Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke has made many a masterpiece – and his latest, Happy End, isn’t one of them. Yet this cinematic poke in the eye about an upper class family imploding still exerts a perverse fascination. From early provocations like The Seventh Continent (1989) through later boundary-pushing works like The Piano Teacher, Cache, The White Ribbon, Funny Games (both the original and it’s English-language remake) and Amour, the fillmaker specializes in the toxic indifference that can kill a family or society as a whole. He offers no easy answers. As the man himself once said: “My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.”
I include that statement just so strangers to Haneke’s world view know what they’re in for. The Laurents, the family under the microscope in Happy End, hide in the bubble of its own privilege and live in a mansion in the French coastal city of Calais. Georges, played by the reliably brilliant Jean-Louis Trintignant, is about to turn 85; since the passing of his wife, he’s in love only with death. (In many ways, this ironically titled drama could be the sequel to Amour.) The widower is trapped with what’s left of his family: his daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who runs the clan’s construction business; her immature son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who she’d like to see take over operations; Anne’s brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), a doctor; his wife, Anaïs (Laura Verlinden) and their newborn son; and Ève (a dynamite Fantine Harduin), Thomas’s 13-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, who comes to live at chez Laurent after the suicide of her mother.
It’s hardly a picture of domestic tranquility, and things get worse when the family business takes a hit. A wall collapses at one of their construction sites, injuring an employee and opening up the family to lawsuits. Anne’s lover and English lawyer, Lawrence (Toby Jones) steps in to help. But there’s security footage of the construction accident that tells its own story. Haneke devotees already know the filmmaker’s infamous disdain of cyberspace, surveillance footage and smartphone snooping in the service of killing privacy. An image of a cell phone opens the film and the viewer watches along with Eva as her camera spies on Anne undressing for bed and offers snide commentary. Her father’s Skype interludes with his mistress also don’t escape Eve’s scrutiny. And in one troubling exchange between the young woman, who may be a danger to her baby brother, and Georges, who fails to die even after crashing his car into a tree, the film takes on living in the past and the present as equally futile gestures. Trintignant and Harduin play the scene with a chilling detachment that cuts to the bone.
And yet the family perseveres, ignoring any human casualties that might interfere with its routine and turning a blind eye to the African immigrants, many undocumented, who live outside their locked door. Haneke jumps from one scene to another with no regard for time, space or clarity. Happy End is a puzzle and it’s our job to connect the pieces. If it doesn’t drive you crazy first, you’ll find yourself maddened and mesmerized to the bitter end.