Sydney Film Festival Review: ‘Happy End’

Happy End

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This review is part of a wrap from Sydney Film Festival 2017. Read more here.

As critically lauded as he is, Austrian director Michael Haneke might be closer to becoming a household name if his efforts weren’t so emotionally harrowing. From the intensity of Germany in World War 1 to the heart-rending heft of a couple at the end of their lives, a Haneke film is never a light watch. Even his double-down creation Funny Games (made in 1997 in Austrian and remade by the director in English a decade later) is a brutal examination of an audience’s culpability in violence on screen.

Happy End looks to be easier fare — a tart drama of a wealthy family in quiet turmoil. Shot over peoples’ shoulders, through phone apps, and via security footage, the opening scenes of the film establish a distance between the film’s characters, and the audience itself. As we watch the darkest of comedic follies take place, both by accident and design, the screen-on-screen aesthetic makes us feel like accessories to the unpleasant drama that unfolds. Would this family be fine if we didn’t crave secrets and lies in the name of entertainment?

The emotional heart of the film, the relationship between a suicidal grandfather and his homicidal granddaughter, pushes the question further. Is our existence contingent on the interference of others? It’s a heady question and one the film tackles obliquely as it flits from scene to scene.

Emotion and action are held at arm’s length or off-screen entirely. Technology fractures relationships, austerity sacrifices intimacy, and money corrupts honesty. With little to no music, even the now somewhat clichéd catharsis of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ is distorted through a faltering karaoke mic, another lost opportunity at connection for the characters and a forced obscurity on the audience.

With an ensemble so large, few characters grip our attention and the large cast is given little to play with. Isabelle Huppert’s run of standout roles stalls here; her matriarchal figure, though nuanced and grounded, is simply another face in the mix. The frank nihilism of the grandfather and granddaughter becomes the bleak heart at the centre of this film. That might be all that needs to be said about a film easy to intellectually appreciate, but hard to like.

Matt Roden hosts the Perfect Pitch podcast, where he and his writer/comedian friends catalogue 100 new ideas for movies so Matt doesn’t get sued by Hollywood.