An educator. A provocateur. A moralist. And last but not least: A two time Palm d’Or winner. Michael Haneke is unequivocally one of the darlings of the Cannes Film Festival and as it often is with darlings of a prestigious cultural event, the relationship is also a particularly difficult one.
At no time does the difference between what happens inside the Grand Théâtre Lumière and what happens outside in the little streets of Cannes and the “tapis rouge” get bigger than during a screening of a Michael Haneke film. While outside the theatre a lot of people (one is drawn to say “most of them” while still hoping that it isn’t so) hang around just so that they appear to be “important VIPs”, Haneke destroys all this triviality inside the theatre and shows what really lies behind the show, what really remains in the end – ultimately teaching the spectator how to be a more authentic version of him/herself. Anyone who has seen a Haneke movie – most likely Funny Games – is distinctly aware of Haneke’s attitude towards modern media, the Internet and even pop culture itself. In our modern times, almost nobody embodies the old cliché of an artist in European high culture more than Michael Haneke.
On the 22nd of May, Haneke’s new movie, Happy End, premiered in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. In the film, Haneke tells the story of a family hailing from Calais: the grandfather, George Laurent, who is predominantly characterised by his death wish throughout the film, his daughter Anne Laurent – played by the Grande Dame of French cinema Isabelle Hubert – who seems to be the actual head of the family, her brother Thomas Laurent who has to come to terms with role as a father during the film, his daughter Eve who lost her mother because she committed suicide and the idealistic son of Anne Laurent, Pierre.
The film lacks a central storyline, instead offering episodic impressions of the characters’ lives. Primarily, it exists as a portrait of a wealthy Northern French family. One of drama’s most significant relationships is that between Anne and Pierre: Anne’s attitude towards her son oscillates between that of a caring mother and a demanding head of the family. Particularly, the scene when Anne visits her son after he has been punched in the face demonstrates both parts of her attitude within just seconds. Then there is Thomas who has an affair with a contrabassist, only shown through a Facebook chat between him and her. It is within these scenes that lies a statement that is most indicative of the profoundness and the intelligence of Haneke’s work, while one of his biggest faults also clouds it. Seldom has one seen the idealistic parts of love and intense sexual fetishes displayed in such a harmonic way, and this by just showing words and no skin at all – not even the tapping of hands at a keyboard.
As mentioned before, Haneke provides an explicit critique of modern (pop) culture and especially the internet. For example, he inserts a clip of a teenager making fun of the hair of a prepubescent which – evident by the gross age difference and superficiality of the insult – clearly constitutes bullying. Notably, Haneke avoids portraying the other side of the internet (YouTube videos of people helping others to learn about foreign languages or different subjects) or a more sympathetic portrait of man in its more humane aspects. Clearly, Haneke seeks to make a debatable point which he has made in his films time and time again: the ugliness of the internet and modern popular culture in general.
Nevertheless, there are some very good scenes in the movie: Haneke absorbingly shows how both George and his son Thomas care only about themselves. Thomas’ precocious daughter Eve plainly tells her father so, after she finds out about his clandestine chats with the contrabassist. George exhibits his ostensible feeling of superiority by using just about anyone to achieve his goal to die. He uses his money and position over his barber to shamelessly get what he wants and doesn’t even hesitate to lure a 13 year old child to commit the deed in the end. The only true moral character seems to be Pierre who is, maybe besides little Eve, the only one who speaks the blunt truth, which is of course very embarrassing to all the other family members and even leads to his mother calling him mentally ill.
In Happy End, there emerges a lot of repetitions of his earlier movies in that there exists the usual Haneke problem – lecturing and extreme cultural pessimism. Yet undoubtedly, Haneke is a filmmaker who can suitably deal with the problems of individual human life, consequently demonstrating the difficulties of the family as a whole, the defects of the whole western civilisation and in a sense – through the relationship between Thomas and the contrabassist – the time and locale-less human condition.