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Film Comment Selects 2010: Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s Happy End

Apocalyptic amour fou corrupts the earth in Happy End, Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s adaptation of Dominique Noguez’s 1991 novel about love, loss, and nuclear bombs over Moscow.

Film Comment Selects 2010: Happy End
Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

Apocalyptic amour fou corrupts the earth in Happy End, Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s adaptation of Dominique Noguez’s 1991 novel about love, loss, and nuclear bombs over Moscow. As newspapers and TVs blare reports of lethal virus outbreaks in Italy and impending missile bombardments in Paris, and as ash rain falls over his coastal vacation home paradise of Biarritz, Robinson (Mathieu Amalric) wanders about in a fugue, scribbling in a cookbook (paper shortages are at a peak) about the summer before, when he deliberately detonated his marriage to government official Chloé (Karin Viard) for a mad affair with tall, slender, tattooed sex club employee Lae (Omahyra). It was a carnal relationship of an irrational, consuming order, one that led Robinson from Biarritz to Taiwan to Canada, where he was abandoned for the final time by Lae and, alone in the snowy mountains, lost his hand to frostbite. A year later, Robinson still can’t get Lae out of his head, an infatuation that the Larrieu brothers posit as so consuming as to supersede concern for Doomsday, as well as one ignited by a tryst that the filmmakers even more drolly, and subtly, posit as the potential cause of the burgeoning global catastrophe.

If uninhibited passion is the cause of the planet’s self-destruction in Happy End, it’s nonetheless also the reaction, as Robinson’s subsequent journey south includes numerous bedroom pit stops with a variety of wayward souls, including his father’s clingy former mistress (Catherine Frot), the bartender daughter (Clotilde Hesme) of his opera singer friend Théo (Sergi López), and Théo himself. Rampant self-interest has caused the sky to fall, and with it upon their heads, Robinson and his compatriots can think of nothing but themselves and their urges, the directors creating an atmosphere of unreal narcissism run amok in which people believe there to be no world but the self. Far from a stinging critique, however, the Larrieus treat this navel-gazing human condition with mordant, empathetic humanism. Robinson’s fixation on finding and wholly re-immersing himself in Lae is excessive and patently foolhardy, and yet the pure, sheer devotion of this desire—contextualized in a gauzy, dreamlike reality where the apocalypse doesn’t interrupt opera performances, Spain’s annual running of the bulls, or affairs of the heart—proves endearing. Isolated and alone in cinematographer Thierry Arbogast’s spatially expansive widescreen compositions even when joined by others, Robinson is the lovelorn romantic in extremis, a proxy at once ridiculous and all-too-recognizable.

The film’s marriage of overwhelming yearning with dry, solipsism-centric whimsy isn’t always a stable one; a bit in which Robinson drives an RV while wearing scuba goggles and petting a passenger-seat owl, for example, pushes the weirdness into borderline affectation. Nonetheless, Amalric, his morose, slightly dazed face lurking underneath perpetually disheveled hair, and his prosthetic hand amplifying his stilted, uncomfortable comportment, remains throughout a magnetic center of attention, his Robinson made both small by his destructive passion and yet whole by it as well. Veering freely between the past and the present, between memories and dreams, the film creates an entrancing sense of dislocation and disorientation that reflects its protagonist’s fractured state of mind, and is enhanced by intermittent interruptions of cacophonous explosions and random run-ins with familiar faces. Like Lae’s sheer robes, societal rules and constraints gracefully fall away under pandemic duress, leaving only helter-skelter want and need, much of it so crazy that horror and humor blend into one, as during Robinson’s navigation of an Eyes Wide Shut orgy full of the desperate and gleefully debased. Not as optimistically happy as its title suggests, it’s a wryly morose and achingly romantic portrait of a man and world torn asunder by love, and of the beautiful devastation wrought by clinging to unchecked desire all the way through to the bitter, incinerating nuclear fire End.

Film Comment Selects runs from February 19—March 4.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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