Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 26, 2017 3:01 pm 
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It isn't

Writing from Cannes for the Voice Bilge Ebiri said about Happy End that with it "Haneke has delivered the Haneke film that Haneke-haters see in their heads when they think of a Haneke film: a series of disjointed, narratively oblique episodes showing people being inhumane to each other." That is exactly what I have just seen, seven months later, at Film Forum. Much of our viewing time is devoted to trying to figure out how events fit together, though most of them concern members of the same family. The rest goes to wondering why any of this is supposed to matter. It has smart phones, cyber hacking, social media and drunken karaoke mixed with hip hop, but these updated forms of invaded privacy aren't as good as the old ones in Haneke's earlier, edgier movies.

It seems rather a shame that Jean-Louis Trintignant, who is 87, was lured out of retirement again for this depressing, uninvolving effort after winning a much-deserved Best Actor César four years ago for Haneke's heartbreaking and significant movie about old age, death, and love, Amour, which also won the Best Foreign Oscar. For that matter it's a shame Haneke, after making Amour, donned his director's cap again to make this. He hasn't made many films since Code Unknown in 2000 and most of them have been important. This just isn't. It's a rare misstep. And he's taken not only Trintignant but Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Kassovitz, Toby Jones, and some other fine actors along with him into the quagmire. This has been called a "quasi-sequel to Amour," which explains the temptation, but Amour needed no sequel.

The subject is a tough one to care about anyway: the bad morale of the rich. Their lack of sympathy for the less fortunate is rather crudely underlined by having their posh residence at Calais, site of the largest refugee camp in France. (The family has exquisitely polite relations with their North African household servants but refers to one of them as their "slave.") The main subjects are part of a family that owns and runs a construction business. Later it emerges that some years before Georges Laurent (Trintignant), head of the company, turned it over to his son to care for his wife, who was suffering from a painful illness, which he ended mercifully: he is thus almost the same character, and to prove it has the same first name, as in Amour. He seems not to have recovered mentally from that depressing experience. Now that he is old, though in good health, he just wants to die and keeps trying. But what about the other family members, what's their problem?

The business has an accident at a dig site. Typically we see it from a distance, apparently a large amount of dirt falling down off of something. Questions of responsibility for injuries are the main concern thereafter. Anne Laurent (Huppert) seems to do the main work of running the firm, another bustling supercompetent role like the one she played in Elle. Her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) seems involved too, but peripherally. An annoyance is Anne's grown son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who has a bad attitude, and seems to have been responsible for the dig site accident through his negligence. She wants to think he will take over management of the business, but he says he won't and can't. She sees him when he's just gotten beat up by someone, perhaps in the interests of the company, but he seems hopeless and depressed. So is the mother of Thomas' teenage daughter, Eve (Fantine Harduin), who as we're told a dozen times, is 13. We don't see her. She has taken an overdose of different kinds of pills and is in the hospital. Later, Eve takes an overdose. Earlier, Thomas says she should take two Halcyons and he's going to do the same, because it's bedtime. LIke many of today's bourgeois families, they're over-medicated.

If she survives, Eve might have a future as a hacker. At least she hacks into her father's accounts and spies on his cyber-sex with a third woman. Thomas isn't with Eve's mother anymore, but with Anaïs (Laura Verlinden). Eve is afraid of going into foster care because she knows her father doesn't love anyone, not her mother, not Anaïs, nor his cyber-girlfriend. He's also incapable of admitting this to the bluntly spoken Eve. But why would he tell his daughter something that should be reserved for a shrink?

Meanwhile a character who seems peripheral, an English businessman officially called Lawrence Bradshaw (Toby Jones) may be more important than we think, because he is lined up to marry Anne. But there is no love lost between them, and we see Bradshaw speaking only on the phone to someone about business, and he doesn't speak French. The film's truly important, if slow-growing, liaison is between Eve and Georges, the eldest and youngest in the cast. We already know she has tried to kill herself; in conversation with Georges she reveals that she tried to poison a classmate at school whom she didn't like. Or, not really; she just fed her pills given to calm her, but in growing doses, so she eventually keeled over. This will lead to a complicity between Eve and Georges in the final scene.

There's been a scene of a grand gathering, with many guests and a wild cello performance, in celebraton of Georges' birthday, he having survived one of several suicide attempts. The film ends with an even grander scene, for Anne's marriage to Bradshaw, with many people at multiple tables in a huge room surrounded by windows, very brightly lit, with all the family (and Bradshaw) at one table. This is supposed to be a shocker, an embarrassment: Pierre, the ne'er-do-well son, brings in a dozen or so scruffy looking African refugees. Several family members try to expel Pierre, but they wind up feeling obligated, belatedly, to offer the refugees places at the meal. Meanwhile Eve pushes George's wheelchair outside; he's injured from deliberately driving his car into a tree. This final sequence is first embarrassing, then creepy, then, somehow lame. (If you like the last shot, then the film works for you.) To say this is not Haneke's best is an understatement. It is the worse for containing elements of some of his best films, including Code Unknown as well as Amour.

Happy End, 107 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2017, showing in about two dozen subsequent international festivals. It opened in US theaters starting 22 Dec. Watched for this review at Film Forum 26 Dec. Metacritic rating 74%.

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