Happy End review: Michael Haneke's nightmares about the future come true
Michael Haneke’s latest movie never quite gets started
Is it a comedy? Fantine Harduin, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert, Laura Verlinden, Toby Jones and Mathieu Kassovitz in Happy End. Photograph: Sony Pictures Classics
Film Title: Happy End
Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin
Running Time: 107 min
Nobody who’d seen a Michael Haneke movie (indeed, few people who’d heard one described) could mistake the icy, rigorous Happy End for the work of any other film-maker. The bourgeois characters are allowed the full spectrum of experience from boredom through flinty anger to suicidal depression. Christian Berger shoots with a camera that, as ever, will never mistake light for warmth. It is to the picture’s credit and discredit that it plays like a distillation of the film-maker’s core spirit. All the essential elements are in place, but it lacks the original flourishes that distinguish one Haneke joint from the next.
The opening sections are told through smartphone videos. Text messages describe young Eve’s thoughts as she dopes her unfortunate hamster with her mother’s depression medication. We later learn that, mum now hospitalised, Eve (Fantine Harduin) has gone to live with her dad Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his variously unhappy family in a 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.
Yes, the picture feels a little underpowered when set beside the violence of the director’s Funny Games or the raw emotion of his Amour. But it remains more alive to the medium’s possibilities than almost anything else on release. The early smart-phone sequences suggest a director experiencing his worst nightmares about the future coming true. The characteristically ambiguous long shots invite us to collaborate creatively with this most shifty and unreliable of artists. Just as we think we’ve seen it all before, the film turns into something a little like a comedy. Can this be so? Well, it is the first Haneke film in which a character orders a Cornetto. If we have that wrong we can only apologise.