Directed by Michael Haneke
Written by Michael Haneke
In one sense, Happy End is something quite new and different for director Michael Haneke. It’s a sequel of sorts to his 2012 film Amour, but in more meaningful ways, it is a retread of his earlier works that offers few new insights. It’s a film that wants to be a greatest hits album, but instead is merely a compilation of B-sides.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert return as Georges and Anne Laurent, confusingly sharing the names of their characters from Amour, but though Georges relates a story identical to some of the events in that film, they are not the same characters. (Even more confusingly, Haneke has named his leads Georges and Anne in the vast majority of his films.) Now a widower, Georges lives in a large house with Anne, as well as his son Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz). Thomas’ daughter, Eve (Fantine Harduin), has come to live with him and his new wife after her mother overdoses on antidepressants. She enters into a house of quiet turmoil, where each person has their own interior and exterior conflicts. Georges has had enough of life and is determined to end his, although he’s too frail to do the job well; Anne is dealing with her reckless son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), a disaster with her construction company, and an impending engagement to Lawrence (Toby Jones), an English lawyer; Thomas has his own dark secrets, which Eve will eventually discover hiding on his laptop.
Haneke adopts a modified version of the structure he used in Code Unknown (2000), in which the story is told in discrete segments rather than as a single flowing narrative. Unlike that earlier film, the structure serves Happy End poorly. Code Unknown was an ensemble film akin to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), in which a disparate group of characters seemingly live separate lives, until the strands converge in surprising ways. In that case, the disjointed structure kept the connections hidden until they united at the end in sublime ways, but there’s little reason for using this kind of structure in Happy End, where the characters all live together in their own insular world. Each person’s failing are intimately entwined with the others from the very beginning, and there’s never a point where everything comes together in a revealing manner.
If Happy End has another connection to Code Unknown, it’s in the unfortunate way that Haneke tries to graft themes from that film onto this one without finding an organic way to develop them. Code Unknown is partially an exploration of the experience of immigrants living illegally in France at the end of the 20th century, and it also served as a dark warning of roiling anti-immigrant populism that has infected vast parts of Europe in the current century. Haneke seems to want to return to that theme in a late scene in which Anne is celebrating her engagement to Lawrence with a banquet. Pierre bursts in unannounced, looking overdressed in a tuxedo, and proceeds to parade in a group of African immigrants he has presumably promised a free meal. He claims some of them have been victims of the terrorist organization Boko Haram, though it’s not clear if this is true or just a racist stereotype he has adopted for maximum discomfort.
Haneke is a master of slow reveals, best evinced in Caché (2005), but it’s as if he forgot the reveal that explains Pierre’s behavior here. Other than an early hint at alcoholism, his rage at his family arrives out of nowhere. Haneke may have explained the absence of motivation in a recent interview with Nicolas Rapold for Film Comment: “I tried to tell the story and to present the characters in such a way that I was delivering the strict minimum necessary for the tale, in such a way that it would provoke the audience to complete the story, to project themselves in the story, to complete [the characters’] stories.” Haneke’s strategy — a literal example of “less is more” — is a valid approach, but only if the audience has been supplied with enough information to fill in the missing pieces. Instead, he’s given the audience too little. Perhaps he might defend this omission in the name of ambiguity, but ambiguity is only useful when it opens up new ways of interpreting a film. Happy End‘s unexpected commentary on immigration issues doesn’t strengthen it in any meaningful way.
Elsewhere, Haneke is late to the party with his critiques of the role of technology in our lives. One of the Laurents documents a ghastly crime using a Snapchat-like video app, and another anonymous character engages in sexually depraved Facebook messages. Earlier films — including Benny’s Video (1992), Code Unknown, and Caché — all dealt with the dangers of surveillance, but Happy End’s approach to the subject is more akin to a warmed-over version of Black Mirror. It’s another instance of Haneke repeating himself, with nothing new to say.
If there’s one promising development, it’s Haneke’s embrace of humor. Other than Funny Games (1997/2007), his films rarely feature any laughs (and the humor in Funny Games is perhaps too monstrous to even count). In Happy End, Haneke finally seems to find something to laugh about in the failings of his characters. He has stated that he made the film because he wanted to work with Trintignant again, so it makes sense that Georges is the most intriguing of the Laurents, as well as the source of most of the humor. One can only hope that future Haneke works will continue to mix humor with his usual dark tone.
There is a popular trend among some critics to attack Haneke’s films as being hopelessly dour and unimaginative critiques of bourgeois lifestyles, but that’s often unfair. Haneke’s films are cold and often come across as attacks on the very people who would be most likely to see them, but beyond his chilly façades are a genuine desire for a world in which privilege is cast aside in favor of respecting the humanity of all people. Many of the critiques miss that, and instead complain about how depressing his movies are, as if that’s somehow a sin. Unfortunately, Happy End is a film that threatens to prove those critics right.