Michael Haneke‘s “Happy End,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, lacks the historical heft of “The White Ribbon” or the emotional through-line of “Amour,” both winners of the festival’s Palme d’Or prize.
It’s a more austere and enigmatic work about — among many other things — existential malaise among France’s top 1 percent. The compelling film is like the Austrian director’s answer to the age-old question, “What do you get for the man who has everything?” And though his answer is simple, one must put in the work to get there.
The film follows the Laurents (as all of Haneke’s francophone films do), a wealthy industrialist family living in the north of France. The Laurents have every material need cared for and sit perched at the height of society, but the air is thin at so high an altitude, and they’re all suffocating as a result.
The director’s most loosely plotted work since 2000’s “Code Unknown,” “Happy End” spends most of its run-time in slow-burn mode, introducing us to the various members of a family that includes Jean-Louis Trintignant as the aging patriarch (reprising a version of his role from “Amour”), Mathieu Kassovitz and Isabelle Huppert as his adult children and Fantine Harduin as Kassovitz’ 13-year-old daughter, who comes to live with them once her mother falls ill.
Why did her mother fall ill? With whom does Kassovitz spend hours sending sexually explicit texts? Why is Huppert negotiating a major covert payout? The film takes time raising those questions, and then takes time answering them.
The film both demands and rewards our close attention, but Haneke is such a master — his framing so precise, his form so rigorous — that it sucks you in by default.
There are some themes that are less enigmatic, however. The film is very a much a treatise on social media. And the director has a lot of fun — or as much “fun” as he can really have — unpacking the way we present one way to our family and another way online. Though the film clearly deals with Facebook and Snapchat, Haneke slightly changes their names and logos. The two-time Palme d’Or winner may cinema’s reigning provocateur, but he’s not about to provoke a lawsuit.