Director: Michael Haneke
So it’s a Michael Haneke film called Happy End. So is it happy ever after for the characters? It’s not a huge surprise to know that it’s not. This late into a career that’s brought us the blowtorch cinema of Funny Games, early video nasties such as Benny’s Video ,and the high water-mark of Hidden, he’s not going to start making rom-coms. Haneke’s style is now as firmly set as a new Noel Gallagher album and Happy End is, as several other reviewers have noted, practically a greatest hits collection.
The film introduces a large cast of mainly related characters revolving around the matriarch, Anne, played by the majestic Isabelle Huppert, head of a loaded haute bourgois family. She is fighting to save the family construction business, that she took over from her father Georges. He meanwhile is infirm and worried about dementia – so much so that he spends most of the film attempting to end his life. Anne’s brother, Thomas, has to care for his daughter 13-year Eve, brought into their lives after her mother, Tom’s first wife, has a drugs overdose. Keeping up? Meanwhile Anne’s drunkard son Pierre is putting the business increasing at risk with his erratic behaviour at work. While saving the firm, keeping her son in check, and looking out for her dad, Anne is also deciding in her fifties to get married again.
Does this sound like an episode of Eastenders? Bang on. If previous Haneke films have taken the thriller and turned it inside out, this one is a dark twisted cousin to the soap opera, or the dynastic series such as Dallas or Dynasty. Many of the sensational plot devices of the tele novela: suicide attempts, violence, secrets that are revealed, unpopular second marriages – are visited on this family in a series of scenes that loosely bring unhappy 13-year old Eve and unhappy eighty-something George together.
All of Haneke’s stylistic tics and formal concerns are here: characters seen on screens in the real world (now smartphones, snapchat and Youtube vlogs); moments of unexpected domestic violence; and long static shots in which the action and dialogue are not wholly clear; inter-generational and inter-racial tension. The scenes that really cut through, that get the old Haneke frisson going, are almost all on screens (phones, laptops, CCTV) rather than seen directly through the camera. There’s one remarkable shot, of a construction site, that will have you thinking how on earth he managed to do that.
At times the tension is unbearable as we wait for Haneke’s misanthropic fist to come down. Eve, Pierre and Georges are all damaged and in search of love that their family cannot provide. But as often scenes end in bathos. Or just end. It’s a deliberately frustrating watch as we’re denied exposition, development and resolution. As ever, Haneke is trolling us the audience for investing sympathy and feeling in these upper middle-class monsters, and even for the act of turning up to our art-house cinema. As Maximus put it so well, are you not entertained?
Me? Not his best, plenty to savour in the immaculate acting and the beautiful crystal-clear cinematography. As to whether it’s all tosh, or whether he deliberately wants you think it’s all tosh, I’m not sure. Need to watch Hidden again.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Other Haneke and his many imitators. You’re in for this kind of stuff or your not. Don’t go on spec is my advice.