Unhappy families are Michael Haneke’s thing, and I’m losing my patience with them. The Austrian director’s latest, Happy End, is one of those movies you watch while quietly telling yourself that maybe it will get better. Soon enough, you’ve wasted 107 minutes of your young life, and all you got was vicarious trauma!
And boy, is there a lot of it! The Laurents are Haneke’s sad French family du jour, and they’re awful: Hapless Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) rarely holds his baby or speaks to his wife (Laura Verlinden); Anne (Isabelle Huppert) is kind of holding it together, but has no capacity for mothering her bruised mess of a son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski); and grand-père Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) straight-up wants to die. Meanwhile, Anne’s niece and Thomas’ estranged daughter, Eve (Fantine Harduin), is definitely a nascent sociopath. It’s a minor bummer that an adolescent girl is the villain of this movie when she’s surrounded by such terrible, self-involved adults, but Haneke doesn’t wield his legible contempt for his characters with much precision.
Happy End is nominally a commentary on the refugee crisis in the French town of Calais, but refugees are introduced merely as background players to the Laurents—who, despite being rich enough to live in a mansion with servants, and lucky enough to reside in a country with socialized medicine, display their aggressive discontent with themselves and each other to a histrionic degree that could be played as darkly comedic or cannily melodramatic, but devolves here into a predictable slog. I hold a special little place in my heart for stories about cerebral, unhappy families and existential despair among spoiled French people, but I have to draw the line somewhere. Just because something is depressing and in French doesn’t mean it’s good.