Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Toby Jones
Genre: Drama / World Cinema
After a mysterious poisoning hospitalises her mother, 13-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) goes to live with her estranged father and his extended family in their huge home in Calais. However, despite seeming to be a normal bourgeois family, each member of the Laurents seems to harbour their own individual demons.
Due to various commitments I had to miss out in seeing a fair few films at the cinema in 2017, and one that I was the most disappointed about missing out on was Michael Haneke’s latest, and so I have had to wait for its Blu-ray release to see it.
Well, despite this film’s title, anyone who thought that after the very tender and stunning film Amour that Austrian auteur Michael Haneke had gone a bit soft will be proved wrong by his latest offering. Happy End is an unapologetically uncompromising satirical soap opera about bourgeois flaws that is delivered in a tone that is borderline sociopathic. Indeed, Happy End may not win Haneke many new fans, and those that only like Amour may not get on with this either, but for those that are happy to embrace his unique narrative and ideological approach to filmmaking in films like Hidden and Funny Games, this is a film that offers many treats in the dark and glorious underbelly beneath its seemingly very cold surface.
This being Haneke, he adopts a very episodic narrative structure in Happy End where we get seemingly random scenes involving the various characters, and these scenes are often done in long takes with no non-diagetic sounds. Admittedly it is a struggle at first to get one’s bearings as to who everyone is and how they fit in within the overall narrative. Haneke is not only a very economical and minimalist filmmaker, but also one that treats the viewer with respect and trusts them to form their own opinions and put some effort in themselves – though at least he doesn’t seem to want to tell the audience off like he did in Funny Games! Some of the scenes even have intentionally inaudible dialogue, and it is only their actions and body language that suggests what is happening and what they are saying – this is certainly an approach that not many directors would even have the audacity to try!
If the viewer is willing to put in the required effort and work with Haneke’s single-minded and uncompromising style, then they will be infinitely rewarded by a film that has great intellectual depth and a generous helping of jet black humour. Indeed, I would argue that this is one of those films that is better on second viewing as then it can be analysed as a narrative whole with the knowledge of who everyone is and a greater understanding of their various actions. Haneke is a very precise director, and every single piece of dialogue, every single action a character undertakes, and the intricate design of every scene is there for a reason, and there are undoubtedly a few subtler details that may be missed on first viewing.
Happy End is not a film that is afraid to go to some very dark places, and its matter-of-fact depiction of the dark themes and narrative developments in some ways only serves to make them more unnerving, but also serves to make the film more compelling. The over-privileged bourgeois characters within the narrative are difficult to like, and that is undoubtedly the point, but thanks to Haneke’s intelligent and observational script they are still fascinating as this allows the narrative to explore themes of the basic human condition that are relatable, and also serves to make a mockery of the film’s characters and their lifestyles. Just to add to the film’s satirical eye is the fact that the characters live in Calais, where the recent migrant crisis was particularly prevalent, and as with everything else this is dealt with in an appropriately subtle way that just adds more depth to the film and enhances its core themes.
The cast are also in top form, delivering suitably underplayed performances that are consistent with the film’s tone, with the standouts being Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert, Fantine Harduin as the young daughter with some very dark ideologies and secrets, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the eldest family member who seems to be completely disillusioned with life.
As the narrative develops we the audience may find almost as little connection with the characters as they do with actual reality, but thanks to Haneke’s unique style this allows the film to explore some deeper and more relatable themes about the human condition, and this is one of the reasons why it is a unique and infinitely rewarding viewing experience.
Michael Haneke returns and is in typical uncompromising form; Happy End is a deliciously dark satire that may not win him any new fans, but for those willing to accommodate his unique style it offers infinate rewards.