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The rich are always with us

by Erin Blackwell

If Hell is other people, as Sartre teaches, certainly he was thinking of pretentious European filmmakers incapable of framing an aesthetic response to the world they deplore. By "aesthetic" I mean emotionally engaging. Not some bleak blancmange, not some fake-snow-capped peak of Angst, not some glittery snow-globe with miniature people trapped inside like ants in an ant farm for the entertainment of sadistic children. Not the latest film from septuagenarian bad-boy director Michael Haneke with the adolescently passive-aggressive title "Happy End." This peevish paean to the perversities of a French bourgeois family opens Friday at Landmark's Embarcadero for your viewing ennui.

Why did Isabelle Huppert accept the role of a dutiful daughter in charge of her family's soulless petrochemical corporation based in Calais, that Northern French coastal town once known for its proximity to England but now infamous for its messy immigrant camps? Was she feeling the need to be relevant? Is she forever indebted to Haneke since his "Piano Teacher" (2001) cemented both their multinational careers? Doesn't she realize it was Elfriede Jelinek's novel of the same name that made that movie about a dutiful daughter soul-scorching? Haneke is no Chabrol, that scintillatingly sharp-eyed, sexy, earthy, deadly French auteur who gave her all her best parts. Chabrol is dead, and Isabelle has moved on.

Who knows what goes through these people's heads! They're in show business, like it or not, and sometimes that's not enough for them. Ever since Molière, show folk have felt twinges of this need to skewer hypocrisy. The question is, how entertaining do you manage to be while you're vivisecting the elite? Molière's motto, however tongue-in-cheek, was "to please." He lathered his skewer in farce, romance, and snappy dialogue. His plays were still banned, it's not like he didn't get his point across. Au contraire, baby. But Haneke is Austrian, and Austrians do have the particularly hollow view of human affairs that comes with having exercised geopolitical supremacy for centuries, but no more.

Anyway, you want to know the plot, without spoilers. That's not easy, since the entire film is exposition filmed at a distance with desultory dialogue signifying nothing. Basic information about fundamental relationships is withheld, to be meted out like Hansel's breadcrumbs over the course of 107 minutes. When it was over, I felt it was just beginning, not in a good way, but as if I'd been cheated of knowing what the hell was going on because the writer-director was avoiding the issues, concealing the fact he was filming a failed soufflé, a satire of the bourgeois family that's been a staple of French dramedy since Molière, that's 350 years! Plus ça change, plus c'est la même merde!

Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the senile bourgeois grandpappy multiplying failed suicide attempts. His son (Mathieu Kassovitz), who didn't take over the family concern, doesn't care his first wife overdoses, as his second wife nurses a baby boy, but is amused by his mistress' pornographic encouragements. Trintignant's daughter and current CEO, a businessy Huppert, sits at a desk, talks on a phone, says a few appropriate words to various people, and criticizes her son (Franz Rogowski), who's recovering from a beating stripped to the waist on his bed. She's vaguely annoyed to have to disinherit the ne'er-do-well drunken hunk. The alienated 13-year-old granddaughter (Fantine Harduin), who likes poisoning animals and people, is the family's future.

Oh, there's also a small avalanche of dirt at a building site where a massive crane dominates the newly laid foundation of one of Isabelle's projects. A dead migrant's family is given a small funereal sum. And a worker's strike on an oil rig appears on TV news as Toby Jones, Isabelle's improbable love interest, pauses in the midst of a sensible lunch of omelette, salad, and red wine. Haneke wastes valuable screentime transmitting snapchatty video and real-time keystrokes, an old man's idea of sex and death perhaps, but an abject abdication of his chosen medium. If you're looking for timeless analysis of the ludicrous resilience of the ruling class, see Buñuel's deliciously surreal "Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972).

Scene from director Michael Haneke's "Happy End." Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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