In his ensemble family drama Happy End, Michael Haneke imagines a kind of alternate world version of the 2012 earnest heartbreaker Amour, which won him the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In this new world, the widowed Georges (again played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) is even older. He’s forgetful, bitter and wishing for death, where in Amour, he was (spoiler) the bringer of merciful release for his ailing wife. While the characters of Happy End are mostly from Amour, and the storyline almost a continuation of where the earlier film left off (after the death of Georges’ wife), the most disparate element is tone. It is as though the Funny Games director resented how much adulation the relatively sweet and thoughtful Amour received and said, “You think you know what death is? I’ll show you what death is. It’s senseless and void of feeling or meaning.”
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Haneke imagines Georges not in his down-to-earth digs of Amour but in a cold, sterile mansion owned by his daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who’s struggling to keep the family’s construction firm afloat amid tragedies and one very bad accident at a dig site. Anne’s brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his wife Anais (Laura Verlinden) also live in the mansion and take in Thomas’ daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) from his first marriage after her mother dies. Eve is constantly asked how old she is — 13 — and Haneke shows us through her eyes how adults seem obsessed with ages and numbers; magnifying a quotidian occurrence to examine its gravity has always been Haneke’s strength. When we ask someone’s age, are we not really asking them how close they are to death?
Georges and Eve are the heart and soul, the beginning and the end, of this story. They’re both acutely aware of how precious — and, conversely, futile — life is, while everyone else is going through its motions. The film drags when Haneke pulls focus to the other, duller characters, perhaps inevitably, as it seems his intention for those people to lack interiority or thoughtfulness. When Thomas reports to his family on the condition of Georges — who they all but ignore until he tries to kill himself by crashing his car into a tree — Thomas returns from the hospital and simply says, “It’s not as bad as we thought.” If Thomas feels any emotion, it’s annoyance that he’s been pulled for five minutes away from his torrid Facebook affair.
Haneke’s clinical treatment of Thomas’ back-and-forth explicit messages with a mistress is at first a little grating. For long, wordless spans of time, we watch letters get typed into the Messenger box. Type, type, type, send. Haneke shows only the words and not the people attached to them; the sentiments typed are either grandly romantic or grossly sexual, but without any real human attachment — whether a face, a voice or even handwriting — they are dead.
Death, in this film, is the only thing that ever seems, well, a little positive. Everything else is planning dinners, talking to people you don’t like and taking care of problems. As with so many of his films, Haneke asks: Why? Why abide by the rules? Why go on? Here, he’s created two characters — Georges and Eve — I want to see exploring those questions and a handful I really don’t. The others’ only purpose seems to be showing that life is not, in fact, worth living; otherwise, they offer no counterpoint or tension to the story. Can’t we have a little more life in a movie about death?