Warning: This post contains spoilers.
In his latest film, Happy End, which is playing through Thursday at the Music Box, writer-director Michael Haneke saves the most arresting sequence for last. An octogenarian man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) asks his 13-year-old granddaughter (Fantine Harduin) to push his wheelchair to the edge of a ramp pointing downward into the ocean. After the girl leaves, the man flips up the breaks on his wheelchair and slides into the water. Haneke then cuts to a wide shot of the granddaughter, standing several yards away from the action, as she takes out her smartphone and records the old man’s suicide attempt. The shot plays out on the narrow frame of her phone, with wide black bars on both sides that emphasize the insularity one can experience when absorbed in his or her personal technology. The old man, having come from a wedding, wears a suit, and the juxtaposition of formal attire and rising waves recalls the paintings of René Magritte; the image is at once grotesque and comic.
This moment also brings together all the principal themes of Haneke’s theatrical filmmaking career: isolation, dysfunctional families, video recording, death, and apathetic children. It feels like the conclusion not only of a single film, but of an entire filmography, as though the 75-year-old filmmaker were putting his concerns to bed and preparing himself for something else. (I’m not sure what Haneke will do next—if his subsequent film isn’t radically different than the ones that have preceded it, I suspect it will feel awfully redundant.) This kind of valedictory gesture ought to inspire a range of emotions, from satisfaction to regret to longing, yet I’ve seen Happy End twice now and on both viewings it’s failed to make an impact on me. Maybe it’s because I’m too familiar with Haneke’s other films that this one feels derivative, a recycling of themes better explored elsewhere with nothing new added to the mix.
I enjoyed Happy End more in its opening scenes, which recall the jigsaw narratives of Haneke’s best work, (The Seventh Continent, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Code Unknown). The director introduces his characters in isolated situations, withholding how they’re related and forcing viewers to make connections using seemingly minor details. The first scenes are taken from a smartphone (and presented, like the final shot, with wide black bars on both sides) with text messages appearing on the bottom of the screen. In one alarming sequence, text messages reveal that the phone’s owner (not revealed until later to be the granddaughter) has stolen his or her mother’s antidepressants and put them in his or her pet hamster’s food. The phone records impassively as the hamster dies, while the owner texts about how much he or she hates his or her mother. Haneke wants us to ponder whether this person is capable of murdering another human being, arousing sick fascination as only he can.
The film remains interesting, if not particularly eye-opening, until it reveals how all the characters are related. Once that happens it becomes the sort of sardonic chronicle of upper-middle-class discontentment that Claude Chabrol did much better and with far less portentousness. Isabelle Huppert plays Anne Laurent, the de facto head of an industrialist family in the northern French city of Calais. Her grown son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), is a ne’er-do-well unwilling to take over the family business; her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), a surgeon, is cheating on his wife while she nurses their newborn son; and her father, Georges (Trintignant), is a solitary misanthrope who dreams of suicide. All these characters live together in the same house, and Haneke stages some nicely discomforting shots of them sitting around the dinner table, each one nursing a personal obsession and never connecting with anyone else in the same room. (Haneke has long excelled in making people seem far apart while occupying the same shot—it’s one of his most frequently imitated stylistic signatures.)
After her mother falls into a coma from overdosing on pills, Thomas’s daughter from a previous marriage, Eve (Harduin), comes to live with the Laurent clan. Haneke never reveals whether Eve’s mother overdosed intentionally or whether Eve poisoned her as she did her hamster. Regardless, Eve comes to shatter the family’s complacency like an avenging angel, discovering (and calling out) her father’s infidelity and unsettling the entire family by attempting suicide. The final third of Happy End centers on Eve’s budding relationship with Georges, with whom she shares a death wish. Haneke presents the relationship as ironically positive, showing how the two bond over their mutual contempt for the people around them. Yet this development doesn’t register as truly provocative, since Haneke has already explored the longing for death more disturbingly (in Benny’s Video) and more poignantly (in Amour). It’s another moment in Happy End that registers like a track on a greatest hits album as opposed to a fresh discovery.