Michael Haneke is a director renowned for his ability to unease. The double Palme d’Or-winning Austrian filmmaker tackles serious themes in an uncompromising but detached manner, with more than a little dose of black humour thrown in for good measure. Happy End re-treads themes from earlier films – voyeurism, seemingly innocent children, middle-class anxieties etc. Consequently, it’s not his most original film, but certainly keeps its audience invested for its relatively brief running time.
We focus on the Laurent family, who reside in a mansion in Calais. Anne (Isabelle Huppert) owns a construction firm she has inherited from her father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who suffers from dementia. Anne’s alcoholic son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), inadvertently allows a workplace accident to occur that severely injures one of the workers, whose family is now suing the company. Meanwhile, Anne’s brother, Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz) takes in his estranged 13-year-old daughter, Eve (Fantine Harduin), after her mother apparently attempts suicide.
Those familiar with Haneke’s work will know that, as a title, Happy End should be taken about as literally as his nasty 1997 anti-thriller Funny Games. Quite what this title refers to is up for debate. Perhaps it’s the refugees’ hope for a new start across the Channel. Perhaps it’s an uncomfortable reference to the prevalent theme of suicide. Perhaps it’s an ironic hint to the film’s darkly comic ending. Haneke is intelligent enough to allow his audience to think for themselves. For instance, we sympathise with Eve and yet constantly question just how much we actually should.
Despite having explored the theme of surveillance before, this is the first time he does so through the prism of social media. His argument is that it isolates us from who we are and what’s going on in the world. The Calais Jungle refugee camp is referred to but never seen, suggesting that despite the ubiquity and omniscience of social media the Laurent family are still contained in their own vaguely narcissistic bubble.
This isn’t Haneke’s most accomplished work. The intertwining stories never fully coalesce, consequently leaving the film feeling unfocused, and I’m not convinced that Pierre’s climactic interruption of his mother’s engagement party has quite the impact it should.
Having said that, I ‘enjoyed’ Happy End more than I was expecting to. The acting is universally excellent to the point where it would be difficult for me to single anyone out, although Toby Jones’ cameo as a British lawyer is certainly a highlight. The film seems to sit somewhere in the middle of Haneke’s body of work – not as scorching or impressive as Funny Games or The White Ribbon (2009), but not nearly as lacklustre as Time of the Wolf (2003). It is a well-made film with some very impressive individual scenes, and it leaves you with the hope that, at the age of 75, we haven’t heard the last of this essential filmmaker.
Words by Logan Jones @LoganOnFilm