The Discreet Harm of the Bourgeoisie

FEBRUARY 2, 2018

MICHAEL HANEKE’S Happy End begins and ends with a girl’s cell phone recording of a family member’s impending death. For instance, while the ocean figures prominently in the film and in its poster, it has no unified meaning. Everything we have learned about Anne by film’s end — especially her internalized sense that even the smallest gesture invites judgment — makes this second reading rather compelling. Or is her almost still video the result of a stalled conflict between foiling George’s death wish and supporting him in it? The film’s commentary on “new media” is only one of its facets, but it is integral to its larger concerns. Sensing that she is not yet dead inside like the other family members, he coaxes a confession out of her that nominally revolves around a story of her drugging a schoolmate, but that is an indirect admission of her attempt on her mother’s life. Its visuals disavow any kind of solidarity with the impassive object in the water. He remains unreceptive to his mother’s perfunctory doting on him and resists being groomed to take over the family business. Haneke: she has learned to care without giving a damn. The last time we see it is after she has moved back up the boat ramp and turns around to view her grandfather in the water. It is no coincidence that turning around — whether to face the camera, to reverse course, or both — becomes one of the film’s central thematic and visual tropes. Whatever their differences and specificities, Haneke’s 1992 dark family drama Benny’s Video, his perfidious horror spoof Funny Games (made in 1997 and remade in the United States in 2007), and his 2005 suspense thriller Caché all proffer sustained meditations on how our relation to reality is irreversibly shaped by film, video, and television. The film inevitably prompts us to compare Eve’s two cell phone videos, but, in doing so, it asks us to divorce what we see within the frame from what we learn about Eve and her family in the course of the film. This is one of the few scenes in the film that shows characters “getting through” to each other, having meaningful exchanges. Those who prefer to regard Haneke as a skeptic of modern media may be tempted to read Eve’s cell phone as a pacifier of sorts, to which she clings in the face of dealing with things over which she has no power. Anything else is speculation; everything else is up to viewers to debate. Building this web while drawing attention to the shifting relation between images and their contexts is Haneke’s form of media pedagogy. Or does a loosely conceived political frame of reference spur rather than impede viewers’ debate? After discovering her father’s erotic emails to the musician, Eve tries to commit suicide out of fear her father will leave again and place her in a foster home. ¤
Too vague to be message movies, yet far too committed and concrete for l’art pour l’art, do Haneke’s films, in their refusal to provide answers to the political questions they imply, show a streak of opportunistic waffling? This impression changes, however, when it becomes clear that Thomas has no intention of letting his erotic life disrupt his professional success and status as a family father. This brings us again to the film’s final image. Pierre, for example, sees himself as the black sheep of the family. During Georges’s 85th birthday celebration, he parades the family’s cook, Jamila (Nabiha Akkari), in front of the guests, introducing her as “our Moroccan slave.” He disrupts Anne and Lawrence’s engagement dinner by bringing a group of African refugees to crash the party, for which Anne, true Haneke character that she is, momentarily bares her violent underside and breaks one of her son’s fingers. They both realize they have had close brushes with death and killing. Their haute bourgeois style may seem more “old Europe” than 21st century, but their guilt, their defensiveness, and their refusal to assume responsibility for each other and for the world that has allowed them to thrive is contemporary. They are watchful, but don’t understand what they see. It means questioning our assumptions about this world, its characters, and ourselves as viewers. She does decide to cancel her meeting and turn around, but her own walls remain firmly in place. It is one of the fences of the “jungle,” one of Europe’s largest and most notorious camps for African refugees hoping to reach the United Kingdom. The girl, Eve (Fantine Harduin), is not just the cinematographer of these death scenes — she has also helped bring them about. Yet Haneke has emphasized that the film is not “about” African refugees. “You expect me to turn around?!” Anne hisses into the phone at her son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who has alerted her to the construction worker’s critical state. Anne is perhaps worse off: she is afflicted by what in the Haneke universe has come to be known as “glaciation” — a state of being so alienated from oneself and others that one appears to be emotionally frozen over. For example, Happy End’s setting, Calais, and its notorious refugee camp overdetermine a political interpretation. In the second, her grandfather, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), sits in a wheelchair halfway submerged in the ocean, where Eve has helped place him. Georges is onto Eve. Walls and windows figure prominently throughout Happy End. It is hard not to interpret Happy End as political critique, but the near-symmetry of the two videos that bookend the film is characteristic of Haneke’s larger interest in using cinema to unleash a play of form that is utopian by virtue of its very openness. In fact, the film treats them as extensions of the characters in front of or behind them. ¤
Trouble for the Laurents’ family-run construction company in Calais begins after a worker suffers serious injuries in the collapse of one of their building pits. When Georges approaches a group of Africans on the street, Haneke withholds information as to the exact nature of his solicitation, but places it in the context of the old man’s attempts to enlist help to kill himself. Does Eve’s recording of Georges register a different intention from her recording of her mother, for whom she initially had so much contempt? In other words, the frame undermines any distinction between true and feigned care. Haneke treats the way Anne and Thomas run their lives as symptomatic of modern society. Others may take her urge to film her family to be the most apposite form of confession, however ephemeral, in our digital media age. In the first video, her mother is shown lying on the living room couch, severely drugged by her daughter. Haneke’s declared intention has been to use Happy End to create an alternative ending for Amour that pursues in more realistic detail what happens after Georges kills his terminally ill wife (Amour has a non-realist, quasi-fantastic ending). This is not necessarily to say that she is cold-hearted (which, in any case, is not a quality that has ever interested Haneke much). The resulting pains impede his break-dancing skills, making him fail at the only thing he cares about. Anne is a classic character out of the cabinet of Mr. Either way, Thomas closely resembles his sister in that each refuses to regard relations to other human beings as anything other than contractual. At Anne’s engagement party, which takes place at a seaside restaurant, Georges uses the general distraction caused by Pierre’s introduction of the Africans to sneak out and have Eve wheel him down a boat ramp. She turns toward the camera and says no. Eve’s recordings are mere flashes that say little about the one who triggered them. Notwithstanding their bleakness and their determination to cast utopia in negative terms, Haneke’s films encourage us to keep searching for meaning, and this spells hope. Having internalized the continent’s long-standing political rhetoric of social responsibility and class solidarity, the Laurents know how to pass themselves off as supporting justice and objectivity. In what turns out to be the film’s final shot, we see them rushing toward the shoreline. The meeting is hosted by the Laurents’ lawyer, but his solitary placement across the table from both parties makes him appear like a judge. He is the author of Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), the editor of A Companion to Michael Haneke (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) and of Werner Schroeter (Vienna: Synema, 2018), and a co-editor of Michael Haneke: Interviews (forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi) and of The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, Vols. At his mother’s behest, he visits the family of the injured worker to make amends, only to receive a thrashing from their son. His ill-fated efforts on behalf of the firm and his petty acts of rebellion are fodder for both tragedy and comedy. He makes the same point in more than one way. Discreteness, if mastered well, is another form of integrating the personal and professional. Many of its scenes inscribe a given character’s point of view, but these characters’ motivations for looking, their ability to react to what they see, and the extent to which they admit to their own viewing position vary from scene to scene. He takes revenge against his family by confronting them and their guests with their colonialist legacy at two family functions. It is a polysemic plane whose antithetical implications make it recede into abstractness, a bit like the image of a beach shown on the faded poster at the beginning of Haneke’s first theatrical feature, The Seventh Continent (1989). She moves back up the ramp and watches him for a moment before pulling out her phone to film him, as he pushes himself lap-deep into the ocean in an effort to drown himself. Or it could simply indicate her inadvertent acknowledgment that she, too, is now on camera. ¤
Roy Grundmann teaches Film Studies at Boston University. That this peace is brittle and the family’s image a facade becomes clear in scenes showing the clan having dinner in their mansion, struggling to make conversation or engaging in passive-aggressive behavior. Others cope less efficiently. Asking who uses and consumes these images, and exploring the limits of what they can and cannot show, aids Haneke in pursuing larger questions about personal guilt and political conscience, about what distinguishes genuine from pro forma care, and about the various pressures and dilemmas that come with assuming responsibility both for one’s loved ones and for society as a whole. Most importantly, they are on emotional autopilot without realizing it. 1-4 (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).  The link that exists between Anne’s self-absorbed attitude and the fence of the “jungle” may seem a bit heavy-handed, but this impression dissipates as we come to find out more about Anne. In this film, we learn about the mercy killing during a private conversation between Georges and Eve in which both trade personal stories. This prompts Georges to ask Eve to help him commit suicide. Having tried to kill her mother who, the film suggests, was already suicidal herself, Eve comes to realize that they both suffer from the same problem — a lack of love from Thomas, who is gentle but distant and spurts platitudes. Needless to say, the real victims are Jamila and the refugees, who are put on display solely to serve Pierre’s petty vengeance. As he has stated in recent interviews, Eve’s story line was already part of a project titled Flashmob that was slated for production as the follow-up film to his 2012 Oscar-winning drama Amour. Within the confines of that frame, however, they fully acquit themselves of any bourgeois hypocrisy. In Happy End, this combination becomes especially clear in the way that each sibling negotiates the tension between the personal and the professional. Anne and Thomas are no monsters. One German critic has nonetheless interpreted their presence in the film as heralds of doom — as Europe’s repressed others, the inheritance of 19th-century colonialism. Eve, too, turns around several times. While most of Haneke’s French films, regardless of their individual stories, name their central characters Georges and Anne Laurent, the Georges of Happy End is a direct reference to the Georges of Amour, likewise played by Trintignant. Does Thomas stay with his wife because he does not really love his mistress, or does he not have a mistress he loves because he does not want to incur the hassle of leaving yet another wife? Its ambiguity is the latest example of this director’s open-ended, tantalizing exploration of the fraught tension between a given image and its contexts. This period lives on in Europe’s fortress mentality, which is matched by the fortress-like facades and callous disaffection of the Laurents. Such earlier Haneke films as Code Unknown (2000) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) confronted viewers with the implications of consuming violent and unsettling mass media content from a safe distance. Watching her mother undergo treatment through the window of an intensive care ward, she is asked whether she knew about her mother’s use of pills. He was forced to abort the project for various reasons, but decided to salvage Eve’s story as one part of Happy End’s multi-strain ensemble drama. With Happy End, Haneke subsumes computers, cell phones, and social media into his films’ self-reflexive mediascapes, though Eve’s smartphone camerawork had an earlier origin. The news reaches Anne, whom her father has entrusted with running the company, on her way to England, where she wants to see Lawrence (Toby Jones), her British lover and business partner, through whom she hopes to secure a loan to save the ailing firm. This look possibly signals her bewilderment as to why her niece has decided to film her grandfather drown rather than pulling him ashore. Once they reach the edge of the water, he releases her. The invisibility of most filmmakers and the anonymity of the great majority of viewers — which are built-in features of the cinematic medium — have long been identified by critics as being at the center of Haneke’s work. Anne and Thomas’s rushing across Eve’s cell phone frame to save Georges may seem ironic, given all we have learned about their limited capacity for genuine empathy. Haneke’s glaciated characters are functional, but only in the mechanical sense. Anne’s brother, Thomas, behaves just like his sister. What makes the scene interesting is its visual design. In the second video, help comes from other family members — Georges’s two children, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), who is Eve’s father, and Anne (Isabelle Huppert), her aunt — who suddenly enter the cell phone camera’s narrow frame. It is what haunts Anne on her way to England after learning about the accident and it is what she does in Eve’s second video, however fleetingly and ambiguously. Finally, there is Georges, the family patriarch, who built up the company but who, at life’s end, is left with a sense of emptiness that fuels his own suicide plans. Banal yet fraught with meaning, it functions, like so many other Haneke images, as a sort of visual haiku in which the filmmaker has enfolded all that concerns him in telling this story. Happy End explores similar questions with regard to the images shared via cell phones and social media. Still, viewers familiar with Haneke’s cinema know better than to expect clear answers to Happy End’s final shot. Reading Haneke’s images means setting free a potentially endless play of contrasting and contradictory implications, a game of questioning that involves an element of self-questioning: Is Eve’s decision to record her grandfather an expression of commemorating respect for the elder’s wish to die that would make her behavior a (however unconventional) form of care? This utopia has no stable referents. On her way to the tunnel connecting France and England, she drives along a seemingly endless barrier. First, he crashes his car into a tree at full speed (a reference to one of Haneke’s early TV films, Lemmings); later, he begs his barber to obtain pills or a gun for him. This search is also a pleasure. He and his sister go through the motions of caring for their increasingly senile father, whom they regard as an imposition to be endured for the sake of maintaining the family’s public image and internal peace. With its sparse style belying its formal sophistication, Happy End, like all of Haneke’s films, slowly and subtly weaves its scenes into a web of intriguing parallels, tantalizing reciprocities, and near-symmetries, in which the smallest change can make a huge difference. Eve’s two cell phone recordings thus bookend and visually comment on a story that is both about an individual family — the well-to-do but decidedly unhappy haute bourgeois Laurents — and about European society as a whole, with its political crises, social problems, and ideological hypocrisies. Anne briefly turns her head and looks in the direction of Eve’s phone. They keep people from connecting to each other. Given the harshness and austerity of Haneke’s universe of cold stares and minimal monstrations of affection, what develops between Georges and his granddaughter deserves, with some caution, to be called a bond. Predictably, the money that the Laurents offer the worker’s wife is a pittance. A successful medical doctor, he divorced Eve’s mother to marry the naïve Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), with whom he has just had another child, while carrying on an affair with a musician (Hille Perl). This is the first time we see her face. Happy End’s most explicit takedown of the Laurents’ genteel image occurs in a scene that shows them seeking an out-of-court settlement with the family of the injured worker. But trying to make sense of Haneke’s images not only means pondering the world in which they are embedded. At first glance, Anne’s decision to strategically integrate these aspects of her life by marrying her banker seems to present a stark contrast to the secrecy with which Thomas treats his extramarital affair. In contrast to his films from the 1990s, however, which put glaciation front and center, his French films have combined this analysis with a depiction of more traditional bourgeois hypocrisy. In the first video, Eve declares on camera, via a Snapchat-like app, that she is about to call for medical help to rescue her mother from the poisoning to which she, using the same device, had just confessed. This is how they cope with the world.