Michael Haneke is no stranger to unlikable characters trapped by their despair, but “Happy End” may be his most extreme vision to date. The Austrian director’s followup to “Amour” is a pointed, fatalistic look at festering anger percolating throughout a wealthy European family in which nobody seems capable of feeling good about themselves, each other, or the world in general.
It’s pure Haneke crack: While the structure recalls aspects of his overlapping narratives in “Code Unknown,” it also explicitly references the fragile mortality at the center of “Amour,” while also making that movie look downright sentimental. From the fear of death at the center of “Amour,” Haneke has shifted to people for whom the end can’t arrive soon enough.
In this case, the fragmented drama revolves around the affluent Laurent family, which runs a successful construction business founded by now-senile patriarch George (Jean-Louis Trintignant, tellingly given the same name as the music teacher he played in “Amour”). These days, the business is run by his icy daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert, in another obsessive workaholic role to accompany last year’s “Elle”), who has lost patience with her reckless grown son Pierre (Franz Rogowski). Whenever she tries to show some empathy for him, it’s only a matter of time before she reverts to her default mode of frustration.
Anne’s brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) spends much of his time dealing with his own business needs and juggling affairs on the side, while his alienated 13-year-old daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin, a remarkable, subdued young talent) looks on at the disaffected people around her in mounting disgust. Haneke slowly immerses the viewer in this bleak network of concerns, his patient screenplay assembling multiple perspectives to encompass the range of antagonism that seems to pass through the generations like a disease.
Young Eve isn’t a total innocent, but she’s a key witness to the dysfunction around her. Her relatives’ relationships soured long ago, and the prospects of new beginnings don’t hold great potential. Her father has remarried, but spends his free time engaged in lyrical cybersex with another woman, and Anne’s currently engaged to a British businessman (Toby Jones) for whom she harbors no apparent affection. Pierre’s prone to sudden outbursts, humiliating his relatives at family gatherings by calling out their disregard of immigrant houseworkers and heaping on insults whenever his mother comes close.
All of these characters unfold through Haneke’s cold, eerie style. With no soundtrack, plenty of long takes that linger on big, empty rooms, and grave performances in which everyone’s allergic to smiles, “Happy End” quickly makes it clear that the title is an ironic device. Haneke has a fascinating, mysterious approach to assembling the layers of narrative, starting with an ambitious epilogue seen from the perspective an iPhone. The POV shot turns out to belong to Eve, who livestreams her bland existence in a feeble bid to find companionship beyond her family’s grim routine. Elsewhere, Haneke observes prolonged Facebook chats unfold for minutes on end, in most cases holding back on revealing the face of the author for reasons that become clear later on.
It takes close to an hour for the strands of this multifaceted world to come together, but once it does, the movie becomes an engrossing portrait of how this constant infighting has drained any semblance of warmth from the family tree. The movie functions as a quasi-sequel to “Amour,” which tracks the evolution of the hopelessness on display here from the start. Yet rather than smothering the material in bad vibes, the filmmaker uses them to gradually reveal a fascinating world in which anger and resentment becomes the only weapon any of these people know how to wield.
It’s fascinating to watch the 75-year-old Haneke explore how modern-day technology has only further exacerbated the tendency for people to retreat into their lonely worlds, with the use of the camera-phone videos and social media planting the director’s voyeuristic fixations into the 21st century. He shifts from that pixelated storytelling to the gorgeous, affluent interiors of the Laurents’ palatial mansion (captured with predictable elegance by regular cinematographer Christian Berger), suggesting that a hidden world lies beneath these polished exteriors that isn’t so easily controlled. At one point, Haneke breaks this mechanical surface with one of the most depressing drunk karaoke scenes in film history, and it’s proof of a simmering fury just waiting to erupt from the family’s frozen existence.
Ironically, the only genuine bond in the family stems from a conversation between the elderly George, who has already confessed his death wish, when he talks to his despondent granddaughter about her own potentially morbid desires. Trintignant is extraordinary in his stern, candid delivery, but newcomer Harduin holds her own by echoing it. This is a movie about joyless people, but as a scathing look at the vanity of the bourgeois, it’s riveting to watch and wonder who will crack first.
Dark enough for you yet? Haneke’s in such tight control of this material that he knows exactly how to mold such nastiness into a maze of tonal possibilities, veering from hypnotic monologues about tragic feelings to twisted developments that venture into the realm of dark comedy. As usual with Haneke, the material does occasionally suffer from his dry, reserved approach, but he’s not averse to payoff.
A climactic moment set against the backdrop of Anne’s wedding celebration brings the competing levels of chaos into a singularly wild burst of developments. Huppert takes control of the situation with a devious punchline, but Haneke ups that moment only minutes later with one of the very best endings in his filmography to date. Bringing the material — and the family history — full circle, he leaves us with the implication that the only solace in a cycle of self-loathing is finding others who share the disease.
“Happy End” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it later this year.