I can’t watch a Michael Haneke film film without being in a permanently nervous state. This is because I know that something utterly horrible might happen at any given moment.
It’s all the fault of Hidden, the Austrian’s flawless 2015 film about a middle-class, intellectual Parisian family terrorised by an anonymous stalker who films their house and sends them the tapes. Or, to be more accurate, a specific moment in Hidden, when a desperate Algerian man suddenly cuts his own throat, spraying blood across a wall. It’s a shocking moment of violence that has rendered me a Haneke scaredy-cat for life.
So, I watched Happy End (★★★★, cert 15, 108 mins), with a sense of dread, but also anticipation, because the fact that his films can have such an effect is the sign of a master film-maker. And Haneke undoubtedly is that: beloved of the art house and responsible for some of modern cinema’s most provocative works. Hidden is certainly one of those, as are The White Ribbon, Funny Games and his previous film, Amour. In Haneke’s world, the shocks come not for the sake of them, but as considered elements of tightly structured, strange and confrontational wholes.
The title of his new Haneke film nods sarcastically to the darkness stored within. And it’s a darkness that is brought to the fore from the unforgettable opening moments. As with those secretly filmed snatches in Hidden, the world we are presented with is filtered through a camera (this time a smartphone). We assume a young person is in charge of this one, exchanging messages with a friend. First, the unseen camera operator poisons a guinea pig, then spies on his or her mother. One quick cut later, the woman is prostrate on her sofa, apparently the victim of another poisoning.
It is quickly revealed that it was a young girl filming the action. A 14-year-old called Eve (Fantine Harduin), who is taken to live in the palatial home of her aunt Anne and grandfather Georges, played respectively by previous Haneke collaborators Isabelle Huppert and Jean Louis-Trintignant. What unfolds is a kind of soap opera, but it is filtered through Haneke’s singular and anguished vision of humanity, involving an industrial accident, a wayward son and put-upon servants. Georges tries to top himself, too, driving a car into a tree in the middle of the night.
If this all sounds about as much fun as reading another newspaper article on Brexit, then I’d understand why you would choose to see the magnificent and uplifting Paddington 2 instead. Yet for those who like a challenge, Happy End offers much to think about. It is filmed with the formal clarity and precise acting that are hallmarks of his film-making.
Haneke uses the strained relations of the Laurent family to pick away at his familiar themes of the hypocrisy and vanity of the upper-middle classes, the casual cruelty humans inflict on one another and, specifically, French attitudes to their country’s colonial past.
Yet for all of Happy End’s icy brilliance, it stops just short of Haneke’s finest work. It doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of its brilliantly sinister opening. Nor does it offer that nervously anticipated gut punch. This is Haneke on decent but restrained form. I left feeling relieved and a little disappointed at the same time.