I’m used to Michael Haneke dramas dealing a devastating blow as the credits roll (The White Ribbon, The Piano Teacher) so I was unprepared for the droll humour and light hand of this study of a wealthy French family struggling to let go of the past.
Living in one house in Calais is Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert), her elderly father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his wife and baby and Moroccan servants Rashid and Djamila. Thomas’s 13 year old daughter from a previous marriage, Eve (Fantine Harduin), moves in when her mother overdoses.
As is typical of a Haneke film, not a lot of significance happens. There is an accident at their company building site. Anne’s son Pierre gets beaten up. Thomas chats explicitly online with an unknown woman. Within these banalities is a thread about endings; the ones we crave but can’t enact, the ones we avoid, the ones we regret.
Haneke likes to keep his audience at a distance. He has scenes where we watch action but are too far away to hear the dialogue so we have to study gestures and body language to infer meaning. It requires patience and trust that the important meanings will eventually be revealed, something that Haneke doesn’t always do. In Happy End, there are no great secrets, at least not from the audience, making it the most accessible Haneke I’ve seen so far.
Eve is also watching life at a distance, through online videos and at an emotional remove from those around her. In this way she is not dissimilar to the other Laurents, who are self-absorbed and ignorant or uninterested in each other’s lives. They show genteel largess when confronted by asylum seekers but seem oblivious to the real crises that their wealth and family name insulate them from.
The exception, in some ways, is Georges. His moments with Eve, and the reference to Haneke’s previous film Amour, are the only ones where we feel a genuine human connection. At opposite ends of life, they are both overlooked and unable to speak their very non-Laurent truths. The ending is brief, unexpected and witty.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.