The Austrian director Michael Haneke has been called a cynic, a nihilist, and a fraud. He’s called himself a “realist.” The question is whether the bleakness of his films represents a recognizable reality or whether his dark manipulations and depictions of violence—especially of suicide, but also torture, murder, and mercy killings—are merely sensational, calling attention to nothing more than themselves. That he works in the grammar of European avant-garde cinema—often employing long takes in which nothing much happens, building toward climactic scenes in which all too much happens—rather than in the vernacular of Hollywood thrillers and action films raises another question: Is he merely preaching to a choir of festival juries and art-house audiences?
The best of Haneke’s films suspend these questions by transcending their status as commentary on or critique of violence. Their despairing visions are mounted on genre forms that they overwhelm. It won’t do to call The Piano Teacher (2001) or Caché (2005) psychological thrillers or The White Ribbon (2009) a parable of German village life on the eve of World War I. They only become stirring by exposing how insufficient those genre labels are to describe them. The violence on the screen—the assault of Erika by her lover in The Piano Teacher, the suicide in Caché, the mutilated boy in The White Ribbon—verge on the unwatchable. With its leave-no-survivors story of home invasion, torture, and murder, Funny Games—the 1997 German-language film Haneke remade in English a decade later—is pure provocation, impossible to watch twice. Perhaps it was easier to shoot twice.
The violence in Haneke’s new film, Happy End, happens mostly off-screen. The film proceeds like a melodrama, but you may leave the theater thinking you’ve just seen the blackest of comedies. The story of three generations of a wealthy French family in the throes of several crises, it brings together themes from Haneke’s most recent films. As in Amour, which ends in a husband’s euthanizing his wife, there is the plight of an elderly patriarch who finds himself at the edge of death that can’t come too soon. Like The White Ribbon, in which abused children turn violent themselves, the new film examines the effect of parents’ failings on their children. And as in Caché, the painful legacy of colonialism hovers over the story, this time through references to Europe’s migrant crisis.
Much of the action in Happy End takes place at the Laurent family mansion in Calais, near the Calais Jungle, an encampment where migrants gathered from 2015 until its evacuation in the fall of 2016. The Laurents own an industrial construction firm, and they may be held responsible for the collapse of a foundation wall that occurs in the film’s first few minutes. The firm is managed by the middle-aged daughter, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who is grooming her twentysomething son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), to succeed her. But Pierre was managing the site of the accident and may be implicated in the collapse. His behavior has become erratic, and Anne thinks he’s drinking too much.
Meanwhile, there has been a suicide attempt. The patient, who soon dies, is the ex-wife of Anne’s brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz). Their child, the twelve-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin), will be coming to live with her father and the rest of the Laurents after a long estrangement. Thomas has remarried, to Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), and they have an infant son. The Laurent paterfamilias, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is in his mid-eighties and losing his marbles, a condition he frequently points out to his family. Haneke weaves these crises together in an exquisitely escalating mood of unease until a finale that replays the tragedies of the earlier films as farce and earns Happy End its ironic title.
Haneke, who is 75, worked in the theater and television for decades before directing his first feature, The Seventh Continent, in 1989. The story of a couple who commit suicide and give a lethal injection to their daughter, The Seventh Continent was based on a family suicide Haneke had read about in the newspaper—certainly a grounding in reality, if an extreme one. The names Georges and Anne recur in Haneke’s films: They are the names of the couples in The Seventh Continent, Amour, Funny Games, and Time of the Wolf. The last name Laurent also recurs. Haneke’s repetition of names—some variation of Eve often marks an innocent daughter—suggests that his characters are somehow interchangeable. In the long story Haneke tells of middle-class misery and rot, we’re all acting out the same dramas and committing the same transgressions.
An exception is The Piano Teacher, which is less the story of a universal condition than of a grown woman trapped living with her oppressive mother, violently resentful of her students, and harboring secret obsessions. Huppert’s performance as Erika is a triumph of nervy contradictions. In Happy End Huppert is the anchor of the ensemble. Her Anne assumes directorship of the family firm—she’s marrying the banker (Toby Jones) who brokers the transition—works to minimize the payouts to the victim of the construction accident, and tries to maintain a semblance of decorum in the Laurent household.
The Laurents are a family that dines formally, waited on by Jamila (Nabiha Akkari), their Moroccan maid. The dinner table is a site of humiliation for Georges because his memory is failing. When Eve arrives, he repeatedly fails to recognize her or remember why she’s rejoined the family—he last saw her ten years earlier. In the middle of the night he creeps into the garage, drives away, and crashes into a tree. The failed suicide attempt leaves him with a broken ankle and confined to a wheelchair. Later he asks his barber to help him kill himself, and seems to do the same to a group of men he encounters on the street. These scenes come close to sending up Amour, in which Trintignant’s Georges agrees to kill his wife in order to spare her another return to the hospital.
A morbid bond links Georges and Eve in Happy End. They’re the ones connected to death, while the generation between them persists in a selfish state of denial. Anne attends to business, Anaïs lavishes her attention on the infant, and Thomas conducts a dirty-talk cyber-affair with a woman we barely see. Eve has a secret life of her own, streaming videos of obnoxious teenage boys online, surreptitiously making videos of her relatives around the house, and snooping on her father’s laptop. The messages she discovers convince her that her father will abandon her stepmother, that he loves no one, and that she’s destined to wind up in a home. She turns her quiet rage on herself and makes her own suicide attempt.
The central scene of Happy End also links back to Amour. Eve visits Georges’s office at her father’s request. Georges tells her that he’s not interested in asking her why she tried to kill herself, but he does so anyway. She has nothing to tell him in reply. He tells her the story of his wife’s death. Around the time of Eve’s last visit to Calais, at age three, her grandmother had fallen permanently ill. Georges handed over the duties of running the family firm to Anne and devoted himself to his wife’s care. At last, he smothered her. Grandfather telling the story to granddaughter seals their bond and tacitly establishes a pact between them.
Mimicking the structure of a comedy, Happy End culminates in a pair of celebration scenes. It’s here that the subtext creeps to the fore. At Georges’s eighty-fifth birthday party he’s moved by a cello recital, but again shows signs of senility. He represents the old Europe, and his appreciation of culture will disappear with him. Anne and Thomas try to put a good face on the proceedings, but a drunk Pierre announces to the guests that they should enjoy a dish prepared by Jamila, “our Moroccan slave.” Pierre, we know, has been coping with the fallout of the accident at the construction site. The family of the accident’s victim has been demanding restitution, and when Pierre visits their home (they seem to be Eastern European immigrants), he’s assaulted by one of the victim’s relatives—an altercation that is shot stunningly from afar. Afterward Pierre is undone by a sense of guilt that his mother and his uncle repress.
The conclusion of Happy End is too neat, too intricately determined by foregoing events, to qualify as realism, but it still induces the grim sort of laughter that comes with witnessing contradictions laid bare. The reception for Anne’s wedding takes place on a sunny afternoon by the sea. The family is gathered around the table, surrounded by guests, a conspicuously white crowd. Pierre arrives late in the company of several black men, interrupts the proceedings, and begins to introduce the men to the crowd. The first is a migrant whose family was killed by Boko Haram. Anne quickly breaks up this stunt, and Pierre is dragged out of the room. The men are offered a table and a meal, and Anne apologizes to her guests, explaining that Pierre really is “a good person.”
The scene—absurdly, sinisterly—mimics the paralysis of liberals in the face of Europe’s migrant crisis. The guests are here: Will they be recognized? Will that recognition be more than a token? Will they be offered a seat at the table and a share in the continent’s comforts, or will they be shuttled out of sight? Anne’s response to the scene is to restore order and accommodate disruption. Georges’s is altogether different: He enlists Eve to wheel him away from the luncheon and steer his wheelchair down a hill and into the sea. We see this last suicide attempt from two points of view: first head-on, as if from the water, as granddaughter drives grandfather toward oblivion; then, after Eve lets go of the wheelchair, from the vantage of her smartphone’s camera, as Anne and Thomas run down the hill to try to save their father. Her act of recording what might be her grandfather’s last moments comes to her completely naturally, a perverse storytelling impulse that mirrors Haneke’s own. You could also call it a sign that the next generation will bear witness to their mothers’ and fathers’ sins and their suffering.