Michael Haneke, the auteur’s auteur, is from Austria but this is one of his French language productions, set in Calais among a dysfunctional haute bourgeoise family. It’s like a very high-class soap: Dynasty shot by a pitiless master film maker, a cruel God turning his withering contempt for these people into high art.
And that’s both the beauty and the beastliness of Happy End. None of the characters are even pitiable. Isabelle Huppert is the dutiful stressed daughter Anne, in charge of the Laurent family construction business now that the paterfamilias, played by Jean Louis Trintingant (is this family somehow related to the one in Amour?) is suffering from dementia.
Her brother is a shifty, cheating doctor, played by Matthieu Kassovitz, who now takes in his estranged daughter from his first marriage.
Her son is a drop-out and unstable rebel who nevertheless is employed at the family’s latest building site, and is indeed probably negligent when a dreadful industrial accident happens at the film’s start – all filmed in one static security camera shot, a dramatic moment caught without any comment and probably a metaphor for the whole film, a giant hole into which society is collapsing.
Haneke observes in long, cruel takes, keeping these dreadful people at a distance. Meanwhile, there are gentle reminders of the immigrant crisis in Calais, relegated to the background and the edge of frame – always check the edge of the frame in a Haneke movie, because that’s where the action is.
I almost didn’t like Happy End, even thought on that, heretical as it might be, this wasn’t very good. It felt like Haneke bingo, all the cameras and screens and different ways of seeing. It’s almost too conscious of its own status as a masterpiece. And yet it is still a masterpiece, every shot toxic with meaning, every line of dialogue cutting to the bone and the soul like a precision instrument.
It’s hard to love, hard to watch, hard to care for anyone, yet has a power and grace that’s impossible to deny – that’s where Haneke’s genius lies, challenging cinematic language and all its accepted cliches until you don’t quite know what it is you’ve seen or if you were even looking for it.
His imitators/disciples such as Yorgos Lanthimos and Ruben Ostlund aren’t quite up to his level of auteur hauteur: Haneke somehow finds soul amid the clinical surgery of his cinema.
Whatever and however, Happy End’s unsettlingly bleak mysteries have been haunting me all week, until I can see little else in the long, locked-off shot of my mind’s unblinking eye.