"Happy End": Michael Haneke's Timely Take-down of the One Percenters

12/22/2017 12:44 pm ET

In a film by Michael Haneke titled Happy End you can of course surrender any idea of a conventional happy end. Haneke's bracingly acid brew about the discontents of a wealthy French family includes many ingredients familiar from his oeuvre: surveillance; cold-hearted murder; the moral bankruptcy of the haute bourgeoisie; an immigrant underclass shoved to the margins. Add to this mix his signature twisted humor, consummate craft, and, in a departure, a series of lo-res Instagram Live-style videos, and some X-rated sexting.

Some viewers will be put off by the film's grimness (in Cannes, home to Haneke loyalists, the response was tepid and peppered with boos). Others will be hugely entertained by the steely control of the Austrian maestro as he maneuvers this puzzle-like narrative into a scathing critique of the world's economic elites.

The film kicks off with a kid's phone filming a woman at her toilette, spliced between the opening credits. The videos turn more sinister when a hamster is fed a fatal dose of mom's tranks (in what may be a trial run). By cutting back and forth to the credits, the opening sequence produces a Brechtian distancing effect. Unlike in Amour, Haneke does not ask for empathy for his characters. What he does ask is your unflagging attention in order to piece together an enigmatic story that plays like a thriller.

The video maker of the opening turns out to be one of Haneke's more fascinating creations: thirteen-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin), with the pert-nosed impassive face of either an angel or a demon. Following her mother's death (which she may have nudged along; remember those tranks), she comes to live with her surgeon father, Thomas Laurent (Mathieu Kassovitz), who has remarried, in the family mansion in Calais. The joyless, creepy household is presided over by an infirm patriarch (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who is bent on offing himself, and Thomas's sister, Anne Laurent (the matchless Isabelle Huppert in a role that fits like a second skin) who runs the family construction empire.

Happy interweaves several skeins. The negligence of Anne's grown son (Franz Rogowski) triggers an accident on their construction site, sending the son off the deep end (capped by his performance of the Sia song Chandelier in a drunken karaoke session). The patriarch doggedly pursues a plot against his own life, even approaching his barber for help. And Thomas conducts a torrid affair (conveyed in kinky texts on yet another screen) while his wife cares for their infant son.

The glacial heart of the film, though, is Eve, whose cyber-spying has uncovered her father's affair. In a telling scene she begs her mystified dad not to send her away to a "home." In fact, she has correctly zeroed in on her own expendability and the core attitudes of people who hold nothing dear but themselves. Eve forms an unsavory alliance with the patriarch based on a mutual willingness to take a step too far. (In a reprise of Amour he confesses to smothering his wife.) At the blistering denouement Anne's son barges into her posh engagement party with an entourage of immigrants, while she retaliates in a way only Haneke could have imagined.

Who better than the Austrian maestro nails the corruption and bad faith of the one percenters (or at least, his vision of them?) And what subject, in the age of Mnuchin, could be more timely? Of course, Happy includes a potshot at their cavalier treatment of servants: in a party scene Anne praises her Arab cook as "a real pearl" -- French code for the ultimate condescension.

In keeping with his view of a surveilled society, Haneke films several key sequences as long shots that might appear on security-camera footage. In a darkly amusing traveling shot in front of noisy traffic, his camera follows the grandfather as he approaches a bunch of kids in hoodies, who are likely African immigrants. (We hear nothing but the roar of cars, but may assume he's requesting a killer-for-hire.) When Anne's son visits the projects, where he's presumably trying to make amends for the construction accident, the scene is filmed from such a remove you can only intuit what triggers the ensuing violence. (It will be later be used against the worker's family in the settlement.) Haneke also omits connective segues so that each new scene, like a switch to a new channel, challenges the viewer to fill in the dots.

In American films about family dysfunction, a genre that’s fast outwearing its welcome, the usual cause is lack of parental love, a monster mom, sibling rivalry, etc. etc. In Haneke, it's the lopsidedness of the larger world that warps character. Eve is not so much a bad seed, as the logical mutant produced by her self-absorbed clan, a spawn of the one percenters who pushes their values to a twisted extreme. She barricades herself behind technology, the better to manipulate a family who would show her no mercy, she intuits, when push came to shove.

The confidence Haneke projects as he maneuvers the scattered mosaics of his tale into a cohesive whole is nothing short of thrilling. And when the true "happy end" circles back to Eve's final video, it inspires the darkest sort of laughter. In fact, Haneke's brilliant orchestration of his materials is as much the subject -- and triumph -- of Happy as anything else. To criticism that his vision is overly gloomy the filmmaker replies, “I simply present things the way they are."

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