What to expect from the latest Michael Haneke film, Happy End? Well you’d be right to suspect that the promise of the title may not be fulfilled. While the film follows three generations of a successful construction dynasty, Haneke’s characters are frustrated, bitter and broken right from the first frames of the film.
Anne (Isabelle Huppert) oversees the business and deals with the fallout from a construction site accident. Her doctor brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is reconnecting with his teenage daughter, who has come to live with the family after Thomas’ ex-wife overdoses. Anne’s aging father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has stepped away from the business as his health is starting to fail. Anne’s son is drinking too much and appears to be crying out for attention.
It’s a plot full of major events that mostly happen off screen. A car crash, an overdose, a suicide attempt and more are involved but Haneke’s focus is on the quieter moments of relationship drama, including some surprisingly tender moments of inter-generational mutual understanding as well as inevitable conflict. Missing some of the more important moments of the story does have its downsides though. This is typically detached from Haneke and though it is a compassionate look at a dysfunctional family, it’s difficult to get emotionally involved.
However, Happy End’s characters are brilliantly drawn and engaging for the most part. They might be blind to the real struggles of the refugees living across town in the Calais Jungle, but Haneke is building to a climax that clashes cultures in a sharp, smart, understated way. Before this unexpectedly brilliant final scene, Happy End gets under the skin of three generations of the family. Thirteen-year-old Eve is watching the world through a camera’s eye. She is curious, and experimenting with the effects of medication that seem to swirl around so many characters in her life. Thomas is a father paying lip service to trying to be a better father, but more concerned with his burgeoning affair that appears in the film to be carried out entirely through Internet messaging. Most interesting is Anne’s son Pierre who is the most obviously unwilling and unable to fit in to this bourgeoisie world of repressed emotions. His performance of Sia’s Chandelier at a Karaoke bar might be worth the price of the ticket alone.
But that would be to deny Happy End its real pleasure and that is appropriately its final scenes. It’s here where Haneke’s themes all crystallise into satirical perfection. It becomes a film about gratitude, about freedom to make our own decisions, and about youth and the increasing obsession to capture the world through a lens and share our experiences.
Fuelled by superb performances, particularly from old-timer Trintignant and teen Fantine Harduin as Eve, the film truly finds a heart when it puts these two contrasting faces together in a scene. One fresh and youthful, one older, wiser and wrinkled, it’s telling that the Happy End of the title might actually work out just the way these two characters want it to.
HAPPY END / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: MICHAEL HANEKE / STARRING: ISABELLE HUPPERT, JEAN-LOUIS TRINTIGNANT, MATHIEU KASSOVITZ / RELEASE DATE: FRIDAY 1ST DECEMBER
Expected Rating: 7