Acclaimed Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is up to his usual tricks in this dark, unsettling tale of family dysfunction.
As the title of a franchise, Insidious has already been taken. Which is unfortunate, because it would have suited the pictures of Michael Haneke perfectly. Although his movies don't comprise an interconnected series, they're linked by the filmmaker's continued obsession with the way people really behave. In the work of the acclaimed writer-director, seemingly ordinary situations become something else entirely, whether it's strangers knocking at the door in Funny Games, a family going about its normal business in Cache, or an elderly couple at the end of their lives in Amour. With considerable cunning, Haneke's stories unsettle by gradually exposing the facade behind which we all live — particularly when matters of love, loyalty and the complicated bonds of blood are involved.
Sporting an ironic moniker, Happy End is no different. If you're onboard with the type of humour Haneke demonstrates in those two words, then you're well prepared for the sly comic social critique that follows. Setting the subject of social media firmly in its sights, the director's latest film doesn't hold back, tearing down humanity's contemporary fondness for screens over in-person interactions. What we're snapping, filming, uploading, posting, emailing, reading, watching, scrolling through and clicking on is one of Haneke's two main targets. How we treat even our closest relatives when we're more concerned with likes, shares and our own busy lives is the other.
Opening with Snapchat footage, it's quickly apparent that something sinister is brewing. Although we don't initially know who's responsible, seeing a hamster being drugged doesn't paint a contented picture, and nor does vision of a clearly miserable woman. Then Happy End introduces 12-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), who is bundled off to stay with her father (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his incredibly wealthy extended family after her mother overdoses. Not that anyone in her new mansion home pays the girl much attention. They're as content to ignore her as they are her increasingly senile grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). As Eve's stepmother (Laura Verlinden) fusses over her new baby, her aunt Anne (Isabelle Huppert) prepares to take over the family construction company, and various family crises bubble up, the pre-teen and the octogenarian form a bleak kind of bond.
Other than his new social media savvy (and a standout karaoke scene soundtracked to Sia's 'Chandelier'), Haneke ticks plenty of recognisable boxes with Happy End. A little too many, perhaps. He doesn't lose his ability to intrigue, but it's obvious that he's relying upon his established tricks and trademarks, almost as if he's making his own greatest hits package. In a way, keeping to his usual beats supports the recurring message in many of his movies: that life's woes and worries tend to repeat. That said, when spotting the filmmaker's familiar flourishes is more interesting than sections of the narrative, it's also a problem.
Still, even when he's retracing his own footsteps with a knowing wink and smile, Haneke's work sits in its own category. The playfulness paired with grim scenarios, the long shots urging viewers not to tear their eyes away, the unease oozing from every scene and performance: it's all there, deployed with the requisite finesse. And while the final result isn't among Haneke's best films, when it comes to plunging into the chilling darkness behind carefully cultivated public personas, no one does it quite like the Austrian master.