If I were a filmmaker, I would not like to be invited to a festival along with Michael Haneke.
The Austrian filmmaker’s previous two films, The White Ribbon and Amour, won the Palme d’Or in 2009 and 2012. Both years, Jacques Audiard had glowingly-reviewed films (A Prophet and Rust and Bone) that were both frontrunners for the Palme; when Audiard finally accepted the award in 2015, for the refugee drama Dheepan, he thanked Hanake for not making a film that year.
It’s taken five years for Haneke to return to Cannes, and the festival has been abuzz with speculation that he might be headed for a record-setting Palme #3. Such discussions are as futile as they are irrelevant. Film festival juries are unpredictable beasts; I’m not ruling out this year’s jurors, headed by Pedro Almodovar and featuring Paolo Sorrentino, Park Chan-wook and Will Smith (!), making some truly oddball choices. If it were up to me, however, I would hand Haneke the Palme on a silver platter. (Today is day eight of the festival).
Happy End is the film’s title, and I’m not convinced that it’s meant to be entirely ironic; its bleakness is matched by its humor. Haneke has described it “a snapshot from the life of a bourgeois European family” – one of the few details known in advance. The family in question is the Laurents, an affluent clan with a construction company in Calais. I assure you, they neither discreet nor charming.
Despite their palatial surroundings, their fancy dinner parties and their deferential Moroccan servants, the Laurents are hurtling towards ruin. Their patriarch, Georges (the 86-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant, who starred in Amour) is half-senile and fully-suicidal; his son Thomas (Mathieu Kassowitz), a doctor, is emotionally dead to his second wife (Laura Verlinden) and his daughter from his first marriage, Ève (Fatine Harduin) and gets his kicks exchanging sadomasochistic Facebook messages with a voila da gamba virtuoso; George’s daughter Anne (the ageless Isabelle Huppert, in her fourth film with Haneke) appears to want to hold the family together, yet is mortgaging the construction company to the British banking firm her fiancé (Toby Jones) works for. Anne has a son, Pierre, a lay-about with a penchant for making scenes at family functions and on karaoke nights. (Yes, you read correctly: this is a Haneke film with karaoke). Pierre’s 13-year-old cousin secretly films her relatives with her phone and experiments with poisoning rodents (and possibly humans, as well).
To call Happy End “warm-hearted” would be a stretch, but this circus of dysfunction is definitely happier than Funny Games – which caused a scandal when it screened here exactly twenty years ago – was funny.
Yes. There is violence, brutality, mental illness and repression: many of Haneke’s familiar tropes. But Happy End feels looser and baggier than anything the director has done before; this means that, for once, the severity is tempered with mirth. Having said that, I can’t imagine that Happy End will usher in a new phase of levity in the 75-year-old director’s career.
At the Cannes press conference, Haneke told reporters: “My aim is always to tell as little as possible to provoke the maximum in the viewers’ imagination.” In may well be that the director achieved such a reduction with Amour, an ambiguous and touching film that was whittled down to the essentials. Happy End is much more of a puzzle, with Haneke circling around themes that are urgently contemporary (French and European identity, migrants: the Calais setting is not accidental), and eternal (the happy death).
“All around us, the world, and we, in its midst, blind” the director offers somewhat poetically. Judging by the enormously mixed reviews that Happy End received here, I feel many critics were expecting a severe, overtly political film. Instead, the film shocks us into discomfort and into laughter. That is Haneke’s way of making us see.