TIFF Review: 'Happy End'

Happy End
(Austria/France/Germany, 107 min.)
Written and directed by Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Matthieu Kassovitz, Toby Jones, Fantine Harduin, Franz Rogowaki
Programme: Masters (North American Premiere)
"Without happy endings, none of us would be here," laughed Michael Haneke while delivering a mic drop when asked about the relationship between families and happy endings at the North American premiere of Happy End. It turns out the arthouse director of bleak films like Amour, The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon has a sharp sense of humor. As expected though, it's a very dark one.

Haneke's new film Happy End is a comedy, although the director insists that it isn't his first one. If one's seen Haneke's Funny Games or his shot for shot American set remake, one might have a sense of the grim gallows humor to expect in Happy End. It’s an incisive portrait of the folly of man in the age of the selfie. One can’t help but wonder if the 2012 parody account @Michael_Haneke provided a few grains of inspiration with its out of character tweets about Parmz dorz, cat farts, and Terruns Mallick. Twitter is an awful place but it can open an artist’s eyes to strange and fascinating elements of the human psyche as social media invites people to impersonate others and live out fantasies to escape their own tragedies.

Happy End is an unexpected sequel to Haneke's Amour—that barrel of laughs—that won him the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. (Happy End is Austria submission and will inevitably return Haneke to the hunt.) It brings back Jean-Louis Trintignant's Georges and his daughter Anne, played by Isabelle Huppert, for another romp in the world of the family Laurent. Georges wants to end his life this time and he proposes several morbid ways to do so including bribing his barber and enticing his twisted granddaughter Eve (Fantine Harduin).

The choice to connect Happy End with a direct link to Amour, however, is the film’s single failing. Audiences who’ve seen the 2012 film might remember being floored with emotion after Georges smothered his beloved wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) after a stroke left her miserable and bedridden before turning the gas on himself and going out peacefully. One has a right to interpret Amour freely, but Georges’s return from the dead undermines the emotional impact of the film and, frankly, makes Happy End very confusing until Georges explains, in an unusually on-the-nose bit of dialogue for Haneke, how he did the deed. Nearly every one of Haneke’s films features characters named Georges and Anne Laurent played by a finite group of actors, so there’s no reason to revisit a story that was so poignant because of how Haneke closed the covers. If anything, Happy End is more logical a sequel to the Georges and Anne Laurent of Caché after the timeless romance of Amour.

Georges' wish to die isn't the point of Happy End, although it provides one of the most scathingly funny and perceptive shots of Haneke’s career. Happy End concludes very much as it begins: by seeing the world through the viewfinder of a smartphone. Haneke has both thumbs clacking away in this plugged in black comedy that offers anonymous vignettes of Snapchat voyeurism and Facebook dirty talk. 

Happy End doesn't reveal the sources of these digital diaries and the predatory mysteriousness eerily reflects the disconnect of digital communication. Anne, for example, expresses herself both emotionally and intellectually when an accident befalls a site under construction by her contracting company. Huppert is once again funny and ferocious on the heels of Elle. Her icy humour ensures that there’s actual amusement in Haneke’s “comedy” and her dry, clipped lines deliveries are caustic delights.

The responses Anne receives, particularly from her son and business partner (Franz Rogowski), are often impersonal blank expressions. Her brother (Mathieu Kassovitz) can’t deal with personal relationships, particularly that with Eve (his daughter), who doesn’t have any grasp of real world communication. After all, she belongs to a generation hardwired with a different brain than her bourgeois relatives who offer the perfect objects of ridicule and novelty for the retweeting masses. Nobody really knows how to talk to anyone offline in Happy End and Haneke zooms in on the decay of social fabric that arises when one’s life becomes an empty façade of branding.

Media is a major preoccupation of the Haneke oeuvre from the hidden camera of Caché to the unnerving film within a film of Code Unknown, but social media seems to be the perfect calling for the director's interest in satirizing the sad farce of human misery. When it comes to solipsism, cruelty, and self-indulgence, the age of the smartphone is key. #bravo

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TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more info on this year’s festival.