Director Michael Haneke on the set with actress Fantine Harduin and actor Jean-Louis Trintingant
HAPPY END B
France Austria Germany (107 mi) 2017 d: Michael Haneke Official site [United States]
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
—opening line from Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, 1878
Taking place against the backdrop of rapid economic transformation, globalization has provided a comfortable bourgeois class that remains safely secluded from any of the real problems the rest of the world faces, yet wealth brings its own set of problems, as the film depicts a scathing portrait of emptiness and social malaise, where one-by-one the skeletons in the dysfunctional family closet are crudely revealed. Recalling similar scenes from Benny's Video (1992), with an eerie mood established reminiscent of Caché (Hidden) (2005), the opening live-streaming video scenes shot on a smartphone amount to a snuff film, with the unseen user expressing their thoughts via text messages that appear on the bottom of the screen, remarking upon the utter contempt this person has for their mother, filming an experiment, first feeding a pet hamster food mixed with the mother’s anti-depression medicine, showing how easy it is to kill an unsuspecting animal — Voilà, apparently proud of the results. Taking the experiment a step further, the camera shows a comatose mother being led away by a team of paramedics, with the user implicated in her poisoning. What follows is security camera footage of a disastrous workplace accident occurring on a construction site, with one of the immigrant workers seriously injured, where the prognosis does not look good. Haneke transitions to an affluent family having dinner at their palatial estate, with African colonial servants at their beck and call, including the aging patriarch, Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintingant), former owner of the construction firm, his workaholic daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who has taken over running the business, her pampered, overly fragile son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who is being groomed to take over the business, yet may be responsible for the work accident, her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his wife Anaїs (Laura Verlinden) with a newborn baby, where it’s his ex-wife in the hospital from a mysterious poisoning, a presumed suicide attempt, and a new arrival Eve (Fantine Harduin), a lonely, left out 13-year old sent to live under the care of her estranged father Thomas, as her mother is in a coma, attaching an identity to those opening scenes. With all the players introduced, what we quickly realize is that each avoids the others, with everyone lurking in their own private space, yet the language used is one of politeness and décor, so as not to alarm anyone. Apparently the biggest sin is the expression of any anxiety, as wealth produces privacy, where all emotion is suppressed, minimized, and for the most part avoided at all costs. This is the closeted world of their existence, like living in a protective bubble that refuses to allow the rest of the world in.
Little by little secrets are revealed, as Anne’s relationship to her son Pierre is broken, as he feels useless and unwanted, never able to live up to Mommy’s expectations, always perceived as a failure. The more emphatically she denies these simple truths, the more they are evident, especially to Pierre, who takes his failures wherever he goes. In a distant shot we see him at the front door of the tenement building where the injured worker lives, which he strangely decides to visit, perhaps out of guilt, maybe offering money, only to get roughed up by a family member and sent away in disgrace, later rescued by his mother who finds him hiding in an empty apartment. In a deplorable gesture, he refers to the household cook Jamila (Nabiha Akkari) as “our Moroccan slave,” while in another drunken display, we see his pathetic attempt to sing karaoke, turning into one of the more bizarre scenes of the film set to the sounds of Sia’s Chandelier, happy end (2017) chandelier - sia (hipnotik) - YouTube (1:50), raging out of control, “I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist,” where he very nearly injures himself. Not to be outdone, Thomas is involved in his own illicit affair, where we watch him text various S/M style fantasies on his laptop to a secret lover, who turns out to be a classical cellist, descending into a lecherous world of salacious sex, obviously something he doesn’t share with his own wife. On a trip to the beach, Eve overhears one of these phone conversations, becoming suspicious he and his wife are about to break up, leaving her future in limbo. Out of curiosity, and panic, she hacks into his computer and finds all the prurient messages, sending her over the edge, taking the rest of her mother’s pills in a blatant suicide attempt, telling her father afterwards what she’d discovered, accusing him of not being able to love anyone, certainly not her mother, Anaïs, or herself, leaving Thomas shocked into silence and disbelief. Shortly afterwards Eve’s mother dies from the poisoning. In one of the more antiseptic scenes, viewed inside a window-lined, executive boardroom, Anne and her lawyer are seen offering money to the family of the accident victim, which seems a small price to pay for a human life, yet it’s presented as a means to silence them and prevent them from suing for larger damages, threatening to press charges for the assault on Pierre if they don’t accept. This typifies business transactions in the modern era, as it’s all designed to protect the interests of the wealthy class, taking no responsibility at all for their own callous indifference, showing little regard for the actual victims harmed along the way, who are viewed as collateral damage, part of the price of doing business.
Haneke has always taken an unusual interest in technological advances, showing how easily people are both fascinated, perhaps even obsessed, yet also manipulated or harmed by seemingly insignificant actions, like leaving anonymous videotapes at the front door of a middle class home in Caché (Hidden) (2005), or rewinding the tape, preventing a heroine’s escape, suggesting an even more heinous ending in Funny Games (1997), with this film expressing voyeuristic tendencies through YouTube, Facebook, G-mail, and Snapchat social media platforms, mimicking the interest of the public, where just this past year a Facebook user livestreamed a murder (Facebook Streams a Murder in Cleveland, and Must Now Face Itself ...), where privacy and the anonymity of the user allows cruelty to evolve into something far darker into virtual reality fantasies that come to life, something suggested a decade earlier in the nightmarish finale of Assayas’s Demonlover (2002). This film rises to new heights in a sinister conversation between Eve and her grandfather Georges. Not since Bud Cort in HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971) have we had a character who so desperately wants to die, which seems to plague the thoughts of Georges throughout the film, having slipped out of the home in an earlier failed suicide attempt, running his car into a tree, leaving him instead with broken bones, confined to a wheelchair, but very much alive. Their conversation is a remarkably candid and unfiltered discussion of suicide, with each revealing the kind of secrets few ever actually experience. You can hear a pin drop in the theater, as this creates a hushed intensity level, bringing what was once considered taboo to the screen. According to Haneke, Michael Haneke: 'I don't have time to waste on social media', this is based on his own experience with a 92-year old aunt who asked for his help with an assisted suicide. When he declined, she was disappointed with him afterwards and carried it out herself weeks later. Somehow this personal incident becomes the most convincing aspect of his last two films, including Amour (Love) (2012), with Trintingant (now 87 years old) carrying out his beloved’s wishes.
Looking back to his very first film, The Seventh Continent (Der Siebente Kontinent) (1989), suicide is a recurring theme throughout Haneke films, where the director has a desire to create a cinema of discomfort, inducing guilt and self-reflection, but actually seems to be elevating suicide to an ethical choice, much as Fassbinder did in what is arguably his most personal film, In a Year of 13 Moons (In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden) (1978). The problem here is tone, as it becomes lost in comical amusement, much like Bud Court’s intrigue with death only makes viewers appreciate the vibrancy of life that much more. This film, however, is more about failed expectations, and is not among Haneke’s best, content to rehash familiar themes of failed responsibility, class disparity, race, economics, moral hypocrisy, fidelity, family, marriage, carnal desire, and passion, even adding a touch of colonialist guilt, where special privileges for the wealthy seem to dominate throughout, viewing the world as if it exists exclusively for them, with money insulating them from reality. One particularly revelatory scene shows Anne reprimanding her live-in Moroccan butler (Hassam Ghancy) for allowing Anne’s own dog to bite his daughter, bringing chocolates for the bleeding child, who is in tears, ultimately minimizing the damage, offering a payoff to make it go away, which as far as she’s concerned settles the issue. The film ends with a family party set in a seaside restaurant with floor to window views of the ocean, basically the pompous aristocracy flaunting their wealth. The party is crashed by her own son, Pierre, who apparently no one missed, leading his own personal crusade, showcasing the plight of poor African immigrants, creating pandemonium and a social awkwardness reminiscent of Östlund’s The Square (2017), which Georges uses as a diversionary tactic to carry out his own aims, failing miserably once again, to the point of comic absurdity, but causing the kind of consternation that seems to define this film.