Michael Haneke is a bit of an evil genius when it comes to screenwriting and directing. And his new Film Happy End adds to his fabulous body of thought-provoking and unsettling work.
The film begins with some shaky vertical smartphone footage of a woman’s nightly bedtime routine, with every action anticipated with a typed comment as she brushes her teeth and hair etc. It’s the first sign of a youngster with a penetrating eye and a disturbed attitude towards life, suffering and death. Later we’ll realise that darkness runs in the family genes. (It’s also a nod to Haneke’s pervious film Caché (Hidden) which had surveillance footage at its disquieting heart.)
The camerawork is very distinctive, with very long takes keeping a tight focus on people’s heads and keeping as much of the background out of focus (so you can never quite make out the posters on walls as characters walk around). Much of the film is either spent looking into a scene as if through someone’s eyes (or standing just behind them) or standing at a distance, unable to discern what is being said, but able to watch interactions (which at times can be violent).
As the screen went dark and the credits rolled in silence, there was a ripple of nervous laughter across my screening as if the final unresolved unhappy non-ending was a relief.
The inclusion of refugees in and around Calais helps ground the film in contemporary France. The casual racism and maltreatment of the Laurent family’s servants push them over the edge to be thoroughly hard to like yet fascinating to watch.
There’s a lot of death, a lot of longing for death, and a fair amount of engineering it too. Not for the fainthearted, Happy End is a fabulous piece of dark and brooding storytelling.