The Killing of a Bourgeois Dream
As per usual, the Cannes Film Festival reaches its buzzy peak around the turn of the week, this time with the one-two punch of Michael Haneke’s HAPPY END and Yorgos Lanthimos’ THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER.
With two Palme d’Ors under his belt, Austrian maestro Haneke opts to play the fan favorites in his latest, so expect quiet perversities, everyday evil, unspoken horrors of the storybook bourgeois existence – and Isabelle Huppert of course. The immaculately constructed screenplay centers around the Laurent’s, a family of formidable affluence with a generations-old enterprise in northern France. The frail patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has passed the baton to daughter Anne (Huppert), who is in turn planning to make her unstable son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) the future boss following an unfortunate on-site accident that led to the death of a construction worker. Meanwhile, the ex-wife of Anne’s brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) overdosed, leaving him no choice but to bring estranged 13-year-old daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) to stay with the whole gang.
What entails has echoes of CACHÉ and AMOUR that could justify complaints of déjà vu, but it’s staggering nonetheless to watch a master storyteller at work: how he opens a movie, introduces the various narrative threads, feeds you information about the characters, suggests all kinds of wickedness with what he reveals and keeps you anxiously wondering with what he doesn’t. Words, actions, silence, blankness are used and timed to surprise, take you off guard, do the most damage. As classily understated, leisurely almost as everything appears, you know not one single decision is an accident. The level of intelligence, precision and discipline involved boggles the mind.
Without getting into spoiler territory, HAPPY END mercilessly peels open the high-gloss veneer decorating the life of the European elite to expose the rot beneath. Haneke, ever the cerebral sadist, looks a bunch of seriously fucked-up souls straight in the eye and shares what he finds with an utter lack of sentimentality that borders on disinterest or even cruelty. The irony thickens when one considers the millions who risk dying to flee to the Old Continent when those who have it best over there can’t wait to get put out of their misery.
The ensemble cast is uniformly strong. Child actress Harduin plays the pivotal role of the clever, chillingly resourceful Eve and delivers on all counts. The sympathy, mistrust, apprehension she elicits contributes vitally to the film’s intrigue. Of course she also gets to work opposite acting legend Trintignant, who is just tremendous as her bitter, supremely indifferent grandfather. A scene that sees the old man telling the little girl an awful secret soars with its sheer inappropriateness and only works because both actors hit the exact right note required of their respective performance. Huppert, who – with just a hint of incestuous tendencies – probably plays the most “normal” of the protagonists, but brings her usual indomitable self and gets a “Huppert moment” near the end of the film so delightfully shocking it feels like a gift.
Also shocking, perhaps less delightfully so, is Greek auteur Lanthimos’ follow-up to Cannes jury Prize winner THE LOBSTER. Set in Cincinnati, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER tells the story of a well-to-do family of doctors (played by Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic as their two children) whose life goes horrifyingly wrong when a mysterious boy Martin (Barry Keoghan) enters the picture.
Every bit the provocateur as Haneke, if going about it with a more fanciful, visually driven approach, Lanthimos delivers a revenge thriller that’s conceptually less complex than his previous work but engrosses and unsettles all the same. To be sure, the film lacks the immediate hook and exciting layers of either THE LOBSTER or DOGTOOTH. It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s going on between Farrell’s mutedly distressed doctor and the odd teenager Martin, so the story soon becomes a relatively straightforward tale of (depraved) vengeance. Without an outwardly whimsical setup, the mannered behavior and interactions between the characters also lost their surrealist appeal and look simply stiff.
It’s when things take an unexplained, creepily supernatural turn in the second hour that the film palpably improves. By means of stark camera angles and striking compositions, Lanthimos communicates a nameless dread that temporarily takes you out of the real world and into a realm of sinister imaginations. Some scenes, including the climatic kill, are staged with such insane bluntness they frighten for their hypnotic theatricality and sheer, jaw-dropping ridiculousness. Of an able cast that includes a viciously fierce Kidman, Keoghan shines brightest as the plain but charismatic boy who’s somehow not quite right. From his loose, strangely self-certain demeanor to the casual conviction with which he delivers the most outrageous threats, a crazed, jittery energy anchors this vivid, fully-realized performance.
In Oscar terms, HAPPY END would make for a worthy foreign language film contender, although you never know which film the French would submit, as they’ve proved to be idiosyncratic with their past choices. Kidman deserves to be in the conversation for supporting actress, the question is whether she’ll deliver an even better, showier performance in THE BEGUILED and cancels herself. Lanthimos, nominated for the screenplay of THE LOBSTER, might have a harder time selling his brutal vision to Academy members this time around – that ending alone might be too much for many.