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Happy End

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Endlessly cruel streak robs family drama of its punch

Image of Happy End

Michael Haneke/ France Germany Austria/ 2017/ 107 mins

At Filmhouse Cinema from Fri 1 Dec 2017

It’s hard to believe Michael Haneke hasn’t troubled the intrepid cinema goer since 2012’s stunning Amour. The Austrian maestro has a way of clinging limpet-style to the arthouse consciousness, and rarely finds himself outside any discussion of great contemporary filmmakers. Taking his back catalogue as context, it’s difficult not to see Happy End as a distillation of both the best and worst of Haneke’s filmic history.

More than any film in recent memory, the plot of Happy End is incidental. There is little emotional meat, but succulent intellectual gristle. Big moments are skipped over, to be picked up in the aftermath. There’s an impassive air about the long, static takes that feels even chillier than Haneke’s normal frigid style. There are links to Amour, not least through Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert once more playing father and daughter, but it seems the raw emotion of that film is destined to remain a curio in his canon.

The plot concerns an upper-class family in Calais. There are tangential nods to the ongoing refugee crisis, and a tragic workplace accident that occurs at Huppert’s construction firm, but Haneke is more concerned with setting up his players like lab rats and prodding them with the demeanour of a curious but callous scientist. Often his characters are filmed through open doors, adding to the sense of detached voyeurism. This is enforced by opening scenes of young sociopath Eve (a brilliantly amoral Fantine Harduin) secretly broadcasting her mother’s nighttime routine on Snapchat. These scenes feel like an update of the technology utilised in Benny’s Video and Caché and as such, classic Haneke.

Unlike directors like Paul Verhoeven and Mia Hansen-Løve who have recently built films around the imperious presence of Isabelle Huppert, Haneke uses her relatively sparingly as part of an excellent ensemble that includes the always welcome Toby Jones as her English partner. She remains however, almost a perfect match for Haneke’s style, where so much bubbles beneath a placid surface. It remains something of a surprise to see her so under-utilised however.

Some may be turned off by the return of a cruel streak that was very much evident in both versions of Funny Games, epitomised by the blank sociopathy of young Eve. It leads to the occasional moment of excruciating dark comedy of the most uncomfortable kind, and a blunt force ending; but it does lead one to wonder what exactly the point being made is supposed to be. Luis Buñuel satirised the venality of the Bourgeoisie many times over, but tempered it with surreal humour, much as Yorgos Lanthimos has done to such great effect recently. Happy End lacks the hectoring tone of Funny Games but is just as vicious. As such, it occasionally feels more like a technical exercise than a familial portrait.