Michael Haneke is easily one of the most fascinating provocateurs of modern cinema. His filmography is a series of uncompromising puzzle-boxes, designed to push and confront their audiences in endlessly inventive ways. These are films made to be debated and discussed, making the release of a new film from Haneke a major event. Following on from his multi award-winning 'Amour' (2012), his latest film 'Happy End' takes that puzzle-box tone to the extreme with one of his strangest films in years.
When her mother suffers from an overdose, Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) is forced to go live with her father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) in the Laurent family mansion in Calais. Also living here are her aunt Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who is caught in an industrial dispute involving her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), her stepmother Anais (Laura Verlinden), and the family patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who seems to be trying to commit suicide.
It would be tempting to call 'Happy End' a film where nothing happens, but I suspect it is its nothingness that is the point. This is the kind of film that refuses to explain or answer for itself, but rather expects you to do a lot of the work. Instead of showing us the major events in the trials and tribulations of the Laurents, we're shown the moments in between, the aftermaths of accidents, hospital visits and suicide attempts. There are almost no emotional outbursts in the film, and when they do happen, they're often odd and disorienting. The impression this gives us though is a severe disconnect between the members of the family, a kind of self-centredness that dictates how they respond to those in a genuine state of crisis. Take Georges, for example - Anne and Thomas seem determined to keep him from killing himself, not for any familial love but because that's what they're obliged to do. The same with Thomas' relationship with Eve, he becomes the father figure because it is what is expected, we're never given the impression that this is something he actually wants any more than his "love" for Anais. Everyone seems to be hiding something, presenting a veneer that projects a calm collectedness but what comes across as disconcertingly passive. Love for parent, love for child, love for spouse all seem insincere and perfunctory.
What makes this sense of disconnect all the more intriguing is Haneke's use of social media as a storytelling device. Eve captures a number of disquieting moments with her phone, recording videos that are often macabre, accompanied by a text commentary that is shockingly honest in a way that we never hear from her. There's also an affair being conducted by one of the characters through a Facebook chat, where they reveal more about themselves than they do in person. These moments of honesty are so abrupt and unusual in the manner in which they are communicated that they're often unexpectedly funny, betraying a blackly comic tone we see very rarely from Haneke. These modern forms of communication give these characters a freedom the real world doesn't seem to anymore, stifling their ability to translate that honesty into direct human interaction, and this only works to force them further apart and make their relationships less sincere. Because Haneke only gives us the non-moments in their lives, it becomes hard to find sympathy for them. You end up being an observer rather than participant, a technique that is an established feature of his films, the difference here being that these are characters we neither love nor hate. They simply exist, adjacent to each others' lives but not intertwined in them. With the exception of Eve and Georges at least, they seem entirely disconnected from the world and people around them.
Many synopses of the film mention the European refugee crisis as being a backdrop for the film, and perhaps this might offer some clue as to a possible allegory in the film. There is almost no mention of the crisis until the very end, when Pierre gatecrashes Anne's wedding to British businessman Lawrence (Toby Jones) with a group of refugees. Maybe what Haneke is highlighting with the highly-privileged, bourgeois Laurent family and their disconnect from themselves and the world they inhabit is the wider issue of Europe's difficulty acknowledging and dealing with the major human rights crisis happening in their own countries. When faced with someone in crisis, the Laurent's show concern and offer financial and material support, but mostly with the sense that this is what they should do and they would rather the problem just go away. Their actions are perfunctory and inhuman, expected and emotionless, no more and no less than what they deem as necessary as not to disrupt the order of their lives, all pervaded with an air of dishonesty. Perhaps Haneke is using this black comedy and its ridiculous players to point his sharp artistic talons at Europe itself, to call out an hypocrisy that is resulting in a wanton ignorance of the lives being destroyed by their inaction or mis-action, the way Eve suffers without anyone to look and listen and to help her.
This is the kind of film that refuses to explain or answer for itself, but rather expects you to do a lot of the work.
Then again, maybe this is all completely off the mark and I've missed the point of 'Happy End'. As I said, this puzzle-box doesn't make it easy for you, and like many of his films (perhaps even more so with this one), your response will likely be complex. As I was watching it, I found myself confused and frustrated, but only when it was over did I realise how fascinated and engaged I was, and how much I had enjoyed it. Not everyone will, and many Haneke fans might not enjoy it either, but my experience was one of great intrigue, so much so that I still find myself thinking about it. I haven't even spoken about the filmmaking itself or the performances, the many technical and artistic elements that make up this film, but I don't think that's what Michael Haneke wants you to walk away with. Instead, he wants you to be provoked, pushed and bamboozled by it, never thinking about the craft. One thing is for sure - whatever you think of 'Happy End', it will demand that you think something. Maybe whatever that is though is entirely up to us.