Michael Haneke is back, along with his favourite actor, Isabelle Huppert, with family drama Happy Ending, which offers up plenty of the Austrian director's familiar themes
Unsurprisingly for a Michael Haneke movie, that title is ironic (remember Funny Games?). Happy End explores all the themes we have come to associate with the Austrian director, but it’s undeniably a lesser film than his most recent work, the masterful Amour and The White Ribbon.
Better viewed as a pastiche of previous themes and plotting, this could almost be a semi-sequel to Amour. What lifts the film is the way Haneke presents his narrative following the lives of a wealthy French family across the generations through the lens of social media and contemporary culture's obsession with it.
The lengthy opening shot is a live-stream from a pseudo-Facebook Live video, as a young girl named Eve records her depressed mother at a bathroom sink on her iPhone, shot under unflattering halogen light. It’s an unsettling scene, with morose captions flashing across the screen as the young girl comments on the sadness that surrounds her life. The next thing we see is a static feed from a building site's CCTV camera showing one wall of a construction as it slowly slumps down, killing several workers.
Eve, played by Fantine Harduin, is the anchor of the plot, which follows the lives of her bourgeois relatives, who include Anne (Isabelle Huppert), her stern, elegant aunt and head of the family’s construction company. Anne is dating a London lawyer (Toby Jones), and she has a dysfunctional, alcoholic son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski) – who it turns out is responsible for the construction disaster. The family's patriarch is the ageing Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant in a role that echoes Amour), who has succumbed to dementia and developed a strong Thanatos complex. Then there is Georges' son and father to Eve, the caddish Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), who can never seem to stay married for long. They live in a lavish mansion in Calais and are waited on by Moroccan servants. They have wealth and success, but the atmosphere is far from joyful, with each inhabitant unhappy for one reason or another.
In any other director’s hands, the engagement with technology might seem cheap, but in Haneke's it holds together. He clearly wants to explore how we engage with this media and how it impacts our lives. While it is handled well, however, there is still a nagging sense of artifice.
It was rumoured that Happy End was going to explore the refugee crisis, and there are a couple of scenes that nod to this (one painfully awkward moment towards the end of the film particularly), but quite how this relates to technology is never made explicit.
What dominates is familial dysfunction, as well as Haneke’s other favourite themes: guilt, repression, and of course death. And being Haneke, you suspect that there will be the inevitable shock in the final throes of the movie, and so it turns out to be, supplied by Huppert in a moment of shocking hilarity and horror.
The Austrian’s shtick has not exactly gone stale, but the film doesn't gel thematically. There are still things to recommend in Happy End, particularly the blackly comic tone that should trigger a few guilty laughs, but perhaps it is time for this master director to explore some new territory.