Happy End (2017)

Michael Haneke | 1hr 50min

At its best, Happy End is a summation of every significant idea that Michael Haneke has ever examined throughout his career, from the suppression of French bourgeoisie guilt in Cache to the chilling sociopathy of children in The White Ribbon. At its worst, it never quite escapes from under the cloud of any of these films, spreading itself too thinly across so many subplots that it struggles to become its own cinematic statement. It takes until one of the final scenes between 13-year-old Eve and her grandfather, Georges, for the film to effectively congeal into anything more substantial. As the two sit across from each other, unsettling confessions begin to spill out, and for the first time there is a mutual acknowledgement between characters of the depraved darkness which is only barely obscured beneath their stoic, loveless expressions.

Even as these two generations open up to each other though, Haneke never unites them a single shot the way one might expect from a union of characters. Like so many other conversations in Happy End, each actor is kept isolated in their own frames, entirely cut off from their scene partners. The cold loneliness felt all throughout the film has a quietly crushing effect, leaving behind long stretches of silence that force us to simply sit with the visual horror of a dying hamster, a collapsing retaining wall, and an aggressive online affair.

And then there is Haneke’s violence, landing with muted thumps that draw as much attention to the sadistic intent of its perpetrators as it does to the physical pain exacted upon their victims. He is not one to push our attention around with moving cameras and cutaways, or to didactically carve out moral statements from the sins and virtues of his characters. When one young man is beaten by another outside an apartment building and when a mother breaks her son’s finger to stop him from acting out, he instead stifles these acts of brutality by staging them just offscreen, or otherwise relegating them to the background of long, static shots. Within the upper-middle class of French society that the Laurent family inhabits, violence is a useful tool that they would rather not directly acknowledge. In fact, the only offender who does face consequences in the film is the underprivileged son of an injured labourer, clearly unable to afford the same legal protection that keeps Haneke’s wealthier characters safe from repercussions.

With misanthropy like this being allowed to fester within the Laurent family and no threat of accountability, one could even assume it is hereditary, intensifying with each passing generation. We do feel real heartbreak for Georges when he admits to mercy killing his sick wife, but this almost feels trivial next to Eve’s poisoning and incidental murder of her own mother, Anaïs. In the film’s opening sequence, we watch through her phone’s voyeuristic lens as she records Anaïs from a distance gradually growing sluggish, until she falls asleep on a couch. The livestreamed comments she writes with these videos are disturbingly heartless, speaking of her mother’s coldness that has bred an even worse contempt in her.

When we return to Eve’s phone video again at Happy End’s close, there is something a little more sympathetic behind its intent. She, more than anyone, understands her grandfather’s suffering, and so she becomes an accomplice in his attempted suicide, letting his wheelchair roll down a ramp into the ocean where he hopes to drown. With the phone once again acting as a barrier between her and her dying relative, the detachment is still present, but there is also some shared relief between them that neither needs to pretend to be anything but their own angry, disdainful selves anymore. Her aunt’s horrified face as she rushes past the camera towards a sinking Georges in the very final second of the film says it all. For those with pristine reputations to uphold, these displays of cruelty and misery are best kept on in the inside, never to be shared with the outside world. To Haneke, this is both the curse and ultimate hypocrisy of living a privileged life.

Happy End is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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