Michael Haneke’s most recent film opens as a kind of spiritual sequel to Hidden, although, this time around, we’re presented with three very different kinds of image. First, we have a series of SmartPhone clips, accompanied by text commentaries, which set up the central narrative of the film: a young girl poisons her mother with her own anti-depressants after feeling abandoned by her in the wake of her divorce. Second, we have a single, sustained shot from a security camera, depicting a building site that sits, for a while, in quotidian banality, until a massive collapse of one of the walls causes chaos and leads an unseen observer to intone “Fuck” before presumably rushing out to inspect the damage. Third, we have a more traditional cinematic shot, from the back seat of a car, as Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert), makes her way to inspect the accident. In this shot, which lasts for some time, the SmartPhone is front and centre, and seems to denude any semblance of texture both outside the car, where all we can see is an endless freeway bounded on either side by noise barriers, and inside the car, where Anne moves so seamlessly between French and English that we could be in either country.
Whereas Hidden seemed to gesture towards some inexorable limit of even the digital camera, then, Happy End has well and truly exceeded that point. In fact, Happy End made me realise how much Haneke has been trying to dodge this prospect since making Hidden, reverting to a more stylised and historicised cinematic aesthetic with The White Ribbon, rebooting one of his earlier, more classically cinematic efforts with Funny Games and, finally, approaching some traumatic apprehension of lateness and irrelevance with Amour. All of these films were, in some sense, lines of flight from the stark implications of Hidden, but by returning once again to the bourgeois family drama Haneke has forced himself to confront the possible irrelevance of his own camera in the worlds that it once so artfully skewered. As a result, Happy End feels like something of a dead end in Haneke’s work, a reckoning with cinematic mortality that makes for a natural counterpart to Amour even if it plays more of a stylistic sequel to Hidden. To that end, Haneke adopts a kind of anti-style, or counter-style, characterised by long, still, shots that are devoid of any non-diegetic sound or music, although the effect isn’t exactly of silence so much as a perennial, subambient hum that remains just below the camera’s threshold of perception and cognition.
As we move from scene to scene, then, and this dysfunctional family drama unfolds – divorces, suicide, poisonings, shady business dealings – there’s no discernible change in the soundscape between one space and the next, or between one point in time and the next. Similarly, despite the presence of Toby Jones as Lawrence Bradshaw, Anne’s lover and business manager, the shifts between English and French aren’t all that discernible either, just because both languages subsist upon – and are swallowed up by – a barely perceptible white noise that is more emphatic than anything the film can say or show. In that sense, sound plays much more of a role than imagery in Happy End, to the point where the sound – or eerie absence of it – works to undercut the images, removing the camera to a much more remote vantage point than in Hidden, with many of the critical exchanges occurring in the far distance, separated from the audience by a plane of white noise. Unlike, say, in Renoir or Godard, however, the result isn’t exactly an alienation effect but a more radical inscrutability and a disarmingly frank admission of the camera’s irrelevance, with the action seeming to require some other perceptual lens to be fully accessible or comprehensible.
While this is ostensibly a family drama, then, even the most classical bourgeois spaces have lost all sense of being separated or sequestered from the “outside” world, as have even the most residually bourgeois notions of individual subjectivity. With every scene exhibiting the same, fluid sense of movement or momentum, there’s no sense of any net movement, or any progression – just a continual, barely perceptible flux that somehow taps into the Calais backdrop more than any conventional depiction of streetscapes or port activity ever could. At times, it is almost as if Haneke is outlining a world that defies either written or visual language, with both dialogue and imagery perpetually undercut by the mild ambience that forces its way into the most private spaces, encounters and moments. Time and again, I noticed how deftly Haneke orchestrated the slight murmur of a car off in the distance, and yet the effect isn’t exactly one of cinematic atmospherics so much as an awareness of a diurnal, circadian hum and murmur that is bound to always seem peripheral, and to always be relegated to the remote distance, when seen – and heard – from within the camera.
As might be expected, Haneke quickly reaches a point at which he has to collapse his lens into interfaces and images that defy the singular, privileged position of the cinematic camera, with a great deal of the film taking place through SmartPhones, Facebook chats and impersonal security and news footage. While this has become par for the course in recent cinema, what distinguishes Happy End is the way in which this gesture is strangely shorn of any auteurism, as if Haneke were acknowledging that the convergence of his camera with these other devices is something of a foregone conclusion, but that this doesn’t render his camera – or himself as director – any more incisive or closer to the centre of things in the process either. Whereas Hidden was exploratory, then, Happy End is resigned, which is perhaps why it feels like a fitting end to Haneke’s directorial output. Similarly, while the title clearly can be read sarcastically, or cynically, you can also parse it in different ways, since it genuinely feels as if Haneke is happy to be at the end of this long devolution of his camera, and relieved to arrive at the end of this film in particular.
For all those reasons, then, Happy End is a hard film to embrace, just because it is so quietly, reservedly nihilistic, even or especially when it appears to be commenting on the political climate and atmosphere of Europe at present (in that sense, it’s an interesting counterpoint to Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope, another portside drama which I saw on the same day at the Sydney Film Festival). It’s also a strange film to see as an English viewer, not simply because of how radically it discards any putative difference between English and French, but because the very nature of the film means that there is no stable relation between word and image when it comes to the process of subtitling. As Haneke shifts between conventional dialogue, Facebook messages and SmartPhone comments, the subtitles need to continually occupy a different position on the screen and to be formatted and framed in different ways. At times, they are almost unreadable, especially in the opening SmartPhone images, where they are squeezed to the bottom of the screen, white-on-white, only to bleed back into the screen of the SmartPhone itself, leaving the viewer scrambling to make sense of the most critical narrative crux of the entire film before it’s over.
At a literal level, then, Happy End is a film that refuses to be read. More generally, it’s a film that speaks more to audiences who don’t speak the language of the director, which of course means that it’s also a film that speaks more to audiences without any real literacy or background in cinematic language itself. Watching it, then, I wondered whether Haneke had in some sense made a film for the future, or a film for the futurity that already exists within the present moment, since this is also a film that is almost desperate to be disassembled and deconstructed into a series of social media moments and iterable fragments, with the clickbaity digital incongruities that pop up periodically amidst this ostensibly bourgeois narrative providing some kind of clue as to how we might appropriate the film as a whole. In that sense, Happy End is a profoundly self-abnegating and self-destructive gesture on Haneke’s part, which is perhaps why I found it difficult to fully embrace it – or found it so resistant to being embraced – but why I have continued to find it strangely resonant as well.