It’s not unusual for artistic masters to revisit familiar themes in their later years, returning to central obsessions with a kind of focus commensurate with the grim realization that life is growing short. Such is the case with Michael Haneke’s Happy End, a bitter distillation of the director’s cinematic greatest hits, but delivered with a simplicity and resignation that make them feel just as urgent as always. In part, that’s because of the state of the world—in part that’s because, if anything, Haneke, at 75, is even less optimistic about human nature than when he was as a younger provocateur.
The film concerns the Laurent family: a wealthy clan that’s made its money through a privately owned company. We meet each of them in due course, and none of them are particularly endearing. The steely Anne (Isabelle Huppert) handles the reins, extremely concerned that her adult son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is an idiot unsuitable to take over the business. Her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a good-hearted but spineless doctor whose young daughter Ève (Fantine Harduin) just might be a psychopath. In Happy End’s opening moments, we see video shot from her iPhone as she describes the mother she hates and the older brother who died tragically. It’s clear Ève wants to do something malicious to her mom, practicing first on the pet guinea pig by drugging it with prescription meds.
Haneke introduces us to these individuals, as well as the aging patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), with icy nonchalance. Happy End isn’t a movie full of forceful shocks—rather, there’s a slithering dread from the start, Haneke always hinting at evil deeds about to transpire.
Soon, the specter of misdeeds begins to arise. Ève’s mother falls ill without warning. A fatal accident occurs on a construction site owned by the family. A mysterious stranger corresponds with Thomas online, the two sending naughty messages back and forth, indicating a longtime affair. All of these incidents are introduced with the same air of distant dispassion, reflecting the characters’ own lack of feeling. It’s almost as if the Laurents have been rich so long, they’ve purchased the right not to be bothered worrying about anything anymore.
This terrain is not new for Haneke. In films like Caché, he’s examined the moral corruption of the well-to-do, and his filmography contains a litany of unsettling horror elements. Happy End’s use of cellphone and surveillance footage recalls similar techniques in his earlier work, but it’s striking how much it also echoes contemporary horror films like Paranormal Activity, which elicited scares by staging seemingly banal images, teasing us with the expectation that something terrible would emerge somewhere in the frame.
In this way, Happy End feels like a summation—the man who perfected the technique flexing his craftsmanship one more time. But the film’s horror has nothing to do with things that go bump in the night, and everything to do with the day-to-day monsters that walk amongst us. As the film demonstrates, economic inequality remains alive and well, and (in a particularly deft handling), so does racism. The Laurents have live-in help, a Middle Eastern family (headed by parents Nabiha Akkari and Hassam Ghancy) whom we learn almost nothing about. This isn’t a deficiency in Happy End’s design. In the cloistered landscape of this movie—which is presented as the worldview of the family—they barely count as people and don’t deserve character development.
The ghosts of Haneke’s past work emerge in other ways. Trintignant was one of the leads in Amour, about a long-married couple grappling with mortality, and as we learn more about his Happy End character, we realize that he’s playing (in essence) the same man in a different story. (In Happy End, Georges mourns Emmanuelle Riva, his wife in Amour, who died early this year. And Huppert portrayed his daughter in both films.) The connection between the movies isn’t explained, which is another Haneke trademark. From Funny Games to Caché, strange incidents have often been left inexplicable, and in Happy End we’re left to ponder several mysteries—including a few not worth spoiling here.
This repetition of old themes might suggest a filmmaker out of ideas. I’d argue the opposite: Happy End is a movie that’s fully alive, no matter how chilly it is. And its calm is a kind of rage, methodically cataloging the crimes and misdemeanors of a family that’s seemingly above consequence. The negotiation of a settlement in the construction-site tragedy is filmed with utter detachment. An affair that could destroy a relationship is regarded with a shrug. A scene involving the company’s acquisition feels perfunctory, until we recognize the deeper implications. (Toby Jones is great in a small but crucial role as Huppert’s beau.) In Happy End, everything is going this family’s way, and their lack of a moral compass isn’t a hindrance. Nothing can stop them.
And that’s where Happy End parts company with Haneke’s earlier work. In the past, a cosmic comeuppance had occasionally reared its head to smite down the privileged. If such a karma correction awaits the Laurents, we don’t see it in Happy End. Family members die in this movie, and others are left worse off. But the idea of the Laurents—eternally wealth, eternally safeguarded from the strictures and ethics of regular society—remains immaculately preserved. It’s bloody frustrating, and yet Haneke remains such a master that, at the end, he gets you to laugh about the whole thing.
Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Franz Rogowski, Laura Verlinden, Toby Jones
Screening in competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.