Michael Haneke, 2017
There may be no good reason for this post, given that if you’ve seen Michael Haneke’s HAPPY END you're likely to have a very clear sense of what the film is about, and an equally firm opinion about it. So apart from fulfilling a self-imposed obligation to comment on all of the films I saw in the festival, particularly the ones that impressed me, the only other reason for this post is to add my voice to the many polarised opinions doing the rounds about this expertly sustained piss-take.
I wouldn’t say, as one critic has, that Happy End is a “grab-bag of Haneke’s thematic and aesthetic greatest hits”. One takes his point, but I prefer Peter Bradshaw’s take in his Guardian piece that the film “rehearses almost all of Haneke’s themes and visual ideas: family dysfunction, inter-generational revenge, the poisonous suppression of guilt and the return of the repressed. There is the horror of death combined with a Thanatos-like longing for its deliverance – one line in particular shows how Happy End has been inspired by the climactic moment of his previous film, Amour.”
If you haven’t seen the film but are familiar with Haneke’s work, then you’ll know what to expect, except that this is Haneke’s first overt satire. Not to say that it’s a comedy, or that this master of bitingly cold, confrontational dissections of middle-class horror has lost the edge on his blade. No, his scalpel-sharp contempt for bourgeois indifference is as keen as ever, in fact Haneke’s wit, wisdom, aesthetic precision, and masterful narrative craft should, one might suppose, encourage a broader range of film-goers to spend time in his trap-laden universe.
However, on the basis of the extraordinarily mixed reviews (a surprisingly contentious 67% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes), Mr Haneke might be thwarted again. Thwarted because his consistent moral focus and socio-political concerns make him an artist who speaks boldly and directly to the rapacious indifference of privilege and the inured self-serving compliance of those who gather crumbs from the tables. Over a career spanning three decades he has made films that address the audience as directly as they address the steady erosion of humane values by the inhumane mechanisms of power and control. Alas, his films are often misread, accused of the very things they seek to expose and critique.
Happy End seems very straightforward to me and everyone else I’ve spoken to, which makes me wonder why some professional film reviewers describe the film as ’impenetrable’ or ‘thematically obtuse’. They can’t be that witless, although one of them patently missed the implication that 13-year-old Eve may have aided her mother’s pill-induced demise. But there have been some extremely well-considered negative reviews by commentators who appreciate the sophistication of Haneke’s work, but for whom Happy End is an inconclusive patchwork with a copout ending. Copout? Maybe they just didn’t warm to the humour.
While I like to think that my critical radar is reasonably well attuned, I'm willing to admit that my blind spots are as big as anyone’s, so my radar is likely to abandon me when it comes to the work of directors such as Haneke and Bruno Dumont, whose Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc was conspicuously missing from this year’s line-up, the inclusion of which, along with Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here, may have improved my opinion of the 2017 programme. Blind spots aside, I can’t shake the ill-founded suspicion that Haneke’s so-called 'moralistic finger pointing' simply ruffles the feathers of reviewers with crumbs on their shirt.