*DISCLAIMER: As this is a difficult film to talk about without delving into the plot, this review of Happy End contains mild spoilers. Please read with caution.*
From the moment that Happy End begins, it’s clear what the audience is in for. The opening scene of Michael Haneke’s latest effort is seen from the perspective of 13-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) as she records the family hamster overdosing on her mother’s antidepressants. As that scene ends, the blatantly ironic title quietly appears on screen, and Haneke has established the film’s tone. As we are introduced to the rest of the Laurent family, played by some of the best actors of our time including Isabelle Huppert and Jean Louis-Trintignant, Haneke uses the rest of the film to show off this freak show of a dysfunctional family. What makes this film stand out, however, is that he uses the family drama mould to create a brilliantly scathing, twisted, pitch-black satire about where we are in society today, from our depressing over-dependence on technology, to the current refugee crisis.
The cast brings their A-game with great performances, which creates stellar dynamics as we watch the Laurent family drive straight into madness over the course of the film. However, that’s just the cherry on top of the cake, especially compared to the themes that Haneke delves into through the madness. Since there is so much that Haneke wants to say, it will become easy for audiences to cling to any certain theme that most resonates with them, and that makes the film open to any interpretation.
Three key themes that Haneke delves into throughout the film jump right out at the viewer. Firstly, and most blatant, is his take on the refugee crisis, which is personified through the character of Eve. We see her being taken in by her father’s wealthy family after her mother is hospitalized. From the second she steps foot into the Laurent’s house, she feels completely alienated and different from everyone else in the room. This feeling of alienation and difference is primarily shown in her interactions with her grandfather, Georges (Jean Louis-Trintignant), as he continuously calls her strange and questions why she is now living with the rest of the family.
Meanwhile, her aunt Anne (Isabelle Huppert), defends her staying against the blatant ignorance of the family patriarch. Through this, Haneke is showing off the split feeling towards refugees, but he also seems to be saying that the crisis and debate dehumanizes these people looking for safe shelter. This conflict leads to depression as we see Eve start to lose faith in everything around her, and the loneliness she begins to experience becomes too much for her to bear. It’s a tragic statement, but Haneke makes it rightfully necessary.
Through the refugee crisis, in a rather subtle but brilliant way, Haneke makes fun of upper-class society and their obliviousness to what’s going on around them. Throughout the entire film, everyone in the Laurent family is trapped in their own little world, and Haneke visualizes this by showing them in their home, their offices, their jobs, or in their minds. They are never anywhere else except for those few places, and they never want to be anywhere else. They’re also more concerned about the issues that directly apply to them, as opposed to the ones that don’t. Since Haneke also shows everything from their perspectives, we never go outside of their bubble. This is brilliant; it shows that the upper class are self-absorbed and don’t care about issues which don’t impact their lives, including the refugee crisis. It’s an incredibly scathing, but brilliant and effective slice of satire that isn’t as easy to pick up on.
Finally, Haneke also delves into the rise of social media as it slowly takes over our lives. He recreates popular online platforms to make statements about our current desperation for an audience, and the idea of having a different identity on social media, as opposed to real life. Throughout the film, we see Eve recording striking and disturbing videos of death in order to lure people into paying attention to her. However, through this search for attention, Haneke also shows the loneliness that comes from social media as Eve constantly sends text messages throughout her video that nobody responds to. In another scene, Eve melancholically watches a YouTube video, wishing she had the audience that the video creator does.
He then delves into the concept of multiple identities as we examine Eve’s father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), and how he acts on social media compared to in real life. In reality, he’s a loving partner to his girlfriend (Laura Verlinden) and a caring father as he tries to support Eve when her mother ends up in the hospital. On social media, he’s betraying his family by having an online affair with a cellist, but in order to maintain the two separate identities, Haneke almost never shows them romantically involved in person. We certainly don’t see the benefits of social media, but Haneke’s sentiments aren’t wrong.
Happy End has a lot to say; for lots of people that might be the film’s downfall. Upon first impression it’s a bit of a mess, jumping from idea to idea, but ultimately it’s thoughtful, timely, and terrific, capturing humanity, and the extent to which it is lost in modern times. After the film is over, you’ll be trapped in a trance as you think about everything Haneke brought to the table, and in the hilariously twisted ways he does so. This film is a twisted piece of genius and perfectly demonstrates why Michael Haneke is one of the most celebrated auteurs of his time.
(Featured Image: Happy End, Sony Pictures Classics)