Anyone familiar with Michael Haneke’s work will know better than to trust the title of his new film. The Austrian writer-director behind Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, Caché, The White Ribbon, and Amour is used to engaging audiences with a healthy dose of misery. Happy End is an ensemble piece that reunites Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert in familiar roles, once again playing father and daughter as in the auteur’s last film, Amour. Trintignant’s character is once again named Georges but that’s where the similarities end although there are plenty of Haneke’s recurring themes present in the film that enters farce territory.
This is the story of The Laurents, an affluent dysfunctional family impervious to the plight of the immigrants who live near their sprawling mansion in the French port city of Calais. Patriarch Georges (Trintignant) is about to turn 85 and he’s ready to exit this world. The family’s construction business is run by daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) who is attempting to train her adult son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) to eventually take over the company yet he refuses to grow up. Her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a doctor who’s married to Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), together they have an infant son, and all of them live under the same roof which may explain Georges’ eagerness to speed up his demise.
The newest member of the Laurent household is 13-year old pariah Ève (Fantine Harduin) the daughter of Thomas from a previous marriage. The only reason she’s moving in with the bourgeois is that her mother lies in a coma after overdosing on sleeping pills. Like most teens, she’s attached to her smartphone which documents her family members who are looked upon with great disdain. One could say that Ève and Georges are like-minded in more ways than one, but I won’t divulge any further information. Trintignant and Harduin are standouts who excel in the few scenes they share together.
The film’s surprising element is versatile actor Toby Jones who's been in blockbusters that include the Captain America and Hunger Games series, horror films Berberian Sound Studio and The Mist, to the British spy drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He seems almost out of the place in the film which is genius casting on Haneke’s part. Jones plays Anne’s fiancé and the family’s lawyer who brokers a big insurance claim after tragedy strikes at a Laurent construction site. He is the calming element in the film and I would say the happiest of any of the characters which doesn't say much.
The dark humor in Happy End is undeniable and like any of Haneke’s films the characters invariably fascinating. The ending of this film speaks volumes as to where we are as a plugged-in society while another scene puts the refugee crisis in context, “not my problem.” Shocking? Not by today’s standards but an astute observation of life. Yes it is true, money can't buy happiness.
(3 ½ stars)
Opens Friday 02/23 at the Landmark River Oaks (Houston)