This subtitled drama is about an affluent, dysfunctional family living in the French city of Calais. The family’s life style contrasts with that of the refugees, down the road from the family’s house, who are desperately trying to stay alive. The movie competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. The Austrian Director of the film, Michael Haneke, has won the Palme d’Or twice before: for “Amour” (2012), and for “The White Ribbon” (2009).
The film is a cutting critique of the world of detached humanity, and the social media that feeds upon it. It is cold and unnerving, and communicates the distinctive outlook of the film’s Director. It is by no means a “happy” film, and it offers biting comment on the world of privilege.
The Laurent family live in a house with two Moroccan immigrants, as servants. The Head of the family is George (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an 84 year-old Patriarch, who is battling the onset of dementia. His daughter, Anne (Isabelle Huppert) tries to keep the family’s affairs in check with calculating discipline. Anne is in charge of the family’s construction company, which was successful, but is now beginning to falter after several unfortunate industrial accidents. She gets little support from George’s doctor son, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), and she is trying to groom her own son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who is a reckless alcoholic, in a battle he can’t win to take over the reins of the company. Constant infighting has drained the family of humanity and warmth. Anger and resentment are now their tools of trade.
The film offers biting comment on the way we conduct our lives, using modern technology to socialise. Haneke sees technology as a means of pushing people deeper into social isolation. He uses technology to characteristically create depersonalised scenarios which have latent meaning that the viewer is asked to deconstruct. Smartphone images thread through the opening credits, and the movie is a series of narrative episodes of family members being insensitive to each other, often using the detached influence engendered by IT to demonstrate their lack of humanity.
Akin to the themes that Haneke has pursued in his other movies, he plays with voyeurism (as in “Hidden”, 2005), and sociopathic behaviour (as in “White Ribbon”, 2009). Everyone has secrets to hide, even George’s 13-year old granddaughter, Eve (Fantine Harduin), who is addicted to her smartphone, and has a history of poisoning people – unintentionally, at first. Eve is pressured by George to help him to die, and she obliges, taking a smartphone image of what she thinks are his final moments (before he is rescued). She is looking for comfort to compensate for Thomas, her father, giving her a loveless upbringing. No one wants to help George, and the movie asks the question whether it is because George has created a family of people who don’t care.
With some partial similarities (same names, same actors) it is tempting to see the film as something of a sequel to “Amour” where George euthanised his dying wife. In this movie, George lives on, with the fragile mentality that characterised his behaviour in “Amour”. The refugee crisis in the background – that continues, irrespective of what anyone does – is a constant reminder of a needy, disadvantaged world that exists well outside the conscience of the privileged groups that this film is depicting.
Haneke is a master-craftsman, and the film is vintage Haneke. Scenes become intriguing puzzles which hide clues to his intent, that exist to be worked-upon and understood, and he stirs social consciousness in a way that is quite unlike any other Director living today. It is a fiercely controlled movie. It gives a compelling, stark account of humanity. The film is Haneke’s perception of the flaws of modern, prosperous Europe, and his vision is negative. He communicates a world that is sliding into moral degradation, and Haneke leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether it is a world worth saving.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting