It says a lot about the current state of children’s/tweens’ entertainment that the most unwatchable thing in the new Michael Haneke film, Happy End, is not a daughter poisoning her mother or an old man asking a group of strangers to push him into traffic, but a Youtube vlog. Haneke shows us a full clip of a French teenage Youtuber, ruthlessly refusing to cut away from the inanity, and in doing so crafts one of the most squirm-inducing scenes of the year. The now 75 year old master of punishing cinema shows no sign of being uncomfortable using the latest technological and cultural advances to render his audience a panicky mess.
Acting as a semi-sequel to Haneke’s 2012 masterpiece Amour, Happy End takes aim at the upper-class Laurent family, headed by the suicidal elderly patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and his highly competent daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert). Their family business is facing legal troubles thanks to the drunken negligence of Anne’s idiot son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), but this is kept in the background, as is Anne’s engagement to British lawyer Lawrence (Toby Jones), who is helping broker a major loan for the Laurent company. Front and centre is unnerving 13 year old Eve (Fantine Harduin) and her subtle dismantling of her estranged dad Thomas’s (Mathieu Kassovitz) life after her mother falls into a pill-induced coma.
Eve runs terrifying, darkly hilarious rings around the rest of her family, and if Happy End is not quite the biting anti-bourgeois satire it makes a claim at being, its toxic family ties more than make up for this. It’s funny and shudderingly tense, acted to perfection by its superb cast. Best of the bunch are Trintignant and Harduin (Huppert’s talent are slightly wasted), and their dynamic is Happy End’s most engaging story strand.
Despite the 72 year age gap between them, Georges and Eve are the only members of the Laurent clan who really understand one another. A scene in Georges’s study as the pair exchange confessions is utterly transfixing, Harduin letting fear and respect seep into her performance for the first time and Trintignant getting across with expert subtlety the excitement at finding someone else with the same distaste for life as him. This bizarre alliance culminates in Happy End’s really tremendous ending, capped by a final shot that is miserable, hilarious, and wonderfully absurd.
It’s captured, as is a decent chunk of the film, through Eve’s iPhone camera, which she uses to broadcast all her life’s darkest moments over Facebook Live, one of many distressing, but not clichéd, uses of communications technology over the course of the film. Thomas is engaged in a sordid affair, even though he has a new baby with his second wife Anais (Laura Verlinden), and their email and chat exchanges are brutally explicit. Our insight into these messages, loaded with imagery so filthy that involuntary laughter is the only real response, feels more voyeuristic than a thousand physical sex scenes. Inevitably, Eve discovers this infidelity, and her confrontation with her father about it is gut-churning.
None of this is new territory for Haneke, and the sudden shocking outbursts of violence that one flinchingly anticipates in his films arrive here more understated than usual, but it’s hard to begrudge his sticking to his conventions when they’re still this effective. With the Calais setting, the migrant crisis gets surprisingly little play, but we’re focused on a narcissistic, self-aggrandising family for whom these people in crisis are merely a backdrop to their self-inflicted problems. It’s a powerfully nasty message contained in a film that you’ll be immensely entertained by, even if you feel a little guilty for enjoying its suffering so much.