Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Franz Rogowski, Laura Verlinden, Toby Jones
MPAA Rating: (for some sexual material and language)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 12/22/17 (limited); 1/12/18 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 21, 2017
Not many filmmakers would imagine a story that includes a teenage girl who has poisoned her mother, three suicide attempts by two different characters, the downfall of a substance abuser, and the almost happy retelling of the story of a mercy killing. Perhaps, though, only writer/director Michael Haneke would imagine this story and dare to call it Happy End.
Haneke dares us quite a bit with this movie: to find common ground with these well-to-do and socially unaware characters, to observe some sort of redemptive quality in their actions and attitudes, and to see some sort of point in the pain and misery of people who don't appear to care much about the pain and misery of others. It's difficult to tell if we're supposed to sympathize with the extended Laurent family, which owns and runs a successful construction company in France.
If we're not meant to sympathize with them, then there really doesn't seem to be much purpose to movie. There is, one supposes, the notion that there is something terribly wrong with these characters—either the result of genetics or the personality traits that come from living a life of comfortable luxury. If it's simply that, then Haneke is only asking us to observe. Here, a little observation goes a long way in seeing just how casually apathetic these characters are.
The story opens with Eve (Fantine Harduin), or better, it opens with videos she makes on her smartphone. She records her mother from a distance and, in text bubbles at the bottom of the screen, comments on how uncaring the woman is toward her own daughter. The next video documents an experiment involving her pet hamster, the hamster's food, and her mother's anti-depressants. A final one details how Eve has moved on to a human subject with her testing—namely, her own mother.
There's something almost clinical in Eve's approach, and it's an approach that Haneke himself seems to take with his characters. One wonders if he's conducting his own scientific experiment with these people—giving them as many problems and complications as possible, then waiting to see how they'll respond.
The next major scene is a completely objective shot. It's security camera footage at a construction site. Everything is going normally, and suddenly, a wall enclosing the pit where the machinery and employees are working collapses. It happens without any warning, and after becoming accustomed to the rhythm of the work, we might not see if anyone was near the collapse.
The answer to this comes from Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who has taken over control of the firm from her father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Someone was injured in the accident. She spends the rest of the movie trying to work out a loan with a major bank to expand the company's reach. The accident puts some doubt into the plan, as well as the erratic behavior of her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), an alcoholic who is next in line to take control of the company.
Meanwhile, Anne commiserates with her boyfriend Lawrence (Toby Jones), who exists in an isolated bubble for most of the movie—alone and seemingly forgotten by his busy lover. There's a revelation near the end of the movie that puts their relationship in an entirely different context—one of utility and possible corruption.
At least that's what we think Haneke is saying. He always has approached his material with some considerable distance, and that approach has served him well in his intimate and oftentimes difficult-to-take tales. There's something different about his approach when it's aimed at these characters. It almost feels like critique, simply allowing these characters to condemn themselves through their behaviors, but it is so objective that there are times when we wonder if Haneke himself doesn't really want to get close to them at all.
Eve comes back into the story, of course, when she moves into the grand mansion in which all of the Laurents live. She's a member of this clan—the daughter of Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) from his first marriage. Thomas, the head surgeon at a hospital, is now married to Anaïs (Laura Verlinden) and has an infant son with her. He's also having an affair, which we learn through static shots of his online conversations—going into their sexual relationship in graphic detail—with another woman.
There's some considerable tension in how Eve will react to her new family and, eventually, her uncovering of her father's affair. We know what she is capable of doing, and a rather frank and twisted conversation with her grandfather suggests that this sort of activity is not new for Eve and runs in the family (Keen viewers will note the connections between the Laurent patriarch and a character from another Haneke film, although this is definitely not a sequel—simply a confirmation of the filmmaker's outlook on the consistent nature of humanity's darker side).
What do we take from all of this, though? That's much harder to gauge. With Happy End, Haneke entrenches us into this family and their problems, but it's never clear what his position is or what ours should be.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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