You would think that in the autumn of his years Michael Haneke, now 75, would be trying to take it easy and settling into philosophical work that was reasonably easy to process. But sharp-edged topicality rules as though he had just discovered it in his latest film Happy End.
The film begins with camera-phone footage of a young girl getting ready for bed, turning out the light. Each of the elements of her nightly routine are listed out in French text on the phone screen that frames the shot.The girl’s sense of routine might well be her clinging to whatever meagre sense of structure she can find in her life. For indeed the tender years of Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) are besieged by domestic discord and a painful sense of drift.
She lives with her mother whose moods and depressions are wearing her down. Her father Thomas Laurent (Mathieu Kassovitz) a surgeon in Lille, left home some years ago. He is in a second relationship with Anaïs (Laura Verlinden) with whom he has a baby boy.
When we meet her first, Eve is spending time with papa and his extended family at the prosperous family apartments in Calais. Eve has moved there in fact because her mother is in hospital, and appears to have taken an overdose. Thomas, the dad, is not used to her around him, as he tells her, trying to explain his inability to be affectionate. He has secrets in his private life, as Eve discovers - the introverted girl of almost 13 is a skilled people watcher.
At the head of the dinner table in Calais is the distracted paterfamilias, Georges Laurent played by veteran French actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant who, incidentally turns 87 on December 11. Also seated at table are Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) the sister who runs the family construction business, and her discontented, rebellious son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) who reluctantly helps his mother run it.
A tête-à-tête between mother and son is one of the most masterful scenes in modern cinema. It is almost worth seeing the film alone just for the mesmerising performances of both actors in this scene which is played out in the tormented son's darkened studio apartment.
A tête-à-tête between mother and son must be one of the most masterful scenes in modern cinema. It is almost worth seeing the film alone just for the mesmerising performances of both actors in this scene which is played out in the tormented son's darkened studio apartment.
Thus the movie proceeds, a kind of Secrets and Lies for our times, a fragmentary parable that is both baleful and admonitory. A recurring theme centres around the African immigrant population in France, chiefly the Moroccan family who are part of the extended household. A dramatic scene at a family wedding towards the close introduces the sharpest paradigm on the refugee theme, a dramatic scene worthy of Luis Buñuel, as the bourgeois fortress is invaded, causing much consternation and social embarrassment.
But does the film work? Well, kind of. As a study in family dysfunction it is compelling but hardly illuminating or unusually perceptive. There is a certain lack of cohesion, and it seems even random at times, almost Altmanesque in that regard.
A brief thread featuring Toby Young as the boyfriend of Hubbert seems superfluous. Young is merely a cypher of an embattled businessman and somehow he does not convince as love interest.
Towards the close, your reviewer realised that Happy End is in fact a tentative sequel to Michael Haneke’s masterpiece, Amour, which won the Palme D’Or and Best Foreign Film at the 2014 Academy Awards. Amour was set almost entirely in a Paris apartment, as an elderly couple coped bravely with the humiliations of old age.Then as now, Trintignant played Georges Laurent who was caring for his wife as she drifts into increasing dementia. In Happy End, he is the widower during the years afterwards, drifting into some form of dementia himself. Happy End is an entirely different sort of film and to give Haneke credit, he has not done a part two-style sequel. Amour is the better film, but Happy End is still brilliant.