Happy End – Heartless in Calais

This is my review of Happy End [DVD].

One often hears of the minutes if not hours of film discarded on the cutting room floor to extract the essence of what the director aims to convey. In this case, it is as if Michael Haneke has perversely challenged us to make sense of a film largely constructed from the shots which would normally be edited out. We hear about a character taking an overdose, crashing a car, even dying, but rarely witness these dramatic incidents. Often we do not realise that we have seen a significant event until its effect becomes apparent later. The scenes of glacial slowness, require great concentration, not only because they are mostly in French with subtitles, but also because one is continually trying not to miss the vital piece of action which may in fact not occur in a situation where basically not much is happening.

Despite its bleak theme, which appears to be the director’s stock in trade, the ironically-titled “Happy Ending” is leavened by moments of dark humour and has the ingredients for a gripping and moving psychological study of how we may damage each other. It involves the Calais–based Laurent family, their wealth made from the construction industry and other businesses, who all follow the bourgeois conventions of polite society in public, but seem incapable of real warmth, natural affection and normal emotion in private. They live out their dysfunctional relationships against the background of the impoverished black migrants who haunt the port town.

We initially experience their formal bourgeois life from the viewpoint of the approaching teen-age Eve Laurent who receives a somewhat reluctant welcome when she comes to stay in the extended family home with her father Edward, after her mother, his ex-wife, takes a lethal overdose of antidepressants. Eve appears outwardly to be an innocent, sensitive young girl, but from the outset there are signs of a troubling darker side to her character, leading one to speculate to what extent she may have been damaged by her self-absorbed parents’ neglect, or possibly inherited some of the family’s less appealing personality traits.

There is a cast to raise expectations high, with Jean-Louis Trintignant in the role of patriarch sinking into senility, from which he seeks to escape through suicide – unless he can find someone prepared to put him out of his misery– and Isabelle Huppert as his ambitious daughter Anne who is romantically involved with her British lawyer, played by Toby Jones. Anne’s important business deals are undermined by a serious accident on a building site for which her son Pierre may be to blame. Rejecting his mother’s love and her plans for him to take over the business, are his drunken outbursts due more to his sense of inadequacy than to a genuine anger over his family’s lack of concern for the poor as anything other than a source of cheap domestic labour?

For me the film does not work partly because it is like a single-phrase tune. As indicated already, the work is so fragmented, with long shots and overlong, disjointed, initially incomprehensible scenes and sociopathic characters, that I rarely felt engaged, was often frankly bored, only continuing to watch in the forlorn hope of an effective denouement which I never expected to occur.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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