Isabelle Huppert embraces characters who are badasses. In last year’s Elle, Huppert played a woman who refuses to let a brutal sexual assault change her life. In Things to Come, she was a philosophy professor who, though shocked, ultimately reacts to her philandering husband’s request for a divorce with a matter-of-factness that’s the equivalent of a shrug. And in Michael Haneke’s Happy End, her Anne breaks her son’s finger in front of a dining hall of engagement-party guests when he starts to shove her in drunken resentment. “Sorry, but what else could I do?” she says before forcing an all-is-well smile.
One of the disappointments of Happy End is that there’s not enough of the masterful actress. More critical issues, however, are the film’s lack of focus and exposition. Haneke’s follow-up to 2012’s Amour presents the Laurents, an upper-class family in the construction business. First we meet—or at least hear the voice of—Eve (Fantine Harduin), a 13-year-old obsessed with watching and posting social-media videos. She also has a penchant for slipping pills to the unsuspecting, including her hamster (documented for the world) and her depressed mother (“It’s all about her”). Eve is then sent to live with her father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), and his second wife, Anaïs (Laura Verlinden). But they’re a snug group, at least physically: Thomas lives in an apartment within the grand residence of his father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), which also houses Anne, his sister, and Pierre (Franz Rogowski), his nephew.
Anne runs the construction company, which at the film’s opening has an accident at one of its worksites. Haneke trains his camera on the location as a radio is heard in the background; you’ve physically seen no one yet besides a girl in a video Eve is watching. The edge of a dig site collapses, its significance a mystery. So when Anne gets a call about someone being in the hospital, you assume it’s Eve’s mother. No, there’s also an ailing construction worker. And it’s eventually revealed that Pierre is the company foreman.
As Happy End progresses, you eventually figure out what’s what. But Haneke makes you work for it. Perhaps he was too distracted with dropping in valentines to himself to ensure the characters and storyline were clear. The most obvious self-reference is Georges; Trintignant also played Georges in Amour, and at one point tells Eve about his wife’s death, which matches that film’s plot. Huppert played his daughter in Amour as well. But the more prominent quotations are from 2005’s Caché.
Along with seeming to damn the voyeurism social media encourages, Haneke includes many surveillance-like shots in which the characters are far in the distance or their conversations can’t be heard. It gets to be infuriating. There are also subplots that are given extremely short shrift, including Anne’s romance with Lawrence (Toby Jones) and Thomas’ affair with a woman to whom we see him type explicit messages.
Throughout, none of the strands ever take prominence, though social media use pushes forward slightly. Anyone familiar with Haneke will know that Happy End is an ironic title. But even by the film’s unhappy end, that may be all you know for sure.
Happy End opens Friday at Landmark West End Cinema.