Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Heavy-Heartedness Plagued By Pointlessness
Happy End isn’t a movie. It’s a staring contest with routine life for a wealthy yet overwhelmingly dysfunctional family. Written and directed by Michael Haneke (who pulled an Alfred Hitchcock and remade his own 1997 film Funny Games in 2007), Happy End thrives on stagnant and extended shots that are often uneventful and counterbalances those sequences with security footage and videos taken on a cell phone that are often more destructive in nature.
After her mother is poisoned and admitted to the hospital, 13-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) is forced to adjust from living in a middle class situation to abruptly making the leap to a more luxurious lifestyle when she moves in with her father Thomas Laurent (Mathieu Kassovitz, Amelie). Thomas lives with his second wife and newborn baby in a mansion-like villa with the rest of his family, which includes his sister Anne (Isabelle Huppert, Elle, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), and father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour). Anne is dealing with the family business, a construction firm, since a major accident occurs on site and her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski, Tiger Girl) decides to live up to being the degenerate his mother thinks he is and abandons his job duties. Anne is also dating an American named Lawrence Bradshaw (Toby Jones, Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Meanwhile Georges requires around the clock care due to his ongoing suicide attempts and Eve’s depression seems to be obvious to everyone except for her father.
In its own way, Happy End is an intriguing exploration of depression. Eve seems completely numb to the world showing little to no emotion unless she’s in the middle of a breakdown. Her grandfather, Georges, is of the impression that there’s nothing left to live for. He’s seen everything and done everything, so life and existing has just become a cliche for Georges. Despite the age difference and where they fall on the depression spectrum, Eve and Georges are so similar yet so different in regards to their emotional state. The scene they share near the end of the film when Georges gives his, “birds of prey,” speech to Eve is the most memorable of Happy End. It is this brilliant explanation and metaphor not only for why Georges feels the way he does, but also an all too brief exploration of what his life was like before he reached such a fatal existence.
The method in which Happy End is filmed is frustrating. It’s as if director Michael Haneke and cinematographer Christian Berger are forcing the audience to have this zen-like level of patience implying that some sort of payoff will eventually transpire, but it never really does. The cell phone videos are borderline stalker quality and the online romance taking place on x3 chat is bizarre. From Toby Jones lengthy phone conversation evolving into him just watching TV to Eve packing a duffel bag to the silence of a family dinner other than the clanging of silverware against porcelain plates, Happy End is overloaded with watching rich people do normal things and the film is tedious and aggravating because of it.
Every family member has secrets they’re keeping hidden from everyone else and once they bubble to the surface and are revealed, hideous warts and all, it only sheds a bigger spotlight on how screwed up and self-absorbed everyone in the Laurent family truly is. Pierre would probably be written off as a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum by getting drunk, doing karaoke (although his break dance singing is impressive), and doing the most ludicrous and irrational things imaginable if it wasn’t for the fact that Franz Rogowski looks kind of like a young Joaquin Phoenix; the character would be completely forgotten about otherwise.
Happy End seems to be trying to say something about how the skeletons in our closets are dark secrets that shouldn’t see the light of day regardless of our financial situation, that depression can turn the wealthiest individuals into blind monsters, and that the Laurent family is broken beyond repair, but its 107-minute duration feels almost torturous. The film feels like a stake out where you’re investigating a hot lead that leads nowhere and you’ve wasted nearly two hours on something that has pushed you two steps backward instead of propelling you forward in any way whatsoever. Dull, dreary, and stuffed to the brim with melancholiness, Happy End drags you down to the point where you can’t get back up again then spits in your face and leaves you there as you ponder why it was worth the sluggish plunge to begin with.
© 2018 Chris Sawin