"Family dysfunction, inter-generational revenge, the poisonous suppression of guilt and the return of the repressed". The words that Peter Bradshaw wrote in his Guardian review of Michael Haneke's Happy End were the ones that were ringing in my ears as I settled into my seat at the Brixton Ritzy for an afternoon that was likely to prove anything but festive.
It wasn't false advertising, it had all those things, but what Bradshaw neglected to say was that for the first hour or so the film was rather dull. It was well shot, well acted, and had that air of unspoken dread that one has come to expect from Haneke but it wasn't particularly engaging, there were a couple of times when I found myself thinking about what I was going to have for dinner that evening.
It's as if Haneke's themes of alienation, miscommunication, anxiety, and self-absorption that rupture and despoil the relationships between his characters have extended outwards into the audience so that we too feel alienated and anxious about what's happening, unsure even. It's like staring into the eyes of a lover and realising that you'll never truly know what it's like inside their mind and that, of course, is a sad and distressing experience.
Isabelle Huppert plays Anne Laurent, construction firm owner and family matriarch, who lives with her wheelchair bound dementia suffering father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and her alcoholic son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) in a large mansion in Calais. Sharing the house with them are her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassowitz), Thomas's second wife Anais (Laura Verlinden), and the couple's new baby.
As if that's not enough people under one, admittedly very big, roof they've been joined by Eve (an absolutely brilliant performance by the Belgian actor Fantine Harduin, still not even a teenager), Thomas's daughter from his first marriage. Eve's mother is in a coma (she's swallowed poison after years wallowing in depression) and Thomas, a weak willed and feckless individual who appears to be already eyeing up a potential third wife, has had to take her in.
We see Pierre visit a banlieue where he's beaten up by the son of a construction worker injured in an accident on a site owned by the family, we see him try to embarrass the family by calling their Moroccan housemaids 'slaves', we see Thomas (and his unseen lover Claire) instant messaging each other their deepest sexual fantasies whilst also reminiscing about time spent together and planning future trysts, and we see Anne conduct a mostly long distance relationship with Toby Jones's Lawrence Bradshaw. For these exchanges we lose the subtitles and the dialogue moves into English.
Most of the time it's difficult to care about these people and what's going on in their lives (something I imagine Haneke intends as a device to make us question our own priorities and confront our own prejudices) but as the film reaches its final third it develops, at some speed, a precision and clarity it'd previously lacked.
Most of that is down to Eve and Georges and the connections they find at the extreme ends of life. Eve is just starting in life and Georges know his is coming to an end. Georges seems to be embracing his imminent death far more phlegmatically than the taciturn and insular Eve whose anticipation of her very soon to come teenage years seems to bring no joy whatsoever. What they share is both a deep guttural horror of what it means to be a living, breathing human being and the space (both emotional and actual) to explore their feelings about that horror. It's not suggested that that's necessarily a good thing for them but it certainly improves the film.
As Georges shares secrets with Eve and Eve opens up to some of her own feelings we realise that they are very much the twin emotional hearts of a film where most of the supposedly responsible adults are so busy or so pre-occupied they don't have time to ponder life's direction and simply appear to be letting life happen to them. Albert Camus said "to be happy we must not be too concerned with others" and it seems that Anne and Thomas, particularly, have adopted this maxim as their motto and if their solipsism won't lead them to such depths as those encountered by Meursault in Camus's existentialist classic L'Etranger it rings all the more true for being a workable, if ultimately unfulfilling, philosophical approach to getting through life.
Pierre's raging against the constraints of society makes him uncomfortable to be around and causes his family both financial problems and, worse, societal embarrassment. When he invites a group of African refugees from the nearby 'jungle' to Anne's swanky beachside engagement party to tell their stories it shines a light on Pierre's guilt about his inherited wealth and his disgust at the violence and inequality in the world. but it also shows how cossetted the Laurent's existence is and how easy it is for people to compartmentalise and shut away unpleasant truths, at least until confronted head on with them.
The use of smartphones, laptops, and instant messaging (entire scenes are seen through the filters of social media) aren't just there to show that septuagenarian Haneke has a handle on the modern world but rather to enforce the message that with each wave of technology we're in danger of creating a barrier between ourselves and others, either idolising or demonising people we may actually know very little about, and pushing our already frail capacity for empathy ever further to the margins.
The bleakness of the film, the sense of dread that hangs over it, can feel tough, and even unrewarding, at times but it does mean that the few moments of connectivity between characters stand in stark relief as warming testaments to what we humans can be at our best. Even if those moments don't, and this'll come as no great surprise, result in anything that would traditionally resemble a 'happy end'.
It's a strange and powerful film that while you're watching it you're thinking about that evening's dinner (veggie bangers'n'mash, thanks for asking) but while you're eating that evening's dinner you're still thinking about the film and pondering the sometimes uncomfortable facts of life that Happy End, and more broadly Michael Haneke, refuse to shy away from.