Funny Games. The White Ribbon. Amour. Hidden. All fantastic films that attest to Austrian director Michael Haneke’s untethered, unusual yet unique brilliance. With these in mind, I was eagerly anticipating Haneke’s latest foray into the arthouse market, Happy End, a film that has assembled a phenomenal cast including Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant, having looked set to deliver the alarming goods of Haneke’s films past.
So it is with dissatisfaction that I have to report that Happy End does not deliver on its promise: without a concise tone or consistent theme across its confused narrative, Happy End fails to conjure the intellectual thrills of Haneke’s previous works.
To try and summarise its narrative in a comprehensive manner, Happy End orbits around the less than relatable goings-on of the Laurent family. Patriarch Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) wishes to end his life. Conflicted Anne (Isabelle Huppert) struggles to balance business and familial duties. Surreptitious Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) cannot resist the sadomasochistic lust he feels for a violinist, Claire (Loubna Abidar). These are three of a whole roster of singular narratives that combine to form a somewhat eclectic slideshow of disparate elements that fail to infuse in any meaningful way.
Meaning is an essential word here to describe the fundamental issue at the heart of Haneke’s latest. A film constructed on a number of intertwining stories is entirely possible: one need only look at Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven or Michael Haneke’s own The White Ribbon to prove this. But unlike Happy End, these films prove successful by operating in accordance with an indispensable principle: a relevant theme that runs throughout. The Edge of Heaven deals in the motif of ethnic identity. The White Ribbon engages with the immorality of fascist ideology, arising in the German populace during the pre-war period.
Happy End, however, forgets to tie its elements together into a compound cinematic experience. There are certainly themes at play: the horrors hidden behind social media, the imminent confrontation with death, the debilitating weight of guilt for one’s actions. It even dabbles in a racial sub-plot that it does not earn the right to deal with. All of these points collide with one another, rather than unifying under a streamlined narrative: it’s a stop-and-start product that falters under its own ambitions.
Furthermore, it’s tone is equally chaotic. Part melodrama, part social commentary, part black comedy, Happy End swings between these narrative pitches like a frenzied pendulum with no intention of stopping. It is not as though the successful amalgamation of these tones is an impossible task. Consider Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a similarly challenging art film that I praised highly, in a recent review. Lanthimos’ film constructs an unsettling milieu that leaves its audience wondering whether they should be laughing or wincing at the action unfolding. But unlike Happy End, this works due to the consistency of its narrative and the loyalty it demonstrates to its theme: old vs. new, exemplified by its translation of Greek mythology into a present setting, focusing on the allegorical conflict between an older man and a younger teenager. Happy End simply ignores this option, electing to flit between a number of grander themes, with none truly landing in the way that they were supposed to.
As with any of Haneke’s films, there is still quality to be found amidst the sporadic narrative. Haneke regular Christian Berger provides some fantastically unshowy cinematography here: relying quite regularly on static shots and long takes, Berger welcomes the contemplation that this film needs, despite its manifest flaws. Furthermore, the performances summon a level of promise that the film, unfortunately, doesn’t deserve. Huppert, Trintignant and Kassovitz are reliably excellent. But relative newcomers Franz Rogowski – as troubled rebel Pierre Laurent – and Fantine Harduin – as sinister youngling Eve Laurent – make the biggest impact: Rogowski and Harduin hold their own opposite Huppert and Trintignant, respectively, in the film’s two, superlative encounters.
But these are wonderful, technical qualities that inhabit a perplexing narrative experience, one that denies the potential of its individual components to wholly shine through. This is a surprising outcome from a director who has so expertly shaped his inimitable style against other filmmakers of his ilk: the shocking yet deliberate immorality of films such as Funny Games and The White Ribbon signalled Haneke as a filmmaker to reckon with, within the pantheon of controversial filmmakers such as Lanthimos and Lars von Trier.
Yet Happy End beckons the inevitable hiccup in an otherwise flawless filmography. Seemingly on an unstoppable stride, Haneke wavers with Happy End, a disappointing project that leaves much to be desired. If he divided this film’s various plots into a loosely connected series, akin to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue, he might have achieved what this film clearly aspires to: a wide constellation of various critiques, against the dominant features of contemporary society. Instead, Haneke has produced a messy film: while no one should ask for fulfilment in an arthouse film, could one not ask for a little stability in terms of tone and theme? With Happy End, we find an answer that refuses the latter. And it fails to make a positive impression as a result.