By Jack Dignan
Cinema, as an art form, can stir up so many different reactions, differing from person to person. When Happy End came to a close, I was lost for words. But not in the way you’d expect. I couldn’t put my thoughts together on this movie. It’s an unconventional experience, to say the least, so skewwhiff in craft and plot that I struggled to get the right words out of my mouth. There’s no possible way to spoil this film, nor is there any way to accurately describe the film’s plot, or lack of. French writer-director Michael Haneke has put together a group of deranged family members into a story all revolving around the desire of death. There’s no structure, no plot, no climax, and yet, there’s something strangely desirable about the whole thing.
The film opens with a vertically shot iPhone live stream of a young girl, Eve (Fantine Harduin), spying on her mother. It’s a quiet, startling opening that created its much-desired curiosity, but did little in the way of grasping the audience. I was left unsure of what’s going on and, quite frankly, I was bored. That’s what Happy End does best. It mixes your emotions, flipping everything you think you know and making something that’s much more of a cerebral experience than it is an actual movie. I went from hating the film to loving the film to tolerating the film and then straight back to hating it. It left me puzzled and curious, soaking it all in in order to grasp what the film was really going for, and how exactly I felt about it.
Happy End’s apparent lack of structure made watching it a unique, but ultimately unrewarding experience. Haneke desires your patience. You can’t go into the film expecting all the answers to be given to you right away, or even given to you at all. He focuses on the moments between the moments. It’s the little events, and the smaller conversations, rather than the big obvious scenes most filmmakers usually go for, and in that respect I admire his ambition. Instead of focusing on an important character’s suicide attempt, he begins in the hospital, an unknown time having past since their life nearly came to an end. In doing so, however, he makes the audience feel left out. Watching this film is the equivalent to having only heard the last fraction of a conversation, then being forced to give your input on the subject matter. It’s a struggle.
The central family’s story all revolves around an unspoken, slowly growing desire for death. These characters range from suicidal to self-loathing to severely depressed. None of their lives are satisfying, and they’re all forced to deal with whatever situation life puts them in. Several of the characters receive little screen time, and because this film keeps you in the dark about so many different things, I barely knew whom it was I was watching on screen. So many characters get a small, random beat of a moment, yet their presence and their story meant nothing to me. I didn’t know who they were, and in some cases, they don’t even show up again. It’s infuriating. Their stories are dull and meaningless, creating no lasting consequences or impactful moments. They just exist.
This is, in a way, an extended montage of short films. Nothing is related. It’s all just a random collection of scenes edited together one after the other, featuring a few key characters that come and go. If this were the case, the film could work. I would’ve, perhaps, enjoyed it just a little bit more, but it’s not the case. These aren’t’ short films, it’s one big long feature film, and a mixed bag at that. Certain stories work, there’s moments of brilliance, but it struggles to hold its ground throughout the 100 minute runtime. The film lacks depth. It pretends it’s so smart and sophisticated, but you don’t give a shit about anything going on. Character relations are skimmed over, relayed to the audience through a simple and easy to miss line of dialogue during a moment you don’t expect to hear it. It defies expectations, but unlike so many other films, it doesn’t do it in an effective way.
In terms of the actual craft, this film is beyond belief. The performances draw you in, unmatched by a lackluster story. Young Fantine Harduin is a talent yet to be unleashed, and this is but the first step in what should be a very promising career. Her performance doesn’t necessarily require a lot of big, open expressions, but instead smaller, more casual acting, and Harduin delivers every line with sheer authenticity. Oscar nominated Isabelle Huppert is, and always has been, a force to be reckoned with. She often steals the show here in a minor, but necessary role (not that anything in this film is really necessary). The absolute star player, however, is without a doubt that of Jean-Louis Trintignant. He’s funny, dark and sad all at the same time, resulting in what is the most memorable moment of the whole film. His character arc resonates, and is even alluded to being the same character he played in Amour back in 2012.
The film may be titled Happy End, but don’t be fooled. It’s neither happy nor concludes as such. It’s a dark, somber piece, nobly debating the ups and downs of the English lifestyle, the people who engage in it and the way we integrae technology into our lives. Haneke tries to say a lot, and his film is as ambitious as it is relentless, but his style proved far too much for me to handle. As a filmmaker, Haneke continues to intrigue, but he struggles to let the audience hold on. My mind wandered. Credit’s due where credit is due, but as a whole, Happy End fails to come together as well as it thinks it does.
2 1/2 Stars
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