Film: Family Drama

A middle-class existence in Calais

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At his best, filmmaker Michael Haneke tests our ability to investigate, and to try to understand, the casual cruelty of a family.

The Michael Haneke film Happy End, made up of an all-star cast, is a chilly story of the decadence of a French family. It commences with the merciless gaze of a cell-phone camera spying down a hallway: 13-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin) secretly filming her mother as she prepares for bed. The off-camera daughter affectionlessly describes every dull stage of her mother’s nightly preparation in Textese. The mother, who we never meet in closeup, is later found OD’d on her depression meds. Eve comes to live with her surgeon father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), his new bride and their new baby, and soon discovers evidence of Thomas cheating on wife no. 2, in the form of obscenely passionate emails.

There’s some money in this family—a Calais-based construction business run by Thomas’s sister Anne (Isabelle Huppert). The company had a large mishap, described as “a series of unfortunate coincidences,” digging the block-wide foundation for a building.

The Laurents aren’t very gentle with each other. Anne chides her troubled son for helping himself to too deep a glass of wine. Eve tests out her mother’s prescriptions on her hamster—the animal doesn’t survive. The ancient and decaying patriarch of the family, 85-year-old Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tells Eve the tale of a mercy killing—a reflection of the one Trintignant carried out in Haneke’s last film, Amour. The ambient bitterness makes the film’s title a euphemism: Suicide is some people’s idea of a happy ending.

Tolerate the acidity of these episodes, and the film can seem bracingly dry. There are flashes of comedy, and even a sort of dignified warmth in the scenes between Georges with his fading memory, and his granddaughter Eve with her own unkillable sadness. Happy End isn’t a simple social critique or an adolescent romanticization with suicide: In this bleak, acute vision of decline, it’s clear that stronger marriages or more honesty wouldn’t have helped these people any more than the meds did.

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