With Happy End, Michael Haneke takes circuitous routes to arrive at rather simplistic observations—namely, that modern technology is a plague and that the rich are soul-sick and insulated from real-world troubles. He’s concocted a plot just busy enough to distract from these worn cynicisms and a set of characters too enigmatic to dismiss as mere chess pieces off the bat, but by the end, Happy End reveals itself as something vacuous and cold, a bizarrely seductive pseudo-thriller lacking a thoroughly worked-out payoff.
Revolving around the Laurents, a clan of wealthy industrials stationed in the north of France, in the weeks following the hospitalization of one of their own and an accident in the family construction business, Happy End unveils its many narrative threads slowly and parsimoniously. The first 10 minutes eschew conventional mise-en-scène in favor of filling the screen with other forms of visual stimuli: a smartphone display with a Snapchat-like app open and a snatch of surveillance footage. In the former scenario, we witness the shaky voyeuristic recordings of a young girl as she lopes around a house and looks on as a hamster slowly dies after ingesting antidepressant pills. The surveillance feed, meanwhile, shows an average construction site suddenly thrown into disarray by the collapse of a concrete wall, and there’s no effort made to clarify for us the connective tissue between the two segments.
We’ll soon learn that the hamster-doping girl is 12-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) and that the construction site falls under the auspices of her aunt, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), and cousin, Pierre (Franz Rogowski). These details, though, take some attentive work to glean, as Haneke is intent on supplying only one or two strands of narrative information in a given scene, and always in an offhand manner: a stray line of dialogue, a surname in small letters in the top corner of a Facebook browser. This aversion to predictable exposition, coupled with Haneke’s penchant for showing only a fragment of a space, leaving out certain audio tracks that would be valuable in interpreting the meaning of a scene, or viewing action from an absurd distance, lends Happy End the enticing quality of a mystery to be solved.
If this is a mystery, however, it’s one with a peculiar emphasis on digression and downtime. The film mostly skirts the mounting dramas in the day-to-day operations of the construction firm in favor of charting Pierre’s childish outbursts around town and his mother’s ineffectual efforts to tame his roiling rage. Meanwhile, back at the luxe Laurent residence, not-insignificant chunks of time are dedicated to the laptop screen of Eve’s father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), as he lewdly chats with a mistress right under the nose of his wife, Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), and indeed Eve herself, who takes up residence with the pair after her mother is hospitalized following a suspicious pill overdose. Elements of both these subplots—specifically, Thomas’s vapid erotic chatter and an impulsive karaoke performance by Pierre—suggest that Haneke is trying to leaven his grimness with humor, but the behavior on display isn’t absurd enough to be particularly funny. It’s just pathetic.
Something similar can be said about the Laurent clan’s patriarch, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and his pursuit of suicide. Georges’s utter exhaustion with life manifests itself in crude attempts to get others to play accomplice in his death and role-playing as an amnesiac. Truth is, the man still has his wits about him, or at least enough so to provide his granddaughter with decisive words of wisdom near the film’s climax—a dour speech about real violence and death being anesthetized by the media that’s hard not to interpret as Haneke’s own wake-up call to the young and naïve. That Eve and Georges’s sinister cross-generational rapport ends up becoming Happy End’s emotional center of gravity retroactively trivializes the story’s other threads. In effect, Georges’s excoriating outlook shrinks all surrounding activity to pettiness.
A development in the film’s final moments further invalidates the characters’ trifling dramas. Many synopses of Happy End prominently mention that it’s set against the European refugee crisis, though the film waits until its concluding sequence to broach the topic with any kind of directness. This is, of course, by design, as Haneke ultimately seeks to expose his audience’s limited or possibly nonexistent awareness of this global calamity. With that said, this same rug-pulling maneuver was already executed with far more core-shaking effectiveness by Haneke in Cache, a film that was ruthlessly single-minded in picking apart its protagonist’s specific complex of selective forgetfulness.
Here, the sudden reappearance of taciturn dark-skinned figures to drop a slam dunk on a room of absentminded white elites plays as a glib punchline, especially since it’s Pierre providing the assist (how exactly he goes from an emotionally stunted brat to an enlightened educator on first-world ignorance is anyone’s guess). If that didn’t already seem like a tactless way of reckoning with a human rights issue, Haneke then elects to blow right by it to another scene of nihilistic morbidity that facilely riffs on the film’s title. The value of Haneke’s films has long rested on the degree to which they spring from and articulate a justifiable pessimism, but in the succession of cheap maneuvers that ends Happy End he plumbs new depths of every-which-way sourness.