Film review – Happy End (Michael Haneke, 2017)

Michael Haneke’s latest picture is a twisted look into the wealthiest ways of living in the north of France, as seen through the eyes of a dysfunctional family hell-bent on self-destruction. A mixture of humour and satire litters the script to create a solid effort that, despite its best efforts, fails to deliver the same impact as the most dedicated of Haneke fans would hope for.

The film opens with a slow series of voyeuristic shots through the camera phone of 13-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), transmitting through a social media platform that looks similar to Snapchat. We see her murder her pet hamster and then, in the final shot, we see her unconscious mother, whilst an overlay of text chat show young Eve admitting she has poisoned her.

In the next shot we see the CCTV footage of a construction site where a huge disaster occurs, critically injuring one of the employees. It is in the aftermath of these two opening gambits that the rest of the film hangs its developing intertwining plots.

We later find out that this workplace accident was due to negligence at the hands of site supervisor and alcoholic Pierre Laurent (Franz Rogowski), whilst firm owner Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) is left to pick up the pieces and deal with an impending lawsuit. Eve is now living with this family in a large mansion in Calais, along with depressed grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

The ironically-titled Happy End is a good film, but not a great one. The cast is substantial and the dialogue is sharp, but somehow the plot doesn’t feel like it takes us on a journey with enough of the characters. It’s more of a satirical social commentary piece rather than a meaty piece of fiction, with too many of the characters used as fodder for the main characters.

Trintignant and Huppert reunite here with Haneke after the successes of 2012’s Amour, a film that won the Best Picture Academy Award and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is clear why Haneke was so keen to work with them both again. They don’t share much screen time together, but with the former’s desire to end his life and the latter desperate to keep the dysfunctional family together and presentable, there is enough to go on to maintain the interest. With the addition of the young Harduin to the cast, this triangle of strength is enough to carry the film.

It could be argued that Toby Jones’s inclusion is on the cynical side. His role is very minor, though his prominence in the advertising campaign will undoubtedly have helped ticket sales in the UK, a place where his acting credentials need no introduction – least of all in the arthouse cinemas in which Happy End will play. If this is true, I don’t mind. It’s just smart advertising and a good way to carve out a niche in the market away from the impending Star Wars: The Last Jedi Release next week. For those of us who go to see more than the most mainstream of films, options and variety are required.

It feels unlikely that Happy End will repeat the award season successes enjoyed by many of his previous efforts, but it’s not without merit.

Film review – Il racconto dei racconti / Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, 2016)

Tale of Tales is a film that merges three fantasy tales from Italian storyteller Giambattista Basile’s book Pentamerone. The results are mixed.

The first, The Enchanted Doe, stars Salma Hayak as the Queen of Darkwood, who is struggling to have a child with her King, played by John C. Reilly. Taking the advice from a necromancer, the King sets off to capture the heart of a sea monster for his Queen to eat. Doing so brings her the child she desires, but this comes at a cost.

The second tale, The Flea, stars Toby Jones as a king seemingly reluctant to find a husband for his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave). Secretly, he is nurturing a flea in his chambers, growing it to an enormous size, but in doing so neglects his daughter. 

The final tale, The Flayed Old Woman, stars Vincent Cassel as a king with an insatiable lust for all women he lays eyes on. He is attracted by one woman (Hayley Carmichael), however, that he cannot see but can hear. As she sings a beautiful lament from the shadows of the streets of his kingdom, so begins an addiction to seeking her out to fulfil his desires. Fearful of him seeing her true form, she tries to push him away, only for his desire to grow stronger.

The three stories run entirely separately until the final scene, which is sort of a throwaway tidbit that attempts but fails to tie it all together. The overall result is something akin to a highbrow fantasy take on ‘Love, Actually’, whereby several separate storylines weave in and out of one another without significantly benefiting from it. Indeed, the sum may well be less than the parts.

The opening scenes concentrate almost exclusively on Salma Hayak’s unfolding story, to the point where when we first see Vincent Cassel it’s confusing to work out how he fits into the rest of the story. A few moments later it becomes obvious (sort of) that he’s the king of another kingdom, though we have to deduce that ourselves. Perhaps I’m just used to being spoon-fed too much, but I was confused.

The Flea segments are painfully slow, with Toby Jones feeling a little wasted as he tries and fails to inject some life into a largely lifeless story.

Hayley Carmichael rises above the dross to give a starring turn as the old woman Dora, with segments largely full of wit and humour. Vincent Cassell adds a lot to these scenes, lifting them with a knowing amount of irony that just about makes the film bearable.

It is interesting that the director Matteo Garrone has stated that he had worked on ideas for a few other stories from the same source material. In my opinion, these tales would work significantly better broken up and serialised. There is some good work here but it’s hard to get sucked in by one faltering tale, let alone three.

A visually stunning film that fails to ignite the interest, an issue I blame mainly on poor editing and a disappointing adaptation of some highly respected source material.

Film review – Dad’s Army (Oliver Parker, 2016)

Dad’s Army is one of the best-regarded sitcoms to ever come out of Britain. A film would always have two almost certain outcomes: making a lot of money and not living up to the public’s fond memories of the original series. In this sense Oliver Parker’s 2016 effort doesn’t disappoint.

This film adaptation stars Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring, the leader of a Home Guard [1] platoon the fictional Walmington-on-Sea in England during World War II. His platoon consists of Sergeant Wilson (Bill Nighy), Lance Corporal Jones (Tom Courtenay), Private Godferey (Michael Gambon), Private Pike (Blake Harrison), Private Walker (Daniel Mays) and Private Frazer (Bill Paterson). They are being visited by glamorous journalist Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta Jones), there to report on the Home Guard.

The authenticity of this film is, to the untrained eye, fantastic. The colour washes and costumes give it the feel that you genuinely are watching a Home Guard operation in 1944. There is a clear attention to detail that has gone into this and the film is much better for it.

The plot, generally, is enjoyable. It is pitched at the right level between the series and what is expected of a big-budget film. It puts the Home Guard into a potentially larger plot that is at the centre of the war efforts.

Where this film majorly falls down is the humour, or lack thereof. The writing was on the wall with the trailer, which felt a little flat. Unfortunately, most of the best material was featured in one or more of the trailers, and between these moments the humour was lightly sprinkled in a way that may bring a smile to the audience members’ faces but never succeeds in delivering a belly laugh. In this sense it has been a huge failure in comparison to the original series.

The actors do a wonderful job impersonating the original cast members, to scarily uncanny levels. This is perhaps the only time when all these stars will grace the screen together and it is a real letdown that the material they’ve been served is so underwhelming.

A massive disappointment.

[1] During World War II, those unable to serve on the front line provided a second line of defence on British home soil. Platoons were generally made up of those too old or too young to serve in battles, individuals with injuries or illnesses that prevented them from being on the front line and those with professional occupation that were exempt from joining the front line war effort. It was a significant operation, consisting of around 1.5m volunteers.