To some, it is inevitable that Michael Haneke's latest film Happy End will be a disappointment. For a filmmaker whose entire filmmaking career has been defined by the distinct visions contained within each subsequent film, Happy End is a bit of a rarity for Haneke - it's familiar.
However, if we're being honest there are many filmmakers, including many of the most critically acclaimed, who often venture into familiar territory and whose cinematic works are, no matter how great, often decidedly lacking in originality.
I'd dare utter the name Scorsese as a prime example.
Happy End takes its satirically melancholy journey through many of Haneke's familiar themes such as family dysfunction, emotional repression, and sociopathic revenge and weaves them into this inspired and unforgiving tale of European prosperity set amidst the world of Isabelle Huppert's Anne Laurent, whose magnificent Calais estate comes courtesy of her having assumed control of the family business owned by her father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), whose dementia is obvious and whose presence is catered to constantly by the much maligned servants Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari). Anne is engaged to Toby Jones's Lawrence, a British lawyer who is handling a major UK deal for the company.
If you thought the family in August: Osage County was irritating, it's as if Haneke looked at his BFF and said "Here, hold my beer!" and proceeded to create the most unfathomably unpleasant family possible. In addition to the aforementioned, Anne's son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), is a site supervisor for the family business whose neglect has just exposed the company to a significant lawsuit while Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), Anne's brother, has his own share of secrets and now finds himself for 12-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin), whose mother is hospitalized following a drug overdose.
For those patient enough to wait for it, Happy End is a slowly paced yet darkly comical film and decidedly lacking in the sentimentality that Haneke rather unexpectedly put on display in Amour. Happy End is almost anything but happy, a relentlessly sad affair in which the secrets of this upper class family are revealed and their sole coping mechanisms, mainly sarcasm and suicide, can do little to bridge the chasm of a family for whom the most immense wealth can't disguise the almost cellular unhappiness that exists within them.
The most revelatory characters in the film are likely Eve, the family's observer and a confidante of sorts to the increasingly weary and demented Georges, and Pierre, best described as a Shakespearean fool who, I must confess, I most vividly identified with as my own familial role seems to often be the exposer of truths that aren't supposed to be exposed.
Haneke is a possessor of much faith, though it's seemingly faith in a lower power. Haneke's devotion to artistic integrity is never in doubt, his lack of willingness to serve up even a semblance of hope for this family possessing in honesty as much as it's lacking in your usual cinematic entertainment value. D.P. Christian Berger's lens has an almost gothic whimsy about it, occasionally following along as characters travel through their tragic tales and other times almost appear to be stagnated in one place with both character and story resolution out of focus and left unresolved. It almost qualifies as experimental lensing, but this is Haneke and one knows incredibly well that every single move is intentional and with purpose. Berger kicks off the film with a smartphone aspect ratio, an approach he uses at other points in the film, and it's an approach that sets the tone immediately that casts the film as both uncomfortably distant and terrifically funny.
Among the key players, Harduin easily steals the show despite strong performances from the entire ensemble. Huppert, one of the globe's best living actresses, is another true gem here and Trintignant finds every element of spark within his character.
Happy End will likely, by most, be considered one of Haneke's lesser works. However, for true Haneke devotees it'll be a film that'll challenge and provoke, taunt and tease, stimulate and captivate you. I will confess that it felt a tad long, though I felt that way the last time I visited my own family as well.
Happy End opens in Indy on February 23rd and will be screening at Landmark Keystone Art Cinema at the Fashion Mall. If you've never caught a Haneke film before, this may not be the place to start. If you're a Haneke regular, this is one you won't want to miss.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic