Isabelle Huppert in Happy End (Films du Losange/Sony Pictures Classics)

Michael Haneke’s Happy End wears its ironic title lightly. For an old man and a young child in a rich, miserable family, death is the happiest ending of all. Other family members grub for money, betray their loved ones, and fight off business calamities, but these two have something bigger in mind: a silent, cold-eyed scheme with death at its implacable center.   

The film unfolds familiar themes for Haneke as the elderly struggle with the end of life, watchers watch the unwitting watched, and hypocrisy plays out within the bourgeois family. The film doubles back on plot points and makes references to Haneke’s earlier films in ways that the unschooled or unwary may miss. It’s actually better to watch Happy End at face value—notes of pathos and obsidian humor emerge more readily from an atmosphere of deep, nihilistic darkness. 

Dinnertime feels like torture chez Laurent. Between spiteful banter and resentful silence, not a kind word is allowed to pass between the dining room’s richly appointed four walls. Paterfamilias Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is angrily sliding into dementia. His daughter, Anne (Isabelle Huppert, high-strung as ever), maneuvers to cover up a lethal construction accident that took place under the supervision of her son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), a drunken mess bequeathed a lucrative family business he clearly can’t handle. Anne’s brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), hides secrets of his own, but what’s on the surface is bad enough; the first wife he discarded lies in a coma, victim of an overdose, and Thomas can barely bring himself to acknowledge Eve (Fantine Harduin), his traumatized daughter from his first marriage who now depends on him for her care.   

Anne, Thomas, and Pierre scheme, lie, mistreat servants, and ignore the needy around them. Their misdeeds provide plenty of which to disapprove. But the film belongs to ancient Georges and 13-year-old Eve. They possess stronger inner cores than the flailing relatives around them. Haughty Georges goes to absurd lengths to kill himself, trying to enlist hapless accomplices until he finds the right one hiding in plain sight under his own roof. (His shambolic attempts to end his life open up a welcome strain of bizarre humor.) A sort of Gallic Harriet the Spy now snooping with Instant Messenger, Eve may become implicated in a deed more sinister than her eavesdropping on her father’s computer. But she is still just a kid. Her icy dread at entering a home where she isn’t wanted and her descent into tears at a final act of abandonment elicit much-needed human sympathy (although pointedly not from her dad). Oddly enough, it falls to Happy Ending’s two most desperate characters to provide emotional relief from the film’s busy rounds of bad faith and self-absorption.   

A formal note: filmmakers are experimenting with ways to convey the extent that screens now dominate our lives. Given his preoccupation with voyeurism, electronic devices seem like a natural fit for Haneke, who uses IMing, live-streaming, and texts to slide us into a watcher’s POV that sometimes ratchets up suspense and other times feels like a visual equivalent of “all the kids are doing it.” The director really doesn’t need to rely on modern technology to create a sense of paranoia. Scenes beginning in mid-dialogue make the viewer feel like an intruder witnessing interactions not fully understood. Wide shots emphasize our distance from the characters and theirs from each other. And a monumental ohmigod view of a collapsing construction site feels out of control yet serenely detached. Haneke is fine ditching the trendy gadgets for his own diabolical talents.   

A stuffy family celebration gone wrong sets up the final scene, an antic moment pitting death against life and stoicism against panic, all recorded with the click of a teenager’s iPhone. Sheer cussedness, deception, and fleet-footed opportunism have conspired to make this happy ending possible—a fitting conclusion for the two unhappiest members of France’s most unhappy family. For this scene alone, see the movie.   

Written and Directed by Michael Haneke 
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
English and French with English subtitles 
France/Austria/Germany. 107 min. Rated R 
With Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Franz Rogowski, Laura Verlinden, and Toby Jones