As anyone who has seen a Michael Haneke film may suspect, the title Happy End is an ironic one. Happiness is an emotion seldom glimpsed in Haneke's oeuvre. His first film, 1989's The Seventh Continent, chronicled the destructive undoing of a middle class family, concluding with their suicide. His 2005 film Caché depicted the psychological breakdown of an upperclass man in France as he is confronted with anonymous video tapes and has to reflect on the horrors he inflicted on his briefly adopted Algerian brother as a child. His last film, 2012's Best Foreign Film winner and Best Picture nominee at the Oscar, Amour, was the closest the filmmaker has come to romance. It depicts an elderly man, unable to handle his wife's illness, as their bodies betray them. Fun stuff. Happy End could either be seen as a pointless rehashing or a brilliant culmination of themes present throughout Haneke's career. Austria apparently believes the latter, choosing it as their submission to this year's Oscars. I'm inclined to agree.
The film opens with a series of Snapchat-like videos, with text commentary by the person holding the camera(phone). This person is 13 year-old Eve Laurent, and these are, hopefully, not the kind of videos you would expect to see on a barely-teenaged girl's phone. At first, she voyeuristically films her mom's boring routine, predicting the steps as they happen. Then she gives her mom's pills to her hamster. It dies. Then she gives too many pills to her mom.
With her mom hospitalized, Eve joins her father and his family, a depressed bourgeoisie quartet made up of Eve, grandfather Georges (Amour's Jean-Louis Trintignant), his daughter Anne (Things to Come's Isabelle Huppert), her son Pierre (Victoria's Franz Rogowski), and Eve's father Thomas (Amelie's Mathieu Kassovitz). We soon learn her relatives may be in an even worse place than she is. Georges' mind is leaving him, along with his will to live. Thomas has a new wife now, but is still working out some kinks. Anne is struggling to handle an accidental workplace fatality which happened on Pierre's watch, while Pierre just can't stop messing everything up.
The plot synopsis listed on IMDb and Wikipedia describes the film as "A drama about a family set in Calais with the European refugee crisis as the backdrop." While this is basically true, it is rather misleading. Refugees barely factor into the narrative, appearing only briefly and without any lines. Haneke's real target, as usual, is the cruelty and disillusionment of the upper classes. These characters are always the subject of Haneke's films; he even recycles variations of the names Georges and Anne, as though the protagonists of each of his films are interchangeable. This is not because he is interested in the glamour of the upper class, but quite the opposite. You could say his films' messages tend towards "money can't buy you love" cliches, but that is an oversimplification. The films don't make you envy the characters' wealth, but it doesn't sound much better to be the working class subjected to their cruelty. Haneke is mostly interested in analyzing the mental and physical tolls of upper class isolation, not just from the lower classes, but from each other. His characters possess immense amounts of self-absorption matched only by their ability to rationalize the harm they inflict. They just keep acting as they do until they realize how sad and bad they are. Then, they die.
If one isn't turned off by all of this misery, there is a dark humor present in Happy End. Hard emphasis on dark. In one scene, Pierre performs Sia's hit single "Chandelier" in a karoake bar. He is break-dancing in a drunken stupor without any indication of pleasure. It's actually very sad scene, but one can't help but giggle at the absurdity. Jean-Louis Trintignant is brilliant as Georges, alternating between dementia and cold calculation. The interactions between 13 year-old Eve and the elderly Georges are some of the best scenes. Finally, members of this family are making a connection. Unfortunately, they're bonding over their inability to see the value of life.
Haneke is as aesthetically austere as his characters are with their emotions. He uses no musical scores, and often shoots scenes from the perspective of unseen characters or from a distance without dialogue, so that narrative gaps must be filled in by the viewer. The difficulty of these films makes repeat viewings beneficial; a first glance is rarely enough to catch all of the substance. Take your first chance to check out the film at FIN Festival next Wednesday, September 20th at 9:30pm.
Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.