In ways both thematic and circumstantial, Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” suggests a sequel of sorts to the Austrian filmmaker’s “Amour.” Like that Oscar-nominated 2012 film, which explored the gray area between coldblooded murder and assisted suicide as an act of love, Haneke’s latest effort also stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, once again in the role of an elderly man named Georges.
Like his character in “Amour,” this Georges, as we gradually learn, has also helped his infirm wife shuffle off this mortal coil, in an act of tenderness that is fraught with troubling moral implications. And now, as he himself becomes increasingly senile, the widower starts looking for someone to help him die. As in the earlier tale, Georges has a daughter played by Isabelle Huppert (although her character here is named Anne, not Eva).
The similarities between the two films, however, end there.
Longtime fans of Haneke will know not to read too much into the fact that Trintignant’s character is named Georges. Haneke almost always names his male characters Georges (or George, or Georg), for reasons that he has attributed to laziness, but which probably have more to do with a desire to mess with our heads than anything else.
This new Georges eventually finds a kindred spirit — if not an enabler — in his granddaughter Eve (Fantine Harduin), a 13-year-old sociopath who, as the film gets underway, has already put one character in a coma via an overdose of prescription medicine. If you find yourself confused about who’s who just reading this review, you’ll be lost in the movie. Relationships between characters are often frustratingly ambiguous; an organizational chart is needed to figure out how everybody connects. That’s seemingly by design: The film opens with voyeuristic, Facebook Live-style videos — shot by an anonymous someone we only later find out is Eve — as, for example, she poisons her pet hamster.
Haneke is nothing if not playful, but only in the sense that a cat “plays” with a mouse before killing it. His work often betrays a distinctly cruel disregard for audience comfort, bordering, at times, on sadism. “Happy End,” for its part, signals a return to form for the director, who here makes a stark departure from the sweet tone of “Amour” — perhaps his most mainstream work — in favor of the vinegary outlook on life manifested in such films as “Funny Games,” his 2007 horror movie about violently psychopathic home invaders, and “The White Ribbon,” his 2009 pre-World War I period piece about, among other things, child abuse.
Here, it’s the child who’s the monster, although Haneke finds bad behavior everywhere. Highlights of the action (if that’s the right word) include incidents of marital infidelity via sexting and a beating — the last of which is delivered to Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) by the relative of a worker who has been seriously injured during an accident at one of the family’s construction sites.
But “Happy End” is not about family. Rather, it is about the human condition, especially as it has become degraded — or so the film argues — in an age of obsessive, digital self-regard and increasing social immobility. One awkward scene features Pierre crashing a sedate wedding reception with a coterie of impoverished African immigrants as his uninvited guests.
There’s an implicit social critique here, as there often is in Haneke’s work. Life is ugly and unfair and — for those who have more money than sense — sometimes lasts longer than is healthy. Who wouldn’t do whatever it takes, this bitter little parable asks, to escape from the indignities of existence?
R. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains sexuality, strong language, disturbing thematic material and brief violence. In French with subtitles. 107 minutes.