Anyone anxious to experience some slow burn misery on the big screen this winter needn’t worry. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke is back with the delightfully ironically titled Happy End, bringing with him the viciously nihilistic view of humanity that he slathered on such titles as Funny Games, Cache, and The White Ribbon. It starts out with what seems to be a scattershot collection of portraits of miserable people behaving badly. Eventually we learn they are all a family. Somehow that doesn’t make it better.
Weirdly enough for the aging art house veteran, Happy End opens with some snapchat clips. Little videos of a young child poisoning her pet hamster and then her mother. From there we learn the culprit is a 12-year-old girl who has since been sent to live with her father (Matthieu Kassovitz) while he is in the midst of an affair. Her aunt is Isabelle Huppert, playing the owner of a crumbling construction business in a seemingly loveless engagement to Toby Jones. The patriarch of the whole clan is the legendary Jean-Louis Trintignant and in a single unsettling monologue he not only lays the themes of this film (and arguably those of Haneke’s entire career) bare, but suggests that he’s reviving his role from Amour, possibly making this a sneaky sequel.
That’s the odd thing about Haneke’s latest feature. As much as it is an on brand ode to revealing the misery of the upper classes and the secrets that poison their pretty lives, it’s also an oddly playful and funny film by his standards. There are references to several of his past works, depressingly comedic karaoke performances, and even suggestions of warmth (don’t worry, they don’t last). It’s as if the man who has brilliantly bummed out more film fans than any other has decided to have a lark in his old age, even building the whole artfully controlled and carefully paced project up to an absurdist punchline.
Happy End might not be the filmmaker’s finest hour, but it just might be the first time the guy allowed himself to have some fun with his style, themes, and images. It’s unlikely that even he saw that coming.