Film Review: Michael Haneke punishes the self-indulgent in Happy End (France/Germany, 2017)

Fans of Michael Haneke and, in particular, his earlier works should take a swift and immediate liking to Happy End and stick with the patient-testing film throughout. It’s a cynical, pointed and rather sharp jab at the hypocrisy, selfishness and tragedy of droll middle-class life; well-made, beautifully acted and painstakingly (sometimes painfully) complex, although the auteur’s characteristic nihilism can be suffocating at times when it’s not grimly mocking and somewhat endearing. The title is a misnomer of course; happiness in a Haneke film is so rare that it feels like the director has re-done 2012’s Armour but squeezed out all the life and empathy out so all he’s left with is a bleak, grey reflection of death and desire.

Sound depressing? It is. Happy End is most definitely not the film for everyone; even amongst fans of Haneke’s work the piece is bound to be divisive. It will either be seen as tautology or a true return to form as the film follows the broken Laurent family, the partriarch of which – played by the great Jean-Louis Trintignan – spends most of the film chasing assisted suicide, while the rest of the family rivals his woes with their own dramas, often rife with so much fear and anxiety that is smartly juxtaposed against the increasingly salient refugee crisis, to which this family is blind.

Haneke experiments many times by splicing social media into this piece, highlighting the intimacy and vulnerability it can bring as the technology betrays the many secrets swirling around the Laurent family – the viewer privy to Snapchat captions and Facebook Messenger conversations in a way that’s rarely used in film. Though there’s a reason this ultra-modern technique is largely ignored in cinema; despite providing Haneke with interesting angles through which to tell this story, the use of these small, lengthy captions – particularly in am actual cinema – will undoubtedly be frustrating for some viewers. Luckily the story doesn’t rely too heavily on this technique.

Much more admirable is Haneke’s use of vague, distant and fixed perspectives to keep certain conversations a mystery to the audience, putting the focus on physical storytelling which is often darker and more meaningful than anything words can convey. The cold and clinical way in which he forces the audience into the role of voyeur heightens what could otherwise be scenes which tread the very fine line between impactful art-house and plodding self-indulgent wreck, adding a whole heap of mystery and character to the story which ultimately distinguishes it from other Haneke films via technique rather than tale.

Haneke’s disillusionment with bourgeois problems can always be a bit too didactic, and no amount of surprisingly buoyant and hilariously wry muses on karaoke and YouTube supercuts can ever change that. Though once you look past the self-righteous takedowns of this self-involved family and focus on the increasing and undeniable presence of the migrant crisis, it’s clear that Haneke’s scolding slap to self-absorbed middle-class European families is completely necessary and well-deserved.

The director has such command over his own vocabulary and unique way of communicating stark misanthropy that it’s almost impossible not to appreciate Happy End, even if you didn’t necessarily enjoy it as a film. In the end, I guess that’s where I stand on Happy End; I didn’t necessarily enjoy the film but there’s more than enough here that’s engaging and deserving of praise, consistent with Haneke’s unique tone

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Happy End is out now