When the title of Michael Haneke’s new film was announced, the possibility of a new high-brow drinking game presented itself: take a slug every time somebody observes that those words are surely meant ironically. It is giving nothing away to confirm that the title does indeed contain layers of meaning.
Happy End could not be the work of any other director. The film come across as an icy soap opera that – wilfully devoid of a centre – uncoils slowly like a watchful snake. It features a long shot that includes a violent altercation far, far upstage. Deep into the action, we get a hint that we're watching a spiritual sequel to a previous film by the same director. Happy End is less confrontational than the early work that gained Haneke a reputation as an arch-provocateur. But it still follows smoothly and menacingly from what has gone before.
The opening sections are told through smartphone videos. Messages on the screen describe young Eve’s thoughts as she dopes her unfortunate hamster with her mother’s depression medication. When the credit’s end, we learn that, with her mum now hospitalised, Eve (Fantine Harduin) has gone to live with Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), her dad, and his variously unhappy bourgeois family in a soulless mansion somewhere near Calais. Paterfamilias Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is old, sick and yearning for death. Thomas, remarried after separating from Eve’s mother, spends his evenings online exchanging erotic thoughts with a lover.
There’s more where that came from. The poisonous family interactions bleed into business shenanigans that spread the film’s curious malaise throughout the territories.
One of the lesser ironies of the title is that Happy End is a film that never quite gets started. The script comprises a series of establishing plots that, in typical Haneke form, remain dangling sinisterly until the unexpectedly sudden arrival of credits. The effect is to set the mind buzzing furiously for hours after the action has not quite concluded. A defiantly conventional setup – the rich dynasty falling out by the sea – is undercut by most unconventional teasing and deflection.
The first-class cast slither smoothly through the enigmas. Isabelle Huppert is allowed to be relatively warm (for Haneke) as Anne, the daughter who has taken over the business. So efficient is she that she manages to keep her darkest secrets from even the audience. Kassovitz brings equal levels of charm to the deceitful Thomas.
It is in the next generation that the traces of corruption seem to have really taken toll. Franz Rogowski is positively unhinged as Anne’s son. Young Eve looks to be carrying the weight of a desperate future on her narrow shoulders. Her mysteries could swell a film of their own.
The setting in Calais is no accident. Happy End is certainly not a film about the migration crisis – this family is unlikely to rub up against The Jungle – but two key scenes involving refugees press home the inequalities that have allowed the clan to prosper. The dynasty is strong, but others as strong have fallen. Their servants' angry barking dog is there as a reminder.
Just as the mysteries have gone before Christian Berger's characteristically unblinking lens, the film comes to clanking, comic halt. Yes, comic. Among the greatest wonders of Happy End is that it often manages to be darkly funny. This is, after all, the only Haneke film in which (to my knowledge) a character orders a Cornetto. I am prepared to be corrected on that.