HAPPY END (2017, Michael Haneke)
The opening shot is a two- or three-minute vertical iPhone video, narrated via text by a daughter voyeuristically shooting her mom’s nighttime bathroom ritual. She predicts every behavior with 100% accuracy, and the result is a pre-credit summation of Haneke’s philosophy on film to date: when on camera, actions are pre-determined; actors have no free will. The unseen eye is God, dictating the fates of the helpless humans trapped inside its frame. It makes sense, then, that the final shot of the movie is also a vertical iPhone video shot by the same daughter, this time capturing a character trying to wrest control over life and death, taking into his own hands the ability to determine when he’s going to end it all. But try as he might (and as happens more than once throughout the movie), this attempt is folly, as the God-like director gets to decide who enters his frame and his film, and who leaves it.
Haneke is every bit the aesthetic philosopher in HAPPY END that he has always been, especially in his best films (FUNNY GAMES, CODE UNKNOWN, CACHE, etc.), but unfortunately the sickly dark comic tone he tries to employ fails to engage the audience in the game he wants to play. As usual, the formal control is iron-clad — his compositions are flawless and his editing is judicious; there are maybe 50-60 total cuts in here, with plenty of scenes consisting of only one shot. But as enjoyable as it is for a cinephile to watch a master at work, the dysfunctional family within it is made of half-hearted caricatures. Huppert and Trintignant subvert Haneke’s misanthropy by infusing their characters with humanity and dimensions, while precocious tween Fantine Harduin shoulders a lot of the point of view while remaining a cypher. The movie also isn’t as funny as Haneke perhaps thinks it is, maybe showing that he doesn’t have God-like control over tone after all; by using Trintignant and Huppert (and similar names to theirs or their character’s relatives) from AMOUR, there’s a little too much weight to the satire, and we end up wishing we were back in AMOUR’s delicate, honest universe — that, or at least the straight-up sadism of BENNY’S VIDEO. This is in between, and ends up feeling a little confused.