Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Kassovitz
Length: 1hr 47m
This review comes from the Leeds International Film Festival 2017.
Happy End is the latest work from Europe’s arthouse director Michael Haneke. With previous titles such as Caché (2005), The White Ribbon (2009), and Amour (2012) to his name, it will not be surprising to hear that Happy End is a film that has a lot to say; yet, in respect for its audience, it chooses very carefully how to say it. Spoon-fed social and political commentary this is not, and those searching for such things would benefit from looking elsewhere.
The story follows a wealthy French family and explores the dynamics of their relationships with one another in the aftermath of an industrial accident. It is at its core a family drama; the stresses and strains of everyday life are poked and prodded and revealed to the audience. There’s no evaluative statement assigned to said dynamics, rather the audience is encouraged to think it through for themselves: What is going on? Who is affected? Why should I care? The tone is primarily dark and dour though it is in many ways Haneke’s funniest film (which isn’t saying much at all). There is indeed something suitably unnerving in watching a master craftsman take us from genuine laughter to stunned silence in a heartbeat. Uncomfortable theatre experience – check.
Haneke, as ever, showcases his ability to squeeze excellent performances out of his all-age ensemble cast. Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour) plays the senile grandfather with aplomb, providing at once the tragic and comedic undertones of the character simply with his facial expressions and line delivery. This is matched by Fantine Harduin’s performance as Eve, the tech-savvy granddaughter whose unwavering, expressionless face serves to challenge our expectations of someone her age. Likewise, Mathieu Kassovitz and Isabelle Huppert produce compelling work as brother and sister, as does Franz Rogowksi as the whiny son of Huppert’s character who has an extraordinarily memorable scene that encapsulates his character to a tee.
[The] feature of a true ensemble cast provides us with a space to reflect on our proclivity for generic narrative and character expectations.
The fact that there is no main character may be unpalatable for some. As the audience, we are given the opportunity to choose which character or characters resonate with us the most and may therefore rue their lack of story spotlight and embellishment. However, this feature of a true ensemble cast provides us with a space to reflect on our proclivity for generic narrative and character expectations. So, for example, even though Toby Jones’ performance was enjoyable and it would have been nice to have seen more of him and his character, the fact that his screentime is limited gives the chance to think more thoroughly about his part in the overall narrative and to examine more deeply my own reaction to his character.
Haneke does a similar thing with social media in this film; using it as a tool to convey the story to the audience whilst at the same time challenging our own use of social media, specifically our attitude towards it and consumption of it. This is the great strength of Happy End, it is a film that is unafraid to respectfully call-out its audience and challenge us in our comfy theatre seats to think. Though it lacks the emotional heft of Amour, you will still leave the theatre with a curious empty feeling inside. A happy end? That’s for you to decide.