A happy end in a Michael Haneke film arrives only when you get 6 feet under, away from the petty squabbles, duplicitous behavior and emotional rot that define his characters. Sounds fun, right? It actually is, if you're into a certain kind of existential chill.
Haneke's Happy End is a sequel of sorts to his 2012 masterpiece Amour. In that film, love and death are intertwined, and both come with a redemption that requires a long look into the abyss. Happy End offers the abyss minus the redemption. It's as if Haneke looked back at the majority of his films, remembered his bleak modus operandi and corrected his course back to the dark tunnel.
The French lion Jean-Louis Trintignant reprises his Amour role as the elderly Parisian Georges Laurent. In Amour, he brought mercy to his terminally ill wife (the Oscar-nominated Emmanuelle Riva). Now it's Georges who wants to die, and it's hard to blame him. His family is full of malcontents, liars and arctic officiousness. His daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) runs the family construction business with cool efficiency. Her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a philanderer; her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is a self-loathing drunk.
But surely there's hope coming in the next generation. Or, maybe not. The family dynamic shifts when Thomas' 13-year-old daughter, Eve (Fantine Harduin), moves in. Eve is who you would expect a 13-year-old to be in a Haneke film. She films everything on her phone and types in narration as she goes, which is how we know she seems to have given both her mother and her hamster overdoses of antidepressants. She's not a happy camper, and she forms an alliance of sorts with Georges, who sees in the little girl a fellow hater of life.
Haneke fans will find echoes from the director's previous films in Happy End. There's the idea of death as a release from life that defines Amour. There's the child learning violent bitterness from her elders, a la The White Ribbon. There's the impersonal voyeurism and mediation of reality through glowing screens, as in Caché.
The Laurent family shares other qualities with the married couple terrorized in Caché, namely an indifference to the plight of immigrants and refugees living just outside the film's cold bourgeois comforts. It's Anne's drunk son, Pierre, who tries to shame his family into empathy at a public gathering. Pierre is the movie's holy fool. Think of him as Fredo Corleone with a conscience.
The acting is always impeccable in Haneke's films, and Happy End is no exception. Trintignant seems to come out of retirement every few years for the express purpose of working with the filmmaker; here the 87-year-old master brings steely resolve and piercing realism to Georges' senility and his determination to find a way out. The young Harduin takes to Hanekeland like a piranha to water , etching a fine portrait of alienated adolescence.
Haneke finds beauty in the numbness we adopt to deal with everyday despair. His willingness to quietly plumb the depths brings to mind the starker films of Ingmar Bergman, though Haneke has no interest in Bergman's occasional flights of lyrical humor (or any kind of humor, for that matter). Happy End will likely go down as a minor film from a major filmmaker, which is enough to make it worth your while if you can take the emotional hit.
Happy End (B+)
R (some sexual material and language). 107 mins. In French with English subtitles. At the Angelika Dallas and the Angelka Plano.
Correction at 7:15 p.m. Jan. 24, 2018: Mathieu Kassovitz's name was previously misspelled. It's been fixed.