Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke follows up his Oscar-winning Foreign Language Film, Amour, with Happy End, a cold, nihilistic provocation that functions as a semi-sequel to the unbearably heartbreaking love story from 2012. Jean-Louis Trintignant, 87, a veteran of the French new wave, once again appears as an octogenarian named Georges, and he’s trying to convince someone—anyone—to end his life as dementia has begun to strip away his dignity. It’s cruel, but Haneke’s never been an artist who’s known for his warmth, despite the tenderness he displayed in his previous film.
Returning yet again to France, the 75-year-old Haneke’s latest piece of playful misanthropy doesn’t simply function as a quasi-continuation of Amour, but also as a summation of his three-decade film career, a sort of greatest hits compilation that borrows elements from his entire oeuvre. The elliptical, fragmentary storytelling style recalls 2000’s Code Unknown, while the backdrop of the European refugee crisis echoes the colonialism at the core of 2005’s Caché. Meanwhile, the video voyeurism of 1992’s crime drama Benny’s Video has been updated for the smartphone and social media age, with one character recording her sociopathic acts, and another facilitating his illicit affair on Facebook Messenger. Through Haneke’s observant lens, these aren’t seen as moves for the better.
Other commonalities carried into Happy End are the suicidal urges presented in his first feature, 1989’s The Seventh Continent, along with his focus on society’s moral rot, beginning with the youngest characters, a la the proto-Nazis in 2009’s The White Ribbon. As such, you’d be correct if you guessed that Haneke’s latest film’s title is bitterly ironic.
The closest person that Happy End’s fragmented narrative has to a protagonist is a 13-year-old girl, Ève Laurent (Fantine Harduin). Possessing a chilly disposition to go with her cellphone, this adolescent is revealed to be the amateur documentarian behind the video footage that opens the film. As Ève narrates, we witness her poisoning her pet hamster with her mother’s antidepressants, which we gradually discover is a trial run for secretly poisoning her mother. Yes, Ève is a bad seed—but in true Haneke fashion, we’ll also find that the roots of her sociopathy run deep in the Laurent clan.
Ève is sent to the Laurent family estate in the coastal city of Calais to live with her father, Thomas (Amélie’s Mathieu Kassovitz)—Georges’ son—a doctor with a new wife (Laura Verlinden) and an infant. Ève is welcomed by the upper-class family, which allows Haneke to indulge in another variation of a tale he never tires of telling: that of the bourgeoisie too blinded by their privilege to notice the suffering that surrounds them.
Haneke introduces Ève to the multigenerational Laurent household after we observe another bit of video footage—this time captured from a static security camera—as a wall collapses at one of the family’s construction sites. That project is overseen by Thomas’ older sister Anne (Haneke’s frequent muse, Isabelle Huppert, who not-so-coincidentally portrayed a character also named Anne Laurent in the director’s apocalyptic drama Time of the Wolf), who hopes to cede the business to her emotionally ill-equipped adult son, the wayward man-child Pierre (Franz Rogowski).
A worker is injured during the accident, but even this tragedy isn’t enough to disrupt the family’s banal routine, which is centered around the dinner table. It’s here that Ève is introduced to her grandfather. Despite the fact that Georges has trouble remembering who this young girl is, the two develop an odd bond based on their shared antipathy toward the adults surrounding them, along with their mutual conclusion that life might not be worth living.
Although the film is presented with a linear structure, scenes don’t necessarily connect, nor are we aware of how much time passes between them. And when we first see a real-time conversation transpire on Facebook, Haneke’s camera is fixed on a computer screen, leaving us to figure out who is chatting. In other words, this isn’t a passive viewing experience. It’s up to us to figure out who or what we should be focusing on within the frame, which has been exquisitely composed by Haneke’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Christian Berger.
Pay special attention to the working class, like the Moroccan couple (Hassam Ghancy and Nabiha Akkari) employed as servants by the Laurents. More specifically, observe the African refugees who are visible only when we take the time to look for them. Thus, the audience becomes complicit in the characters’ apathy toward others—although you may be laughing too hard during the final moments of the film to notice. But as is usual with Haneke, the joke’s on us. ◆
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Franz Rogowski, Laura Verlinden, Aurélia Petit, Toby Jones, Hille Perl, Hassam Ghancy, Nabiha Akkari and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Written and directed by Michael Haneke. At Coolidge Corner. In French and English with English subtitles.