Happy End stands out a bit in Michael Haneke’s filmography while also revisiting familiar themes. He uses more shots and moves the camera far more often than he normally does, and the result feels uncharacteristically energetic, though he never strays from his observational method and stark objectivity. His approach is less driven by storytelling, but how the audiences processes what he shows them. Often this consists of distant glimpses at a set of characters against a specific cultural or societal backdrop, providing telling sociological context. Their behavior goes without direct explanation, and their activities are depicted with rigid composition and stifling silence. As a director, he’s made some of the most challenging, alienating, and thematically opaque works in the last few decades.
Like many of Haneke’s other ensembles, the cast of Happy End plays a quietly disintegrating family. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays patriarch Georges Laurent. He resides in a lavish mansion with his daughter Anne (Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert); his son Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz); Thomas’s wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden) and their newborn baby; Anne’s contemptuous son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski); and Thomas’ preteen daughter from a previous marriage, Eve (Fantine Harduin). Georges suffers from early dementia and contemplates suicide. Anne’s construction company comes under threat of a lawsuit due to a landslide which gravely injured a worker. Pierre, who works on the site, develops a drinking problem while insisting another employee’s error caused the accident. Eve’s mother falls into a coma (disturbingly caused and shown in the beginning) ending her and Thomas’ long estrangement. As closed off as the family is, the assumption is that Eve would face a difficult adjustment. But she’s just as withdrawn as the rest of the family, resulting in an undisrupted dynamic of harmonious resentment. These dynamics and circumstances, through Haneke’s sensibility, come off much like a study of animal behavior. There’s not so much drama as there is activity to observe, and a general picture which can be drawn from it.
There’s a particular focus on social media and how the characters conduct themselves online vs. in reality. Specifically, we find the characters indulging in more perversity when on the internet, regardless of their level of anonymity. We also see them acting with more duplicity. The first shot of the film comes from an iPhone held by Eve as she secretly records her mother getting ready for bed. Eve interjects with descriptive pop-up texts, like in a Facebook Live feed. I won’t do any potential viewers the disservice of over-explaining the iphone videos, other than to say these exploits bring out a sociopathic side which she seemingly drops in the real world. Her father also changes online, carrying on a sexually charged affair via Facebook and email. Through a digital facade and the use of written language, he engages in passionate interplay diametrically opposed to the collected and uninvolved manner he conducts as a father and husband.
When talking about the film, Haneke has made particular note of the European immigration crisis functioning as a backdrop. Going in with that in mind, I was slightly perplexed at that element’s scarcity. The non-french characters function as more of a contrast to the family’s bourgeois lifestyle, highlighting their privilege in order to emphasize their inadequacies. A middle eastern immigrant couple live with the Laurents and are employed as their servants. The relationship seems somewhat congenial, although there’s an unspoken tension in every interaction. As we get to know the family and their employees more, the power dynamic which looms over them becomes more and more visible. A group of African immigrants are also brought into the family’s turmoil twice based on racist assumptions (Georges tries to buy a gun from them, and Pierre brings them to Anne’s rehearsal dinner to humiliate her).
Despite the general unrest within, there’s a light and breezy feel to much of Happy End, due in part to the oceanic Calaïs setting. While not a happy film, it’s not nearly as distressing or ironically titled as Haneke’s psychological torture/media criticism, Funny Games. There’s an uneasy calm throughout. None of the Laurent’s personal disasters crush their poise, making it hard to see their problems as catastrophic when, with most people, they would be. By the end, you get the sense that they’ll carry on as normal with their dignity in tact, even though they probably shouldn’t be able to. Their privilege allows them to remain elegant while falling apart. | Nic Champion