Michael Haneke, cinema’s preeminent nihilist, used to be important to me. During my formative years as a cinephile, it was his films that provoked me: anger in the case of Funny Games, bewilderment with Code Unknown, or stunned admiration with Cache, The Piano Teacher, and Time of the Wolf. His films are full of misery and are obscenely provocative, but my antennae has frequently tuned in to his transmission. For as much as Haneke’s a brilliant clinical formalist, he’s above all a gifted cynic. And when you’re a student in your early twenties balancing work, school, and everything in between, his brand of pessimism can become dangerously comforting. But the returns on such disenchanted examinations have depreciated considerably overtime, in what’s a reflection of my own changing sensibility. Yet with his new film, Happy End, he tickles a familiar funny bone that reminded me of those college years when I first discovered the filmmaker. Yes, Happy End is a familiar sadistic exercise that doesn’t impress a moment of sincerity. That doesn’t matter. It’s glib and pathologically disinterested in winning your favor. I dug it.
The film details the pattern of despair that encircles the Laurent clan, a wealthy French family that run a profitable construction firm. Eschewing a more traditional visual design, we’re first placed as a passive voyeur - much of the opening sequences are framed through the lens of a smart phone display - with Eve (Fantine Harduin) recording her mother as she goes about her routine. We then cut to another scene where Eve comments that she has fed her hamster the same antidepressants that her mother takes and we witness the hamster become petrified and unmoving as we transition to the next scene. Here, Eve suggests her dissatisfaction with her mother and resentment over her father having left her. We’re transported now to surveillance footage of a construction site, where we observe an accident in progress, as a dam collapses.
Strung together these sequences don’t necessarily inform one another but they do encourage a kind of eerie anxiety that conveys Happy End’s erratic cadence. As the film progresses, Haneke slyly provides the audience with bits of narrative detail, as we discover that Eve’s mother has been hospitalized, leaving her to stay with her father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his new wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden). Orbiting the three in the posh Laurent manor include the elder patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Georges’ daughter and successor to the helm of their construction company, Anne (Isabelle Huppert). Anne’s despondent son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) rears his head from time to time, in what’s the one character whose inner demons seems to rise beyond the surface of their exterior.
As is Haneke’s wont, information is provided at fitful spurts. The whys and whences behind each character are mostly left ambiguous, prompting the audience to piece together their concerns. Whether it be Thomas’ torrid affair with a musician (largely contained to desktop email windows on a brightly luminated laptop screen) or Georges’ pleas to pedestrians caught in long shot, the heavy malaise that weighs down on these characters isn’t made readily apparent. It builds toward something rather profound, as two generations confront their repellent, self-pitying despair in the only way Haneke knows how to articulate emotional pain: as a punch line.
Once a physician asked me during an annual exam if I had a support system. I involuntarily scoffed at the question. But I think about that question now as it relates to Happy End and how Eve and Georges interact with one another. Or during a scene where Anne attempts to console her son only to angrily reprimand him. They have no support system; Eve moves from one broken home to the next, afraid that her unfaithful father will again abandon her. Thomas is disillusioned. Pierre’s inadequacies drive him to madness. There’s not an undamaged person in Happy End. Well, that’s not entirely true. Toby Jones has a brief role in the film as Anne’s fiancé. His first prominent scene involves him on the other end of a phone conversation with Anne. He hangs up and proceeds to watch television from a distance while eating his evening supper. We can vicariously pay lip service to the human condition, which sometimes seems optimal to actually living it.