It might seem like he is rehashing familiar themes, but Happy End is still an assured piece of film-making by Michael Haneke.
Haneke is a director who has tackled ‘transgressive’ subjects – in other words, subjects which trespass moral or socially prohibitive boundaries. He is a subtle director, so he does not assault you with lurid violence or sex. Someone usually commits a sinister moral transgression, but Haneke rarely resolves the problem or reveals who the culprit is.
Return of the Repressed
Happy End is set in Calais. This evokes images of middle-eastern refugees, but the film mostly follows middle-class professionals. Beleaguered refugees, however, rarely appear in the film. Rather, apoplectic union furious with lax labour laws often confront the family. Both of these aspects brood in the background, but the film largely focuses on inter-personal relationships within the family. Grainy footage shot on a mobile phone comprises large sections of the film. We see morbid footage of someone taking a shower, the killing of a guinea pig and lurid messages on Facebook.
Major themes in the film include western decadence, lack of compassion towards the refugee crisis and the active exploitation of foreign labour. Indeed, the most appropriate term for this is ‘the return of the repressed.’ The characters neglect issues which end up exploding in their face.
At a macro level, western society chooses to ignore third world suffering. We see this when several refugees symbolically gatecrash an upper crust dinner. At a micro level, several neglected, sinister and dysfunctional family members wreak revenge. Their son Pierre oversees a terrible accident at work, which leads to a civil suit. He starts to act in unpredictable ways and, indeed, shunts refugees over to a middle-class restaurant. They bring in a neglected daughter from a previous marriage into the house. She often hacks into cameras and telephones and seems to be conspiring something sinister. Finally, the grandfather in the house is gloomy and harbours suicidal tendencies.
As with other Haneke films, the storytelling is elliptical – that is, it jumps in time and leaves plot holes in the narrative. Isabelle Huppert’s acting is characteristically cold and affectless. The camera angles are often static, but the camera does artfully pan across the room when it needs to. All these aspects create an alienating effect, which is appropriate to the subject matter.
This is a rich and gripping film. It does seem difficult initially, but you are completely gripped by the end. It might also seem discursive, but it does contain some memorable dramatisations.