Secrets and lies lay at the heart of the latest film from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke. One extended family’s dysfunction drives the ironically titled “Happy End” but it is the film’s attitude toward its upper crust characters that makes it both satirical and cruel.
From the top down is octogenarian patriarch, the fragile Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant); his daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) who inherited the family construction business; son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), a doctor who can’t help but cheat on his new wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden). Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), is a drunk who is at odds with his bourgeois background while Thomas’s daughter from his first marriage, 13-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin), is a sullen presence with cell phone constantly in hand.
Anne is in crisis mode, dealing with an industrial accident at one of their worksites, a catastrophe that may have been caused by Pierre’s carelessness. Thomas is embroiled in a kinky on-line affair with cellist (Loubna Abidar) and Georges has lost the will to live. Their lives are disintegrating but, almost unnoticed, are the troubles of the possibly sociopathic Eve.
In French with English subtitles, “Happy End” takes a meandering look at a family on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Each character brings a level of dysfunction to the tale but it is the eldest and youngest actors who are the most compelling. Haneke regular Trintignant is a commanding presence, a man battling dementia whose moments of clarity bring with them a search for a way to end his suffering. Harduin plays Eve in the Haneke tradition. She is both innocent and malicious, a young girl who inspires both sympathy and fear.
All the performances are top notch but Trintignant and Harduin keep things interesting in a story that feels unfocused. The director’s interest in distancing himself from the story through technology—in this case cell phone videos that document some of the disturbing action—is very much in place, but fails to create the air of menace he has so effectively evoked in previous films. The final shot will send a chill down your spine but it is too little too late. The murky story, which also includes a timely but underdeveloped subplot involving Syrian immigrant workers, is too fractured to add up to a cohesive tale of family trauma.