Though still celebrated for his dark observations of human nature in the ‘90s, Austrian director Michael Haneke has made some strong movies in his later years that showed maturity. Caché (2005), The White Ribbon (2009) and Amour (2012), which this critic reviewed (Film Review: ‘Amour’ captures poetry of confronting death in love), all showed the director pushing his style in more profound directions. Amour even had a sense of existential beauty. A bar had been set at an impressive high point, which makes it all the more disappointing that his latest, Happy End, seems as if he has taken a clumsy step backward.
The film opens through the display screen of an iPhone. Text messages are exchanged that suggest a true psychopath at the keys of it. The images that unfold before these texts are distressing and heightened further by the inhuman expression sociopathic coldness in the messages. The fact that we never see who is at the controls of this device further adds a chilly factor to the actions and commentary unfolding before our eyes. However, Haneke, who also wrote the script, never follows through this initial display of creepiness. Instead, he stumbles through the usual things that one finds so easily disappointing about the bourgeois. Following the social bumbling of these kinds of people often becomes a device Haneke leans on to validate acts of violence or misfortune against them. But it does little to validate a misanthropic tone toward the characters of his movies.
Happy End follows three generations of an industrialist family in the multicultural port city of Calais. The patriarch, Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is in his twilight years and really seems uncomfortable about continuing his life, which confines him to a wheelchair. Once again the talented Isabelle Huppert plays daughter to Trintignant’s character in a Haneke film. Anne Laurent is the one left in charge of the company’s massive construction projects. She is trying to pass her management skills to her hot-headed son Pierre Laurent (Franz Rogowski) to little avail. Obviously too spoiled to invest in his future, Pierre easily panics after an accident on one of their construction sites. That moment also unfolds through the filter of a digital display, a surveillance screen that captures the massive site in a long take where, if you blink, you might miss what actually happened. The film seems to be moving toward the coldness of life via screens that might implicate the audience.
But soon, after this bit of drama at the site, Haneke does away with the distancing element of computer screens (minus some horny exchanges via laptops between adults). The performances feature a host of other characters, most notably newcomer Fantine Harduin, who plays disaffected granddaughter Eve Laurent. She is the daughter of Georges’ son, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), from a previous marriage. The social and business problems of this very rich family unfolds against a backdrop that brings attention to the current refugee crisis, from their servants to men on the street who get no spoken lines. These immigrants become props. The fact that some are voiceless is an obvious enough gesture, and the family remains ignorant to ever truly acknowledging them as anything else as backdrop, save for a polite gesture toward the end of the film by Anne. But that’s merely a bridge for them to carry on with a bit of weirdness that has been below their noses all this time. Apathy as melodrama never felt so dull.
Happy End runs 107 minutes, is in English and French with English subtitles and is rated R. It opened in our Miami area at Tower Theater Miami on Friday, Jan. 19. Further north, in Broward County it is now also playing at both Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. Then, on Friday, Jan. 26 it comes to the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Sony Pictures Classics sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review.