Sunday 3 December 2017

Unknown pleasures: "Happy End"

The Michael Haneke Christmas special turns out to be 107 minutes of festive fun for all the family, a veritable selection box's worth of laughs, songs, special guest stars and much, much more. Except - oh no - it isn't: Happy End, as has been much noted in the months since the film's Cannes premiere, is another of Herr Haneke's stony-faced assaults on bourgeois complacency, deploying all the tricks the Austrian has learned in his now forty-year career behind the camera. It opens, for instance, with surveillance footage of the kind Haneke put to such unnerving use in Benny's Video and Hidden: first a girl surreptitiously Snapchatting her depressive mother going through the motions (and a pet hamster doing far less than that), then a cleverly engineered overview of a haulage depot that provides the scene for an industrial accident after one of its outer walls subsides. Generally, this will be a film of smaller, more niggling erosions. The main characters work to maintain illusions, facades, business as usual; Haneke does his best, scene by scene, to undermine their foundations and tear every last one of their playhouses down. There isn't really a happy ending, suckers; the poor hamster doesn't last five minutes. Merry Christmas, everyone.

It is, as you might perhaps expect, a rigged fight, but we can to some degree admire the clarity with which Haneke first sets out his side of the argument. The opening movement is appreciably clipped and precise in locating each member of the moneyed Laurent clan - the Calais trucking dynasty who operate that depot, headed by ailing patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and can-do eldest daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) - within their particular pocket of white privilege, while still leaving room between them for semi-involving mysteries: the sudden disappearance of one character, say, or the clips of instant messaging that reveal another as a big fan of urolagnia, or the incongruous presence of Toby Jones, the image of a very English middle manager, on the fringes of this clan. We're not immediately informed why prospective heir Pierre (Franz Rogowski) can be observed taking a beating on the forecourt of a social housing block, nor really why his immediate response is to take to the karaoke stage and breakdance his way through a rendition of Sia's "Chandelier". (I told a white lie earlier: there are laughs here, albeit of the faintly bemused variety.)

The success of the prickly drama that follows will depend heavily on the extent to which you feel the Laurents actually deserve the brusque, cold-shoulder treatment their lofty greybeard creator affords them; my feeling was that Haneke was relying overly on the pearl-clutching masochism of those well-off liberal audiences who feel guilt for nibbling sea-salt crisps at the Picturehouse of a Tuesday afternoon when there are people starving in the wider world. From what I could detect, the Laurents aren't notably worse than many industrialist dynasties; they at least try to make amends of one form or another to those they've wronged, and Anne can be observed bringing a young girl a nice-looking, non-poisoned box of chocolates after she's attacked by the family's dog, which she didn't have to do. Any evasiveness here lies on the side of the director, not the characters. The actors remain likable in many ways: even Trintignant's Georges has the decency to turn his initial gruffness against himself, thereby revealing some conscience. It's just the camera keeps recoiling from them, denying us obvious points of identification, key biographical details, subtitles for their dialogue - basically making every Laurent come over as a lot shiftier than they might seem, in order to justify duffing them up and dumping their bodies in the ocean.

Well, Haneke does what Haneke does, you might argue, and - if offered the grim choice - I'd probably still take this director's merciless severity over the arch mannerisms being touted up and down the Croisette by an imposter like Yorgos Lanthimos. Yet this time round, I couldn't help but feel I'd seen Haneke do all this better elsewhere: in films that seemed much less indiscriminate in their choice of victims, and possessed of far smarter lines of attacks and far less schematic plotting than Haneke embarks upon here. This latest provocation goes where it must come the final moments, pursuing a literal downhill slope towards a predetermined dead end - the kind of conclusion destined to inspire slow handclaps and sad-trombone noises from anyone who hasn't been made to feel intensely culpable by what they've been watching. Yet I hope you'll excuse me, and all my privilege, if I pause to wonder what possible satisfaction the director can possibly still be taking from setting out to make another of these depressive pass-agg fingerwags every couple of years, and what pleasures the paying audience are meant to be taking away from them, too.

Happy End is now playing in selected cinemas.

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