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The opening few moments of Michael Haneke’s newest button-pusher Happy End leaves a few open-ended questions—the one I’m most eager to talk about involves a possible animal rights violation. Of course, animal torture isn’t the core question of Haneke’s film, but rather a troubling by-product. A mélange of everyday evil is underscored by not just one but a collection of disturbing footage recorded on camera phone, laying bare through grainy digital a number of unspeakable social taboos presented as a new, macabre form of entertainment.
With the mass distribution of technology, Haneke observes in this offbeat and fractured family drama a state of human condition in which society’s depravity is slowly becoming normalized through advents of technological communication, and how it sneakily encroaches into our personal lives as it ravages the world at large. If Amour was the 75-year-old director coming to terms with his mortality, then Happy End is the director’s expression of utter fear at the state of the world he might be leaving behind.
As per usual with Haneke, Happy End comes as a mixed bag, on one hand its unappealingly detached, morose and frigid, but on the other its Haneke doing what he does best, an academic rendering of the human experience—the accumulative breakdown of the family unit, in the case of Happy End. Here, Michael Haneke employs his usual alienating devices to full effect, portraying a seemingly idyllic household—fixed deep in France’s wealthy sub-prefecture in Calais—showing subtle cracks on its unblemished appearance.
The central image of Haneke’s Happy End is that of Fantine Harduin, a 12-year-old actress (unusually conscious of emotional subtleties) playing the youngest member of the Laurent family, embodying a looming, barely-materialized form of evil—much like the cult of sulky, dispossessed proto-fascist progeny in The White Ribbon. Though its hard to see through her unassuming appearance (fashioned to seem deceptively aloof), much of Haneke’s dismay for what the future may hold for humanity manifests in Harduin’s unbalanced, slightly deranged mien. Harduin delivers perhaps the most impressive child performance of the year thus far.
Although Haneke’s formal eccentricities don’t seem to be wearing one bit, compared to his very best works (Cache, Code Unknown) Happy End doesn’t quite deliver the same wallop. As far as knocks to the blissfully inattentive bourgeoisie go, Haneke’s snide commentary is about as close as the word ‘pedestrian’ is allowed to get to the risqué filmmaker. Once known for his unforgiving, percipient visions, Happy End doesn’t overlay so much as a rudimentary moral perspective over its subjects (a boring exercise in first world contempt), something I’d expect (and forgive) of a less experienced, less daring filmmaker.
The accumulation of Haneke’s bourgeois-hatred reaches its pinnacle during a lavish, upscale dinner which suggests Luis Buñuel, but its insufferably confrontational tone, obvious signposting and crude moralizing relinquishes any comparison to Buñuel—Haneke seems to be too stuck in his ways for his dead-faced sociology to accomplish parody or satire. The human component of his film doesn’t really amount to any more than a flimsy, two-dimensional ‘disconnect’ hypothesis, but from the cold academia of his subjects Haneke allows one interesting, dramatic relationship emerge—between Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the oldest, and Eve, the youngest.
In a sense all of Haneke’s films are thesis papers put on a visual canvas (with the exception of Amour, perhaps) though Happy End, with its unusually labored employing of theme and motif, may be the first that ends up more thesis than a film. For all the Austrian filmmaker’s know-how and prowess behind the camera—the immaculate panning shots, camera pivots, evocative lighting—not even the most impressively conceived image expresses any more than the inert fears of a precise, slightly irrational technophobe.