Some critics have called “Happy End”, the latest film from Michael Haneke, a “retread”, or something like that. I think, rather, that it shows a major artist losing his passion for filmmaking, as was also evident in his last film, the overrated “L’Amour”, which also starred Jean- Louis Trintignant.
The first third of the film, at least, while dense and sometimes confusing, is absorbing nevertheless. We have learned that Haneke takes his time to focus his story, which may, as in “The White Ribbon” (my personal favorite), have parallel threads involving multiple characters. We are introduced to the Laurent family, where multiple generations live in the same household, yet are still under the domination of the patriarch, Georges, who is infirm and confined to a wheelchair. As played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, he dominates with aristocratic repose. His daughter, Anne, played by Isabelle Huppert, is divorced, and has an adult son, Pierre, played by Franz Rogowski, who is hostile to her and willfully defiant. Still, Anne forces him to participate in the family business because she wants him to run it one day. Georges’ other son, Thomas, played by Matthieu Kassovitz (subtle and fine), is a doctor who is married to his second wife, who just gave birth to their son.
Also among the prominent characters is Thomas’ thirteen year old daughter by his first marriage, Eve, played by Fantine Harduin. Eve’s mother has just been hospitalized for an overdose of medication, and Eve is sent to live with her father while her mother recuperates. We know that Eve is intelligent, guarded and very observant because she diligently records the behaviors of her new family on her cell phone. The opening scene, in fact, is her phone record of Anne’s bathroom habits, with cynical commentary.
While the film details their intra-family conflicts in some detail – including the threat of losing the business because of an accident that cost the life of an employee – we soon notice a genuine loss of dramatic tension. Haneke, never known for creating the most sympathetic characters, seems to dislike the Laurents even more. A karaoke scene with Pierre, for instance, seems included just to express Haneke’s total contempt for him. None of this is lost on Eve, as shown by her growing distrust of the family, especially after she discovers that her father is having an affair.
Inevitably, though, artists of his stature have their inspired moments.There are three scenes – really mini-scenes – that recall the Haneke we’re more familiar with. They patiently focus from a single, fixed perspective, at a distance, until a startling moment is captured. In one scene, the infirm Georges moves slowly, painfully across an indoor parking lot, disappearing right screen; a pause, then a car is started, and drives away. In another scene, a car is parked and Pierre gets out. The camera follows him to a building entrance, but at a far distance away. A man opens the door, and an intense, unheard argument follows. In the last, Thomas and Eve are visiting Eve’s mother in the hospital. The static camera sees them enter her room in long shot. The bedridden patient is motionless, her face hidden. Eve approaches the bed, stops, then turns to her father. They leave silently.
The sprawling story tightens up again after Eve bungles a suicide attempt. Afterwards, she is told that her grandfather wants to talk to her. When she arrives, however, Georges tells her he lied about that; it was really Thomas who had asked him to see her. But Haneke is just being clever here. We know that this must be the lie; Thomas would never ask his unstable father to talk with his thirteen year old daughter after she makes a suicide attempt. But something crucial does happen in this scene. An unspoken bond is forged between the two. Georges, because he thinks the suicide attempt signals a possible ally for his own plans to kill himself, and Eve because she finally feels that she is important to someone.
It’s pretty obvious, then, that Eve’s conversation with Georges is meant to be the centerpiece of the story. It also signals, finally, that they were always the central characters, which makes the scenes with the other Laurent family members seem rather superfluous. Also, Eve’s increasingly judgmental perspective is more clearly intended to reflect Haneke’s own. The final scene of the film makes this clear. The family is celebrating Anne’s engagement to a business associate. Although the banquet is rather clumsily staged, with the attendees reacting to a totally unconvincing “intrusion” by African refugees, it sets the stage for the only dramatic action that Haneke really cares about: Eve’s tacit agreement to help Georges commit suicide. Eve’s final “gesture”, in fact, summarizes what Haneke feels about all of the other characters, including Georges. None of them are really worth our respect. But the artist, at least, can be true to himself – or “herself” in Eve’s case – by refusing to accept their deceptions, to each other or to themselves.
While that gesture successfully resolves the dramatic conflicts of the story, it doesn’t make the story worth telling. In Fantine Harduin’s transfixing performance, Eve becomes a credible person. She is as as deceptive as the adults around her, and rejects emotional attachments as simply painful in the long run. What I didn’t buy, however, is the reality of the world that Haneke presents to her. The very busy machinations of the Laurent family are rather predictable and dramatically flat. Georges has little reason to want to extend a life that must include them. He wouldn’t be losing much, but that doesn’t make me feel that the time I spent with them was worthwhile either. In retrospect, it seems both a shame and a waste when one of the world’s most important filmmakers makes a better case for death than for art.