Monday 23 September 2019

More angst from the king of pain

He's one of the greatest directors of his generation - but Michael Haneke's films are rarely easy to watch

Peerless: Isabelle Huppert and Michael Haneke reunite for Happy End. Photo: Michael Buckner
Peerless: Isabelle Huppert and Michael Haneke reunite for Happy End. Photo: Michael Buckner
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

The IFI's French Film Festival is in full swing, and over the next week or so, movie-goers in the greater Dublin area will be treated to a peek at all that's best in that country's cinema. The undoubted highlight for me, though, comes this Wednesday night, when Michael Haneke's latest film will receive its first Irish screening.

A kind of companion piece to his 2012 film, Amour, Happy End tells the story of a Calais construction dynasty who live in a vast town house that turns out to be seething with resentments and despair. Isabelle Huppert is Anne Laurent, inheritor of the family building business who's attempting to bully her useless son into toeing the line when an on-site accident threatens the entire enterprise.

Anne's elderly father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is tired of life, and plotting suicide. He may not have to do the job himself, because when his teenage granddaughter Eve arrives in Calais, she already has a taste for killing. In the film's opening sequence, we listened to Eve's disembodied voice describing how she'd used anti-depressants to poison first the pet hamster, then her mother.

Why did she do it? We never really find out: she looks angelic, but seems dangerously dissociated, and as soon as Georges figures this out, he begs her to help him end it all. Happy End will be released here on December 1.

Sounds thoroughly miserable, doesn't it, but somehow Haneke's elegant visual storytelling makes even the most grotesque human actions and experiences watchable, and then there's that sly and nihilistic sense of humour which underlays almost all his work. When the peerless Isabelle ­Huppert breaks her son's finger in order to stop him acting out at her wedding lunch, she immediately turns to give her guests - and us - an indulgent, reassuring smile. It's a funny moment in a thoroughly chilling film. Haneke came to film-making relatively late, and arguably only reached his creative peak in his 60s, when films like The Piano Teacher and Caché earned him a stellar international reputation and made him a favourite at Cannes. He's won the Palme d'Or twice, and has earned his place among the truly great film-makers of the last half century or so.

He's not easy to love, though. Like Yorgos Lanthimos, Haneke seems intent on proving how fragile is the veneer of human civilisation, like Lars von Trier he's not afraid to shock, and like Alfred Hitchcock he has a rare genius for wordlessly conveying the deeper motivations of human nature.

Unlike Hitchcock though, Haneke rejects the neat solutions and pay-offs of conventional thrillers, and often leaves his audiences wondering what might have happened next. As Juliette Binoche, who starred in Caché, has said: "He likes to provoke: film for him is an active medium, not a sedative one - he wants to wake you up."

Viewers of Haneke's films are expected to participate, and meet the story halfway, rather than sitting back and being spoon-fed pat solutions. Doing so is not always easy: Michael Haneke claims to have "a horror of all violence", but his films contain more than their fair share of nastiness. In Funny Games, for example, which he made twice for some strange reason, two well-spoken young men talk their way into the household of a wealthy family, then torture and kill them all, apparently for their own amusement.

But even if Haneke's films are sometimes hard to watch, they repay careful viewing in spades, and a few are as good as anything I've seen in the last two or three decades.

Critics like to link Haneke's obsession with human suffering and hidden shame with his early childhood in Nazi Germany. Born in Munich in 1942, but raised across the border in Austria, his earliest memories were of a country struggling to recover from the shame of the Anschluss, and wartime defeat. He noticed how efficiently his fellow countrymen and women seemed to forget that they had been allies rather than victims of Hitler's regime. He later described Austrians "as world champions at sweeping things under the carpet", and it was a talent Haneke became determined never to acquire.

Both his parents were well-known stage actors, and his father, Fritz Haneke, left when Michael was small. He was raised by his mother, his aunt and his maternal grandmother.

As a teenager he became interested in music, but stopped studying the piano because "there is nothing more depressing than a mediocre musician". His acting aspirations would also be cruelly dashed, and after leaving university, he was forced to take up that last refuge of scoundrels - film criticism. In the early 1970s, he moved into television, and in 1974 made his directorial debut in a strange drama called After Liverpool, in which a couple talk a lot without ever actually managing to communicate.

He made his film début in 1989, with Seventh Continent. In it, a professional couple become profoundly discontented with their affluent lifestyle, and kill themselves and their daughter.

Hanake was delighted by the outraged reaction when the film was screened at Cannes, and amused by the fact that the scene which seemed to incense them most was the sight of wads of cash being flushed down the toilet.

Through the 1990s, Haneke refined his aesthetic, and continued exposing bourgeois hypocrisies and the glaring disparity between how we see ourselves and who we actually are. In Benny's Video, a couple decide to cover up the fact that their death-obsessed son has killed a teenage friend; in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, various characters converge on a Viennese bank, where all will be murdered; and Code Unknown explored bourgeois contempt for homeless immigrants in Paris.

Haneke's films asked hard questions about human nature, and made for uncomfortable viewing. But in the 2000s he would succeed in bringing them to a much wider audience, beginning with The Piano Teacher, which in 2001 won the Grand Prix at Cannes. It boasted an electrifying performance from Isabelle Huppert, who played a Viennese piano professor whose relationship with a much younger student is soured by her interest in sadomasochism.

It was an extraordinary film, and so was Caché, (2005) a brooding thriller about a Parisian couple who are terrorised by a stalker whose identity we never discover. A fascinating drama, it was like a Hitchcock mystery without a resolution, and it provided Haneke with his biggest success to that point.

Amour (2012) would eclipse it, charting with terrifying clarity the decisions an elderly man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) must take when his beloved wife succumbs to dementia. It won the Palme d'Or, the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and is a very fine film.

But it is not for me his best. That would be White Ribbon (2009), a drama set in a cruel German village on the eve of World War I that seemed to depict the pre-conditions of Hitler's rise.

Haneke has, he admits, "a precise eye for pain", and watching his films sometimes feels like observing pinned insects writhe at the wrong end of a microscope. In his best movies, this cold-bloodedness only serves to clarify the drama, but in lesser works it can make the viewer feel complicit in a sadistic social experiment. Maybe Michael Haneke likes people, but I wouldn't bet the house on it.

Culture shot

La Règle du Jeu

Tuesday, IFI, Temple Bar, 6.30pm

This Tuesday, the IFI will host a rare screening of Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece La Règle du Jeu and I will introduce it. Known in English as The Rules of the Game, Renoir's film is often included on lists of the best movies ever made, but it's surprising how few people have seen it. It's set at the country home of the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), an effete French gentleman who's married to a beautiful Austrian called Christine (Nora Gregor), but also has a mistress. Christine is not short of admirers either, including a dashing aviator called Jurieux, and a family friend, Octave, played by Renoir. All descend on the Marquis's estate for a weekend's shooting, but trouble is brewing above and below stairs.

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