When Michael Haneke plays games, he usually doesn’t do it for fun. This latest film from one of world cinema’s great heavyweights comes equipped with a hugely ironic title – for these are surely characters who, despite their wealth and position in society, are far from happy. It’s also a seemingly sly nod to his last film, 2012’s Amour, which won both the Palme d’Or in Cannes (Haneke’s second after The White Ribbon) and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Here, the aged wheelchair-bound patriarch of the Laurent family is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, star of Amour. Named Georges and with a daughter played by Isabelle Huppert – just as in Amour – at one point he refers to the death of his wife, who suffered the same fate as Emmanuelle Riva’s character from that earlier film. Are we meant to think this is a sequel? Haneke never explains, of course.
This playful wink aside, Happy End does feel like a remix of Haneke’s greatest hits. A portrait of a well-to-do clan in Calais, made wealthy from a now-ailing construction business, it’s yet another dissection of the upper middle-classes, in much the same manner as the superior Cache (Hidden). The film begins with an unseen child filming an unwitting woman as she goes about her bathroom routine, reminding us of scenes from both Hidden and 1992’s Benny’s Video.
Huppert is a Haneke regular, most memorably in the prize-winning The Piano Teacher. Here she plays divorcee Anne, pulled in several different directions as she manages the family firm, contends with her British banker fiancé (Toby Jones) and deals with her hapless grown-up son Pierre (Frank Rogowski). Then there is her frazzled brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), remarried but forced to look after his teenage daughter from his first marriage when her mother is taken to hospital.
With the ageing Georges particularly troubled, desperate to end his life, it’s really the French family from hell – situated, deliberately, in the same town as the infamous migrant jungle. As per usual with Haneke, it’s adeptly handled, exquisitely framed and filmed (a couple of long shots, one at a building site and one at a housing estate, particularly intrigue). Still, the overall impact isn’t quite as dramatic as one would hope. This feels like minor-key Haneke, though even that is far greater than most manage.
Happy End opens in cinemas on 1 December. For more information, visit: www.curzonartificialeye.com
1. Still from Happy End. Courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye.