Hands down, Happy End wins the Most Ironic Title of the year award. (Runner-up: "President Trump.")
From Amour Haneke continues Trintignant's role as the octogenarian who lovingly cared for his ailing wife and helped her out - with Huppert as their callous businesswoman daughter.
But it's from Cache that Haneke mainly draws, extending his anatomy of the privileged white business class cut off from emotional engagement, experiencing the world and relating primarily through media, and their insensitivity to the burgeoning immigrant underclass.
The Callais setting is key. It's the bridge between France and England, both in starting the Chunnel and remarking England's last foothold in France. It's also the entry point for African immigrants hoping to continue on to England.
Or to the French bourgeoisie? The dysfunctional Laurents represent the privileged society which the desperate immigrants aspire to join. The family's concerns pale beside what we see of the their Moroccan servants ("our slave" Pierre publically calls cook Jamila), the street lads Georges assumes he can hire to kill him, the older immigrants Pierre exploits to embarrass his mother at her posh engagement dinner, the construction worker killed in an accident, his whose family the Laurents further affront.
In addition to the immigrants, the family is viewed from the perspective of Eve, Thomas's 12-year-old daughter who comes to live with the Laurents after her mother's mysterious poisoning and death. For this Eve there is no Eden, only a family of anger and mutual abuse.
The film's central theme is the family's detachment from each other. The film opens and closes with Eve's cellphone films. This characterizes her as distanced, relating to her family indirectly, through media. The pre-title sequence records her mother's nightly ablution rite before she turns the lights off, an augur of her suicide. Then a young boy cavorts in silly cheek, showing Eve as cool and detached from her friends as she is from her mother. The last shot is of her Aunt Anne and father Thomas rushing to save George from contentedly drowning in the sea.
The thin column of cellphone film is a mediated experience. So, too, are the computer screen messages between Thomas and his mistress Claire. Several key scenes are kept in long shot, Pierre's provoking of the accident victim's son. That device keeps us in the characters' detachment from the experience. Bent upon suicide, the grandfather wheels down the city street in the road, between the roaring traffic and the parked cars.
In one scene the foreground is dominated by a violently barking dog. In the background we barely see the key content of the scene: Georges brought home from the hospital, in his new wheelchair. The composition leaves us uncertain. Is the dog attacking the "stranger" or straining to greet his master? And whose dog is it? We never see a family member with the dog, and Annes ordering servant Rachid to control the dog could suggest the dog is their pet, not hers. But then he bites their little daughter at play. The dog may well be the Laurents' pet, as neglected and antagonistic as the family members themselves.
We're not told which. Just as the narrative omits significant details, like the cause of Eve's mother's death, the details of the Laurents' financial predicament, how the new father Thomas fell into another affair, etc.
Perhaps the film's most touching scene is the grandfather's with Eve. To coax her into explaining her suicide attempt he confesses that he put his beloved wife out of her suffering. But, as her cellphone filing suggests, the girl is too dissociated from her own emotions and too remote from others to be as open and intimate as he is.
Whether in lethargy, resignation or obedience, she wheels him toward the water and eaves him there. Even his possible death does not shake her detachment.
Earlier Georges told her how disturbing he found the spectacle of a predatory bird tearing apart a smaller one, both then wiped away by a car. His point is how reality is even more jolting than its mediated images are. But when she watches his suicide she again resists the direct emotional encounter - and films it.
The forgetful old man eager to die is the film's emotional and moral center. His family is relentlessly abrasvive. His son Thomas left his first wife and seems poised to leave his second for Claire, his unseen email mistress. He struggles to be a father for Eve. Grandson Pierre is an incompetent misfit who blames his mother for his own failure.
Nor is there much passion and fulfilment in Anne's life. Her fiancé is the unappealing English lawyer who has been negotiating a large loan to rescue her company. This seems the traditional expedience rather than passion.
Confirming this rotting and wasteful society, the dialogue abounds with references to urinating. Eve records her mother's pissing and flush. The email love letters relish the memory of golden showers, the mutual debasement may confirm Eve's sense that her father doesn't love this Claire, didn't love either wife and probably cannot love her either.
Perhaps the film's central metaphor is the accident on their construction site. A worker is killed when he goes into a stored portable toilet to urinate and the ground crumbles under him. When a construction site provides such a bathetic destruction the company, the family, the society, seem of very unstable grounding,.
Perhaps "Happy End" isn't so ironic after all. If Georges does manage to drown before his son and daughter save him, in this family he could ask for nothing better. In any case, Eve remains the continuing victim of a broken adult world she can neither understand nor enter with confidence or commitment.