Happy End

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Review by © Jane Freebury

There are probably plenty of exceptions to the adage that happy endings belong in fairy tales, so it may not be fair to pin it all on the stories we tell our young kids. Lots of characters do get their just desserts, or worse, in fairy tales. Just think of the work of the Brothers Grimm.

Fairly or unfairly, the movies have long worn a reputation for stories with a happily-ever-after ending long since the practice stopped being stock in trade, and filmmakers have left the last act of their stories fashionably open, or with the next sequel in mind. Reputations do, however, have a habit of sticking…

Since Hidden, The Piano Teacher and Funny Games, we definitely have not expected a happy ending in anything directed by the filmmaker, Michael Haneke, the scion of misanthropic cinema. An Austrian with a reputation for bleak, uncompromising, brilliant films, he knows this, we get it, and he plays up to it. On this occasion his film is, however, also surprisingly wickedly funny.

For his latest film, the Cannes Palme d’Or and Oscar winner gives us the Laurent family, who live in Calais. They run a thriving business in construction that was established by the patriarch, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). They are wealthy and unremarkable.

On the face of it, Georges and his two adult children, Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and Thomas, a doctor (Mathieu Kassovitz), are pillars of society in the city by the sea. Underneath the surfaces, however, there are murky, disturbing things going on. So it’s business as usual for Haneke.

Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) has an inconvenient drinking problem and isn’t doing a competent job at work in the family business either. The ageing patriarch Georges is developing dementia and confides in his granddaughter that he wants to die. He had better watch out because Eve, the film’s main character, cheered on by elements she has found online, appears to be developing the characteristics of a psychopath.

On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet

A critique of social media from Haneke is timely, and consistent with the position he has taken in his films on recording devices, film and television, and mass media generally.

His view that audiences watch the screen uncritically, seems rather dated now that unpicking film texts for what they really say is common practice.

Eve has just entered the family home after her mother, Thomas’ first wife, suffered an overdose. On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet. She talks into her mobile about her mother in ways that give you the creeps, and then observes the effects of antidepressants on her pet hamster. It is a stunning, chilling performance from young Fantine Harduin.

The Laurent family drama plays out against real-life events in Calais, which is, of course, the last stop before the tunnel to England. There is a large encampment there known as ‘the jungle’, a way-station for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. While not foregrounding this situation, writer-director Haneke has deftly inserted the plight of refugees into the narrative tapestry.

French cinema has a long and venerable tradition of shocking the bourgeoisie that Austrian writer-director has gleefully and energetically signed up to. The family event that concludes the film truly is a gem. It takes place at an elegant restaurant beside a sparkling sea, with a palette uniformly white, beige and pale blue—until unexpected guests arrive. This also provides cover for the elderly guest of honour to leave.

This is a clever, dark satire but what has endeared me to  Michael Haneke’s latest film most is the black humour.

If it is, as they say, that the only thing that improves with age is one’s sense of humour, then at 75 years Haneke must be at his peak.

Rated M, 1 hour 47 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

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