HAPPY END, Michael Haneke’s latest work, which is just coming to theaters, is a film about ideas. It is a portrait of life in our contemporary culture, one that is awash in high-tech gadgetry. In this regard, HAPPY END deals with issues that are close to the heart of its writer-director, who is in his mid-seventies. In other words, Michael Haneke has been around long enough to have very strong opinions, very distinct and well-formed world views.
In its essence, HAPPY END follows the members of a contemporary upper-class French family. At one end is an elderly man, played by the great Jean-Louis Trintignant, who five years ago starred in Haneke’s AMOUR. Trintignant’s character is 85-years-old. He is being engulfed by senility, and at issue is the manner in which it is impacting his loved ones. At the other end is a girl who is twelve-going-on-thirteen. Her childhood is anything but carefree, as her mother is seriously ill. And with deep profundity, Haneke transcends these characters as he deals with issues that rise way above family connections. He keeps stressing the pointlessness of the instant and vapid imagery that is engulfing our lives and the lack of genuine face-to-face real-world communication between individuals who are supposed to be close.
These days, everything is taped, and this is established in the film’s brilliant opening sequence. Such imaging, in Haneke’s view, is endless and redundant. But more to the point are questions, the first of which is: What does all this mean? What is the importance of all this imaging, copying, recording? Is there anything really happening here? Individuals may be talking loudly on mobile phones, but what are they talking about? Are they reporting on nothing more consequential than what they had for breakfast? And the bottom line here is: How are individuals responding to all this high-tech gadgetry? Is it somehow making us less human, in our basic human relationships? Also, do individuals use the Internet to express their deepest desires, their darkest fantasies, as opposed to sharing them face-to-face? This is our world today. This is our contemporary culture. Of course, technology may be wonderful, but people still become ill. They still must deal with unavoidable real-world realities.
HAPPY END also touches on issues relating to race and class, as it deals with upper class Caucasians and Moroccan refugees and the manner in which the former casually look down on their so-called “inferiors.” At one point, a Moroccan cook is referred to as a “slave.” And in the end, sometimes the most meaningful real-world communication is between the very old-- here, it is the 85-year-old man-- and the very young--- here, it is the pre-teen girl.
Many of the ideas in HAPPY END hit me right in the gut, because they deal with issues that are well-worth questioning. With this in mind, the film might be have been little more than a pedantic diatribe, but HAPPY END is the creation of a master filmmaker. It is original, thoughtful, profound... It is, indeed, superb filmmaking and, upon seeing it, I noted that I would be hard-pressed to find a better 2017 release, foreign or domestic. But that was before I saw THE SHAPE OF WATER and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. And the point here is that fine films are being produced: films that are issue-oriented and challenging, and are works of art. Plus, HAPPY END is a happy reminder that some filmmakers only get better as they get older.
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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