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December 25, 2017
Conversation: Is ‘Happy End’ Haneke Gone Soft or Another Perversely Clever Entry in His Oeuvre?

To be a fan of Michael Haneke is a peculiar, if not rare, condition. The Austrian auteur has been singled out for his cruelty as a director, both to his subjects on screen and to his viewers. So to be a fan is to embrace the pain he inflicts. But in his later years, we are reaching a phase that, although still replete with his typical sadistic tropes, feels somehow more tender. Admittedly, Happy End does not end his streak of including at least one animal death (really, the ultimate transgression for desensitized audiences), but on sitting down to sort out their feelings about this recent entry in the master director’s oeuvre, Athena Bryan and Jose Solís, both self-professed fans, found themselves talking about the ease and beauty that animates this last film. The Haneke fan might love pain, but the momentary reprieves and the hints of closure in late Haneke are proving to be just as compelling.

Athena Bryan: Okay, well let's start very basically. I think this is definitely a divisive entry in Haneke's filmography. But not in the way that his earlier, more 'sadistic' movies were. I get the sense that people didn't get into it because it felt overcooked, or like he'd done it before. So basically, how did you like it?

Jose Solís: I have a huge Haneke bias, so maybe I'm the wrong person to ask. I agree that it's very Haneke and nothing in it feels exactly fresh, but - perhaps because it's 2017 - even seeing a movie about a family who wants to die felt like comfort food.

Athena Bryan: Haha, I have the same bias, I think. There were more shots in this movie, I think, that sort of made me sit back in my chair, and feel in awe, than I've seen in all of the other movies this year. But I think that everyone can agree that he has that perfect technique. It sort of goes without saying. On that note, I was almost jarred at first by the opening credits with the cellphone video. It almost worried me that I would be denied my Haneke visuals.

Jose Solís: He certainly loves telling stories through screens that one! Even in Amour, which is arguably about people who might not necessarily be comfortable with technology, the windows in their apartment act like screens of sorts. Did you find the screens in this one as creepy as the ones in Caché?

Athena Bryan: Hmm, only at the beginning, I think. See, that's the thing with this movie. So many of the elements can be directly linked to his previous work. The menacing films within the film. The sadomasochistic musician. Questionably ethical euthanasia. With this degree of repetition, I have to believe that it's not a mistake. That it's not just a case of an aged director finding that he is repeating himself. But then that suggests the sad possibility that this is sort of consciously his last movie, and that he's doing a little recap for his final statement. I haven't read a lot of his press around the movie (because I wanted to go in blind) so I'm not sure if he's indicated anything of the sort. But it does have that feeling to it -- of being the last work.

Jose Solís: Hush!

Athena Bryan: Haha

Jose Solís: But also did you notice Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a character named Georges Laurent, which is the name of Jean-Louis Trintignant's character in Amour! I wondered if it was some sort of spiritual companion to his previous works too, like are all the characters/themes/ideas playing in Haneke heaven?

Athena Bryan: Right, but he's always been naming his characters George. I think looking too closely into the degree to which it is a straight 'sequel' will lead you astray of the point. It seemed more to me to exist in the universe -- in the universe he's been building this whole time. I think Haneke heaven is a good way to put it, and kind of a great way of describing this movie. It's not heaven by any standard understanding of the word, but it is heaven by the standards of being a very Haneke movie. I do have to say though that one way in which this diverged from a lot of his work was the way it kept knitting itself together as the movie progressed. It all fit so well. I think with early films like White Ribbon and Cache, you have this feeling of 'it's going to all come together, something's going to happen' and then he doesn't *quite* do it is a major frustration/exhilaration of watching his films. But here, it sort of fell unexpectedly into place as you go, even though it feels sparse and disorienting at first.

Jose Solís: Right, the poster is the most unsettling element in this one. Can it be then that we're seeing him become softer? You're right, this is the first of his films where I didn't feel like having Xanax and a martini afterward. In a strange way, I left the theater feeling peace. I was also very moved by the love story between Isabelle Huppert and Toby Jones's characters. I kept wondering when they would stab each other or have kinky intercourse, but it was all so sweet and tender.

Athena Bryan: Again, we should make it clear that we're talking 'Haneke soft', but yeah, that really is what I'm coming to think about it. Because even if Huppert and Jones have something good going, it's not like Huppert plays a totally docile character. When push comes to shove, she does something horrible to somebody's hand... So, there's still that. I think the element that I'm still trying to figure out is the granddaughter, Eve. I don't know how spoiler-y we are trying to get here but... she killed her mom, right? Am I the only one who is... trying to deal with that?

Jose Solís: She totally did, but I liked how rather than going all The Bad Seed on us, Haneke allows her to find her rightful place in a family that craves death. It's like by being a murderer, she finds she's not alone. That's as heartwarming as Haneke's ever going to get. Also, RIP hamster.

Athena Bryan: Haha, it was interesting to see how the generations got along with each other. In some ways it was the archetypical story of wealth. The grandparents make it all, the children do their best and sort of muddle around, and by the time you get to the grandchildren, they're completely useless. I feel like that's a stereotype that floats around out there, or maybe that's just me, or just an immigrant mythology. But in any case, that was hinted at here, but what was more interesting about the progression from one generation to another was the degree or manifestation of their violence. I thought the middle generation of Huppert and Kasovitz were sort of monsters, whereas their children were more outwardly destructive, but at least seemed to be connected to their pain.

Jose Solís: I'd love to see that family's holiday card! Where would you rank this in the Haneke oeuvre? Is it in the Amour/Cache tier, or American Funny Games?

Athena Bryan: I don't know if we have the same tiers... I go hard for The Piano Teacher.

Jose Solís: Let's do a quick-ish ranking then! I love lists!  1. Amour 2. The Piano Teacher 3. Caché 4. The White Ribbon 5. Benny's Video

Athena Bryan: 1. The Piano Teacher 2. Amour 3. The White Ribbon 4. Cache 5. I don't know, up for grabs! I'd say it's those four that I am obsessed with, so we agree on that, for sure.

Jose Solís: Give Happy End the fifth slot then!

Athena Bryan: Amour devastated me, and Happy End definitely didn't. Not to say it was supposed to, but in terms of immediate visceral reactions, the last shot of this one made me laugh a little. I need to get back to Eve though. I think there's a very simplistic level on which you can read this which says, "Kids these days! They're dangerous with their smartphones!" But I really don't think that's what it's about... On the other hand, I'm trying to figure out if there is hope for the future in this movie.

Jose Solís: Gasp. It just dawned on me her name is "Eve"! I could literally spend all month talking crazy Haneke theories and I am forever grateful he exists just because of that.

Athena Bryan: Hadn't thought of that either...

Jose Solís: We could be here all night!

Happy End is now in theaters.


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