The Discreet Harm of the Bourgeoisie




MICHAEL HANEKE’S Happy End begins and ends with a girl’s cell phone recording of a family member’s impending death. The girl, Eve (Fantine Harduin), is not just the cinematographer of these death scenes — she has also helped bring them about. In the first video, her mother is shown lying on the living room couch, severely drugged by her daughter. In the second, her grandfather, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), sits in a wheelchair halfway submerged in the ocean, where Eve has helped place him. In the first video, Eve declares on camera, via a Snapchat-like app, that she is about to call for medical help to rescue her mother from the poisoning to which she, using the same device, had just confessed. In the second video, help comes from other family members — Georges’s two children, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), who is Eve’s father, and Anne (Isabelle Huppert), her aunt — who suddenly enter the cell phone camera’s narrow frame. In what turns out to be the film’s final shot, we see them rushing toward the shoreline. Anne briefly turns her head and looks in the direction of Eve’s phone. This look possibly signals her bewilderment as to why her niece has decided to film her grandfather drown rather than pulling him ashore. Or it could simply indicate her inadvertent acknowledgment that she, too, is now on camera.

Everything we have learned about Anne by film’s end — especially her internalized sense that even the smallest gesture invites judgment — makes this second reading rather compelling. Still, viewers familiar with Haneke’s cinema know better than to expect clear answers to Happy End’s final shot. Its ambiguity is the latest example of this director’s open-ended, tantalizing exploration of the fraught tension between a given image and its contexts. But trying to make sense of Haneke’s images not only means pondering the world in which they are embedded. It means questioning our assumptions about this world, its characters, and ourselves as viewers.

Whatever their differences and specificities, Haneke’s 1992 dark family drama Benny’s Video, his perfidious horror spoof Funny Games (made in 1997 and remade in the United States in 2007), and his 2005 suspense thriller Caché all proffer sustained meditations on how our relation to reality is irreversibly shaped by film, video, and television. With Happy End, Haneke subsumes computers, cell phones, and social media into his films’ self-reflexive mediascapes, though Eve’s smartphone camerawork had an earlier origin. As he has stated in recent interviews, Eve’s story line was already part of a project titled Flashmob that was slated for production as the follow-up film to his 2012 Oscar-winning drama Amour. He was forced to abort the project for various reasons, but decided to salvage Eve’s story as one part of Happy End’s multi-strain ensemble drama.

The film’s commentary on “new media” is only one of its facets, but it is integral to its larger concerns. Asking who uses and consumes these images, and exploring the limits of what they can and cannot show, aids Haneke in pursuing larger questions about personal guilt and political conscience, about what distinguishes genuine from pro forma care, and about the various pressures and dilemmas that come with assuming responsibility both for one’s loved ones and for society as a whole. Eve’s two cell phone recordings thus bookend and visually comment on a story that is both about an individual family — the well-to-do but decidedly unhappy haute bourgeois Laurents — and about European society as a whole, with its political crises, social problems, and ideological hypocrisies.

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Trouble for the Laurents’ family-run construction company in Calais begins after a worker suffers serious injuries in the collapse of one of their building pits. The news reaches Anne, whom her father has entrusted with running the company, on her way to England, where she wants to see Lawrence (Toby Jones), her British lover and business partner, through whom she hopes to secure a loan to save the ailing firm. On her way to the tunnel connecting France and England, she drives along a seemingly endless barrier. It is one of the fences of the “jungle,” one of Europe’s largest and most notorious camps for African refugees hoping to reach the United Kingdom. Walls and windows figure prominently throughout Happy End. They keep people from connecting to each other. In fact, the film treats them as extensions of the characters in front of or behind them. “You expect me to turn around?!” Anne hisses into the phone at her son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who has alerted her to the construction worker’s critical state.

The link that exists between Anne’s self-absorbed attitude and the fence of the “jungle” may seem a bit heavy-handed, but this impression dissipates as we come to find out more about Anne. She does decide to cancel her meeting and turn around, but her own walls remain firmly in place. Anne is a classic character out of the cabinet of Mr. Haneke: she has learned to care without giving a damn. This is not necessarily to say that she is cold-hearted (which, in any case, is not a quality that has ever interested Haneke much). Anne is perhaps worse off: she is afflicted by what in the Haneke universe has come to be known as “glaciation” — a state of being so alienated from oneself and others that one appears to be emotionally frozen over. Haneke’s glaciated characters are functional, but only in the mechanical sense. They are watchful, but don’t understand what they see. Most importantly, they are on emotional autopilot without realizing it.

Anne’s brother, Thomas, behaves just like his sister. A successful medical doctor, he divorced Eve’s mother to marry the naïve Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), with whom he has just had another child, while carrying on an affair with a musician (Hille Perl). He and his sister go through the motions of caring for their increasingly senile father, whom they regard as an imposition to be endured for the sake of maintaining the family’s public image and internal peace. That this peace is brittle and the family’s image a facade becomes clear in scenes showing the clan having dinner in their mansion, struggling to make conversation or engaging in passive-aggressive behavior. After discovering her father’s erotic emails to the musician, Eve tries to commit suicide out of fear her father will leave again and place her in a foster home. Having tried to kill her mother who, the film suggests, was already suicidal herself, Eve comes to realize that they both suffer from the same problem — a lack of love from Thomas, who is gentle but distant and spurts platitudes.

Haneke treats the way Anne and Thomas run their lives as symptomatic of modern society. In contrast to his films from the 1990s, however, which put glaciation front and center, his French films have combined this analysis with a depiction of more traditional bourgeois hypocrisy. In Happy End, this combination becomes especially clear in the way that each sibling negotiates the tension between the personal and the professional. At first glance, Anne’s decision to strategically integrate these aspects of her life by marrying her banker seems to present a stark contrast to the secrecy with which Thomas treats his extramarital affair. This impression changes, however, when it becomes clear that Thomas has no intention of letting his erotic life disrupt his professional success and status as a family father. Discreteness, if mastered well, is another form of integrating the personal and professional. Does Thomas stay with his wife because he does not really love his mistress, or does he not have a mistress he loves because he does not want to incur the hassle of leaving yet another wife? Either way, Thomas closely resembles his sister in that each refuses to regard relations to other human beings as anything other than contractual.

Anne and Thomas are no monsters. This is how they cope with the world. Others cope less efficiently. Pierre, for example, sees himself as the black sheep of the family. He remains unreceptive to his mother’s perfunctory doting on him and resists being groomed to take over the family business. His ill-fated efforts on behalf of the firm and his petty acts of rebellion are fodder for both tragedy and comedy. At his mother’s behest, he visits the family of the injured worker to make amends, only to receive a thrashing from their son. The resulting pains impede his break-dancing skills, making him fail at the only thing he cares about. He takes revenge against his family by confronting them and their guests with their colonialist legacy at two family functions. During Georges’s 85th birthday celebration, he parades the family’s cook, Jamila (Nabiha Akkari), in front of the guests, introducing her as “our Moroccan slave.” He disrupts Anne and Lawrence’s engagement dinner by bringing a group of African refugees to crash the party, for which Anne, true Haneke character that she is, momentarily bares her violent underside and breaks one of her son’s fingers. Needless to say, the real victims are Jamila and the refugees, who are put on display solely to serve Pierre’s petty vengeance.

Finally, there is Georges, the family patriarch, who built up the company but who, at life’s end, is left with a sense of emptiness that fuels his own suicide plans. First, he crashes his car into a tree at full speed (a reference to one of Haneke’s early TV films, Lemmings); later, he begs his barber to obtain pills or a gun for him. When Georges approaches a group of Africans on the street, Haneke withholds information as to the exact nature of his solicitation, but places it in the context of the old man’s attempts to enlist help to kill himself. While most of Haneke’s French films, regardless of their individual stories, name their central characters Georges and Anne Laurent, the Georges of Happy End is a direct reference to the Georges of Amour, likewise played by Trintignant. Haneke’s declared intention has been to use Happy End to create an alternative ending for Amour that pursues in more realistic detail what happens after Georges kills his terminally ill wife (Amour has a non-realist, quasi-fantastic ending).

In this film, we learn about the mercy killing during a private conversation between Georges and Eve in which both trade personal stories. This is one of the few scenes in the film that shows characters “getting through” to each other, having meaningful exchanges. Georges is onto Eve. Sensing that she is not yet dead inside like the other family members, he coaxes a confession out of her that nominally revolves around a story of her drugging a schoolmate, but that is an indirect admission of her attempt on her mother’s life. Given the harshness and austerity of Haneke’s universe of cold stares and minimal monstrations of affection, what develops between Georges and his granddaughter deserves, with some caution, to be called a bond. They both realize they have had close brushes with death and killing. This prompts Georges to ask Eve to help him commit suicide. At Anne’s engagement party, which takes place at a seaside restaurant, Georges uses the general distraction caused by Pierre’s introduction of the Africans to sneak out and have Eve wheel him down a boat ramp. Once they reach the edge of the water, he releases her. She moves back up the ramp and watches him for a moment before pulling out her phone to film him, as he pushes himself lap-deep into the ocean in an effort to drown himself.

This brings us again to the film’s final image. Banal yet fraught with meaning, it functions, like so many other Haneke images, as a sort of visual haiku in which the filmmaker has enfolded all that concerns him in telling this story. Reading Haneke’s images means setting free a potentially endless play of contrasting and contradictory implications, a game of questioning that involves an element of self-questioning: Is Eve’s decision to record her grandfather an expression of commemorating respect for the elder’s wish to die that would make her behavior a (however unconventional) form of care? Or is her almost still video the result of a stalled conflict between foiling George’s death wish and supporting him in it? Those who prefer to regard Haneke as a skeptic of modern media may be tempted to read Eve’s cell phone as a pacifier of sorts, to which she clings in the face of dealing with things over which she has no power. Others may take her urge to film her family to be the most apposite form of confession, however ephemeral, in our digital media age.

Eve’s recordings are mere flashes that say little about the one who triggered them. The invisibility of most filmmakers and the anonymity of the great majority of viewers — which are built-in features of the cinematic medium — have long been identified by critics as being at the center of Haneke’s work. Such earlier Haneke films as Code Unknown (2000) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) confronted viewers with the implications of consuming violent and unsettling mass media content from a safe distance. Happy End explores similar questions with regard to the images shared via cell phones and social media. Many of its scenes inscribe a given character’s point of view, but these characters’ motivations for looking, their ability to react to what they see, and the extent to which they admit to their own viewing position vary from scene to scene. It is no coincidence that turning around — whether to face the camera, to reverse course, or both — becomes one of the film’s central thematic and visual tropes. It is what haunts Anne on her way to England after learning about the accident and it is what she does in Eve’s second video, however fleetingly and ambiguously. Eve, too, turns around several times. Watching her mother undergo treatment through the window of an intensive care ward, she is asked whether she knew about her mother’s use of pills. She turns toward the camera and says no. This is the first time we see her face. The last time we see it is after she has moved back up the boat ramp and turns around to view her grandfather in the water.

The film inevitably prompts us to compare Eve’s two cell phone videos, but, in doing so, it asks us to divorce what we see within the frame from what we learn about Eve and her family in the course of the film. Does Eve’s recording of Georges register a different intention from her recording of her mother, for whom she initially had so much contempt? With its sparse style belying its formal sophistication, Happy End, like all of Haneke’s films, slowly and subtly weaves its scenes into a web of intriguing parallels, tantalizing reciprocities, and near-symmetries, in which the smallest change can make a huge difference. Building this web while drawing attention to the shifting relation between images and their contexts is Haneke’s form of media pedagogy. He makes the same point in more than one way. Anne and Thomas’s rushing across Eve’s cell phone frame to save Georges may seem ironic, given all we have learned about their limited capacity for genuine empathy. Within the confines of that frame, however, they fully acquit themselves of any bourgeois hypocrisy. In other words, the frame undermines any distinction between true and feigned care. Its visuals disavow any kind of solidarity with the impassive object in the water. Anything else is speculation; everything else is up to viewers to debate.

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Too vague to be message movies, yet far too committed and concrete for l’art pour l’art, do Haneke’s films, in their refusal to provide answers to the political questions they imply, show a streak of opportunistic waffling? Or does a loosely conceived political frame of reference spur rather than impede viewers’ debate? For example, Happy End’s setting, Calais, and its notorious refugee camp overdetermine a political interpretation. Yet Haneke has emphasized that the film is not “about” African refugees. One German critic has nonetheless interpreted their presence in the film as heralds of doom — as Europe’s repressed others, the inheritance of 19th-century colonialism. This period lives on in Europe’s fortress mentality, which is matched by the fortress-like facades and callous disaffection of the Laurents. Their haute bourgeois style may seem more “old Europe” than 21st century, but their guilt, their defensiveness, and their refusal to assume responsibility for each other and for the world that has allowed them to thrive is contemporary.

Happy End’s most explicit takedown of the Laurents’ genteel image occurs in a scene that shows them seeking an out-of-court settlement with the family of the injured worker. Predictably, the money that the Laurents offer the worker’s wife is a pittance. What makes the scene interesting is its visual design. The meeting is hosted by the Laurents’ lawyer, but his solitary placement across the table from both parties makes him appear like a judge. Having internalized the continent’s long-standing political rhetoric of social responsibility and class solidarity, the Laurents know how to pass themselves off as supporting justice and objectivity.

It is hard not to interpret Happy End as political critique, but the near-symmetry of the two videos that bookend the film is characteristic of Haneke’s larger interest in using cinema to unleash a play of form that is utopian by virtue of its very openness. This utopia has no stable referents. For instance, while the ocean figures prominently in the film and in its poster, it has no unified meaning. It is a polysemic plane whose antithetical implications make it recede into abstractness, a bit like the image of a beach shown on the faded poster at the beginning of Haneke’s first theatrical feature, The Seventh Continent (1989). Notwithstanding their bleakness and their determination to cast utopia in negative terms, Haneke’s films encourage us to keep searching for meaning, and this spells hope. This search is also a pleasure.

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Roy Grundmann teaches Film Studies at Boston University. He is the author of Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), the editor of A Companion to Michael Haneke (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) and of Werner Schroeter (Vienna: Synema, 2018), and a co-editor of Michael Haneke: Interviews (forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi) and of The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, Vols. 1-4 (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). 


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