Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Happy End - a fabulous piece of dark and brooding storytelling

Michael Haneke is a bit of an evil genius when it comes to screenwriting and directing. And his new film Happy End adds to his fabulous body of thought-provoking and unsettling work.

The film begins with some shaky vertical smartphone footage of a woman’s nightly bedtime routine, with every action anticipated with a typed comment as she brushes her teeth and hair etc. It’s the first sign of a youngster with a penetrating eye and a disturbed attitude towards life, suffering and death. Later we’ll realise that darkness runs in the family genes. (It’s also a nod to Haneke’s pervious film Caché (Hidden) which had surveillance footage at its disquieting heart.)

With her Mum hospitalised, Eve (Fantine Harduin) moves to Calais to live with her father (Mathieu Kassovitz, who walked out of her life years before and has now remarried). Three generations are housed together, each living with their anxieties and insecurities about health and wealth. Eve’s aunt (Isabelle Huppert) is running a struggling construction company that is collapsing before her eyes, not helped by her unstable son (Franz Rogowski), her boyfriend (a rather dapper Toby Jones who is battling with North Sea offshore workers) while her morose father (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is recovering from a car accident.

Happy End is a misleading title, or perhaps just an aspirational one. In truth, this dark family soap opera is more about the ‘end’ than the ‘happy’, at least for those who have a choice in the matter. To say more would be to spoil the story that is very slowly revealed over 107 minutes.

The camerawork is very distinctive, with very long takes keeping a tight focus on people’s heads and keeping as much of the background out of focus (so you can never quite make out the posters on walls as characters walk around). Much of the film is either spent looking into a scene as if through someone’s eyes (or standing just behind them) or standing at a distance, unable to discern what is being said, but able to watch interactions (which at times can be violent).

Much of the dialogue is subtitled in French. Facebook Messenger exchanges intelligently incorporate the subtitles into the on-screen user interface, while a smaller font size is used when eavesdropping on other people’s dialogue.

As the screen went dark and the credits rolled in silence, there was a ripple of nervous laughter across my screening as if the final unresolved unhappy non-ending was a relief.

The inclusion of refugees in and around Calais helps ground the film in contemporary France. The casual racism and maltreatment of the Laurent family’s servants push them over the edge to be thoroughly hard to like yet fascinating to watch.

There’s a lot of death, a lot of longing for death, and a fair amount of engineering it too. Not for the fainthearted, Happy End is a fabulous piece of dark and brooding storytelling.

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