It's a good-looking, sometimes funny film with serious family and societal issues.
Director: Michael Haneke (Amour, Cache, The White Ribbon)
Cast: Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour)
Runtime: 1 hr 47 min
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
If you’d like to feel good about your family, then see Happy End, written and directed by an Austrian, Michael Haneke, with a dollop of Euro horror that seems to combine elements of Roman Polanski and Mike Nichols. This family flirts with self-destruction across the generations.
Patriarch Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is celebrating his 85th birthday with enough of his wit left to remember he dispatched his ailing wife to the next life out of concern for her pain. Similarly his granddaughter, 13 year old Eve (Fantine Harduin), attempted to poison a classmate and recently to commit suicide. Across the generations, this is not a happy family. However, a happy end they may have if even-keeled, task-oriented Georges’ daughter, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), prevails. Not likely.
For all their wealth, each member, even comely and charming daughter Anne, is unhappy, she with a grown son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who is not socially or mentally well balanced. He can’t even sing Karaoke without endangering his life. That Karaoke scene is a keeper in modern cinema.
Yet the family does ritual dining and socializing, right down to inviting friends and relatives to an intimate concert that is not euphonious to say the least. Just another off-balance moment. All the pretty dining and servants can’t mask the undercurrent of familial larceny.
Haneke’s use of modern technology from the live-streaming video during the opening bathroom scene to the exposure of a love affair through instant messaging casts an unflattering, harsh light on whatever the family may want to hide but can’t. Even a work accident is seen through a security camera. As in Haneke’s Cache, surveillance is revealing but never a solution.
Anne’s engagement party could have been the democratizing of this family, but rather becomes a debacle when Pierre brings unannounced African immigrants with the beginnings of a diatribe against immigration policies. The result is mutilation, not reconciliation.
Happy End will not have a happy end for audiences unwilling to do some heavy thinking about the various puzzle pieces from each episode that eventually create a mosaic of modern bourgeois dysfunction. As such, the film may be difficult and tedious for general audiences.
Privilege has inured the principals to the plight of the servants in their household (the dog-bite sequence is particularly unnerving) and the unwanted immigrants at their wedding. This scurrilous neglect, passed down to generations, reflects not just a French problem (they are in Calais, after all, the port for refugee chaos) when the audience may consider the growing class disparities around the world and callous care about the poor and homeless.
Happy End, in the end, is about cankerous abandon in privilege, whose end may be no less than murder and suicide. Whatever, it’s not pretty but a rewarding artistic experience.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com