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From left: Fantine Harduin, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert, Laura Verlinden, Toby Jones and Mathieu Kassovitz in Happy End.

4 out of 4 stars

Happy End
Written by
Michael Haneke
Directed by
Michael Haneke
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert and Mathieu Kassovitz
France, Austria, Germany
French, English

When Austrian director Michael Haneke unveiled his latest in competition at the Cannes Film Festival last May, the reaction was often a polite shrug. Happy End might be a smart if very bitter satire of the European bourgeoisie, but it was no Amour, the 2012 foreign-language Oscar-winner from the auteur who also brought you The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon. Where that critically acclaimed end-of-life drama asked its audience to consider one simple if heart-wrenching scenario hermetically sealed inside a Paris apartment, Happy End was a sprawling, complicated and black film that bounced viewers across a whole range of social problems and moral conundrums. If Amour was a must-see, Happy End was a head-scratcher.

And yet, Happy End is Amour II in many ways, and viewers who wrestled with the death of the Parisian music teacher in the first film might now welcome the opportunity to broaden the experience and reflect on the moral quandaries of a family in which an old man's right to die is the least of anybody's problems. If they are viewers who are willing to consider these questions in a sometimes comic setting, that is, because here tragedy often dissolves into farce. In that regard, Happy End – the title is highly ironic – feels a lot more like real life than its predecessor.

Reprising the brisk French bourgeoise who she does so very well, Isabelle Huppert plays Anne Laurent, the tough-minded boss of a successful construction company in Calais, now struggling to resolve the aftermath of a bad job-site accident. She is surrounded by ineffectual men: Her aging father is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, offering a much less sympathetic version of old age than his character in Amour, even if they share the same first name. This Georges is a grumpy old snob who just wants to die.

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Meanwhile, Anne's wastrel son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is an unhappy thug unlikely to prove capable of running the company he is supposed to inherit; her surgeon brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a creepily cool philanderer, obsessively sexting another woman while his younger wife (Laura Verlinden) busies herself with their new baby. His menage is also being disrupted by the presence of his opaque 12-year-old daughter, Eve, a child he barely knows who has appeared in the family's midst after her mother's death from an overdose.

In that role, the compelling young Fantine Harduin creates a disarming mystery at the core of the piece. In one quietly chilling scene between her and Trintignant, he recounts his character's back story, placing this Georges right back in Amour as Happy End now considers not merely a single act of euthanasia, but a whole series of possible killings and suicides. Of course, Happy End is not a direct sequel – here, the old person's death wish proves farcical as he vainly petitions strangers to help him out with his plans – but it does pick up where Amour ended. What happens to those who are left behind after a bad death?

Here, Georges' family mainly sees the old man's suicidal tendencies as a nuisance, a distraction from their love affairs and their business deals as they battle a whole series of potential threats to their domestic lives, economic health and social standing, many of them self-inflicted. How serious are their problems? The clan members live in various parts of an urban mansion, tended by their patient Moroccan servants (Hassam Ghancy and Nabiha Akari, both highly effective at revealing to viewers the workers' invisibility to their employers) while the migrants of Calais roam the streets around them. The fate of the city's African squatters, those desperate men all hoping to somehow get through the Channel tunnel, are not the point of the film – Happy End is no Dheepan – but rather its backdrop, exposing the privilege and the self-absorption of its characters.

And yet the various members of the Laurent clan are not irredeemable. Whenever you are about to give up on them, they do something decent or sensible; that is, they behave erratically in the manner of real people rather than fictional characters. So, when the disruptive Pierre brings several migrants to a family party to embarrass his mother, Anne welcomes the gate crashers and finds them a place at the table. Haneke's ensemble is uniformly excellent – the film is packed with intriguing and provocative encounters between its various oppositional characters – and the actors succeed in the difficult task of making these unpleasant people engaging enough that we stick with them throughout a film that the director successfully balances on a knife edge between satire and drama until its final (hilarious) conclusion.

Happy End is not an easy film to compartmentalize – but then neither is life.

Happy End opens Jan. 12 in Toronto, Jan. 19 in Montreal, and Feb. 2 in Vancouver.

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