Film review: Happy End explores director Michael Haneke's usual gloomy themes
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Film review: Happy End explores director Michael Haneke's usual gloomy themes

HAPPY END ★★★
(M) 107 minutes

The Austrian director Michael Haneke may cast a cold eye on the 21st century, but it has been kind to him, at least in supplying material for his movies. I picture him poring over news websites, looking for stories about corporate negligence, the effects of online pornography, or pointless crimes committed by young people, and chuckling to himself when he spots a good one.

Jean-Louis Trintignant in Happy End, a new film by Michael Haneke.

Jean-Louis Trintignant in Happy End, a new film by Michael Haneke.

Certainly, society has come a long way since Haneke's 1992 hit Benny's Video, the cautionary tale of a psychotic teenager obsessed with "video nasties". Thanks to mobile phones, we are now all Bennies in the making―a point underlined in Haneke's new film Happy End, which opens with a Snapchat video of a blonde woman going through her nightly bathroom routine at the end of a darkened corridor.

Who is the voyeur behind the camera? One implicit answer is that it could be anybody – even if we soon gather something about this particular observer is terribly wrong.

This is one of Haneke's lightest films, though it touches on most of his usual gloomy themes. Along with the alienation fuelled by technology, we get another dose of the miseries of old age, embodied by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who played one half of an elderly couple in Haneke's 2012 drama Amour and returns as a very similar (and identically named) character here.

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Yet another old chestnut Haneke has never lost his taste for is the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, represented here by the Laurents, a wealthy family tucked away in their Calais mansion. Trintignant is Georges, the ailing and senile patriarch: other members of the household include his daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who owns a construction company, her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), and her alcoholic son Pierre (Franz Rogowski).

Equally significant are two relative outsiders: Lawrence (Toby Jones), an English lawyer involved with Anne, and Eve (Fantine Harduin), Thomas' twelve-year-old daughter from his first marriage, who comes to live with the family after her mother – the blonde glimpsed in the opening sequence – falls into a coma.

While the outwardly respectable Laurents all have things to hide, Haneke's characteristic moralising is offset by an element of flaunted artifice, as if he were all too aware of going back over old ground. As if winking to his long-term fans, he recycles not only themes but specific plot points from earlier in his career, but what once seemed deadly serious is now played for dry comedy in the manner of the Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, whom he admires.

As in Iosseliani's films, potentially shocking events often register as cruel sight gags, their absurdity reinforced by staging in deadpan wide shot. As often with Haneke, there's also a puzzle element to the narrative: crucial incidents are omitted and pieces of information held back, forcing us into speculations which may sometimes be off the mark.

Formally Happy End is a crafty piece of work, but as a social critic Haneke is less convincing than ever. While he takes the Laurents to task for their indifference to society's victims, he himself shows no interest in these figures as more than representatives of a class.

His "objective" style is anything but, especially in interior scenes, lit with artful drabness to ensure that any commonplace detail – say, a meal consisting of an omelette and a glass of wine – registers as alien and faintly disgusting. The same disgust extends to manifestations of sexuality, though nothing here matches the sustained perversity of The Piano Teacher, the 2001 peak of Haneke's collaboration with Huppert.

Pop culture too is viewed with Haneke's usual repulsed fascination. As ever, he relishes the chance to get some garbage and chaos into his finicky frames, as when he treats us to a hectically edited rant from a teen videoblogger, which Eve watches avidly on a laptop (while sitting beneath a gigantic oil painting, no less).

Any commonplace detail - say, a meal consisting of an omelette and a glass of wine - registers as alien and faintly disgusting.

The sense persists that Haneke's pose of mastery prevents him from coming to terms with his own malice, a quality he shares with Eve, the focus of the film's ambivalence. On one level, he presents her as yet another example of disturbed, alienated youth. On another, he plainly aligns himself with her tranquil antagonism towards her elders – and there's little to separate her level gaze from his own.

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