2017, R, 107 min. Directed by Michael Haneke. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Laura Verlinden, Franz Rogowski, Toby Jones.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Thu., Dec. 21, 2017
Michael Haneke is often simplistically referred to as an Austrian filmmaker. He's not. He is, instead, a European filmmaker, who has slid effortlessly across borders throughout his career, and absorbed each locale, while still placing everything within the broader setting of Europe.
For his latest dry social commentary (his stock-in-trade, admittedly), Haneke returns to France, and settles in the home of the Laurent family. The epitome of the haute bourgeoisie, they live together in an imposing townhouse in Calais. Anne (Huppert) balances her management of the family's construction company with her bickering relationship with her son Pierre (a wild-eyed Rogowski), and a long-distance relationship with British corporate lawyer Lawrence Bradshaw (Jones). Her brother Thomas (Kassovitz) is learning to become a father to a teenager as his daughter Eve (Harduin) moves in after her mother mysteriously overdoses; and all the while aging patriarch Georges (Trintignant, trenchant yet fragile) slips in and out of lucidity.
The setting and the setup is the story, as the family bounces across one another in what often seems a wholly nonlinear tale. Ideas – of mortality, love, connection, suicide, aging, culpability, guilt, quality of life, Brexit, immigration, refugees – all emerge and recede, finally coming together to create a whole. Much of that mosaic effect is created by cinematographer Christian Berger, and sound editors Denise Gerrard and Clément Laforce. Berger's camera is set at a distance, and moves only far enough to pan across a courtyard, or follow a wheelchair down the street. Gerrard and Laforce let the ambient sound dominate, with some scraps of conversation or whole conversations inaudible. Finally, editor Monika Willi leaves the scene to play for what could be uncomfortably long single takes, but instead are enthralling in their simplicity.
The end result is a series of seemingly free-floating vignettes: like Éric Rohmer but without the explicit chapter structure. Yet instead of alienating the audience, this dazzling approach lets Haneke construct his story like Pollock splattered a canvas: The work is revealed only in its totality. Happy End is not a ride from point A to point B, but a portrait of a family as a unit. Key scenes only make sense in hindsight, and in the context of another element. It's a brave and precarious approach that only a filmmaker of the excellence of Haneke could pull off. Much as he is praised for his grasp of extreme material (cf Funny Games and The White Ribbon), the 75-year-old writer-director remains audacious in his execution, and this mosaic method allows him to quietly inject vital contextual components, without ever hitting the audience over the head with them. This is how Haneke remains one of the great didactic filmmakers – by letting his themes emerge for, rather than attack, the viewer.
If there's an error of communication, it oddly may emanate from Huppert, with whom Haneke last collaborated in 2012's Amour. Her more classical and mannered presentation sometimes sits a little at odds with the more naturalistic performances of the rest of the family. A pivotal scene between Anne and Pierre has shades of later, more purple Bergman in its quiet histrionics, and it is one of the few elements that does not fit quite into place.
Yet that one off-centered piece can’t detract from the greater work, and that is Haneke at his finest and, yes, most humane. His humor remains black unto bleak yet, much like Amour, there is also an extraordinary compassion. Like Georges, the director may be facing the realities of a fading life, but the sheer wit and raw vivacity of his films still allows few equals.