Cinematic misery lovers of the world unite! That nasty, fiercely intelligent, and undeniably talented Michael Haneke (‘Amour’, ‘Funny Games’, ‘Caché’) is back! Once again he’s delivered a film about wealthy and privileged people who have hollow souls and pitiful lives beneath all their opulence. Weirdly, the movie is even mildly funny in how it goes about delivering the filmmakers’ distinct brand of stoic nihilism. Not that ‘Happy End’ is a comedy, but at the very least that title is a sick joke if you know what to expect from Haneke.
In one of the more baffling incorporations of millennial culture in cinema to date, Haneke’s latest film starts with a Snapchat. It’s of a child poisoning a hamster, though, so it fits with his style. The child is the remarkable young actress Fantine Hardui playing Eve Laurent, a dazed and apathetic 12-year-old who soon feeds her mother an overdose of the same medication she gave the furball. That means she has to return home to her extended family. She’s placed under the care of her father, Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz), who’s cheating on his second wife via social media. Her aunt, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), is the disinterested owner of the family construction business and is about to wed a man (Toby Jones) whom she seems indifferent to. Anne’s son (Franz Rogowski) is a drunken deadbeat who rants about the current refugee crisis while doing nothing. Jean-Louis Trintignant is Georges, the family patriarch who desperately wants to die and just might be reviving his character from Haneke’s ‘Amour’.
The various stories play out in seeming isolation for a while, each showing a different brand of self-absorbed wealthy depression fuelled by miscommunication (facilitated by the internet and otherwise). It feels almost like Haneke’s tragic tapestry ‘Code Unknown’ until the filmmaker gradually pulls the threads together into a single family saga. As usual, there’s no music. Shots linger uncomfortably long to create constant queasy tension. Viewers feel trapped with these miserable people, forced to examine their lives in uncomfortable detail whether we like it or not. At times, it feels like the filmmaker is repeating his greatest hits. At other times, it feels like he’s combining those greatest hits into something of a career-capping thesis. Ultimately, it’s hard to say which assessment is true.
In either case, ‘Happy End’ is potently powerful. It slithers under the skin to uncover uncomfortable truths with chilly precision and morbid wit. The performances are spectacular. The style is exquisitely alienating. However, the final product is both deeply distressing and held at too much of a distance for full investment. Haneke might not be attempting much new with the film (other than exploring digital communications and possibly forming a cinematic universe), but the old tricks still work for two reasons. First off, Haneke’s cruel assessment of loathsome humanity remains sadly accurate. Secondly, there’s no other filmmaker like Michael Haneke. Even when his works aren’t wholly successful, they still feel like a gift from a master observer of the very worst aspects of humanity.