A two-time Palme d’Or winner, acerbic Austrian director Michel Haneke returns to UK cinema screens this week with his latest film, Happy End. It may be something of a greatest hits mixtape, but it’s also an arresting offering.
Famille Laurent are a rich and successful family living in Calais in a sumptuous villa, served by a loyal Moroccan family of servants. Grumpy patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is losing his marbles but his daughter Anne (Huppert) has the firm in hand, and is even romancing an English business man (Toby Jones) into the bargain. His son Thomas (Mathieu Kassowitz) is a successful surgeon, with a new baby and a young second wife.
However, all is not as perfect as the picture would first seem to suggest. Thomas has left his first marriage in tatters and following an attempted suicide, his youngest daughter Ève (Fantine Harduin) comes to live in the big house. Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is also a screw up, an alcoholic with a yearning for self-destruction. He can’t do Karaoke without almost breaking his neck. He’s also not much cop at the family business and when there’s a fatal landslide at one of the construction sites, his arrogance only looks like making things worse. New ways of visually recording and communicating are seen as causing as much trouble as they solve.
A series of Instagram live videos – an update of Benny’s Video – give us a non-animal friendly prologue to the film and we witness the work accident via a security camera. A series of erotic and perhaps elicit messages are exchanged via Facebook messenger. Haneke adds to the alienation, filming scenes from a distance or across a heavily trafficked road. Meanwhile, Georges is looking for a way out of his aging body and when he is unable to kill himself by driving into a tree, he tries to recruit others to help him. However, this is not Amour and Georges wish for euthanasia is played largely for laughs.
There’s a humour here as dry as silica gel but some of the callbacks to earlier work, might make you long for something a bit more single-minded. Pierre’s gatecrashing of his mother’s wedding with a party of African migrants is a perhaps unintended admission of what the film itself does with that subject – thrusts it in our face more for sabotage and revenge that for any real concern about the people involved. For Haneke, Happy End is an intriguing return to his old misanthropic ways following the startling sincerity of Amour.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty