Milo Garner reviews Haneke’s latest drama.
Happy End is not a title one would expect to see attached to a film by Michael Haneke. Haneke’s films are typified by their focus on violence, malaise, and various other soul-crushing ills of society; there isn’t much room for happiness. And this has not changed in Happy End. The thick irony of the title instead hints at a different, yet still unique, feature of the film – that it is a comedy. Or a comedy of sorts, black as midnight on a moonless night. These are the sort of laughs that don’t quite overwrite the sense of unease that otherwise pervades most of Happy End; in fact, they might well emphasise it.
The basis for this rare humour is familiar ground. The film opens in 9:16, the much-maligned aspect ratio of a phone in portrait, portraying a sort of Snapchat-esque live video app. We watch a woman go through her nightly routine, unsettlingly narrated via text message by the mysterious cameraperson. After this extended shot we see a hamster fed anti-depressants to obvious effect. More shocking is to find the perpetrator behind the phone to be Ève (Fantine Harduin, in a brilliantly sociopathic performance), a pre-teen who later repeats the hamster experiment on her own mother. Just as he took on VHS and its enabling of snuff film in his 1992 Benny’s Video, Haneke is now indicting social media and its ability to encourage disturbing acts for online infamy. Initially his blunt presentation of the subject might invite rejection – there’s nothing particularly profound in an old man implying new technology will lead to societal collapse (again). But only this year the torturing of a disabled man was livestreamed on Facebook, marking reality far more extreme than anything Haneke deems fit to show in this film.
Haneke’s self-referentiality doesn’t stop here. The social media theme is continued through the story of an affair between Ève’s father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassowitz) and a masochistic musician, reminiscent of The Piano Teacher. This segment seems more loaded toward dark humour than any serious meaning: the erotic messages displayed on-screen are simply funny, and stand out against the general tone of the film. But the most blatant is yet to come – after Ève’s mother is hospitalized, her father takes her to live with her stepmother (the familial connections quickly become confusing) in the home of her grandfather, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant).
Those who know their Haneke, and many who don’t, will remember that his last film, 2012’s stunning Amour, also starred Trintignant as a character named Georges. To learn that this Georges had killed his wife some years earlier solidifies the connection even further, let alone his chilly relationship with a daughter played by Isabelle Huppert – is this the Haneke Extended Universe? These dreams are quickly snuffed by the details, with Georges’ wife named Eve rather than Anne, and his daughter Anne rather than Eva (in what must be a conscious reversal); but the very inclusion of this mild lampooning of the interconnected worlds Hollywood is trying to concoct is funny in itself. Beyond rejecting this Hollywood trend Haneke also seems to be rejecting many of the new acolytes he gained from Amour itself. That film was unusually tender for Haneke, touching rather than cutting, and genuine in tone. With Happy End he reverses this entirely, creating a harsh and ridiculous criticism of the bourgeois, the comedic element making for an even greater tonal shift. The resulting film does not come near to the utter brilliance of Amour, but I can appreciate the radical change.
The main plot of Happy End, beneath the various overlapping subplots (reflecting Code Unknown to an extent), is the plight of Georges, who wishes to join his wife and so escape his miserable existence. Euthanasia is a tricky subject, and in his renewed disruption Haneke decides to tackle it in about as insensitive a manner as possible. This is by centring the issue on an unspoken agreement between Ève and Georges – the budding sociopath will be the one to help her aging grandpa go. This is by far the strongest dynamic of the film, and results in a perfect ending, both unutterably bleak and absolutely hilarious. It’s the kind of effect most of the film is trying to achieve, but only here does it work entirely. But it’s such a punchline that much of the film before is justified by its inclusion.
Another issue the film combats is the toxicity of the European upper class, exploring the ennui and boredom they suffer, and the aimlessness and self-destructiveness that beset their every action. The Laurent family, a complex beast that Haneke leaves unnecessarily obscure, represent all he despises in that part of society. This is, again, not new territory for Haneke (think The Seventh Continent, or The White Ribbon), but it works well enough – mainly due to the ever-brilliant cinematography by Christian Berger and the sharp performances, particularly from Trintignant and Huppert. But for one of Europe’s great auteurs, it’s easy to find ‘well enough’ a little disappointing. While many of the themes of the film are sound, they don’t quite cohere – there is a lingering sense that the film is incomplete, that all but Georges’ story lack that necessary conclusion to bring the narrative together. But even as a lesser work of Haneke, Happy End is still surprisingly funny, and vicious enough to remain engaging despite its faults.
Happy End premiered on October 9th in the UK, at London Film Festival. It will be out in UK cinemas from December 1st. Watch the trailer below.