; the film’s long-shot camera positions enhance the emotional detachment and air of mystery; the smartphone aspect ratio as well as surveillance camera footage reinforce a sense of asphyxiating confinement and voyeuristic alienation.

Happy End‘s storytelling consists of abstract non-sequiturs, incomplete fractions, snippets of an empty existence, as well as mysterious acts of indiscretion. This confounding jigsaw puzzle of narrative shards and cryptic characters becomes even more frustrating as Haneke playfully withholds information and his sly voyeuristic approach builds a mosaic of the symptoms of modern society’s malady: ennui, depression, anomie, imperturbability and lovelessness. Wrapped by the privilege of wealth, the members of the Laurent family are incapable of showing affection towards each other and willfully ignore the turmoil of reality surrounding their microcosm of cupidity, adultery and self-absorption.

With surgical precision, Haneke explores the misery beneath the façade and the distortion of humanity and, therefore, once again – albeit in a more sarcastic and subversive way this time round – exposes society’s superficiality and moral deterioration. The film lays bare the coldness and indifference of a rigid, emotionless world and explores the pathologies of western society without succumbing to a conventional psychological (and characterological) study of its subjects. This detached approach does not come as a surprise, but Haneke stubbornly refuses to answer any questions regarding the characters’ motives or state of mind. This is an excruciatingly opaque viewing experience but also a fascinating one: by letting the spectator connect the dots between tangential subplots, Haneke constructs a web of intergenerational friction that never fully reveals its sinister core until the film’s devastating (and also bitingly sarcastic) last shot.

Haneke does not limit the film’s themes to merely another exploration of the culpable and complicit bourgeoisie, or to a critique against the social and ethical structures of the European upper class. In fact, Haneke almost reinvents himself and delivers not only one of his most elliptical and episodic films but his funniest one too: the way the film’s climactic moments escalate, in particular, brings to mind seminal masterpieces by Luis Buñuel and Claude Chabrol in its outrageous absurdism.

The film does not offer any resolution or closure; its open-ended and opaque nature will surely provoke intense arguments in cinephile circles. 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.