If you’ve ever seen a Michael Haneke movie, then you can probably guess that his latest, Happy End, is anything but happy. While the Austrian director doesn’t quite plunge us to the hopeless depths reached in his previous work, his look into the life of a wealthy French family and the air of death surrounding them unnerves throughout.
Happy End probably won’t be considered a horror movie, but it’s not without some disturbing elements. To Haneke, this is realism, and his story is approached with a sense of distant objectivity.
We open on a Snapchat-esque smartphone video, comments by almost-teen Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) popping up from the bottom of the screen. They relate a sense of detachment omnipresent in the movie: Eve steals some of her mother’s antidepressants and tries them out on her hamster, who we then watch slowly die from the young girl’s perspective. There’s little to-do about what we’re witnessing, as Eve expounds on her dislike for her mother. Soon it’s the mother we see collapsing from Eve’s viewpoint.
While her mother tries to recover in the hospital, Eve goes to stay with her father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), and his side of the family. They all live together in a Calaisian mansion: Thomas’ current wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden) and their newborn son, Eve’s grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), aunt Anne (Isabelle Huppert), and Anne’s son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski).
At this point we explore life and death via two more storylines. Anne and Pierre, who run the family’s construction firm, must deal with an onsite accident and injury to one of their workers; meanwhile Georges, who is fighting a battle with dementia, keeps searching for ways to kill himself.
Such is the cheery backdrop of Happy End. Haneke, who has described his films as “an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions,” sticks to his word. There’s no grand meaning in the end, nothing really even posited. Instead, the three intermingling stories line up next to one another, situational contrast causing us to evaluate the differences inherent in various forms of death, and question—specifically in the case of murder—what is right and wrong.
Haneke’s films tend to needle the audience, and Happy End is no different. Eve’s actions hang over our heads, and we wait for some semblance of justice that likely won’t come. Meanwhile we’re forced to watch the odyssey of an old man who begs strangers, his hairdresser, anyone who will listen to give him the means to an end. It’s a late conversation between Eve and her grandfather that ultimately gives us a final perspective on the film, though we’re left with even more questions.
Happy End isn’t an enjoyable watch, and it’s not supposed to be. Its goal is to make us stop and reflect—on death, human agency, the difference between taking a life out of selfishness versus selflessness. There are no easy answers here, and to that effect, Haneke fulfills his mission.
Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz
Theater: Now showing, Edina Cinema