The Laurent family have their problems, just like any other family, but their sense of dissatisfaction runs deeper than many. Take twelve-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin): she likes to upload videos onto the internet, captured on her phone camera and with comments on the action added below. One video sees her spy on her mother from down the hall as she readies herself for bed. Another sees her capture the reaction of her pet hamster Pips after she feeds him her mother's antidepressants. Goodbye Pips. But when her mother falls ill from a mysterious poisoning, nobody suspects Eve, they simply shuttle her off to live with her estranged father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) in Calais...
That location is important since it's one of the hubs of the European refugee crisis and has a few thousand such people crowding the place in the hope of reaching a new home in Britain as everywhere else has rejected them, or they have rejected everywhere else. If you were hoping for an incisive look at this matter, torn from the headlines by writer and director Michael Haneke, you would probably be disappointed as what refugees we saw were wheeled on as a kind of punchline to a very embittered joke about his favourite target, the bourgeoisie. Indeed, there were times in Happy End where it came across as if he was producing a greatest hits compilation, not an original.
So you had an evil kid from The White Ribbon, an elderly gent (Jean-Louis Trintignant as the Laurent patriarch) depressed at having gotten as old and infirm as he has, a major dig at technology as a magnet for the worst kind of behaviour, and so forth, you could almost tick off the plot points here as they had appeared in his earlier works. If you were a fan of Haneke, this running over old ground may not be too bad in a "play us what we know" manner, but if you were a newcomer, this was not the place to start, as his most explicit theme, the damaging nature of families, especially the supposedly privileged ones, had been covered more impressively elsewhere, assuming you appreciated that.
For some, the cult of Haneke, where he shows you terrible activities and asks you to judge those carrying them out as if from on high, would be a mystery as his relentlessly misanthropic take on life did not make for a fun night out at the pictures. Obviously not every film has to have an uplifting cadence, but Haneke was too close to a parody of miserable arthouse directors for many viewers' comfort, and the Laurents here were so overburdened with their problems that they wish they could simply walk away from that it got fairly ridiculous trying to keep track of who was dejected and why. Happy End was presented as Haneke's comedy movie (so maybe he was moving into self-parody after all?), but you would need an extremely dim view of humanity to find these people funny - and you can't come back easily from killing a small furry creature in the first five minutes.
But let's not be too hard on Haneke, even if he was habitually tough on everyone else he shared the planet with, as every so often he would remind you why he was so lauded by the cognoscenti (the same cognoscenti he railed against and punished in his films). The sequence where Isabelle Huppert's screen son (Franz Rogowski), a major fuck-up who has likely caused a dreadful accident at the family construction business she manages and he is meant to inherit, lets his hair down and sings karaoke was... well, I don't know if it was funny, exactly, but it was compelling in its wild abandon, suggesting this lot cannot even sing and dance a little without endangering their lives and ruining everyone else's evening. Somehow, no matter that they cannot catch a break, sympathy was thin on the ground when they were either evil on purpose or casually, by circumstance: they were born into this way of existence, Haneke seemed to be telling us, how about we enjoy the sufferings of their advantages? Nothing goes right for them, but this was more bleak humour than black humour. Toby Jones showed up too, but did not speak French.
[Curzon's Blu-ray is pristine, with a revealing making of featurette and a Haneke masterclass among the extras.]