David Lynch once described (maybe jokingly, maybe not) his method of putting together one of his movies: write out a bunch of incidents on file cards, rearrange them in no particular order and there’s your plot. Michael Haneke seems to be following this procedure for at least some of the time in HAPPY END, with no great thrust towards what from the first scenes onwards seems to be an inevitably ironic title.
We first meet Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), the youngest member of what the film’s flyer is pleased to call ‘Calais’s favourite dysfunctional family’, recording via her phone the death throes of her poisoned hamster. Eve’s mother is in a coma after an overdose of the same drugs, though whether it’s self-administered or Eve’s handiwork is left open. We have already seen Eve’s cool detachment – not to mention the director’s own, typically – as she watches, times and films her mother in the bathroom as she prepares to go to bed.
Eve is sent from the comfortable warmth of her Provencal home to join her father Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz), a doctor who lives with his new wife and baby in the Laurent family mansion in the well-heeled part of Calais. We see the bleaker, more familiar part – high barbed wire fences either side of the road approaching Eurotunnel – as Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) drives into town to deal with a fatal accident on a building development run by the Laurent family’s construction business. It’s suggested that company negligence may be to blame, and this is laid at the door of Anne’s irresponsible and semi-feral brother Pierre (Franz Rowgowski). In an effort to sort things out in his own way, Pierre visits the dead worker’s bereaved family in an unlovely apartment block and gets into a fist fight – again watched from a detached distance.
Meanwhile in the family mansion, Eve has discovered explicit emails on her father’s laptop. They reveal that Thomas and ‘Claire’ his lover, and Georges, the Laurent family patriarch (Jean-Louis Trintingnant, in a darker continuation of his role in Haneke’s AMOUR), is offering money to his hairdresser to bring an end to his life. When this is refused, Georges takes to the streets of Calais in his wheelchair, offering his watch to a group of bewildered African refugees in return for the same service – we presume, as this is also filmed in long-shot.
… they’re all in it together, up to their necks.
And so HAPPY END lurches on as the Laurent family’s veneer is gradually eaten away by embarrassing and/or grimly comic set-pieces: a posh cello recital given by ‘Claire’; Pierre’s desperate karaoke routine; a seafront restaurant party to celebrate the engagement of Anne and her English lawyer (Toby Jones, sic) who has been instrumental in rescuing the failing Laurent company finances. Into this party crashes, excruciatingly, a non-white, non-bourgeois world in the shape of the African refugees, introduced by Pierre in a desperate act of self-assertion. Anne’s smooth handling of the situation restores the status quo in one way; in another, it precipitates The End.
While there are echoes in HAPPY END of Michael Haneke’s earlier and more serious preoccupations with sociopathic human behaviour (in CACHE and FUNNY GAMES as well as AMOUR) here he approaches a social satire, in its mischief-making reminiscent of late Bunuel (who was like Haneke in his seventies when he made THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE). The Laurent family may be hard to stomach, but as the final shots – again filmed on a smartphone – show, they’re all in it together, up to their necks.