Happy End Review
Five years after picking up an Oscar and the Palme D’or for this hard-hitting study of old age, Amour, Michael Haneke returns with Happy End, a film far more subtle in its approach than many of his previous efforts. Those who are familiar with his work will be aware that there is probably more than a hint of irony hidden within the film’s title. But it’s the opening prologue, as seen through a twelve-year-old's Snapchat-style videos, that show a disturbing level of unhappiness shared by many more members of her wider family.
The young girl is Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), who after using her hamster as, well, a guinea pig, and sending her mum to hospital with a pill overdose, has to move in with her separated father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) who is now married and parent to another child but still up to his cheating ways. The Laurent’s live on a grand estate in opulent style, headed up by the suicidal Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who handed over the reins of their large construction firm to daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert). Her own son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is an alcoholic struggling with his own emotional issues, while Anne’s long distance boyfriend, Lawrence (Toby Jones), barely gets a look in thanks to her focus on the family business.
As is so often the case with Haneke, he takes great delight in crafting darker inner worlds inside the shadows of his characters. The sinister way he opens the film continues to loom over young Eve every time we see her view of the world through the window of her mobile. Filming her baby step-brother in his cot while claiming him as a replacement for a sibling who died years before leaves you wondering what other ideas plans she has in mind. Elsewhere, Thomas’ filthy online messages to a hidden lover are as frank as they are funny at times and when Pierre crashes off the bandwagon his performance of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ is a sight to behold.
The film is as described as a drama taking place in Calais set against the backdrop of the refugee crisis. Yet the two occasions where a group of young African men are shoved into the narrative offers no context as to who they are and why they are appear – beyond Pierre’s poor attempt to cause embarrassment for his family. The Laurents exist in a bubble and any social commentary being made about their bourgeois lifestyle falls completely flat. Echoes of Haneke’s previous work seem to reveal themselves through this dysfunctional family unit and for a man so late in his career, retreading some of the same ground is only to be expected.
The biggest disappointment of Happy End is that it never really gains enough momentum to go anywhere and make its points loudly enough. A strong cast give life to their roles where possible (young Fantine Harduin displays a particularly steely nerve) but their profiles lack the depth to make any one of them stand out. Haneke has spent most of his career slowly playing with the simmering violence and anger that boils underneath the façade of middle class life, and this time it seems like the flame is stuck on mid-heat. That said, there is just about enough to keep things interesting and, of course, what is there not to love about such a joyous ending.