happy end tiff

Michael Haneke is not known for light-heartedness. The Austrian filmmaker behind Funny Games, Caché, The White Ribbon, and Amour specializes in challenging, often incredibly bleak dramas where all is not right in the world.

So when Haneke’s new film was announced with the title Happy End, most people familiar with the director likely assumed this was a deliberate misnomer. Well, it is and isn’t. Happy End, which played at the Toronto International Film Festival, is perhaps one of the least-depressing films Haneke has made, while also still being plenty of bleak. There’s a bemusement at work here, as if Heneke is winking at the audience with every scene.

Happy End follows the steady decline of a wealthy bourgeois family through a series of mostly unconnected events. Haneke doesn’t want us to sympathize with these people; instead, he wants to train a spotlight on them and reveal them for the budding, detached sociopaths they truly are.

There are touches of Caché in the film’s opening, which is shot on a cellphone and presented in the the phone’s aspect ratio. An unseen individual films their mother from a distance, all while revealing a plot to poison the woman with her own antidepressants. The videographer is Ève (Fantine Harduin), an unsettling 13-year-old who succeeds in putting her much reviled mother into a coma. As a result, Ève goes to live with her estranged father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his wife (Laura Verlinden).

Meanwhile, Thomas’ sister Anne Laurent (frequent Haneke player Isabelle Huppert) is having troubles of her own. The family construction company she runs is in the midst of a potential lawsuit following an accident that the film portrays via stunning security cam footage. Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) was supposed to be supervising the site, but the young man is a budding alcoholic with rage issues, and it’s clear he’s not cut out to take over the family business.

Thomas and Anne’s father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is slowly succumbing to dementia, and grows even more despondent after a car accident leaves him confined to a wheelchair. In an interesting twist, Trintignant’s character here shares a similar history as his character in Haneke’s Amour, who was also named Georges. Although the character in Amour was a retired piano teacher, while the character in Happy End is a retired millionaire.

Haneke doesn’t go out of his way to connect all these threads; he merely uses the fact that all these characters are related by blood to jump from storyline to storyline. In any other circumstances, the lot of these characters would be appalling, but Happy End manages to juggle them all with amusement. We might dislike them, but we can’t help watching them.

Happy End jumps forward in time casually, letting the audience fill in the blanks. Haneke uses this approach more and more as the film draws to a conclusion, creating an ever-mounting sense of dread as the audience waits for whatever nasty thing is going to happen yet. Hovering in the background are the Moroccan house servants (Hassam Ghancy and Nabiha Akkari), both refugees who wait on Anne’s family. These are marginalized individuals who exist outside of the oblivious, haughty orbit of the Laurent family.

Haneke helms Happy End with a deft hand, employing his usual long takes and important scenes shot at a far distance, inhibiting the audience to fully gleam exactly what’s being said. But there’s much more humor in Haneke’s filmmaking here than in recent memory; he’s having fun watching these terrible people make a mess of their privileged lives.

Happy End culminates in a darkly hilarious scene at a wedding, one that you can’t help but guffaw at despite, or perhaps because of, its darkness. Perhaps that’s a happy end after all.  

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a writer who frowns a lot. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, /Film, Mashable, The Film Stage, Birth.Movies.Death, The Playlist, Paste Magazine, Little White Lies and O-Scope Musings. 'The House on Creep Street' and 'Beware the Monstrous Manther!', two horror books for young readers Chris co-authored with J. Tonzelli, are available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413