God bless whoever introduced Michael Haneke to Snapchat. In Happy End, the notoriously misanthropic director returns to the familiar territory of media-obsessed teens, this time a smartphone-wielding 13-year-old named Eve (Fantine Harduin). In another director’s hands, the predatory framing of the technology could come off as shallowly cautionary, but this is old hat for Haneke; he’s well aware that there’s more wrong with the aristocratic family at the center of the film than what apps the youngest among them is using.
The film’s lengthy, unsettling opening plays almost as an homage to Benny’s Video or Cache, with a social-media twist. We see a series of silent, surveillance-style livestreams from the as-yet-unseen Eve, narrated in a series of captions expressing her deep antipathy for the lives of those around her, especially her mother. She experiments with drugging her hamster with her mom’s antidepressants, and later on we learn she’s drugged her own mother. The subsequent hospitalization leads Eve to live with her father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his new wife, Anais (Laura Verlinden), in their palatial Calais estate owned by her grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and aunt Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who now runs the family construction business. The Laurents, like so many of Haneke’s rich, cold clans, seems plagued by an ineffable curse — that includes everything from general malaise to true calamity. “Welcome to the club,” Anne says drily to Eve during her first dinner with the family.
The film has been described as taking place “against the backdrop of the refugee crisis,” but this only feels vital to the events onscreen in a couple memorable, if tacked-on feeling moments. Mostly we spend time with the Laurents as they go about their bourgeois business — their affairs and death wishes and the legal proceedings following an accident at one of their sites. (It’s the next thing we see after Eve’s opening livestreams, and Haneke goes from one surveillance tape to another, as a security camera calmly observes the side of a ditch melting into a giant avalanche.) It would be a slow burn, but Haneke doesn’t do burns, only pervasive chill. The exception is Franz Rogowski as Anne’s estranged black-sheep son, who is tortured by his family’s complicity in the class system and acts up in big ways, including a standout Sia karaoke sequence.
While all this is going on, nobody seems to be aware of the quiet young sociopath in their midst, and Eve strikes up a mutual understanding with Georges, a miserable old man desperate to end his life. This culminates in a breathtaking, bleakly hilarious finale at Anne’s wedding to her lawyer (Toby Jones) at a pastel-hued seaside restaurant, where Georges very nearly gets his wish. It’s a perfect ending to an otherwise incomplete-feeling film that seems more like a tour of stray concepts than a coherent whole. But Haneke’s integration of the ways we communicate and conduct our lives via phone and laptop feels uniquely effective. After long take after long take watching these characters’ lives slowly fall apart, the deceptively placid screen of a Facebook sext or Snapchat video fits right in.