Austrian director Michael Haneke brings his new film, “Happy End,” to the 2017 Cannes Film Festival with a poster of a blue ocean, a French-language clip featuring glum dinner guests, and a wisp of a logline: A European bourgeois family is blind to the wider world around them, including the refugee crisis happening outside their door. But if it’s Haneke, what do we really need to know? This is the filmmaker whose last two films, “Amour” and “The White Ribbon,” won the Palme d’Or. And if this is Haneke, he doesn’t really do happy.
For all of the complexity of Haneke’s films and their refusal to dictate moral clarity, his worldview is consistent and straightforward. In Haneke’s world, society’s crimes and atrocities are not regretful footnotes of history; they prop up the lifestyles of his upper middle-class characters. His films are often constructed around scenarios in which this harsh reality invades the comfortable bubbles of their willfully blind existence.
It’s a theme taken to its narrative and formal extreme in “Caché” (“Hidden”), which premiered at Cannes in 2005 and solidified Haneke as a major international filmmaker of our time. Lofty television host George (Daniel Auteuil) and his book editor wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) receive anonymous surveillance tapes of the outside of their home, along with drawings of disturbing images. As the unnerved couple tries to decipher the threat and its source, the mystery deepens with as new tape emerges showing a decrepit apartment in George’s hometown.
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In”Caché,” the emergence of France’s historical sins – specifically, colonial and racist treatment of Algerians – is literal and direct. George’s search for the apartment in the video leads him to unearth suppressed events from his past: An Algerian couple worked for George’s family. After they were killed during the Paris Massacre of 1961, George abandoned their young son.
What’s fascinating about Haneke’s films is as the layers begin to unfold, we take part in a careful study of how his characters react to the unsettling revelations. George’s lies and pettiness grow as he refuses to confront a past that is haunting him. We are watching in real-time, and in a very personal manner, how France’s elite veils themselves from historical realities and passively continue the cycle of oppression.
And while Haneke’s carefully crafted scenarios create these inescapable confrontations for his shameful protagonists, his camera never gives the viewer a clear emotional outlet. This does not mean Haneke’s camera is a passive observer. In”Caché,” the film’s visual language increasingly becomes surveillance-like, mirroring the threatening videos George and Anne receive. George’s dreams and memories play upon this visual theme, while the film highlights how, as an influential TV host, he controls images at home and in the world. While the setup of Haneke’s films is simple and sharp, the answers are not.
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This leads to the film’s much-discussed final shot, in which the viewer must confront our role in this story. Haneke’s lead in “Happy End,” Isabelle Huppert – who first worked with Haneke on “The Piano Teacher” in 2001 – has described him as “a curious combination of Robert Bresson and Alfred Hitchcock.” That is to say: quietly observational, but constructing a structure in which the viewer’s voyeurism is implicated alongside the protagonists themselves.
Haneke is not afraid to break the fourth wall, forcing us to confront that we’re watching a European art film about the problems of the world and we’ll likely return to our comfortable lives as we leave the theater. Don’t think for a moment that he hasn’t considered that impact for the Cannes seaside premiere of “Happy End,” which is set in another French port city, Calais. Expect the audience of glamorously dressed rich and famous to concern themselves with whether this latest film will Haneke a record-setting third consecutive Palme d’Or.