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Michael Haneke's Happy End is tense horror, and the lurking monster is privilege

The latest from the two-time Palme d’Or winner depends on its audience to connect the dots.

Fantine Harduin in Happy End
Fantine Harduin in Happy End
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

When notoriously provocative director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Amour) makes a movie with a name like Happy End, you can be pretty sure the film’s conclusion will be anything but cheery. Haneke doesn’t do happy endings.

But Happy End’s beginning is just as quintessentially Haneke: It starts silently, with Instagram Live-style videos that observe a woman brushing her teeth before bed as the text onscreen predicts what she’s about to do next: brush, rinse, spit, pee, flush, and so on. Then we see a hamster digging into a bowl of food as the text describes what the hamster’s about to eat. Then another, more gruesome scene.

Soon we’re back to regular-looking wide-screen cinema, watching cranes in a pit and the sudden collapse of a wall. Then we’re observing the events of a seemingly disparate selection of people. A French family (Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Franz Rogowski, and Laura Verlinden) eats dinner together as a mother scolds her adult son for not exercising restraint when he pours the wine. A young girl (Fantine Harduin) packs a suitcase with clothing. A man (Toby Jones) talks both business and pleasure on the phone. An unseen person types a seductive, sexually deviant message to someone named “Thomas.”

Happy End is about a lot of things: psychopaths, wealth, privilege, suicide, even murder. But if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss what’s happening — in fact, even if you are paying attention, you might miss it. Most good films rely on their audiences to connect the dots a little, but Happy End is all dots, with none of the lines drawn in at all. The meaning is there, but you have to dig for it in the everyday events of a family’s life.

Which is a lot like real life.

Happy End boldly trusts its audience to pay attention

Happy End is all brushstrokes, snippets of ordinary lives that seem banal and even insignificant on their own. But as they pile up, one scene after another, they start to accrue meaning. Events and statements from earlier scenes suddenly mean something different because of information revealed later. It’s like watching a painting come together, each stroke adding information that informs the whole.

It’s a bold way to construct a film, trusting the audience to stay with you. But it’s consonant with Haneke’s other films (especially 2005’s Caché), as well as the way he treats each frame of this film. His camera is still, almost static, and it’s vital to look around in the frame as objects and words appear, adding layers of meaning to what’s happening in the center of the frame. Audiences that just want to kick back and zone out while watching a movie won’t love Happy End. But viewers who are up for a challenge (and subtitles — it’s in French) will be richly rewarded.

Isabelle Huppert in Happy End
Isabelle Huppert in Happy End.

As in Caché, a movie about a family who’s being spied on for reasons they can’t understand, Happy End uses technology to tell its story in innovative ways. In 2005, it was VHS surveillance tapes, spliced into the story so expertly that it was hard to tell if you were watching a tape or “reality.” This tactic made everything kind of terrifying, and made viewers complicit by forcing them to look at the illicit surveillance tapes.

Twelve years later, Happy End implicates viewers in some of the same ways, but this time through surreptitiously filmed live video and Facebook chats. We know more than almost any other character in the film, but our knowledge, instead of clearing up some of the film’s mysteries, makes everything even more frightening. We dread what’s about to happen, or what we think is about to happen — and in vintage Haneke style, when the moment of horror comes, it’s even more shocking than we expect.

Happy End is about the European refugee crisis and the pitfalls of privilege

Haneke’s focus in Happy End (and often throughout his work) is in how privilege and wealth, treated nonchalantly, can corrupt and distort humanity. Here, they’ve turned a family belonging to the wealthy bourgeoisie into several generations of unhappy psychopaths who quietly hide some of their pathologies while disguising others as benevolence — especially toward the immigrants who serve them and live on the fringes of their lives.

While this isn’t a distinctly French critique, it certainly feels like a very timely one. The film is set against the refugee crisis in Europe — the family lives in Calais, the major point in France where migrants attempt to cross to England, causing major problems for both countries — but you’d barely know it, because our subjects only let the sojourners among them impede on their consciousness when it suits them in some way. So the film is damning: sins against the stranger more by omission than commission.

Happy End
A family tradition.

That Happy End challenges its audience to pay attention to put together the story, then, is as much an aesthetic statement about how to watch a movie as a political one. We have to observe and see what’s in the background. And that’s just what the family at the center of the movie doesn’t do, and what makes them civilized monsters — a proclivity they pass on through generations.

And as the film’s title betrays, there isn’t a happy end in sight. You know how it’s impossible to purchase a great gift for someone who already has it all? It might seem like having a wealth of options available to you in life — anything you might want to do or see or experience or screw — would make you happy. But in Happy End, at least, it only makes you miserable. (It’s no coincidence that this film features the single most punishingly sad karaoke scene in cinema.)

The only happy end for the unhappy family lies in self-obliteration, whether through alcohol or compulsive cheating or even suicide. In Happy End, though, most of that happens off screen. All we see is a hundred insignificant moments that brilliantly add up to something excruciatingly dark.

Happy End premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21, made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and opens in the U.S. on December 22.

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