Producer: Margaret Menegoz, Stefan Arnt, Veit Heidusck and Michael Katz
Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Jan-Louis Trintingnant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Frank Rogowski, Laura Verlinden, Aurelia Petit, Toby Jones, Hille Perl, Hassam Ghancy, Nibiha Akkari, Loubna Abidar and Joud Geistlich
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
After flirting with tenderness in “Amour,” Michael Haneke returns to his far more caustic view of humanity with the ironically-titled “Happy End,” which is suffused with intimations of death and casual cruelty. Once again he trains his practiced eye on the sinister undercurrents swirling beneath the façade of bourgeois normality, this time focusing on the Lambert family, a wealthy and privileged clan living in Calais, where they run a construction company.
Despite the firm leadership of the widowed Anne (Isabelle Huppert), however, the firm is in financial peril, and her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is a softie who shows little aptitude to take charge, exhibiting a desperate sense of rectitude that is incongruous not only in terms of his family’s sterner stuff, but of his own weakness. When a wall of one of the buildings they have under construction collapses, killing a worker, what an official investigation of the accident might reveal puts even greater pressure on the bottom line. That’s why Anne has developed a romantic relationship with Lawrence (Toby Jones), a British banker who can help her arrange a much-needed loan. The specifics of the agreement, however, will include a betrayal of Pierre’s prospects to take over management of the company.
Meanwhile Anna’s brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) has to deal with a domestic tragedy, an apparent suicide attempt by his ex-wife, who has fallen into a coma as a result. That means that he and his second wife Anaïs must take in, at least temporarily, his thirteen-year old daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin). Thomas, a surgeon, lives an ostensibly happy life with Anaïs and their infant son, but he is nevertheless carrying on a torrid online affair. And Eve, a pretty, outwardly innocent young thing, is burdened by secrets from her life with her mother, and like so many children of today, is given to uses of technology that have decidedly grim intent.
There is one other member of the family—Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the elderly father of Anne and Thomas, whose mind is failing. Tired of life, he is desperately searching for a way out, and after failing to kill himself, proves willing to enlist others in arranging his death—including, as it turns out, the most unlikely member of the family.
Haneke lays out these varied plot threads in a mosaic that requires the viewer to piece the elements together and sometimes simply intuit the connections. He begins with cell-phone footage taken by Eve, includes reams of computer-screen conversation between Thomas and his unseen lover, shows the collapse of the building walls in what appears to be video footage documenting construction, and concludes with another cell-phone sequence being documented by young Eve. He folds these various kinds of sources into more conventional narrative sequences that carry the domestic story along.
He also observes the Laurents’ interaction with their Moroccan servants Rachid and Jamila (Hassam Ghancy and Nabiha Akkari), who are once described by one family member—not too exaggeratedly—as slaves (and whose daughter Thomas treats cavalierly after she’s bitten by the family dog). And the location of the story in Calais inevitably touches on the plight of the undocumented immigrants who congregate there in hopes of securing transport to Britain.
These are, however, essentially digressions designed to suggest how the poison running through the family’s intimate relationships ripples out into the wider society—as does a subplot involving compensation to the family of the worker killed in the construction accident (introduced, as often in Haneke, in a teasingly oblique fashion whose import is revealed much later).
The cast is well-nigh flawless. The two stars, who have worked with Haneke before, are entirely in synch with his creative (and, it seems, temperamental) wavelength: the amazing Huppert, who was so remarkable in “The Piano Teacher,” delivers a stunning performance as a woman of implacable strength and cunning, while octogenarian Trintignant, so affecting in “Amour,” offers extraordinary nuance as a man who simply does not want to contend with the increasing frailty of his mind—and is willing, perhaps not without selfish intent, to reveal a dark secret about his own past in an ostensibly good cause. The remainder of the cast is strong, with Jones bringing surprising sympathy to a man who either doesn’t realize that he’s being used or simply doesn’t care. The most formidable among them, however, is young Harduin, whose Eve serves as proof of Haneke’s point—as children did in “The White Ribbon”—that the corruption of one generation is inevitably instilled in the next. On the technical side, Christian Berger’s cinematography is expert, while editor Monika Willi deserves special applause for the careful layout of the narrative’s many strands.
“Happy End” closes with a sequence that is at once deeply unsettling and mordantly funny. It serves as a fitting conclusion to a film in which Haneke again looks uncompromisingly on the dark reality of how human beings live, and how their inhumane tendencies will be passed on to their children in ways that might shock even them.