Happy End **** / *****
Directed by: Michael Haneke.
Written by: Michael Haneke.
Starring: Isabelle Huppert (Anne Laurent), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges Laurent), Mathieu Kassovitz (Thomas Laurent), Fantine Harduin (Eve Laurent), Franz Rogowski (Pierre Laurent), Laura Verlinden (Anaïs), Aurélia Petit (Nathalie), Toby Jones (Lawrence Bradshaw), Hassam Ghancy (Rachid), Nabiha Akkari (Jamila).
Austrian director Michael Haneke may bristle at the suggestion that his latest film – Happy End – is a kind of “greatest hits” package of his career – but it’s certainly easy to see why many critics have said something along those lines. There are elements here of films like Benny’s Video, Amour, Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon. I say this not as a criticism of the film – like some have – but rather an acknowledgment that Haneke is still addressing his pet themes, and doing it all in one, strange package. While Happy End doesn’t join the ranks of his masterworks (including The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon, Amour and his best film, Cache) – the suggestion that it’s somehow a bad film from the filmmaker is silly. He is still trying to, and succeeding in, provoking a response from his audience – and technically, the film is quite different from what he has done before – simpler, more pared down and without the beauty that often accompanies his images. He has made a film for the Snapchat generation, and done so using the same kind of style – and odd for a 75 year old, he does it without coming across as embarrassingly out of touch (something the much younger Jason Reitman wasn’t able to do in Men, Women and Children).
The film revolves around the wealthy Laurent family who runs a construction business is Calais. The company has seen better days financially – and to top it off, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who now runs it, has to deal with the fallout of an accident that killed one of her workers, which may have been caused by the negligence of her son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who she put in charge of the site. Her father, George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) used to run the company, but is now 85, and started to lose his mind to dementia – and his determined to die before that happens. His son, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), is one his second wife – the painfully shy and quiet Anais (Laura Verlinden) – and they have an infant son, although he is cheating on his wife with an older woman – who we meet through her lengthy chats with him on Facebook – which are kinky to say the least. All of these people are already fairly messed up – and that’s before Eve (Fantine Harduin) re-enters their lives. She is Thomas’ 13-year-old daughter from her first marriage, who hasn’t been around in recent years. She has been living with her mother – who we see in the film’s opening scenes, in videos that Eve herself shoots on her phone. First, it’s just her mother going through her bedtime routine – but then it becomes darker, as she stumbles around, and Eve admits, in voiceover, to poisoning her mother with pills. Whether she meant to just make her sick, or kill her the film never states – but she does end up in a coma, and Eve comes to live with Thomas.
Happy End is a film that refuses to draw the lines between the dots that Haneke is placing throughout the film – you are left in the audience to do that, even more than in Haneke’s other films. None of these characters are innocent – but they are all completely self-involved. Their motivations are often obscured in the film (like, for instance, why Huppert’s Anne is marrying a British banker, played by the short, balding Toby Jones).
The film jumps around a lot – it’s not quite a series of vignettes like previous Haneke films Code Unknown or 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, but it feels like that at times. All the characters are interesting, but the best performances belong to the youngest and oldest of the cast members. The great Trintgnant, now in his late 80s, plays a character very much like his one in Amour (we don’t realize just how much until late in the film). The film examines how someone like him can deal with the things he has done – and he is now looking for someone to essentially do the same thing for him. In Harduin, Haneke has made a real discovery, as Eve is the most complex character in the film. At first, you may feel that she is essentially a female version of the main character from Benny’s Video – a little psychopath, using technology as a way to keep a distance from the things she has done. But as the film progresses, it gets messier than that – she becomes a more complex character, whose motivations are not so clear cut. She would likely fit in with the kids in The White Ribbon, or even the son in Cache, who know the sins of their parents, and punish them for those sins.
Happy End has a fairly blunt visual look for a Haneke film – he almost shot it like a TV movie in many respects, from the aspect ratio, to the lighting. There are a few of his great long takes, he is going for something more direct this time. It works for this film, even if I hope he goes from something more akin to some of his other work in the future. Not everything in the film works as well as it should – Haneke’s ultimate point here seems to be that we are all so self-obsessed we do not see the larger suffering in the world, and to make his point, he uses the current refugee crisis. This comes to a head in a climaxing scene – but it doesn’t really work that well. Haneke’s point is stronger when it’s more focused in Happy End – after all, the individual Laurent family members are not just blind to the suffering in the wider world – they’re blind to the suffering within their own family.
Ultimately, if Happy End is a disappointment from Haneke it’s only because we’ve become accustomed to him making masterpieces more often than not over the past 20 years. Happy End isn’t that, but even lesser Haneke is better than most filmmakers at their very best.