Chilly Austrian maestro Michael Haneke returns to the Croisette with this masterful social satire.
At this point in Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s illustrious career, it’s safe to presume Happy End provides anything but. In fact, there’s as much happiness here as there is fun in Funny Games. Returning to the Cannes sunshine with the hope of clinching a third consecutive (and record-breaking) Palme d’Or victory, the writer-director’s latest is a visceral social commentary, punctuated with lashings of inky satire which exquisitely stain his exceptionally observed canvas.
Combining the very best of his signature narrative themes and ideologies, paired with trademark visual restraint, Happy End harks back to the Haneke of yesteryear; icy, stark, unforgiving. Gone is the finite, yet apparent, traces of humanity and empathy which weave their way into the fabric of his 2012 prize-winner, Amour. Instead we see the steely maestro drawing dark aces from his sleeve, distributing metaphors and tones which culminate in the crumbly desolation of haute-bourgerious culture. He fathoms a cynical nightmare within opulent, luxurious space; underpinning the angst, obligation, and moral pitfalls slyly cloaked in cosmopolitan existence.
This is fantastically detailed via the black mirror. On numerous occasions throughout, the aspect ratio shifts to represent that of a mobile phone, or laptop screen. Vulgar messages are typed, YouTube supercuts are screened, and video livestreams are captured. But despite this modernised addition to his cinematic quota, this is still very much a Haneke film. Lensed with rigid, unyielding resistance by DP Christian Berger, the palette is clinical, both approach and form; forensic even, as every fluted glass and mosaic tile looks sharp enough the pierce.
Isabelle Huppert stars as Anne Laurent, an manipulative real-estate developer, and essentially head of the illustrious family complex. Her property is audacious and overwhelming; housing live-in staff, in addition to her ailing father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). He is suffering from incipient dementia, and is growing tired of his life centring upon a single chair. Despite such a grand space, the Laurent family reside in an environment suffocatingly tense. Anne’s brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), a twice-married doctor arrives to stay with his 12 year-old daughter, Ève (Fantine Harduin), whilst her mother is stuck in a Lille hospital, meanwhile she has to deal with her drunken, deadbeat son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who is struggling to prove himself a rightful heir to the family business.
The discomfort and anxiety begins with a series of low-res Instagram-style recordings. We spy on a women’s predictable bathroom routine, before watching a hamster fall victim to a macabre social experiment. The recorder is unknown, and their agenda unclear. Voyeurism is at the very heart of Haneke’s cinema, and his cloying introduction to Happy End recalls the sense of unease and distrust fabulously established in 2005’s Caché. His examination of social media is as provocative and pertinent as his commentary on immigration – the essential and unruly backdrop of his Calais-set drama. Refugees trudge the streets, and linger at the ports, whilst the Laurents fine-dine and squabble over schoolyard scraps. The sense of irony is both nightmarish and ornate; lacing a work which could be the closest thing to a Haneke comedy we’re ever likely to witness.
In fact, Happy End is peppered with gallows humour. Laughs so dark and disarming, that cool beads of sweat begin to populate a wincing brow. The climatic ten minutes – arguably the finest element of any feature screening in Cannes this year – are something of sociopathic genius; beautifully unexpected, and intensely unforgettable. Many critics have been quick to comment on Haneke’s lack of compassion for his subjects, but in the most dumbfounding manner, we exit with the knowledge that peace of mind can awkwardly reside in a sense of dismay.
The collective ensemble cast are astonishing, with predictably fabulous work delivered by Huppert and Trintignant, who reunite following Amour. Toby Jones features in a handful of scenes, and expertly elevates in the process, whilst the warped and ice-thin rapport shared between Kassovitz and young Harduin is simply mesmeric. Daughter Ève is perhaps the most integral element in this spewing broth of communal brutality, and she carries such weight with almighty professionalism.
Gripping, venomous, and scathingly smart, Haneke returns to the Croisette with impeccable prowess. Happy End is simply masterful filmmaking, from arguably the greatest artist of our age. The Calais shores are merciless, and their lapping waters are totally acidic.