HAPPY END, the latest perturbing offering from Austrian director Michael Haneke, starts and finishes through the lens of an iPhone screen.
Following on from Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, Happy End is the latest French film to offer a perceptive – and bold – outlook on the impinging effect of modern technology on our way of living.
This time, the iPhone which bookends Happy End is not in the nervy and paranoid hands of Kristen Stewart. Rather it is held by a disturbed young girl named Eve (Fantine Harduin).
Happy End follows Eve as she is thrust back into the life of her distant birth-father following the suspicious death of her mother from a drug overdose. As we quickly discover, Eve is the perfect addition to her new home, already filled with equally dysfunctional characters.
Her father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) spends most of his time sexting his mistress despite recently having a child with second wife (Laura Verlinden).
Meanwhile, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) – Eve’s grandfather – is looking to end his life at any opportunity. He is so desperate he stops a group of men on the street and offers them his expensive watch if they carry out the deed. As for cousin Pierre (Franz Rogowski), he is rapidly spiralling into self-destruction thanks to his growing dependence on alcohol.
With all these damaged characters at play and under the troubling shadow of Calais’ migrant crisis, this bourgeois nightmare unfolds with a brilliant Hanekeian blend of shock, apathy and dark humour.
Understandably, one of the first questions aimed at Haneke in the wake of the film’s release was how the 75-year-old had come to know and understand the workings of social media such as Snapchat.
It provoked a strong response. In an interview in the New York Times, he bluntly dismissed claims he had learnt about snapchat – and all the goings on it triggers – from his granddaughter. Instead, he revealed that the inspiration for Happy End and the character of Eve came from the true-life story of a 14-year-old girl who tried to kill her mother and then posted a video of it online.
After reading about this, Haneke then delved into hundreds of online forums to better understand the culture. Giving his appraisal of this modern social phenomenon before a packed audience at the Curzon Chelsea, he said: ‘It is a complex problem. In the past, people would have gone to a priest to confess their crimes. Now the media has taken over the place of religion. The priest would have absolved them, would have told them to say the Lord’s Prayer and they would have been redeemed.
‘Of course, that doesn’t function any longer. What they now turn to is the anonymity of the internet as a confessional. I looked, in fact, at hundreds of different forums of this kind and I have to say I think that if a priest in the old days had been able to record what he heard in the confessionals he would have something very much like these forums.
‘What is fundamentally happening is that the internet is serving as a kind of pseudo religion.’
Eve’s fascination with watching pain through a phone screen is seen in the opening scenes when she calmly documents her mother’s neglectful movements before poisoning her own pet hamster – the way she carelessly prods at the dead body only confirms her deep-rooted issues.
Further windows into Eve’s problems are seen as she watches a YouTuber – who is in the ilk of real-life, self-professed internet bully LeafyIsHere (who has over four million subscribers) – as he cruelly picks apart the appearance of another child. It is a brief scene that speaks to the emotional distance a screen can create – as well as the sense of power and thrill that comes with broadcasting your actions to the world.
The scarily troubled figure that is Eve is wonderfully portrayed by 12-year-old Harduin. Along with The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince, her performance marks another triumph for clever child-actor casting.
When asked why he chose Harduin for such a challenging role, Haneke revealed she lacked the naivety of many other young actors. As he elaborated: ‘I saw a photograph of her and I was fascinated by her face. She has a child’s face on one hand and an adult’s on another. I was looking for someone you could believe in and believe what she does in the film. Her face has a particular aura, something kind of secret and mysterious about it.’
Toby Jones plays one of the film’s more emotionally stable characters Lawrence, the love interest of Anne (Isabelle Huppert) who is Eve’s aunt. Jones joined Haneke on stage at Curzon Cinema to give his glowing praise of the director. The British actor said: ‘He is such a hero of mine. The seriousness, the dark humour, the unique sensibilities of cinema – are all obviously irresistible for an actor.’
The call from Haneke was one Jones admitted he was not expecting, but he said ‘yes’ before his agent had time to finish his sentence. Speaking of his surprise at getting the role, he said: ‘The script reminded me very much of a Chekov play with all of the unexpected components of a family in deadlock.
‘There is, as in Chekov, a magician who shows up to relieve some of the tensions within the dramatic structure. I was able to square the sheer unexpected nature of being offered this film with that idea.’
Jones’ first day working with Haneke was one of frustration and reassurance. What should have been a routine three-line exchange with Huppert – whom he had just met – turned into a painful twenty-five-take scene.
This approach did not bother Jones in the slightest, as he explained: ‘If you get to work with European directors, you can learn a whole new way of working. Michael, obviously, comes with a reputation of being very rigorous, as he has written this script meticulously and directs meticulously.’
He added: ‘I am too old now to be terrified by a director, but I was very aware that he would be extremely specific – and he was extremely specific! That being said, the whole thing has this fantastic sense of purpose. You have this feeling of being in the hands of someone who knows what they what – and that is a huge comfort for an actor.’
If you are a fan of Haneke’s work, Happy End’s family turmoil will be a perfect cinematic present ahead of the Christmas festivities. Haneke is a filmmaker who regardless of age is still challenging key issues – and doing it with blistering style and authority.
Happy End. Great Cinema.