Movie Review: The Familial Train Wreck of “Happy End”

“Happy End” opens and closes with cell-phone footage, the widescreen frame scrunched accordionlike into that ubiquitous, shaky, voyeuristic rectangle through which at least one generation sees the world.

Both sequences are the work of the film’s youngest, brightest and arguably most tortured character, 13-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin), and both involve certain or probable death. We learn right away, through annotated text messages on the smartphone screen, that she’s raised by a single mom with a pill dependence; that her father abandoned the family years ago; and that she’s poisoned her pet hamster with her mother’s antidepressants. It’s soundless and heartbreaking.

This is unmistakably the work of Austria’s Michael Haneke who, along with fellow enfant terrible Lars Von Trier, is one of world cinema’s most pessimistic directors, responsible for such immaculate but despairing films as “Funny Games,” “The Piano Teacher,” “Amour” and “Cache.” While at least two of these movies directly involve our preoccupation with screens in modern life, “Happy End” is Haneke’s most accurate exploration of the way we mediate—and medicate—our daily stresses with digital balms, from smartphone confessionals to Facebook cybersex. It’s all in an effort to feel something—anything—other than the uncomfortably numb predictability of its restive upper-class family. If you haven’t guessed by now, its title is ironic.

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“Happy End” is set in and around the Laurent home, an elegant and sturdy domicile maintained with phantom invisibility by servants of color. The residents, though, are a shambles: Demented octogenarian patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), in a sense reprising his role as the humane killer of the excruciating “Amour,” is ready to join his wife on the other side, even if it means limping to one of the family’s cars, stealing behind the wheel and driving it into a tree.

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His daughter, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), runs the family construction business, which is facing a legal and moral snafu. In one of the film’s majestic early scenes, an aerial surveillance camera at a construction site captures the collapse of a concrete wall, tumbling a misplaced port-a-potty, and a worker, to the unforgiving ground in a mini avalanche. Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) was on duty when it happened, and he’ll spend the rest of the movie vacillating between guilt and projection, wallowing in alcohol, self-pity and an epically uninhibited performance of “Chandelier” in a karaoke bar.

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Anne’s brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), a local physician, seems to have it together more than his kin; he has a lovely wife and a newborn baby. But he’s been harboring a clandestine affair with a classical musician and friend of the family (Loubna Abidar), which manifests in erotic Internet chats. The truth comes to the fore thanks to Eve, Thomas’ daughter from a previous marriage, who re-enters his life after the hospitalization of her mother.

Multiple suicide attempts, parental neglect, exploitation of a lower caste; these feelings and actions are presented like scattered jigsaw pieces gradually congealing into an ugly picture. The complete image is that of a family’s gradual but inexorable untethering. When characters expire, they do so off-screen, with little fanfare—new gaps in a puzzle that already felt void to begin with.

The logical question is, why would an audience want to sit through “Happy End?” My best answer is that, for adventurous cinephiles, it’ll invigorate you more than bring you down. I’ve already used the word “excruciating” as a compliment to Haneke’s “Amour,” and “Happy End” is another reminder that suffering can make for powerful, uncompromising art.

The director’s formalism, with its antiseptic long shots, remains a thing of beauty. His presentation of dementia is brutally honest, his spiritual connections between unlikely characters—namely Georges and Eve—deeply moving. Undergirding it all is a sense of white privilege corroding the edges of the movie like a gnawing cancer.

You needn’t like it, but it’s hard to turn away from it as you watch in horror, hoping you don’t see the slightest vestiges of yourself.

“Happy End” opens tomorrow at Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood, and the Tower Theater in Miami.