REVIEW | “Happy End” marks the return of Michael Haneke to the Cannes Film Festival

“All around us, the world, and we, in its midst, blind.” A snapshot from the life of a bourgeois European family.

This description, provided in the notes given to festival goers at Cannes, tells one nothing of Michael Haneke‘s latest project, “Happy End.” Instead, Haneke’s history will give a person more of a clue as to what they will be walking into when they prepare to watch the film, set in the northern French city of Calais with the European refugee crisis in the background — way in the background. More prevalent to audiences will the story of the Laurent family and their many issues, staring familiar Haneke talent Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant.

The film showcases the many levels of dysfunction occurring at each level of the Laurent family, from the business that brought the family wealth suffering from issues after an accident causes death on one of their construction sites, to the heirs to the family fortune engaging in unorthodox relationships — Anne (Huppert) is engaged to a lawyer serving the family business’s legal needs, and her brother, Thomas (Mattieu Kassovitz) is cheating on his second-wife with yet another woman. The topic of suicide also haunts the family. It is the attempted death of Thomas’s daughter, Eve’s (Fantine Harduin), mother that leads to the young girl coming to live in the Laurent house in the first third of the film.

COURTESY OF THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

Trintignant’s role as the patriarch of the Laurent family, Georges, shines brightest in the cast. His anger toward the way his life has played out as well as the actions of his family feel the most warranted of all the concerns in the film. His interactions with Harduin’s Eve also allow for some of the best scenes in the film. When the pair discusses the mysterious death of Georges’s wife and reflect on the benefits of suicide together, audiences will take some comfort, and feel weird immediately afterward in reflecting on why that is happening to them at that moment. The final scene of the film also involve these characters in one of the most fitting finales for all of the Cannes competition films, one that should make audiences cringe but will instead manage to make them feel calmed.

While it is still up in the air as to whether or not this film will make its way stateside, the odds of its being popular with an American audience are slim. “Happy End” does not deliver what its title suggests, and instead relies on viewers’ fascination with the intricate relationships formed between the characters to stay engaged. I doubt that Americans will find these bourgeois members as interesting as they did generations ago.

COURTESY OF THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

The problem with “Happy End” is not its resistance to connect dots for the audience. A viewer who is attuned enough will quickly begin to understand who is sleeping with who, who feels as though they don’t belong, and who wants to die. It is the way in which it seems to weigh these problems against each other and make a viewer question which character’s issue (if any) is the most sympathetic. In reality, it is hard to feel anything toward any of these characters because of the great deal of privilege they are faced with, and the ways in which they still seem to make a mess of their lives.

This lack of ability to bond with the characters therefore creates a great feeling of distance from the overall narrative. This distance is heightened in Haneke’s attempts to incorporate new technology in the way that he once used VHS tapes and security cameras to induce a feeling of perpetual surveillance of his characters. He uses shots of what looks like a version of Snapchat to portray Eve’s mother in the hours before her suicide attempt, gives us insight into Thomas’s Facebook messages, and has Eve videotape her grandfather’s suicide attempt at the end of the film.

COURTESY OF THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

Its usage improves overtime, but the technology’s placement at the beginning, end, and almost exact middle of the film draw an unnecessary amount of attention to it, pointing out clearly that it is a device rather than annoying it to feel like a natural direction for the plot to take.

In short: this film is loved by many critics, but the average moviegoer is unlikely to show as much love.

Haneke already has two Palme d’Or’s under his belt for his last two appearances at the Cannes Film Festival (“The White Ribbon” in 2009, and “Amour” in 2012). Creating French films for a French festival has greatly benefitted him in the past. Should he find himself taking home another golden prize, it’s because the jury finds comfort in seeing familiarity. It will not be because this is the best film in the bunch, or even the best attempt Haneke has made at this particular subject matter.

A complete list of films in competition for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or, is available on the festival’s website, as is a press conference with the team behind “Happy End.”


Rachel A.G. Gilman is a writer, a radio producer, and probably the girl wearing the Kinks shirt. Follow her on Twitter.

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