Happy End is a morbid satire from director Michael Haneke but its somewhat of a departure from the dark, discomforting style we’ve come to expect from the Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker, says James Warrington. 

There’s something about Michael Haneke and ironic titles. Since Funny Games spread carnage and bloodshed onto screens in 1997, cinema-goers have learned to take Haneke’s adjectives with a pinch of salt. The same can be said about his latest film, Happy End, which offers us no such thing.

That said, sadists may be disappointed by the Austrian filmmaker’s latest offering. Though it marinates in the morbid humour and unforgiving cruelty of his previous films, Happy End is positively tame in comparison.

His latest film takes us to Calais, where we are thrown into the bourgeois dystopia of the Laurent family, wealthy owners of a construction company. Anne (Isabelle Huppert) has taken control of the family business as her father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) slides gradually into a suicidal decline. He remains the patriarch, though, and controls the family, if not his own mind. They share the palatial family home with Anne’s wayward son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) and her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz).

The film begins as Thomas’s daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) is forced to move into the house after her mother overdoses. And so the scene is set for a dysfunctional family drama in which Haneke cruelly dissects the bourgeois complacency of his disturbed and suicidal characters. As always, Haneke doesn’t let us into the minds of the individuals. Instead we are kept at arm’s length, watching the gradual decline of the family as a whole and sensing the impending collapse.

A morbid sense of inevitability follows the family’s struggles through the film. Yet where he previously employed violence, here Haneke uses humour. It’s not an obvious humour, but rather the understated kind that makes you smile grimly through the discomfort. A bizarre dance scene to Sia’s Chandelier is perhaps the climax of this tragi-comic farce. Morbid jokes have always accompanied Haneke’s horror, but this time, it seems, they are his weapons of choice.

But if Happy End does not shock with the same intensity of the director’s previous films, its style is unmistakable. Haneke’s camera skulks and lingers uncomfortably, drawing the viewer into his loveless, voyeuristic world. The screen fills intermittently with YouTube vlogs and explicit sexual messages sent over social media. Most remarkable, though, are the shaky scenes filmed on Eve’s phone that bookend the film. It’s classic Haneke, updated for 2017.

Re-appearing too is the theme of colonialism. The family members behave like French colonialists, lording it over their Moroccan servants Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari), and they completely disregard the refugee crisis unfolding on their doorstep. That is until the Calais Jungle, a backdrop that simmers insidiously for the majority of the film, is thrust unavoidably into their lives during the unsettling final sequence.

Haneke employs familiar themes, but does so in a subtler and more nuanced way than his previous work. The departure from extreme violence is undoubtedly a positive for many, yet you can’t help but feel there is something missing from the film. It harks back to Hidden with its wonderful, experimental camerawork, but it never feels as gripping. Even so, Haneke has lost nothing of his unique skill. Happy End is another triumph of cinematic aloofness that conveys a dry, mocking scepticism of the modern world.

★★★★☆

Happy End is in cinemas now.