Happy End **1/2

As expected, this dreary family drama isn’t very happy at all. It is pretty good, though. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

The first thing you should know about “Happy End” is that there is no such thing as a happy ending in a Michael Haneke (“Funny Games,” “Amour”) film. There may be an “okay” ending, as is the case here, but that’s as good as it gets with him. 

One reason this lack of convention works for writer/director Haneke is that he doesn’t tell traditional stories with standard character arcs. In “Happy End” he gives only glimpses of characters’ lives. We stop in on this wealthy French family, stay with them for a bit, and then leave when the credits roll (the film is a mix of English and French with subtitles). What happens is at times good, bad, or just okay. Kind of like real life.

This is not to say Haneke isn’t conscious of the camera – his films are quietly full of technique that works on the viewer in the subtlest of ways. For example, there’s a scene in “Happy End” in which patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is by himself in a wheelchair moving down a sidewalk. He’s in the northern French city of Calais. The camera is across the street, and dollies with him (moves parallel with him) down the street as he rolls along for what feels like a long time. He stops to speak with six young men whom we later learn are from Africa, and a middle-aged white guy. We have no idea what they say. Thus it’s a long scene void of dialog in which the camera remains away from the action, which keeps viewers at a distance; only later, in a scene with his barber (Dominique Besnehard), do we learn what he likely wanted from the men.

Conversely, there’s a scene earlier in the film that’s a close up of the writing of a dirty e-mail. We read every steamy, naughty word of it, which is extremely personal. Thus with Haneke it’s a constant push and pull with people you don’t necessarily like, but then don’t entirely dislike either. It’s a fascinating cinematic experience if you surrender yourself to it, which isn’t easy given the lack of mercy Haneke sometimes shows for his characters.

You also have to trust that all story beats will make sense by the end, because they do. For example, the opening shot is through the POV of a cell phone camera as it records a woman’s bathroom routine. We don’t find out who’s behind the camera until the very end, but the scene effectively establishes the aforementioned idea of voyeurism and dropping in on these characters’ lives.

There isn’t much of a plot. Georges’ daughter Anne (the French treasure Isabelle Huppert) runs a successful business, but her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is a mess. Her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is unhappily married to Anais (Laura Verlinden) and struggling mightily to raise his daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) from his previous marriage. They all seem to be decent people, some with dirtier secrets than others, and none particularly impressive in any way.

If you want your movies to provide escapism, don’t see “Happy End.” But if you’re okay with a “slice of life” approach that has interesting things to say in some unconventional ways, give this one a shot and see how happy you are in the end. 

Did you know?
Trintignant and Huppert also played father and daughter in Haneke’s last film, “Amour” (2012).

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