LET THEM EAT CAKE
A Dark, Demented Satire of the Disgustingly Rich
Master filmmaker Michael Haneke (‘Amour,’ ‘The White Ribbon’) returns with ‘Happy End,’ another scathing cinematic critique of the upper crust.
Anyone familiar with the cinema of Michael Haneke will immediately assume—correctly so—that the title of his latest film, Happy End, is meant to be taken ironically. There are few cheery conclusions in the Austrian director’s celebrated (and often polarizing) oeuvre, which is marked by confrontational works that turn a scathing eye toward issues of class and race, as well as directly implicate viewers in their critiques. Chilly and aloof, they assume a severe outlook on both men and women alike—and, in particular, those members of the bourgeoisie—who are routinely presented as self-absorbed, entitled, and indifferent to the active and passive cruelty they show everyone around them, including the less fortunate and the “other.”
A good deal of that caustic attitude was absent from Haneke’s 2012 outing Amour, which won both the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards (where it was also nominated for Best Picture, Actress, Screenplay and Director). That film, in which elderly husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is compelled to care for his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) after she suffers a debilitating stroke, exhibited a measure of compassion frequently missing from its maker’s movies. It operated at an icy remove in order to capture something quietly powerful—and devastating—about loyalty, responsibility and the indignities and ugliness of growing old. Whereas Haneke had previously made an illustrious name for himself by figuratively wagging his finger at his characters (and his audience), here he seemed newly, empathetically invested in their onerous plights.
As it turns out, it was a short-lived career detour.
Happy End finds Haneke back in far more familiar terrain, operating in a wickedly disapproving vein—this despite the fact that, as quickly becomes clear, the film is in fact a sequel to Amour. The focus, once again, is Georges (Trintignant), who admits he’s “losing my marbles” while residing in his opulent French abode with his dysfunctional family: daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her adult son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), and son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his second wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), who together have a newborn baby boy. New to the household is Eve (Fantine Harduin), Thomas’ 13-year-old daughter from his prior marriage, who moves in after her mother suffers a debilitating drug overdose, and whose cell phone videos—of her mother going about routine things at home (brushing her teeth, sitting on a couch), as well as her pet hamster Pip, who she drugs to death with her mom’s antidepressants—are overlaid with mordant textual commentary.
Those opening clips instantly link Happy End with Haneke’s previous offerings, which are similarly interested in voyeurism, especially via the disengaging lens of a camera. There’s plenty of detachment to be found in this environment, where privilege seems to have operated as a corrupting force. Anne is trying to keep a construction firm together after an out-of-the-blue site catastrophe, but her son Pierre—who’s theoretically set to take over the family business at some point—is too much of a drunken malcontent to be of any assistance; even when going to see the victim of the aforementioned accident, he only succeeds at getting beaten up. Thomas, meanwhile, has only moderate luck bonding with Eve, who, because her dad abandoned her years ago to start a new life with Anaïs, is unsurprisingly sullen and distant. Making matters worse, Eve discovers that her dad is having an affair with a musician (Loubna Abidar), whose dirty emails and online messages to Thomas we see in (initially mysterious) computer-screen scenes.
Then there’s Georges himself, who sneaks out to his car late one night and drives into a tree in an apparent (failed) suicide attempt. That crash isn’t depicted on-screen, which is in keeping with the director’s disorienting storytelling approach, marked by edits that skip over major plot points which are only later elucidated via offhand dialogue. That design infuses Happy End with a volatile edginess, as if, at any moment, things might suddenly leap forward into some great, horrible unknown. It’s a mood amplified by Haneke’s typically composed direction, full of master shots that make one feel as if they’re watching the action from a distance, and which—whether completely stationary, slowly rotating, or panning beside characters—gaze intently at their subjects, searching for their foibles and failings.
That’s true of an early shot that ends with the collapse of the construction site’s wall, and of a tracking shot beside wheelchair-bound Georges as he treks down a busy street, where he eventually tries to chat up a group of black men. The uneasy dynamics of that interaction soon reappear, first at Georges’ 85th birthday party and then at Anne’s wedding lunch (with her new husband Lawrence, played by Toby Jones), and both times courtesy of Pierre, whose respective attempts to include Georges’ Arab servant Jamila (Nabiha Akkari) and some random Nigerian men in familial festivities proves an inappropriate, and openly hostile, act of defiance-cum-condemnation for his relatives’ wealthy insularity. In those incidents, Happy End pricks its characters’ socio-economic bubble with cringe-worthy relish, contextualizing the proceedings as a portrait of well-to-do individuals capable of seeing no further than their own navels.
Haneke stages those moments for maximum discomfort, such that any laughter they incite is stifled by the anxiety and embarrassment of watching wayward upper-crust souls flail about in distress. He’s aided in his cause by a sterling cast (led by the always great Huppert) whose sideways glances, offhand gestures and empty eyes speak poignantly and wittily to their protagonists’ bleak states of mind. More than such nasty drollness, however, what lingers is the overarching, rancid stench of arrogance, dishonesty and willful self-deception.
Happy End is a bitter examination of a closed-off clan in which no one is honest with themselves or others, and everyone is compelled to act on their darkest desires (be it affairs, homicide or suicide). Moreover, it’s a vision of inescapable despair, with solace unattainable even through honest communion with likeminded souls—as is most evident during a late conversation between Eve and Georges that, like the finale, finds confusion, alienation and misery drowning out any hope for salvation, much less a legitimate happily-ever-after.