Happy End

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Please note that this article contains spoilers  

“I’m certainly a part of bourgeois culture, and I do view the society I live in as pretty loveless” - Michael Haneke confessed in a 2014 interview in The Paris Review [1]. Those familiar with the Austrian director’s work will be able to see echoes of this statement in his filmmaking. It is no wonder then that Happy End is a bleak but sarcastic picture of a well-off French family whose complete obliviousness to the world around them is sometimes hard, and even painful, to watch.  

Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert), an owner of a successful construction business, lives in an extravagant Calais villa with her father George (Jean-Louis Trintignant), her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his second wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden). Soon enough Thomas’ daughter from the first marriage, Ève (Fantine Harduin), moves into the house after her mother’s suspicious drug overdose. This seemingly perfect family very quickly turns out to be completely dysfunctional and loveless. Anne, who is acting as the boss of the family, cannot control her self-destructing son Pierre (Franz Rogowski); Thomas, an unfaithful control freak, does not know how to be honest with the rest of the family and keeps creating situations that would only benefit himself; Anaïs, unsure about the stability of her marriage, finds Ève’s presence unnerving and even experiences some jealousy towards her. The list goes on.  

Haneke is known for making the viewer feel quite uncomfortable. In Piano Teacher (2009), we see the main character cutting herself between her legs. In Funny Games (1997), the director makes us look at a family being tortured and killed in a holiday cabin. In Amour (2012), one of the main characters performs what could be called an act of euthanasia on his infirm wife - the motif that Haneke comes back to in Happy End. This time around, the discomfort is inflicted upon the viewer with help from the all-present modern technology which becomes a tool that allows to gain more insight in the life of Haneke’s characters. We learn about Thomas’ affair through extremely obscene emails and internet chats with his lover Claire, classically trained musician (a fact we learn by looking at her profile picture and a personalised advert appearing on her screen); we know that Ève misses her brother and that she most probably was involved in her mother’s mysterious poisoning by looking at messages that feature in her live-streams.  

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What we see on screen in the form of live-streams and email exchanges provides an enormous contrast to the proper, polite behaviour practised by the Laurent family members. This unnatural and studied behaviour is mostly visible in the reappearing family dinners which seem more like meals shared by strangers than members of the same family. Interactions at the dinner table are very contrived - as we quickly learn, no “quarrels” are allowed. The result is either uncomfortable silence or forced conversation. 

So absorbed are the Laurents in making good impressions on others, that they do not pay the slightest bit of attention to the reality around them and racial tensions suggested by Haneke. Their interactions with the live-in servants Rashid (Hassan Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari) are prime examples. Seeing them serve the bourgeois family and their guests makes the viewer feel uneasy at times. There is hardly any familiarity or affection shown towards the servants. At George's 85th birthday, drunk Pierre goes as far as to calling them “slaves” - the whole situation is truly uncomfortable to watch but makes the viewer think that, sadly, he might be saying the truth. 

The motif of racial and class tensions reappears throughout the rest of the film. The magnitude of the family fortune is even more striking because the action takes place in one of the poorest cities in France [2]. After an accident at the construction site managed by the Laurent business, Anne has no problem finding €35,000 to compensate the injured worker. The sum is mentioned in passing making the viewer think that such an amount does not constitute a problem for the family. Even though the viewer will be aware of the situation at the Calais migrant camps, there is no mention of the growing tensions at the nearby port.  Instead, we see exquisite parties thrown at the family villa with a plenitude of food and drink. The closing scene is perhaps most memorable. As the family sits down to celebrate Anne and Lawrence’s engagement, Pierre, who certainly had not been invited, rolls in with a group of black immigrants who he must have met on his way up. The drunk man is quickly ushered out of the scene but the surprise guests are given a table, surely just to save Anne the embarrassment and make her look good in front of the invited family and friends. Shock and discomfort on everyone’s faces makes the viewer feel baffled and ashamed. Even more outstanding is the contrast between the unexpected guests’ skin colour and the bedazzling whiteness of their surroundings.  

Haneke’s Happy End provides an interesting commentary on the state of today’s bourgeois society. Watching the apparently perfect Laurent family and their absolute ignorance to the suffering of those around them as well as the ever so present obsession with technology (which is marked by the opening and closing sequences of the film) does not leave much hope for the future. As always, Haneke makes the viewer question if this is truly what they want to be a part of. To paraphrase George’s conversation with Ève at his study, are we in, or are we out?  

Alicja Tokarska
Freelance writer
December 2017

[1] Michael Haneke, interview, Michael Haneke, The Art of Screenwriting No.5 in The Paris Review, Issue 21, Winter 2014, https://www.theparisreview.org...

[2] “Où vivent les pauvres en France? 100 villes passées au crible” in L’Obs, 2014, https://tempsreel.nouvelobs.co...

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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