One of the strangest and most dysfunctional families I’ve seen in film.
Happy End is yet another fine example of its accomplished and well-refined genius writer/director Michael Haneke, an Austrian master of film, who seems almost ageless with a growing portfolio that continues to impress in excellence. At this point in his career, I feel that Michael Haneke has refined exactly the way he wants to not only write a story but how to also shoot it. Which is the same feeling that I get whenever I watch the Coen brothers, who I also see have made making films into an almost exact science, with an equally stellar filmography to that of Michael Haneke. And with his latest film Happy End, I can safely say that this tradition of making great movies, is still the case.
Unlike the film’s title, which might indicate to you a level of happiness about this film, this story is anything but the feeling of being happy. Not to say that it is depressing or will make you sad from watching it, but rather from the fact that it deals with a family of characters who are largely not at all very happy. And there’s quite a few of them. Which is great to see as together they form this strangely functional but still totally disturbing family, who not only hide a lot of secrets from each other but also to the rest of the world. A family of individuals who might seem positive on the outside but deep down, Michael Haneke has worked some seriously confronting traits in them.
What I enjoyed most about seeing all this unfold, is Michael Haneke’s superb direction with various exchanges between the characters. I want to particularly highlight the use of the continuous but extreme longshots, which captures characters from afar interacting but whom you aren’t privy to what they are saying. It’s a style that I feel makes Michael Haneke very recognizable as a director, because I’ve seen him use the same technique in his other films Caché and Code Unknown, both of which really work well because of it. Not only does it put the characters in an environment to truly act with an extended amount of time, so that they can also pace their rhythm and actions in a scene, but it also adds a lot of mystery to it, which is fundamentally one of the most interesting concepts about this story to me.
This is also done through the writing and editing since the information Michael Haneke reveals to us comes often with little to no real clear indications until later on in the film. Instead, I’m left thinking more about the scene that I’m watching and wondering what could be going on, rather than having everything being told or forced onto me, which is an aspect I think so many other films stress upon and get so wrong. By allowing me to try and dispel the mystery behind the story as it goes on, I’m constantly engaged with what’s occurring and have no clue where it could lead to next. And the fact that those continuous extended longshots are implemented in all of this, it really does fit the story and works to further provide mystery. Because as the characters move further away from the camera, the less I hear what’s going on but the more I’m curious as to what is being said, and what Michael Haneke has specifically chosen not to reveal.
Having said why I believe the technical direction of this film is superb, I nevertheless feel that its story could have improvements. For the most part, it feels like a very long slow burn of a film and although I did find the characters very well written, I still wished it could have been paced quicker. A few scenes I didn’t think were necessary and could have been cut to make the runtime shorter. Some details of the narrative were also questionable, and I feel like would have ended differently in reality. And though I praised the choice to use the continuous longshots to add to the narrative presentation, there were still a couple of scenes that felt just a bit too long and ultimately added to slowing pace of the film, which altogether, made me lose my curiosity in those few moments.
I’d also say that compared to his previous films Amour and The White Ribbon, Happy End’s story can’t match those two said films. It’s still has a great and interesting plot, but Amour felt a lot more emotional and personal compared to Happy End. And The White Ribbon was just a feat of sheer mastery, that gave an interesting outlook prior to World War II and one that was accompanied by some outstanding cinematography and performances by child actors.
Removing those said qualms, the positives of Happy End still outweigh my few gripes with the film. It’s one of the more interesting slow burn type of drama’s that introduces you to quite the interesting but somewhat disturbing family and human themes. At times, it also might feel too sluggish with its pace, as I’ve mentioned already with how the plot does eventually unfold. But it’s technical skills and presentation by far are what make it a special example of one of the best directors of independent cinema today. And give an insight into the essence of how a master of filmmaking creates his craft, with the clever decisions and techniques Michael Haneke employs. See it if you can.