What do you do when you near the end of your life and you have nothing left to live for? That's a question practically tailor-made for Michael Haneke, whose chilly austerity and bleak fatalism has and continues to be something of a trademark. This follow-up to Amour (which won the Palme d’Or in 2012) is imperfect and strange, and finds the Austrian director in an (unusually?) introspective mode, consciously working through images and fragments of his past films.
The subject of Haneke’s attention, here, is the wealthy, bourgeois Laurent family, headed by aging patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). His daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) runs the thriving family business with the help of her somewhat incapable son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), while Georges' son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a doctor who recently had a child with Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), his second wife. For a while, the film looks to be the equal (at least) of any film in Haneke’s body of work. Shades of Caché emerge in the opening credits sequence, as well as security camera footage of a construction site collapse that follows; sordid chats between Thomas and another woman, Claire, bring to mind the twisted ardor of The Piano Teacher; superficial similarities to Amour are, well, more than superficial. Aided by Haneke’s emphatic camera movements and ever-precise orchestrations of space, Happy End is quietly gripping, various threads and subplots emerging as the focus is split among the various members of the Laurent clan. The main one, however, concerns Ève (Fantine Harduin), Thomas's 13-year-old daughter by his first wife, who moves in with the family after her mother attempts suicide, which culminates in a hospital visit captured in a distant, fixed frame. And it's Ève, with her quiet, severe intensity, that gives us entry into the bourgeois milieu, Harduin's compelling presence suggesting the internal poisons of the Laurent family. (It's implied that after her mother's marriage to Thomas, ended, she was practically abandoned. “I forgot what it was like to have a daughter,” her father tells her.)
None of this is unfamiliar territory for Haneke, certainly, but despite its title, Happy End is willfully irresolute, its snaking threads suggesting festering grief, latent desire and buried contempt, only for them to hit dead ends or else get dropped entirely. It's a film constructed around unfulfilled desire, the “end” of the title suggesting a stifled, truncated existence. That's compelling in concept—not least because the film itself ends precisely when one expects it to really get going. But unlike the layered fragments of something like Code Unknown, which intersect and build as the film progresses, there's a flatness to the overall picture, here, that underwhelms. And divorced from the context of a more layered structure, the unrelenting worldview begins to feel cheap, the emotions that it wants to elicit somewhat unearned. Granted, it does create an impression that Haneke is explicitly engaging with 21st century mores (among other things, the film’s credits includes a YouTube supercut), attempting to capture our increasingly atomized modes of existence. (In this regard, Haneke fares far better than fellow Competition director Andrei Zvyagintsev.) And what's undeniable is the way Haneke is able to suggest so much with comparatively little, although that's also a testament to his superb ensemble cast.
Perhaps it's that Amour marked a breaking point, and that Happy End, in its studied introspection, marks the beginning of something else entirely. It may not immediately feel like a transitional work—even though the generational focus pushes it in that direction—but there's a sense of irresolute finality to the closing image, which simultaneously mixes borderline-farcical humor (suggesting a level of self-awareness) with serious gravitas. “Drop the act,” says the unusually perceptive Ève to her father. By the end, the only question seems to be: Where do we go from here?