In Happy End, writer/director Michael Haneke coalesces several of his recurring fixations. As in Benny’s Video, a young person explores their capacity for violence in the disconnect formed by the act of filming something. As in Funny Games (both versions), Cache and The Seventh Continent, members of the French upper crust experience alienation from one another and society, and are unable to coherently interact with those outside their station. As in Amour, characters struggle with aging and terminal illness. This film is, in fact, a sort of sequel to Amour, following variations of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert’s characters from that film (some names and other details have been changed). But Haneke does not pull these elements together into a statement of any strength, or to provoke in a new way, or to resonate thematically that much. The film is less a refrain than a distant echo of his earlier work.
The story revolves around the Laurent family, titans of industry in Calais. Elderly patriarch Georges (Trintignant) is suicidal in the wake of his mercy killing of his wife and his own deteriorating mind. His granddaughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) is newly living in the family mansion after her mother fell into a coma after overdosing on medication. Both stand out among their relatives thanks to their experiences having made them numb to daily life. They can’t go through the motions of bourgeois business and niceties the way the others can.
In observing said niceties, Happy End somewhat opens to the theme of how the actions of the rich hurt those below them as collateral. Georges’ daughter Anne (Huppert) spends the movie dealing with the fallout of a construction site accident, which may have been caused by company negligence. Eve’s father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is cheating on his young wife with whom he just had a baby. The family’s immigrant servants weather their mercurial needs, and at one point are hushed up after the guard dog bites their daughter. And looming over all is the fact that Georges killed his wife, and not only did he get off legal-wise, but all those around him refuse to acknowledge it. But while Happy End brings these plot threads to ends which most viewers would guess from early in, it doesn’t do so to any cogent point. It might as well be a series of disconnected vignettes instead of one story. Contempt for the rich is all well and good, but the most potent venom is fresh.
Even retreading old content would be fine if Haneke went about it in an interesting way, but Happy End seems to be on formal autopilot. The camera mainly sits wherever is convenient, which is disappointing coming from a director who usually has a laser focus on composition. The movie starts promisingly, with a series of Snapchat videos that suggest the POV of Eve’s preteen sociopathy, but abandons that conceit after that opening. (Though the thought of austere European auteur Michael Haneke learning Snapchat will entertain for years to come.) Haneke has always found his best material in pitting his work almost against the viewer by using the frame to shake his characters like a kid with an ant farm. The promise of that approach is illuminated by its lack here. Those Snapchat shots tell the audience more about Eve than most of Harduin’s performance. It’s heavily implied that she poisoned her mother, but this does not come to anything. This is obviously meant to be haunting, but instead, like the rest of the film, it feels more like a shrug.
Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.