Talking Pictures

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Happy End (France-Austria-Germany 2017)

Posted by keith1942 on October 8, 2021

I first saw this title at the Leeds International Film Festival and then on its British release in December 2017. I waited to post on the film as I tried to resolve a puzzle. The title failed to achieve an entry in the Sight & Sound ‘Top 40 Films of 2017’. This despite the ludicrous Mother achieving equal 19: several productions that were not actually theatrical releases: and the beautifully undramatic Call Me By Your Name included. I did wonder if the oddity of the S&S list coming out at the beginning of December was the reason? Solving the conundrum proved difficult. The complete lists of voters and votes is actually on the S&S web pages but it was beyond my limited computer skills to crack it. After some delays I managed to get the information from the S&S editorial office. It appears that Michael Haneke’s new film received only one vote, by Geoff Andrews. I shall include him in my top five film critics of the year. I did check the later 2018 list; no sign of Happy End.

Now the title is available on the BBC. Allowing for the limitations of terrestrial digital the film looks and sounds nearly as good as in a theatre. So I wonder, as I did with the theatrical release, what was the problem with the film for so many critics. Adam Nayman’s review in S&S noted,

“In what has to be considered a minor upset by Cannes standards, Happy End was the first Michael Haneke joint to leave the festival without a major prize since 2003 …” [this use of ‘joint’ is new to me].

It is a typical Haneke film. Perhaps critics felt a sense of déjà vu as they watch the familiar characters, situations and events. I did think it is not in the same class as Amour (2012) or Caché / Hidden (2005). But it is very witty, more so than the recent Haneke productions; certainly as effectively as the 1997 Funny Games. This is a sardonic and satirical examination of the French bourgeoisie whilst at the same time drawing attention to the exploitation and oppression that their wealth and success entails.
The setting for most of the film is the area around Calais where the central family live and have their business. The plot presents aspects of that but most of the running time is concerned with the interaction within the family. However, at key points in the narrative there are important scenes involving members of the working class, members of the servant class and the unemployed migrants in the area. The latter are presumable waiting to try and cross the channel to join the British audiences of the film.
The central characters are the family and their circle are as follows;

To these can be added Nathalie (Aurélia Petit ), Thomas’ ex-wife and mother of Eve: a young woman cellist, also a mistress: a site workers and his family: and four or five migrants/refugees, apparently based in the well publicised ‘jungle’. None of the main characters are presented sympathetically; even the family dog bites a small child. We have the well-heeled self-centred bourgeoisie and the hard-pressed people who depend on them, at least financially. The only sympathetic relationship is that between the young Eve and the elderly Georges. The latter’s situation appears to have confused at least one reviewer. Adam Nayman writes:

“It’s strongly implied, as Happy End goes on, that Trintignant is playing the same Georges Laurent he did in Amour; a bit of continuity that is (intentionally) undermined by the fact that the daughter figure played by Hubert in that film was named Eva, not Anne.”

Actually Amour does not provide the surname of Georges, so what occasioned this error?. Though the death of the wives are similar the point is that in Amour the character is a retired piano teacher, miles away from the bourgeois owner of a substantial construction company in Happy End.
The film opens with a series of shots taken on a mobile phone, first of a woman washing and toileting, then of the family pet. These are accompanied by text messages which seem inconsequential but require close attention. These shots set up one strand in the film dealing with modern electronic gadgets. Later we see a series of what I take to be texts messages on a laptop. Some of these are extremely funny. Then at the end of the film we return to the mobile phone; this sequence is noted for provoking audible responses in the audiences; I found it exhilarating.

The opening is followed by a long shot/long take, in typical Haneke fashion, of a Laurent construction site. The event here will create repercussion right throughout the film.
Between these very personal and these very public sequences we see the family politely destroying each other. These interactions fall between expensive rituals like parties and meals. And both types are disrupted by the people from ‘across the tracks’ . Thus whilst Haneke’s representation of the family is sardonic the film also presents the critical alternative worlds as was the case in Caché.
The film is scripted and directed by Michael Haneke. As usual it has a beautifully realised style with fine production design and cinematography by Oliver Radot and Christian Berger respectively. And the editing by Monika Willi is unshowy but very effective; and equally so is the sound.
Adam Nayman does recognize the quality of the film,
“Cut to several months later (from the Cannes Festival in May to the December S&S), and it looks as if Happy End is Haneke’s most interesting film since Hidden (2005) . . . “

Now the title is available on on Blu-ray, streamed and British terrestrial television. The original title was produced on 4K digital though most cinema screening were only at 2K. Some of this quality will be lost on video, streams and television. Still, the narrative, characters and treatment make this genuinely interesting and entertaining viewing.

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