Michael Haneke’s Happy End is a ruthlessly pessimistic denunciation of the modern bourgeois European identity. It’s an ensemble piece centered around Eve (Fantine Harduin), a tight-lipped preteen who relocates to the home of her philandering father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), after her mother overdoses on antidepressants. Thomas and his sister, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), are scions of a wealthy construction family presided over by their suicidal, wheelchair-bound father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Against the backdrop of the “Calais Jungle” refugee crisis taking shape near the town’s waterfront, these characters perform in a kind of theater of the haute-elite, quietly crumbling beneath the façade of a healthy family life.
Things reach an irreversible breaking point, but to delineate the plot is to divulge Happy End’s thesis—and whatever pleasure there is to a film like this derives from the warping and unfurling of its neatly compartmentalized moral universe, the thrill of watching someone work in full command of their chosen vocabulary. Against Haneke’s prior work, the film’s key innovation is a mischievously bleak sense of humor. Unless you dismiss Happy End as another exercise in outright abjection, its best gags of family-on-family cruelty will run the risk of making you feel awful enough about the world that you might ask yourself if the 75-year-old auteur is, in fact, onto something.
In no small part thanks to a parody Twitter account recasting this most austere of European arthouse filmmakers as an ebullient stoner sharing cat memes, the distance between Haneke’s work and his in-person chipperness has been well-trod by now. We met on a crisp morning after the North American premiere of Happy End at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, and I found him an intimidatingly suave presence, with the regal countenance of a Viennese baron—or maybe a Bond villain.
For Michael Haneke, what is the value of film criticism?
[laughs] I ask myself the same question. If you’re lucky, it makes you aware of mistakes you’ve made. If you’re unlucky, you’re attacked for things you’ve done right. It’s really ambiguous.
There’s this notion of you as a provocateur, a scold, a punisher.
I don’t see myself as someone trying to punish the audience.
But nevertheless, this criticism endures. So what are the things you’ve done right that you’ve been attacked for?
When my work is misinterpreted, it’s not something I’m proud of. But you hear the reactions of critics—professional or amateur—and sometimes get the impression that what they’re saying has nothing to do with the film you’ve made. Often it happens that I go to see something after reading the reviews beforehand, and it’s as if I’m in a totally different film. Each spectator sees a different film. This is the problem: There’s not just a movie up on the screen, there are also all the different films taking place in the mind of each viewer. And if someone writes about your film in a way that has nothing to do with what you’ve made, it’s not too helpful for you as a filmmaker.
I tried not to read about Happy End before seeing it. I wanted to go in as pure as possible. So, this is the first time you’ve included phones and computers as crucial to your story—
Not the first time. Benny’s Video!
I meant chat softwares, specifically.
Oh, right. Because it’s not so old.
But there is indeed a lineage there.
I try to depict the society we live in today, which is impossible to describe without presenting the digital media that’s changed our lives so fundamentally. We are so present in it.
How do you decide what you will and won’t do in depicting the mindset of a 13-year-old girl, using a chat service on an iPhone?
I did a lot of research. I spent weeks on online forums. Print them out, and you have hundreds of pages of reading material.
Didn’t you use to work as a reader, going through stacks of TV scripts?
It’s not quite the same thing. Reading scripts, the material takes place within a certain tradition, whereas the online forums are a completely new medium.
As a dramatist, do you decide to use the chat, or the forum, as a means to an end? Or do the scenarios open up possibilities while you’re shooting?
When I’m writing, I’ve more or less laid down how a scene will be shot.
To use a different example. There’s a scene that lasts one shot, where Trintignant’s character approaches a group of African migrants. We can’t hear what he’s saying because the camera is stationed on the other side of the street, but it creates narrative momentum. Did the scene ever have dialogue? Or is it inseparable from the camera angle?
I wrote down that it would take place on a busy street with traffic going by. Before shooting, after writing, I storyboard everything. I am terrible at drawing, but at least it lets my crew know how I intend the scenes to look.
Do you have a revision process?
I very rarely rewrite. Sometimes it happens that you imagine a physical setting for a scene, but you can’t find the right place when you’re location scouting. That forces you to reinvent, to imagine a different scene. But in 50 scenes, that might happen once or twice. Sometimes you have to rewrite based on your actors as well. That was the case in the karaoke scene. I had simply written that there would be a karaoke scene, but once I’d chosen the actor, he couldn’t carry a tune. He was a terrible singer, but I wrote the scene for him, based on his physical presence. Sometimes you have to leave things open until you’ve completed casting. If you’re writing a script about a mountain climber and you cast an actor who’s afraid of heights, that’s a problem.
As with your earlier work, there’s a nagging conscience behind the film—a sense that the characters, and perhaps the moviegoers, are trying to put certain things out of mind. Pierre makes a scene by bringing the African migrants to his mother’s engagement party, creating a situation that can’t be ignored. We’re looking at an elite disparity, made as high-low as dramatic possible. Has the class divide widened in European society?
The son is simply using the migrants as a way to take vengeance on his mother, for having cut him out of the family company. So this is a scene about our willful ignorance of the world around us. I don’t think this is any different from how it was before, but we don’t like to face up to the problems around us and take responsibility, especially those for which we are to blame. I’m talking about the unwillingness of Europeans to confront the migrant crisis, and perhaps similarly, the United States’s unwillingness to deal with the legacy of slavery. We’re dealing with the harvest sown by our parents and grandparents. I am referring to colonialism specifically.
Which scene was hardest for you to shoot?
Well, for Jean-Louis, the ending wasn’t easy. In fact, that scene was stressful for all of us because we only had an hour where the tide would be at the right sea level, so we needed three days to shoot in which the weather was the same. The scene with the young girl in the car with her father was difficult. He’s driving in traffic, and the scene required her to cry at a certain point. It’s harder to work with children than with adult professionals.
Do you prefer to talk about theme? Or the mechanics of filmmaking?
The process. People are always trying to tempt me into delivering a user’s guide to interpreting my work, and I don’t want to give them that.
But how many possible interpretations really exist? The message is quite clear, in the end.
I have no message. I hate messages.
Can we say Happy End is less optimistic than Amour?
“Less optimistic.” That’s one interpretation. If that’s what you found, you’re right. Every interpretation is right. If I find it wrong, I’m also right.
But surely you can’t say that to your actors.
I can. I hate when actors want to discuss these things: “Why do I have to do it?” To me, if you do it well, it’s okay. If you don’t, I will tell you why it isn’t right. But don’t ask me why. I cast you, you be yourself, and that’s the best.
How do you know when it’s right or wrong?
Instinct! I have very good ears. I hear the slightest false tones and I can say, “The pause there is a 10th of a second too long.” With someone like Isabelle Huppert, it’s no problem: She’ll make the pause a little bit longer or shorter, and it’s done. [laughs]
Translation by Robert Gray