Movie review: Happy End
The story of an unhappy French family follows the director’s usual pattern of dysfunction and brutal motives, but there’s not much to keep us watching
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Kassovitz, Jean-Louis Trintignant
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Running time: 115 minutes
(In French with English subtitles and some English)
By Jay Stone
The last time we saw the legendary French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant was, coincidentally, the last time we saw the dour Austrian film director Michael Haneke: in the 2012 Haneke film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. In it, Trintignant played Georges, an older man who solves the problem of his beloved wife who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease by suffocating her. The movie was called, with typical Haneke straightforwardness, Amour.
Now, six years later, Trintignant returns as a man named Georges — now suffering dementia as well — who tells the story of how he suffocated his wife, a family legend he shares with his 13-year-old granddaughter Eve (Fantine Harduin), whom we have earlier witnessed drugging her pet hamster and then possibly poisoning her own mother. This movie — which is not exactly a sequel but isn’t a departure into mad comedy either — is called Happy End. You can rest assured that it isn’t.
Michael Haneke is back, in other words, bringing with him a familiar cast — Isabelle Huppert also returns as Georges’s daughter Annie — and a host of dark themes that have enlivened, or perhaps benumbed, his cinema: the use of recording devices (videotape in the bleak puzzle Cache; cell phone footage here); unhappy bourgeois families, a habit of placing his camera just outside the action, such as it is, and letting it unfold in all its quotidian pointlessness. Even when things happen in Happy End, but Haneke likes to view them from afar, out of earshot. There’s a scene where one of the members of Georges’s family, an alcoholic grandson named Pierre (Franz Rogowski), gets out of his car — after a terrific job of casual parallel parking, by the way, and a tribute to the supple power steering of the modern automobile — walks across the courtyard of a rundown apartment complex, knocks on the door, waits, talks to the guy who finally answers, and is punched in the nose. We sit back near the car to watch all this, which unfolds in real time.
At least there was a payoff. You may be lulled by another typical scene in which we see Eve packing to join her surgeon father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) at the home of her aunt Annie while her poisoned mother recovers in hospital. She takes clothes from the closet, puts them in a suitcase, zips up the suitcase, locks the back door of her bedroom, picks up the suitcase, and walks downstairs with it. This takes long enough for us to feel fully immersed in the anomie of the bourgeois life.
Annie is head of the family construction company, which is in trouble because of an accident in which some workers were injured. She’s engaged to an unlikely English financial adviser (Toby Jones, introduced watching a TV newscast about a drilling rig fire, another piece of in-the-wings social critique) and trying to navigate the shoals of a failing father, a deadbeat son and the problems of her immigrant staff who form yet another motif. The sudden appearance of a Nigerian refugee at a family luncheon — he’s introduced as having escaped after witnessing Boko Haram burning his wife and child alive — is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Neanderthal who makes an even more uncomfortable appearance in the Swedish drama The Square. In that film, the invader empties the room; in Happy End, being set in Calais, the party crashers are seated and fed.
Not that we actually see that part. Haneke not only works at the edges of the unhappiness and anxiety of his fraught middle-class settings, he meanders just outside the plot. Thus Thomas, whose wife is in the hospital, is carrying on a sexually intense affair that we never see with a woman whom we never meet. We do, however, read the emails (“I want you to piss in pain so I can console you”) that emerge — like much in this film — as the bitter tracings of empty, hopeless passions.
Haneke fans, if such exist, remember the shocks of plainspoken violence that he uses in his films — the throat cutting in Cache; the woman tossed into the lake in Funny Games — to undercut audience attitudes toward cinema. There’s little of this in Happy End; Haneke himself also appears to have reached an ending. There are many ways to talk about the louche comforts of the ruling classes, but at 75, Haneke appears to have exhausted the ones that interested him. It isn’t a happy end for him either.
THE EX-PRESS, February 6, 2018
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