Spoiler alert: NO ONE is happy in Michael Haneke’s latest. No one is ever happy in any of Haneke’s movies, so from a viewer stand point, as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, and have been broken in with everything and anything from Funny Games to Cache, you should be mostly able to brace yourself for the general sobering of the experience ahead. Haneke has a way of commenting on the modern society that feels always, prescient yet oddly detached, and inevitable brutal. And, yet, we keep watching.
In this edition of “humanity is in trouble” his steely focus is on the Laurent family, which is not doing great. The patriarch wants to die, preferably by his own hand, before he loses his sanity. His son’s first wife, and his daughter’s mother has attempted suicide, so now he, his new wife, and this same daughter are all moved in. The family aunt is in the mix too, alongside her brutish adult live-at-home son. The stories we follow make a linear sense overall, but Haneke, being Haneke decides to employ several disorienting methods in order to tell them, just adding to the general unease of the situation.
From sharp cuts to rawer video footage, we are never put at ease enough to “just” watch the story unfold.
For example, the movie opens with a mobile shot of household moments (and a little death exercise) that feel like surveillance, framed within the context of this new, social media generation. This is not yours and mine social media generation, the kind that used it to (over) share, this is seen from the the born-in-the-2000s social media user perspective, where social media is used as a tool in life to explore, document, communicate. It is a seamless weapon in the hands of a thirteen year old, sharper than a pen, more intimate than any diary could have been. The viewer feels like they are watching a brain and a soul work; this brain and the soul are, well, in disrepair. Then, the scene cuts to a (mostly) silent dinner party where you could cut tension with knife. The “stars” of the previous scene are there, but not the focus, and this next moment of unease acts as disorienting as if someone switched the channel in the middle of a Catfish episode and all of a sudden you were watching a Chabrol film.
From then on, things go from bad to worse, with some “global refugee crisis” social commentary thrown in for good measure (the 99% are barely a factor in the story, which makes their appearances feel both tacked-on and extremely visceral, which is definitely by design).
The cast is superb, as is expected, because Haneke’s modern nightmares attract those game for a challenge: Jean-Louis Tretignant is pater familias, Isabelle Huppert is his daughter, Matthieu Kassowitz his son, and young Fantine Harduin is a pubescent under-the-surface-anger personified as Eve. Toby Jones joins in on the “fun” as the man Huppert marries in the movies final, pastel colored scenes.
In short, the film is pure Haneke. It is imperfect, but it stays with you, making you questions not so much about what you watched but, really, WHY you watched it. This is not a perfect introduction to his work, but for those of us who come forward for every visual and emotional whipping he serves up, it is a welcome addition to the cannon. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.