Happy End, the latest ironically-titled offering from Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke comes five years after his Amour, and proves less a terribly moving and tragic love story and more a study of estrangement, dehumanisation and dread.
It’s his fourth collaboration with Isabelle Huppert (after The Piano Teacher, Time Of The Wolf and Amour) and his third with the great Jean-Louis Trintignant (after The White Ribbon and Amour), and in some ways proves to be an even more confrontingly political effort than any of those pics.
The opening scenes are deliberately jarring and leave you a little unsure exactly what’s happening for quite some time. A woman is secretly filmed getting ready for bed (shades of Haneke’s Benny’s Video) while cruel comments are made about her on social media; an accident happens in long shot on a building site; and an impassive girl named Eve (Fantine Harduin) is observed in hospital, where her mother has been rushed after an overdose of sedatives.
It transpires that Eve’s aunt is Anne Laurent (Huppert), who owns the building firm and spends much of the running time dealing with pending court cases surrounding a worker injured in the accident. Eve is then sent to live with Anne and her family in a huge mansion in Calais, and soon the withdrawn kid is forced to deal with: Anne’s frail and confused Dad Georges (Trintignant, who also played Huppert’s Dad in Amour); her own flawed father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz); his disapproving second wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden); their screaming baby; and her adult cousin (Anne’s son) Pierre (Franz Rogowski), an unpredictable drunk and drama queen.
If all that sounds like a lot to take in for young Eve (and the audience too), everything is further complicated by Anne’s romantic relationship with Laurence Bradshaw (English actor Toby Jones), Georges seeming death wish and scary revelations about Eve’s mother’s condition. The Laurent family is a mess, and Haneke accentuates the quiet chaos by adding snatches of news clips on unwatched TVs depicting social problems affecting the area and Europe as a whole, with industrial strife and the refugee crisis going on nearby. If only the family could communicate, get over their problems and see beyond their petty, privileged lives, but, well, this is a Michael Haneke movie. So they can’t.
Huppert and Trintignant are excellent here, as usual, and the rest of the cast are very fine, from Kassovitz to Hassam Ghancy as Rachid, the head of the family’s staff, and yet surely the best and most disquieting performance is from the unfamiliar Fantine as the disappointed-looking Eve. Almost too good, she spends much of the film with a jaded look of disappointment at her sudden introduction to this confusing world of unhappy adults, and when she cries at her Dad’s general hopelessness it’s painful to watch. Did she understand Eve’s secrets? Did her parents read the script? Did they know what she was getting into?
Rated M. Happy End is in cinemas now.