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Michael Haneke Says He’s Not ‘Dark’ but If ‘Happy End’ Disturbs, That’s Your Problem

The Austrian auteur has a lot to say about the world today, whether or not audiences are paying attention.

Michael Haneke

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Michael Haneke received worldwide acclaim and two Oscar nominations for his tragic romance “Amour,” the mesmerizing tale of an elderly couple facing the inevitable specter of death. Though downbeat in the Haneke fashion, “Amour” also registered as the Austrian filmmaker’s most emotionally accessible work. His followup, “Happy End,” found a more mixed response — and yet, for serious Haneke devotees, it should hit all the right buttons. Still, Haneke remains such a singular director that, 30 years into his career, he continues to challenge even his greatest devotees.

For those among us, “Happy End” delivers one of the most enjoyably twisted movies of Haneke’s career. The story of a dysfunctional bourgeois family where self-loathing and suicidal thoughts loom large, it’s a profoundly cynical work so incisive that it renewed a once-familiar element in Haneke’s career trajectory: divisiveness. Following the filmmaker’s back-to-back Palme d’Or wins for “Amour” and “The White Ribbon,” he went home empty handed with “Happy End.”

“I’m not concerned about audience expectations,” Haneke told me at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I don’t find that my reputation is accurate — I don’t see myself as this sort of dark auteur. I think my works are realistic. I’m concerned with holding up a mirror to society.”

Isabelle Huppert, Michael Haneke and Jean-Louis Trintignant'Happy End' photocall, 70th Cannes Film Festival, France - 22 May 2017

Isabelle Huppert, Michael Haneke and Jean-Louis Trintignant at the ‘Happy End’ photocall, 2017 Cannes Film Festival

David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

That mirror may be too close for comfort. In dealing with the alienating powers of wealth, class and social media, Haneke calls bullshit on the one percent better than most liberal activists. Though it did become Austria’s Oscar submission, audiences have largely regarded “Happy End” as a kind of reductive Haneke self-homage. The film deserves better and, as it opens in limited release December 22 ahead of national expansion, it should be considered among some of the more probing works over the past year.

“Happy End” is a sharp, perceptive indictment of modern times, and therein lies the rub: Who wants to watch another story about obnoxious rich people isolated from the world’s biggest problems? However, “Happy End” burrows inside this world and deconstructs it from the inside.There’s much to absorb about the bitter Laurent family, from the crude assertiveness of family patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, riffing on a variation of his “Amour” character), to the sullen attitude of his daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who runs the family construction business with icy confidence while her grown son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) sulks around the house with a silver spoon in his mouth.

“Happy End”

Pierre is sick of his family’s luxurious world and, finding no better outlet for his frustrations, he decides to take a moral high ground by calling out the persecution of the immigrant staff at posh events, humiliating dinner guests. His holier-than-thou position makes him at once a voice of reason and a walking contradiction, as he calls out the privilege that sustains his existence. Haneke’s script balances this boorish figure with one of his most intriguing characters in years —  Georges’ 10-year-old granddaughter Eve (Fantine Harduin), who secretly uploads her family’s dysfunction online.

The family’s various passive-aggressive exchanges collide in the jolting finale, when one man’s death wish becomes another person’s online video diary. The final minutes are some of the very best in Haneke’s career, culminating with an iPhone image that suggests even the worst aspects of human nature can be reduced to a viral video punchline.

“The whole thing is a farce,” Haneke said. “I wanted to show how people in first world countries deal, or don’t deal, with the problems facing the rest of the world.”

And so the 75-year-old filmmaker finds a cogent metaphor in a young child for whom the family’s insular existence is little more than content for her online audience. “Scores and scores of young kids between the ages of 10 and 14 record their confessions and publish them online,” he said. “If you used to go to a coffee shop, you’d see everyone talking. Now everyone’s looking down…The internet has, to some extent, replaced the confessional. We confess online.”

Haneke scripted the drama in direct response to “Amour,” which wields powerful emotional insights into the dying process. “I wanted a more realistic ending than what we see in ‘Amour,’ which is more of a metaphor,” he said.

Ever since “Funny Games,” critics have complained that Haneke displays contempt for his characters, but he insists much of that perception comes from projection. “They’re not so terrible,” he said. “It’s just that in their everyday lives, their relationships are complicated.”

Another way of putting it: “Happy End” positions his affluent relatives as slipping on the banana peel of their wealth, and relishes the opportunity to show that they’ve become victims of their lifestyle. “People react to it because I’m spoiling their fun — they want to be able to enjoy it,” he said. “I forbid them that. Then I get this rap of being such a violent filmmaker, and I find that grotesque.” But didn’t he just say that he’s not a gloomy filmmaker? “I simply present things the way they are,” Haneke said.

“Happy End” certainly derives some of its ferocious edge from observations about the prevailing powers of the Western world. “The way that people are elected now is that populists come to power,” he said. “It would’ve been inconceivable for Trump to become president without the internet and the media presence that allowed him to become popular. It’s the populists who have obtained power by playing to our fears and gaining greater importance. Unfortunately, there are uneducated, complete idiots who have the right to vote and their fears are preyed on by politicians.”

To some extent, “Happy End” peers beyond some of the mortifying headlines about Trump and his colleagues to offer a more acerbic look at the intimate roots of their dispositions. “The only television show that I find the least bit believable,” Haneke said, “is the weather report.”

“Happy End” opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 22, with a national expansion to follow in 2018. 

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