After works like The Piano Teacher and Funny Games, Austria's Haneke has developed a reputation as a sadistic scold. Settling in to watch one of his films, you kind of prepare yourself for the worst. Even his relatively tame and moving Amour concluded with a shocking act of violence. So when Happy End opens with mobile phone footage of a 12-year-old girl first poisoning her hamster, then her mother, it's easy to predict a rough ride ahead. But while the film is far from uplifting, it is notably lighter than Haneke's earlier efforts – though with themes of murder, suicide, infidelity, depression, and racism running throughout the picture, "light" is relative.
Happy End concerns the Laurent family, a Calais clan who have made a considerable fortune in construction. They also are apparently quite incident prone: patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, who starred in Amour with the same character name) is on the cusp of dotage, and is seeking a way out; daughter Anne (Piano Teacher's Isabelle Huppert) is trying to keep the family business afloat despite the antics of her unstable son (Franz Rogowski); her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is having an affair, mostly over the Internet.
And then there's Eve (Fantine Verlinden), the aforementioned 12-year-old, Thomas's daughter, who is moved into the family's palatial estate while her "mysteriously ill" mother languishes in the hospital. At her first dinner with the family, a confused Georges asks who she is. When he's informed that he's speaking to his own granddaughter, he shrugs and tells Eve, "Welcome to the club." Of course Georges can't possibly know what Eve has done, but the meaning is clear: she is a rightful member of this heartless, joyless clan.
Happy End has the tone of a very, very dry dark comedy. Ostensibly it's a condemnation of the self-involved European elite – people who can literally get away with murder – but Haneke, who is by now quite well-off himself, doesn't presume to speak on behalf of the rabble. He just seems to say, "Well, this is just how life is for rich people these days, isn't it?"
It's an interesting film, filled with subtle ideas and telling moments. If you're unfamiliar with Haneke's work, this is the safest place to start if you're squeamish. You'll get all the social commentary with none of the bloodletting.