Few films are less deserving of their title than Michael Haneke’s Happy End, which charts the socio-political discord of a Europe divided by racial, cultural and financial barriers, using the example of one bourgeoisie family’s narcissism contrasted against their ignorance of the mass migration crisis unfolding on their doorstep. Placing a microscopic lens on themes of death, moral obligation and its subsequent neglect, it’s a statement piece which doesn’t hold back in its accusatory scrutiny. Par the course for a director as controversial as Haneke, then.
You could almost view Happy End as being a collaboration of discomforting ideas threaded into a blanket which covers and isolates the characters in all their stifled and constrained dejection; the darkly personal subject matter work efficiently to establish the film’s atmosphere of miserable, quiet horror. Isabelle Huppert’s (fresh off the back of her mesmerising performance in last year’s Elle) frosty grandmother, Anne, is heir to the construction business which has made her father, weary patriarch Georges, so successful. Georges’ burdening disappointment with his children and their semi-rounded characters, combined with his own suppressed resentment in his unfulfilling bourgeoisie nightmare has left him wishing for his own ‘happy end’, seeking a mechanism to facilitate his euthanasia. The disenfranchisement with life Georges seems to have appears to be matched at the opposite end of the age-spectrum, with the arrival of technologically-astute but emotionally fragmented Eve, daughter to Georges’ son Thomas, who has been forced to move into the family after her mother’s overdose on medication. Haneke’s statement thematic filmmaking, portraying surveillance in the realm of technology (Eve carries a smartphone around at almost all times, and films some truly disturbing stuff through the interface of a Facebook-esque live stream) leads the audience to believe she was probably responsible for her mother’s overdose in the first place. Each character in this dysfunctional family displays characteristics so depressingly hostile and misanthropic that warrant any audience member to feel exhausted with cynical despair that the film becomes an almost unbearable watch.
It’s evident that the more inwardly-focussed the film becomes, the more of a comment it’s making on our subsequent neglect to those who sit outside our sphere of consideration. Here, it’s those at the heart of the appalling migrant crisis enveloping the city of Calais. Haneke somewhat predictably positions two Moroccan servants on the edge of the family to give an eye into the periphery of what is ignored by everyone in the house, perhaps bar the astute youthful curiosity of Eve. She takes all the unspoken dystopia in slowly, and we see it evidently influencing her outlook on the characteristics of those around her. Huppert’s clipped, icy delivery when reprimanding her staff is the only real insight the audience has into her attitude towards class. However, it is entirely essential that this be the case – why would we assume she paid enough thought to the issue for it to rear its ugly head? No, the characters here need to be self-absorbed enough for there to be a statement made in the camera making a sweeping glance over migrants making a stab at conquering the Channel Tunnel, before returning to the insignificant personal turmoil of Anne and her family.
Portraying the detachment of the upper class from issues which don’t infringe upon them isn’t a new concept in the context of Haneke’s back-catalogue of cinema. Unfortunately, he has had more success with this in the past – while there are components in Happy End which feel interesting and give us something to think on, there are too many moments which require unnecessarily challenging amounts of focus to be able to be engaged with. The high-brow ideas and themes risk, at these points, consuming themselves – you wouldn’t be wrong to suspect a level of pseudo-intellectualism which doesn’t ring entirely genuine. The testing of both viewer patience and boundaries of the palate are not uncommon to Haneke’s filmmaking; you need only look to his 2012 film Amour for another example of his controversial cinema. However, it’s important to note that Amour works very closely with a number of the themes touched upon in Happy End, in more depth and with more weight than is gifted to them here.
It’s not inherently lazy for an artist to dedicate lengthy periods of time in their career to examining issues which have an abundance of content structure to pick apart. In particular, the examination of how people communicate in a world increasingly viewed through the interface of a screen – this is a subject which is ever evolving, and it’s clear that Haneke can dedicate as much time to it as he wants, as there’s something new to contemplate with every consideration made. The problem with this latest tread over well-worn ground is the disjointed feel it has about it – there are scenes of horror and bleak comedy, pointed social commentary and a reflection on society’s loss of interpersonal skills. These come in awkward bursts, with gratuitously lengthy periods of time in which little can be gleaned between.
An enjoyably bleak if sometimes testing story which leaves just enough to the imagination to maintain substance, all that Happy End seems to need is an extra shot of ambition, to take it above its more focussed predecessors.
Happy End is screening at Glasgow Film Theatre between the 4th – 7th of December. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.
By Maisie McGregor