As shown from many of his notable works, Michael Haneke has always been fascinated with the dark, uncomfortable aspects of human nature, and his latest film “Happy End”, which was the Austrian entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in last year, is no exception. Calmly and coldly looking into one loveless family, the movie attempts to strike us with several edgy moments generated among its main characters, and it works to some degrees although its good individual scenes do not build up to something coherent and interesting enough to hold our attention throughout its running time.
At first, the movie shows us a series of increasingly disturbing smartphone video footage clips, which are shot by a 13-year-old girl named Eve (Fantine Harduin). As living with her mother after her mother’s divorce, Eve has felt lots of resentment toward her mother, and that is the main motive behind her decision to poison her mother. After testing her lethal plan with her pet rodent, she promptly moves onto the next step, and we soon witness the following consequence along with her.
While her mother remains unconscious in a hospital, Eve is brought to a big, luxurious house where her doctor father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his other family members live, but her new environment is not exactly comfortable for her. Everyone in the house does not care much about her as usually being occupied with each own matter, and the only consolation comes from her infant half-brother, who reminds her of her older brother who unfortunately died several years ago due to his illness.
As Eve tries to be accustomed to her changed circumstance, the movie gradually reveals the cracks behind the seemingly stable façade of her family. Although he seems to be happy with his second wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden) and their baby son, Thomas turns out to be having an affair with some woman, and the movie phlegmatically observes their naughty online chatting at one point. Always busy with running the family company, Thomas’ sister Anne (Isabelle Huppert) is distant to everyone including her own son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), and Pierre does not like much working in the family company – especially after an unfortunate incident happens at the construction site of the company.
And there is Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the aging patriarch of the family who has been going through the early stage of senility. Although he is forgettable at times, he is well aware of his irreversibly fading status, and we are not so surprised when an ‘accident’ occurs during one night. As reflected by what he says to his granddaughter later, he knows too well how miserable and helpless he will eventually be, and he surely prefers to go gently into darkness without any unnecessary pain and misery.
Sternly maintaining the detached mood surrounding its main characters, the movie gives us exactly what we can expect from Haneke’s work. While we come to observe many of its main characters from the distance, there is always a subtle sense of tension on the screen, and that makes us keep wondering what can possibly happen next among them. The cinematography by Haneke’s usual collaborator Christian Berger, who was Oscar-nominated for “The White Ribbon”, is fluid and unobtrusive in several notable long-take scenes, and there are a couple of impressive scenes which took me back to how effortlessly Haneke intrigued and then surprised us in “The Piano Teacher” (2001), “Caché” (2005), and “The White Ribbon” (2009).
However, unlike these three memorable masterworks, the movie does not have enough narrative cohesion to hold its story and characters together. I often felt impatient with its rather scattershot narrative and thin characterization, and, though it provides some nasty moments as expected in the end, the movie eventually fizzles while merely showing more of its weak aspects including its rote, perfunctory critique of social media.
The main cast members do as much as they can do with their respective roles, and some of them acquit themselves well. Although she does not have many things to do except looking frigid and detached, Isabelle Huppert, who was simply magnificent in Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher”, is engaging as usual with her own distinctive presence, and the same thing can be said about Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was quite unforgettable with late Emmanuelle Riva in Haneke’s previous work “Amour” (2012). While Mathieu Kassovitz, Franz Rogowski, Laura Verlinden, and Toby Jones are stuck in their thankless roles, young performer Fantine Harduin holds her place well among her co-performers, and she is convincing in her character’s gradual change toward amorality, insensitivity, and, above all, lovelessness.
On the whole, “Happy End” is a disappointing misfire, but it is not as abysmal as “Funny Games” (1997) and its totally unnecessary 2007 remake version, which are still two of the worst films I have ever watched. Although it is not wholly without interesting elements to observe and talk about, the movie frequently stumbles and falters in its attempt, and I was only left with an urge to revisit Haneke’s better works out there. I was not bored at least, but he could do better than this, you know.