Auteur of world cinema Michael Haneke has never been associated with a happy ending. His films often end in tears, sadness, and with the audience suffering an unshakeable shudder. So, the ironically titled Happy End is a joke many will understand. However, it may also suggest that this is in fact the seventy-five year old director’s final film.
Set in the port town of Calais in Northern France, a wealthy family must deal with their issues and disfunction against the backdrop of the European refugee crisis. The film deals with themes of childhood psychopathy, divorce, betrayal, secrets and being rich; so, nothing unfamiliar to even the most unacquainted with the Austrian filmmakers previous work. It plays out almost as a brief readdressing of the fascinations he has been preoccupied with his entire career, which may be the reason why it deals with none of these things as well this time around. There is some intriguing subject matter raised in his latest cinematic offering, but sadly, for the most part it feels like a director at his lowest, made even more depressing by the fact that his previous features, 2012’s Amour and 2009’s The White Ribbon, can both be considered masterworks in their own right.
We are introduced to this bleak and realistic world through a familiar lens; we witness the ordinary rituals of brushing one’s teeth and going to the toilet through a smart-phone shaped canvas. A young girl called Eve (Fantine Harduin) is filming her mother, and texting her actions, and then proceeds to poison her pet hamster of whom she has grown tired and then her mother – everything is filmed with a cold detachment. This is our introduction to the film, and lends the impression that this may be a rekindling with the enticement of teenage evil explored in his second directorial feature, 1992’s Benny’s Video. However, it certainly isn’t that. It merely touches upon it, and that’s all Haneke does throughout the film; scratch the surface. Happy End merely documents the members of a family in which the youngest member and the oldest desperately wish to commit suicide; the generations in between are just greedy, unsympathetic and distanced. Although this might be the point, it fails to be as compelling as any of Hanke’s prior films, of which there is many to reminisce.
The long takes and static camerawork that many adore of his work just feel routine here. His characters are often interesting and mysterious; puzzles to be solved, and if they’re not, then the directorial perspective in which we view them is. His shot constructions are often realistically disturbing and contemplative, but for the first time, this trademark style began to feel tedious. There are some visually appealing moments within the film, and the karaoke bar scene particularly stands out as a humorous moment in a film that’s very premise promises pitch-black satire and ultimately avoids it through its concern with the sheer mundanity of the privileged. It isn’t until the films last act that its social commentary begins to prevail. A scene in which the matriarchal Anne’s (Isabelle Huppert) son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) arrives at his mother’s engagement party with a group of refugees; it is here that the two worlds reach conflict, and it becomes more apparent than ever before that the audience has spent two hours witnessing problems that, as already known, aren’t as important as what is really going on. The story resides with the rich, and the story of the persecuted is left unsung.
Amongst seasoned Haneke admirers, this will surely prove to be his most divisive and controversial effort. Is this a work of simple genius, is it a director experimenting with the expectations of his audience, or is it plain mediocre? No matter the answer, Happy End is unfortunately the director’s weakest film to date. Lets just hope this isn’t his intended farewell, and that another Haneke masterpiece is in store very soon. We need it now more than ever.