It has long been a tradition in our household that I choose to visit the cinema on my birthday – but since that birthday falls at an awkward time of year, it isn’t always easy to find something decent to watch. I was therefore delighted to note that the Cameo Cinema was offering a screening of Michael Haneke’s Happy End. While it can hardly be regarded as cheery birthday fare, Haneke’s films are always challenging to say the very least.
The film centres around the upper-bourgeois Laurent family who own a construction company based in Calais, against the troubling background of the migrant crisis. The widowed patriarch of the family, George (Jean Louis Trintignant), is rapidly succumbing to dementia and spends much of his time actively trying to end it all. Meanwhile, his daughter, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), runs the business in her own no-nonsense manner, whilst vainly trying to interest her hapless son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), in the idea of taking over from her – but it’s clear that he’s not really cut out for this kind of life. When an industrial accident results in the death of an employee, matters come to a head – and, at the same time, George’s son, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), a well-to-do doctor, has to unexpectedly offer a home to his estranged teenage daughter, Anais (a remarkable performance from Laura Verlinden), whose mother has recently died from poisoning. Thomas is now remarried and has an infant son. It’s quite clear that he isn’t really sure how to interact with Anais – and there are still disturbing questions to be asked about what happened to her mother…
This is typical Haneke territory – the story is never clear cut, but gradually unfolds in a series of incredibly realistic vignettes. There are long takes, often shot from a distance, where the viewer is made to feel like a voyeur spying on the proceedings, an effect heightened by the way Anais records much of the action on her mobile phone – and at several points we are presented with revelations that make us reconsider many of the conclusions we have already drawn.
Haneke isn’t to everyone’s taste. His is an uncompromising world-view that takes no prisoners, but he is a unique talent that deserves to be celebrated and, to my mind at least, this is an excellent way to conclude the year’s viewing.