It’s the season of joy and merriment – just two of the things you won’t find in Michael Haneke’s new film ‘Happy End’. Instead, the Austrian maestro has concocted a challenging brew of xenophobia, matricide and social media dysfunction that cuts to the heart of modern-day Europe. In person, he’s nothing like as foreboding as you’d image. But clad in black, scarf around his neck, he’s not come bearing gifts either.
‘Happy End’ shares story threads with your last film, ‘Amour’. What’s the connection?
‘The story of the old man who forgets his wife was in “Amour” but it had a more metaphorical ending to it. What I wanted to do here is look at the question of how someone kills someone they love but from a more realistic perspective. It’s not the same character; it’s the same problem.’
This is your fourth film with Isabelle Huppert. What keeps you going back to her?
‘It works well because we’re friends. If you know and work well with a particular actor, it’s stupid to look elsewhere. I’ve had lots of requests from American actresses, but the idea has to come first. Jessica Chastain is fantastic and I’d love to do something with her, but I have to have a story.’
You’re the master of the ambiguous ending. Do people still ask you what happens at the end of ‘Hidden’ or ‘The Piano Teacher’?
‘Yes, of course. I do like it if people continue to engage with those questions. If everything’s explained, you will forget it quickly. The idea is to construct questions which demand that the audience engages with them. People ask but that doesn’t mean I’m going to tell them what the two people say to each other at the end of “Hidden”. You have to work that one out for yourself. All the clues are there.’
People seem to assume you’re a stern and austere person. Does that bother you?
‘I don’t really care what people think. I have this terrible reputation for being serious and completely humourless but my friends know that isn’t the case. What’s the point of fighting against these things? If people are afraid of me, that’s fine.’ [Laughs]
Finally, it’s called ‘Happy End’ but it’s a fairly pessimistic film. Does that reflect your view of Europe at the moment?
‘I’m not a pessimist or an optimist. I’m a realist.’
Happy End' opens in cinemas on Fri Dec 1. You can also watch it via Curzon Home Cinema.