* (out of 4)
Like the protagonists of so many of Michael Haneke’s previous works, the French family at the center of Happy End is wealthy, educated, and completely unhappy. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the family’s dementia-stricken patriarch, is so ready to die that he intentionally drives a car into a tree. His daughter, a businesswoman named Anne (Isabelle Huppert), spends her time quashing expensive lawsuits and haranguing her alcoholic son (Franz Rogowski). Georges’ other child, a doctor named Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), cares less about his second wife (Laura Verlinden) than the musician with whom he exchanges embarrassingly kinky messages on Facebook. And Thomas’ daughter from his first marriage, a 13-year old named Eve (Fantine Harduin), hates her mother – so much, in fact, that she decides to poison her with antidepressants and record the incident on her iPhone.
The first problem with Happy End is that it never gets around to explaining why its characters are all so darn miserable. Haneke, to be sure, often gestures at potential answers. In an unsubtle reference to 2012’s Amour, for example, Georges delivers a long, melancholic monologue about his decision to smother his ailing wife with a pillow; moreover, in what could be construed as a critique of social media, Eve spends a lot of time blankly staring at various screens. Yet in the end, Haneke introduces us to far more characters – six family members, three servants, and one fiancé – than he can meaningfully develop within the span of two hours. And as a result, the film has a remarkably one-dimensional, slapdash quality to it. Its overall thesis could be summed up as “these people are rich, ergo they are sad,” an affirmation that even diehard Marxists would likely find too hand-wavy for comfort.
In a way, however, this superficiality is merely a symptom of the larger issue with Happy End: its overarching attitude of indifference. Throughout his career, Haneke has always tended to treat his characters as pawns, caricatures that only serve to illustrate larger “messages” about how messed up the world is. And in Happy End, this trend only continues. The film’s refusal to show us important narrative events (e.g. Georges’ car crash, Eve’s eventual attempts at suicide) reflects a worldview built on a studied, borderline-misanthropic disinterest in the personal – an apathy, moreover, that’s only reinforced by Haneke’s use of clinical wide shots and largely immobile frames. Such stiff camerawork ultimately proves just as cruel and detached as Eve’s iPhone videos of her dying mom. But while Haneke repeatedly criticizes Eve, he never questions the underpinnings of his own cinematography, a discrepancy that speaks to his fundamental lack of self-awareness as a director.
Even if you’ve found Haneke’s cold, self-absorbed form of intellectualism to be stimulating in the past, moreover, you’ll probably still be disappointed with Happy End. Because in many ways, the movie is really just a compendium of references to Haneke’s earlier works. As mentioned, the story of Georges’ wife is an allusion to Amour and its unsparing portrayal of old age. Thomas’ kinky Facebook affair harks back to the BDSM of The Piano Teacher. In its implicit indictment of media-engendered indifference, Eve’s passive usage of the Internet strongly recalls both Funny Games and Benny’s Video. And the antics of Anne’s son – towards the end of the film, he brings a group of Calais Jungle refugees to her engagement party – are blatantly reminiscent of Caché and its representation of white privilege.
Most of these aforementioned predecessors to Happy End were already quite one-note to begin with. Happy End, needless to say, doesn’t add anything new to them – and worse still, it’s not clear that Haneke ever realizes this either. In its steely, controlled presentation of said assortment of references, Happy End exhibits a self-assurance that belies its lack of real substance: Haneke seems to believe that every cursory allusion he makes is a sure indication of his profundity, and he fully expects you to think the same. Such confidence was ultimately enough to win over a fair number of people at the Cannes Film Festival and Rotten Tomatoes alike. But there’s a very good chance you’ll instead find it to be a sign of just how empty, arrogant, and stale Haneke is as a filmmaker. And for me, at the very least, it made Happy End a frustrating moviegoing experience that I frankly wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Happy End (2017)
Country: France/Germany/Austria. Dialogue in French and English.
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Franz Rogowski, Toby Jones
Running Time: 107 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for some sexual material and language.”
Produced by: Margaret Ménégoz
Written and Directed by: Michael Haneke