Happy End Michael Haneka (2017; Europe) Isabelle Huppert; J-L Trintignant
viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 5th Dec 2017; ticket: £ 9.75
The Medium is the Message
Haneka’s film has a strange title. As far as I can tell he has used this title right across Europe, without translation. Usually his film titles are translated. But what is the title pointing to? Perhaps it’s being at the happy end of the IPhone.
Haneka’s movie opens and closes with footage taken by Eve on her IPhone and registers in the projection of the film as ‘IPhone’ footage. In the first shot she describes what she sees filming her mother’s bed time routine. Although Haneka scripted and ‘shot’ these clips, there is a sense in which they are not his or rather he cannot claim complete ownership of them.
Smart phone technology has triggered a culture which is flooded out by pics and clips. Dying fucking eating suicide are grist to the smart phone mill. Secret ‘shared’ thoughts breakdowns intimacy the body: what was once considered ‘private’ now is subject to public broadcaste… There is sense in which smart phone recordings can be understood as generic, not in a meaningful sense owned by anyone but just part of the milieu in which we live, the water in which we swim. It is the medium that has become the message.
McLuhan’s vivid insight, is explored by Haneka through both Eve and then through her father Thomas. Through Eve we can see the effect of cool smart phone technology on her relationship with the world. Filming on a smart phone she reduces what she sees to objects of a detached curiosity. Filming and on-line media engage a world that is characterised by fragmentations discontinuities disconnections and detachment. Subjected to the process of continuous recording, the technology is absorbed into everyone’s psychic reality, it becomes part of who we all are.
The smart phone is a cool technology that mediates its objects as the subjects of a detached gaze. It is a gaze that has all the heat of meaning abstracted and lacks emotional consequentiality. In ‘Happy End’ Haneka draws on and depicts what is generic in the culture to depict the depersonalisation of relations in the film: the relations between father – daughter, mother- son, and the impotent isolation of George, the pater familias, the old grand-dad.
Whereas Eve’s world is located in the cool detachment of smart phone technology, Thomas is in thrall to the hot print of internet e-relations. The heat of the texted instantaneous feed back loops between him and Clair, have reduced them both to an genito-anal infantile fixation. Whilst Thomas invests in his image (even if it is in self deception) Eve in contrast distances herself from image. The hot cool relationship between father and daughter is mirrored in the hot cool relations between son and mother. Their relationship is introduced by Haneka with CCTV footage of a construction site accident.
CCTV material is impersonal fixed image which has a purported objectivity but may have multiple implications. The accident triggers the dynamics that cause the split in the Anne and Pierre’s relationship. It reinforces and motivates Anne to take the cool analytic corporate line: to do whatever is necessary to save the business. Whereas Pierre is shocked by the accident and the harm his firm has caused to an individual, rejects the legal machinations and embraces the hot world of emotional responsibility.
In one long durational shot, a sort of ‘Pieta’ set up, Haneka affectively compresses the son /mother relationship as Anne visits her son Pierre in his room after he has failed to turn up for work. After a period of immobility, with camera focusing on Peter stretched half naked on his bed, the camera tracks and pans following the action, of mother and son stitching the all the dynamics of their changed relationship together as one statement. In contrast George, the pater familias, isolated from the crossed wires of the intergenerational tensions of his children and grand-children, has nothing left to do but to die. There is no place left for him in the world. He is not in the movie.
Haneka seems to me primarily a satirist, working the dark veins of didactic representation in the manner of a Dean Swift. His satire works best when it is undeviating and delivered at face value. Happy End takes up the moral theme that has driven Haneka’s directorial career: the bankrupt and morally degenerate nature of bourgeois consumer society. Happy End pays homage both in script and shooting style to Haneka’s previous movies. In revisiting particular settings and subjects we see the shadows and hear echoes of: The Piano Teacher; Funny Games, Hidden, and l’ Amour.
And this is the problem with the film: it attempts to cover too much ground. Haneka’s decision to reprise elements of Hidden and Piano Teacher don’t work effectively. The refugee scenes and the actual appearance of Clair who we know of through her on-line psycho-sexual tryst with Thomas, both look like they have been bolted onto the body of the film. They are both essentially outside the satirical unfolding of film’s logics, bulking out the body of the film with topical but specious material. The penultimate scene depicting a hyper enervated Pierre inviting immigrants to his mother’s wedding feast comes across simply as a failed homage to Bunuel’s Viridiana. It is cursory and undeveloped, as is the appearance of Clair at George’s party: token gestures.
Happy End is uneven but it is a film of European sensibility. It encodes, in content and process the idea that we have to interpret what we see. We can never see the complete picture. Haneka does not generally make films that comprise only the simplistic images of the Hollywood Cinema. After our intensive socialisation through the symbolic language of the advertising industry, Hollywood feeds us with images that we simply have to read. Like hamburgers we chew them up and swallow them whole. But in the European vein, Haneka gives us shots that we have to interpret; shots that are detached from the lexicons of product manipulation; shots that we have to look at and to decipher in relation to what we know, both from the film and from life. Happy End is a film that we have to interpret.