Sydney Film Festival Review: Happy End (France, 2017) plays like a greatest hits album for Haneke

Michael Haneke is a bit of a misanthrope, isn’t he? Granted, I haven’t seen all of his films, but the few that I have seen seem to have a very critical view on society and human nature. And compared to mainstream fare, he makes films with plenty of space for the audience to contemplate and ponder what is happening on-screen with little to no spoon-feeding whatsoever.

Knowing this, it becomes clear that Haneke makes films that can be quite frustrating, yet intricate pieces of work that one admires more than enjoys. But thankfully, he does have a very dark sense of humour that provides a nice counterbalance to the gloomy mood he goes for.

Case in point, his latest film, Happy End. With all of his frequent collaborators in place like Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, cinematographer Christian Berger and others; and coming back to familiar thematic territory, will the film conclude like the title suggests? For the audience, I mean?

The film starts off with a series of Snapchat videos, detailing scenes of playfulness and lingering dread; involving acts such as animal cruelty, voyeurism, talks of suicide and bouts of self-loathing. Awkward laughs ensue.

From there, we follow a rich family, whom all have several problems lingering on their minds. Isabelle Huppert plays Anne Laurent (a name that pops ups in a lot of Haneke’s films), who has been handed the responsibility of managing a family construction business, previously owned by her aging father, Georges (again, in a lot of Haneke’s films), who is suffering from dementia. She is also getting engaged to a British lawyer, Lawrence.

Her son, Pierre, sets off a catastrophic incident at the construction site due to negligence and it sets off a huge lawsuit. Anne is worried of his deadbeat attitude and tries to straighten him up and fly right so he can take over the family business. Her brother, Thomas has problems of his own and must now look after the 13-year-old daughter, Eve, of his previous marriage and accept her into their creepy, problematic family.

For those who are both new and familiar to Haneke’s work, Happy End is an encapsulation of all of Haneke’s tropes: euthanasia, voyeurism, psychosexuality, creepy children, misanthropy, it’s all here. And even though, Haneke going through his old bag of tricks may signal a sign of self-parody, it never feels that way mainly because, it still feels uniquely his film.

Static wide shots, courtesy of cinematographer Christian Berger, are put to great use that either give off a sense of dread or pay off in amusing ways. Like a scene that seems to tip off Cache, it involves Pierre trying to apologize to the family of the worker who was struck by the work accident, leading to a violent conclusion. Faces of the characters aren’t always seen, even during long takes, which implies that even very little is shown in face value.

Scenes with the use of Snapchat and Facebook (which are eerily similar to scenes in Mike NicholsCloser) also give off a glimpse of human nature that is ironically more revealing than seeing a person face to face, and again, it yields surprising laughs and bouts of tension. And even when the characters gradually reveal their feelings, it never feels heartwarming nor emotionally satisfying. It just feels creepy and awkward, in a good way.

Revelations and feelings are revealed in either the most matter-of-fact manner (one of them is an amusing twist on the occurrences in Amour); or in a blatant and sudden fashion, like a scene involving drunken/gymnastic karaoke or a scene involving a quick jolt of violence that quite honestly, had me gasping during the screening. And it shows that the characters all feel like they’re owed something, despite living the wealthy life. And that may be the scariest thing in the film.

And like most of Haneke’s films, Happy End intentionally does not end like the title implies, but with a few shocks, twists and sudden bouts of violence. And an incredible final shot that blew the minds of the audience into hysterics.

The ensemble cast all give typically stellar performances, from Isabelle Huppert, who is solid as the daughter who tries to keep the family in control to Matthieu Kassovitz, who is refreshingly understated as the brother who tries to be fatherly while keeping a dark secret. And of course there’s Jean-Louis Trintignant, who plays Georges. Racist, rude and going on dementia, Jean-Louis seems to be having a ball in the role.

But best of all, praise must go to Fantine Harduin, who plays Eve, the 13-year old daughter of Kassovitz’s character from another marriage. Scarily knowledgeable with computer technology and filled with understated resentment (much like the film), Harduin is a new talent worth looking out for.

As for its flaws, there’s nothing truly new or groundbreaking from Haneke here. And the story involving Huppert’s character is oddly the least interesting subplot in the film, in comparison to the subplot involving Trintignant’s character and Harduin’s character.

Also, the pacing in the first and second act may be a bit too glacial, even by Haneke standards, but when most of the pieces (some are loose, like Pierre’s fascination with African migrants) come together in the final act, it delivers a great pay-off that will fester in one’s mind for a long time.

Yes, the film does feel like a greatest hits album for Haneke, but with his incredibly assured direction, fine performances, grounded storytelling and a great sense of dark humour, Happy End may not end like the title implies, but for the audience, that’s another story.

Who knew that the scariest thing in Happy End is not voyeurism, not euthanasia, not psychosexuality, not animal cruelty but white privilege?

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Happy End will screen again at the Sydney Film Festival on the 18th of June, followed by a special “Popular Demand” encore session on the 21st. For tickets and more details head HERE.