Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's last film was 2012’s ‘Amour’, a harrowing yet moving story of old age underscored by love. His latest, ‘Happy End’ (don’t believe that title for a second), feels like a kick in the teeth of the earlier film, as though someone had accused European cinema’s high-minded provocateur of going soft and his response has been to reprise the suffering of ‘Amour’ but cancel the warmth completely.
Bleak in atmosphere and teasing in its jigsaw construction of ensemble moments, ‘Happy End’ is a snapshot of roughly a year in the life of a Calais family. The Laurents run a major construction firm and live in old-money style with servants. But there’s nothing familial about them. They share the same DNA but mask their depressions, schemes and perversions from each other. Haneke reminds us, too, that just down the road from the Laurents is the Calais migrant camp: if we’re to read anything into the Laurents’s diseased privilege, we should assume Haneke is talking about much more than just one family. This is a state-of-modern-Europe morality play.
At the head of the household is ailing Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who doesn't have a friendly word to say to anyone and is consumed with anger and regret. His daughter, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), runs the family business day-to-day and has a grown-up son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who has a drink problem and a chip on his shoulder about the family’s wealth. Anne’s brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), is an emotionally-stunted doctor, married to his second wife, Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), but seeking dirty thrills online. The couple has a new baby, and Thomas is also father to 13-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin), who comes to stay after her mum attempts suicide.
‘Happy End’ talks back to almost all of 75-year-old Haneke’s previous films, so much so that it feels like a career epilogue. Just as in the director’s first film, 1988’s ’The Seventh Continent’, suicide hangs heavily over ‘Happy End’. And admirers will see echoes everywhere: a tracking shot similar to one in ‘Code Unknown’; film-within-the-film surveillance cameras and home videos as in ‘Hidden’ and ‘Benny’s Video’; even a creepy young man with dark shadows under his eyes who looks like he’s stepped out of ‘Funny Games’.
There are hints that this is a companion piece to ‘Amour’, partly in a plot point that mirrors exactly an event in the earlier film, but also the casting of Trintignant and Huppert as father and daughter, and again giving Huppert’s character a British partner, here a London financier played by Toby Jones. ‘Happy End’ is a much more meandering, less contained film though, and it doesn’t have a central, gripping mystery like ‘Hidden’ and ‘The White Ribbon’. Rather it has a series of more isolated queries and conundrums. It’s a more diffuse film, and a more despairing one, although there are flashes of gallows humour to lighten the pileup of downers. And the happy end? Happy hunting.