Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Franz Rogowski, Fantine Harduin, Toby Jones
Running time: 107 minutes
When her mother is hospitalised after being found unconscious under rather suspicious circumstances, 13-year old Eve Laurent (Harduin) is sent away to Calais to live with her father Thomas (Kassovitz) – a home also shared with rest of the Laurent clan, including sister Anne (Huppert) and elderly father Georges (Trintignant).
Well, I think we’ve found our top contender for most misleading film title of 2017. Valerian might have had a few planets (whether it was exactly a thousand is anyone’s guess), Baby Driver had a fella called Baby behind the wheel of a car, The Emoji Movie had emojis – even if everything about it was – and even The Killing of a Sacred Deer had…had…ok, so maybe a joint contender.
Regardless, you’ll do well to find any trace of a happy ending in Happy End. But then again, with Haneke at the helm, did you really expect anything else?
The renowned Austrian auteur has made a career from the unnerving, the unconventional, and the divisive. With films like Amour and The White Ribbon, Haneke quietly shocks in his examinations of social issues and familial dynamics, leaving little space for redemption and revelling in his very own brand of suggestive strangeness.
In a week that gave us the zesty, life-affirming Wonder, we’re shoved down the opposite road with Happy End. The opening frames – shot on a smartphone – offer up a hamster on the business end of some rather sinister 13-year old-ing; and soon after, a security camera captures the collapse of a large construction site. With the tone of death and decay well and truly set, we quickly find ourselves in the heart of Haneke-land once more – where it’s always cold, and the warming of cockles has never been a thing. Dark, funny, unnerving, and near impossible to predict where we’ll end up, Happy End is classic Haneke, even if it isn’t quite top-notch Haneke.
After the opening sinister stylistic playfulness, Happy End begins to weave its subtly unsavoury thematic web, as the man behind the camera once again expresses his love of playing unhappy families. Huppert’s Anne tackles a strained relationship with her alcoholic son Pierre (Ragowski) who – when he’s not giving us the most bizarrely hypnotic rendition of Sia’s Chandelier you’re ever likely to see – is going above and beyond to make a scene at every social situation. At either ends of the age spectrum, young Eve finds a collection of rather sadomasochistic messages on her father’s computer; and the elderly Georges has just about had enough with life but is classified as “too healthy to qualify” for legal euthanasia.
And upon such dysfunction, Haneke generously sprinkles drops of darkly satirical humour. The film can’t refrain from a dig at the middle-class, and – set predominantly in Calais – a comment on the growing refugee crisis around them that they try ever so hard to ignore. One scene: an intoxicated Pierre bringing a group of Nigerian immigrants to the doors of a rather lavish, all-white banquet is played out primarily for laughs, but carries with it a deeper, more sincere observation.
And be it through the camera of a Snapchat-esc app, or the typed conversations over the messenger of a Facebook-equivalent social media platform, this is a film all about observation. So much so, that to those unfamiliar with his style, Haneke’s static camera and propensity for lengthy, lingering close-up shots can seem excessive and mundane. But there is almost always the feeling of something ominous brooding behind each stare, each glance, and each look that even if you find yourself bored, you’ll never find yourself comfortable.
Huppert is impeccable, if not somewhat restrained given her recent exports; Ragowski is the suitably bonkers anomaly in a film of nuanced performances, as a twenty-something lost soul whose heart is often in the right place, even if his head is far, far from it. Even the wonderful Toby Jones shows up for a spot of, well, wonderfulness. However, it is the film’s youngest and eldest that impress most here. Harduin plays off a seamless transition of cute harmlessness to calculated malevolence effortlessly, and Trintignant continues his fine Amour form (in more ways than one) by offering up unfiltered stubbornness by the bucket-load.
Toying with convention and style in a way that only Haneke knows how, Happy End delivers a viewing experience that is equally rich, cerebral, dull, and disconcerting; teaching us that hamsters and anti-depressants really shouldn’t mix. Put simply, this is the closest thing we’re likely to get to a Haneke-directed episode of Eastenders – but, then again, you never know…