When A Michael Haneke Film Is Called 'Happy End' - You Can Bet It Won't Be
German filmmaker Michael Haneke can sit on a shot like nobody else in the movies. He can make you feel like a spy, watching, waiting, taking in whatever might happen – or not happen. Early in Happy End you find yourself looking over a construction site. It’s a big commercial project, maybe a couple of acres or more, and because the foundation is only partway finished, it’s mostly just an enormous hole in the ground. A few workers are on the site, a full-sized excavator gathers dirt in its scoop, pivots and drops the dirt in another place. The shot comes from behind a window in another building; there’s no sound, so you feel far away and disconnected.
Without warning, a big chunk of foundation wall on the far side collapses. It’s an avalanche. It takes a shed with it, and you learn later, a worker.
Before that, Happy End holds you in an intimate setting, but also spying. The shot is through a cellphone camera and the photographer is a nearly 13-year-old girl named Eve (Fantine Harduin). With us, she looks down a dark hallway to her mother in a bathroom getting ready for bed. Resentful text adds comment to the scene. Then Eve shows her guinea pig with more angry text, and finally Eve shows her mother in the background lying on a couch with text about calling an ambulance. Eve may have something to do with her mother’s condition – you don’t know, although Eve does do in her caged pet.
When Michael Haneke calls a film Happy End, you can bet you will not be happy at the end. The White Ribbon, shows malice in a German town just before World War I. Caché is about betrayal and vengeance. Both the German and the English versions of Funny Games depict a vicious home invasion. Haneke’s films deliver blunt pictures of human beings behaving badly – and Happy End does not break the mold.
Happy End comes in bits of story that center on a wealthy family living in the French coastal town of Calais. They often sit at a table in a sterile white dining room. The aging patriarch (Jean-Louis Trintignant) occupies the head of the table. With him are his grown daughter, (Isabelle Huppert), who runs the family construction company, her brother Thomas, her hapless adult son – and eventually Eve, who now lives with Thomas her father in this cheery group.
As cold as Happy End can be, Haneke’s long takes draw you in, and the waiting itself makes you feel part of the scene, as if we in the audience share responsibility and guilt. Eve seems to confide in us; only we in the audience know that she mixed her mother’s antidepressant pills into the guinea pig’s food. So only the audience suspects Eve’s role in her mother’s death.
The movie also brings us into intimate moments with other characters. Eve’s father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is on his second marriage, but he exchanges lengthy, lurid erotic texts with an unknown person.
At the same time, the film sets the audience at a paradoxical distance from the most startling events in the movie. What Eve films with her cellphone may be private to her and to us, but the events come through a phone, not directly, just like her father’s erotic messages. And so Happy End creates an unrelenting discomfort. You feel both close and far away. Most of all, the picture makes you wonder why it shows these things and why we stay to watch.
That may be the point: to expose our attraction to all this grim, unpleasant and even criminal behavior. It’s very slick and deliberate and elegantly staged, but what’s revealed finally is just a wealthy family’s version of the nastiness of a lot of daytime television, where much poorer people shriek at each other about their transgressions. The characters in Happy End are richer, but obviously no better.