Michael Haneke, the writer/director of "Happy End," doesn't like us very much.
It's nothing specific that we did. It's just that if you're an avid member of the American filmgoing classes, you're a perfect target for the Austrian filmmaker. You're either too lazy or too intellectually fat or too bourgeois or all those things together by his lights. After all, haven't you contented yourselves for years with America's manipulative way of barrelling big-budget films right at you?
Haneke is likely, at the very least, to put you to little tests as you watch his movies. At worst, he is capable of actual acts of directorial sadism toward his audiences--the ones for "Funny Games," for instance, which he enjoyed so richly that he remade the film, quite precisely, in English with Tim Roth, Michael Pitt and Naomi Watts. Both versions had the ability to turn an ordinary peace-loving fellow like me into an audience member who actually felt like someone who would like to punch out the director.
The ironically titled "Happy End" isn't nearly that provocative. It's just tedious and almost--almost--instantly forgettable. It's about a wealthy and troubled French family who seem to have made their abundant money in the construction business.
Things are going South, though. There's been a fatal accident at one of their construction sites and the head of the family business--played by Isabelle Huppert--has to deal with it. (Froggy-looking Brit Toby Jones--who famously played Alfred Hitchcock in the film bio--plays one of the lawyers.) Grandpa, the family's paterfamilias, is having troubles with dementia and despair. He is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, at 87 one of the great living French actors who, along with Huppert, is enough reason to see any film.
The ex-wife of the old man's son the doctor, has attempted suicide and is now in a coma. What that means is that their 13-year-old daughter, lovely Eve (Fantine Harduin), has come to live with her doctor father and his second wife. So on top of every other misery the film is now heir to, they're all going to have, at minimum, the sullen resentments of a girl whose family is falling apart.
Eve seems sensitive and adorable. But it turns out that before the film's not-really-happy "end," she and her disturbed and despairing grandfather will develop a connection that Haneke, no doubt, finds enormously satisfying and entertaining.
I only found it to be the best reason to remember a film that I had difficulty maintaining interest in even while it was unrolling in front of me.
Don't get me wrong. Haneke is, under all circumstances, a clever and very gifted filmmaker. His non-use of mood-insistent soundtrack music is stunning. The only reason I was content to watch the film is that, in the middle of showering his audiences with the same contempt he feels for so many of his characters, he overturned a lifetime's habits to make one of the film masterpieces of the last decades--"Amour," also starring Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, one of the greatest films ever made about old age and death.
It came as a shock, after seeing both "Funny Games," to discover in "Amour" that Haneke was a sentient human after all. In "Happy End" his humanity is a bit of a "funny game" of his own that he can, again, play on his audience.
It's impressive that our perturbation amuses Haneke as much as it does. Apart from the inestimable pleasures of seeing, under any circumstances, Trintignant and Huppert at work, I'm not all that fond of being Haneke's lab rat again. I just don't share his contempt for those looking up so hopefully at the screen while his films are running.
Two and a half stars out of four
Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Toby Jones, Fantine Harduin and Matthieu Kossovitz in Michael Haneke's film about a wealthy and troubled French family. 107 minutes. No rating but R equivalent for theme and language. In French and English with subtitles.
Story topics: movie reviews