THERE is no denying that Michael Haneke is one of the most original directors working in cinema today.
Funny Games in 1997 and The Piano Teacher in 2001 showcased his reputation for delivering genuinely provocative cinema. Cache in 2005 and the film that won his first Palme d’Or, The White Ribbon in 2009 then proved his position as a world-class director.
His previous film, the 2012 dementia drama Amour had the distinctive honor of winning both the Palme d’Or and the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, as well as receiving a Best Picture nomination.
Five years after that achievement, he returns with a work inspired by modern events that may not achieve the heights of his best works, but generally succeeds as a piece of human drama.
Happy End examines a three-generational bourgeoisie family living in Calais, supposedly ignorant of the refugee crisis looming nearby.
Among them are Anne (Isabelle Huppert), the owner of a construction firm, her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), her elderly father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and her surgeon brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his wife Anais (Laura Verlinden).
The family of course have their own problems to deal with, notably an incident early on at the construction site resulting in legal proceedings which are worked on by Anne’s lawyer boyfriend (Toby Jones).
Georges unsuccessfully looks to find ways of committing suicide, notably when off-screen he deliberately crashes his car rendering him paralyzed and Pierre’s behavior becomes increasingly concerning given his self-doubt at the expectation of him as heir to the firm.
Alongside all that, the married Thomas engages in a graphic relationship on social media with another woman while his 13-year old daughter from a previous relationship arrives to live with the family following sinister events seen via video camera at the beginning.
Though the film is set in Calais which has been in the news in recent years due to the so-called Calais Jungle, this is NOT a film about refugees, only about the residents of the port city who seemingly adopt a life-goes-on ideology.
With Haneke at the helm, this element of fiction set in a place of crisis with the cast assembled appears to be the making of another modern wonder. The film however does fall short of that somewhat, not fatally, but rather than The White Ribbon, this one feels about as good as Haneke’s unremarkable but respectable earlier efforts like The Seventh Continent and Code Unknown.
Haneke drops uninterrupted takes that are directed with unpredictability and quiet tension but are sporadic. For example, Pierre makes a visit to a suburban area where he encounters an unknown figure, and in a wide shot, we see him assaulted out of nowhere. In another, a wheelchair-bound Georges travels on a street and speaks to strangers that are unknown to us due to the traffic blocking out the dialogue but based on reactions, suggest something amiss.
The highlight of the film takes place in the film’s denouement at a family dinner party which is practically the only time that refugees are featured, serving as a distraction for a more dramatic event taking place between two members of the family.
Part of the film’s appeal comes down to its cast, ranging from Huppert (4th time) and Trintignant (2nd time) re-teaming with the director, alongside Kassovitz, Jones and a young actress, Fantinde Harduin who not even a teenager, delivers the standout performance.
Several scenes stay in mind, but a key one is a scene where whilst being driven by her father, she slowly begins crying. With a slight mystery to the character, the fact that she manages to upstage her fellow actors, notably Huppert, is something that takes applause for that alone. It is too early to say but this could be a treat if this the burgeoning of a long career.
There are some problems with the direction at times. Although the usage of video camera footage in the final shot works brilliantly, its appearances at the beginning does not play as the best direction to start the film with. The occasional appearances of conversations from a Facebook-style messaging perspective feel like the sort of think Godard would do and the style does not appear to suit Haneke who in terms of directing is often in a league of his own.
Happy End is an interesting examination of a privileged family in crisis, yet if one picks Haneke’s best three films, this wouldn’t be up there.