Happy End (2017)
Written & Directed by Michael Haneke
Teenager Eve Laurent is suddenly thrust into the home of her estranged father and his family after her mother overdoses on antidepressants and ends up comatose. Thomas Laurent, her father, is married to his second wife who has just had their first child together. He’s also involved in an obscene affair with another woman. Anne, Eve’s aunt, owns a construction firm that has come under litigation after an onsite accident has left one of the workers on the verge of death. Anne’s son, Pierre works as the foreman on the site and appears to have emotional issues that might have led to the dangerous conditions on site. Finally, there is the patriarch Georges who is slipping into dementia and contemplating suicide to avoid what this condition will do to his mind, notably forgetting his late wife. Did I mention this is a dark comedy?
Austrian filmmaker Haneke is infamous for his cold, biting examinations of the European middle class and Happy End is no different. This time around the role of technology in creating emotional distance and extinguishing empathy is at the forefront. The opening of the film is told entirely through the cell phone footage of Eve with her Snapchat text bubbles popping up from below to narrate the scene. We see Eve observing her mother the way David Attenborough might contemplate a gazelle. Then we cut to Eve experimenting with antidepressants on her hamster continuing the unemotional written commentary. The construction site accident is displayed in a similarly distancing effect via CCTV footage. We never see the worker who is the victim once during the film, just a distant shot of a wall crumbling and fall on top of equipment.
Only three characters show what could amount to genuine emotion in the face of the world around them. The first one is Pierre who travels to the tenement home of the injured worker. The scene is played from a distance, Pierre and an occupant of the house specks against the background. We never hear the words exchanged, but it can be inferred that Pierre is attempting to make amends for his role in the accident. The response he receives is a vicious beatdown. When Anne visits him after days of no communication, he is in a deep state of a depression to which she offers little in meaningful aid. She gives him the same sort of empty platitudes and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” monologue he has likely heard many times over. Pierre is mentally ill, and his family would rather play ignorant than deal with this issue. This eventually leads to a simultaneous cringe-inducing and heart-breaking breakdown in the film’s final moments from Pierre.
Then there is Eve, the troubled teenager at the center of the story. Most scenes we find her on her phone or laptop, and it could be assumed that Haneke is going to make the same tired commentary of “kids on screen is bad.” Instead, she ends up being one of the most honest characters in the story. Technology is how she dismisses the pain and tragedy the adults continually manifest in their lives. Paralleled with Eve is her father, Thomas who uses the same technology to communicate with his mistress, describing the lewdest practices. It is interesting that Haneke chooses never to show Thomas and in mistress in bed or engaging in any sexual activity. All they seem to do is send sexts back and forth via what is apparently a Facebook analog.
Finally, Georges stuck in his wheelchair after a failed suicide attempt via crashing a van into a tree is the character who seems to see the absurdity of everyone around him and his own decay into old age. He eventually confides in Eve who we understand he intends to use as a means to successfully end his life. The two never have what could be considered an emotional bond, rather a mutual understanding of the horrors of existence. In fact, Georges seems to hold disdain for his entire brood showing little to no emotion for their circumstances.
Haneke sees the middle class of Europe as wholly degraded into self-indulgence and obsessive gratification. Digital media appears to be the most comfortable access to the fix they need, and the culture is keeping them comfortably in their economic class, so they never have to think about the struggles of others. Pierre seems the most aware of what is happening in their community, the ongoing refugee crisis that continues to fill Europe with a servant class. One instance in the film involves the Laurents’ faithful Syrian housekeeper and butler whose daughter was bitten by their dog. The family’s immediate concern is that the dog not bite one of them while consoling the crying, injured little girl that it’s not that bad. Haneke makes sure the bite is bloody and nasty without becoming too gory. To the Laurents, threats are only dangerous if they are the ones who might get hurt.