This may come as a shock to you, but the title of Michael Haneke’s latest is actually ironic. Since setting fire to horror tropes in 1997’s audacious Funny Games, Haneke has emerged in the aughts as one of modern arthouse cinema’s most distinct and influential auteurs. Younger filmmakers such as Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Christine) and Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure, The Square) are clear disciples of the Haneke aesthetic: lengthy, static shots that observe their subjects at a chilly distance. It’s a striking technique, and the lack of a musical score only amplifies the growing sense of dread and disquiet.
Happy End certainly doesn’t stray from this established technique, for better or worse. His last effort, 2012’s Amour, was the highest praised work of his career, and even found him branching out by injecting the film with some honest-to-God sympathy for his time-ravished main characters. That sympathy is virtually nonexistent in regards to the bourgeois family at this story’s center.
The film begins as 12-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) is sent to live with her father and his extended family after her mother slips into a drug-induced coma. Judging from an opening smartphone POV shot which shows Eve poisoning her hamster with antidepressants, it’s safe to assume she’s the one responsible for her mother’s predicament.
From there, we’re introduced to the rest of the Laurent family, all of whom have their own myriad hangups and deep-seated issues. Eve’s father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), is in the midst of an affair which seems to be centered around disturbing acts of sexual degradation. His sister, Anne (Isabelle Huppert, one of our greatest living actresses), is caught in a legal battle after her son’s negligent behavior at her construction site causes a grave injury. Finally, Jean-Louis Trintignant, reprising his role from Amour as Georges, is the suicidal grandfather who strikes up an unusual friendship with Eve.
Much of the film’s malice and humor comes from the way this young girl’s arrival threatens to undo the precarious barrier of secrets and lies each family member has built around his or herself. Eve may be a sociopath, but at least she’s honest about it. For a glacially paced look at a despicable group of people, Happy End is nevertheless the funniest entry in Haneke’s filmography.
What ultimately prevents Happy End from feeling essential, however, is the inescapable notion that Haneke’s on autopilot here. Virtually every element of the plot has been executed to greater effect earlier in his career. The young psychopath obsessed with filmed exploits was the focus of 1992’s Benny’s Video. Thomas’s degrading and masochistic sexual impulses recall Huppert’s character in The Piano Teacher, and he addressed the concept of real-world threats infringing on the lives of a bourgeois family much more masterfully in Caché. It doesn’t necessarily say anything his other films haven’t although this time it’s served with a sprinkling of comedic nihilism.
Think of Happy End as Haneke’s remix album and you’re more likely to have a blast. Newcomers, on the other hand, should proceed with caution, as this record is decidedly not going to be everyone’s jam. Still, for those tuned into the filmmaker’s wavelength, it’s a darkly enjoyable stroll through materialistic hell.