Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, except perhaps in the films of the Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke, where domestic misery tends to express itself as a series of repetitive, even ritualistic patterns.
He has, in effect, turned this repetition into a kind of joke; in most of his films you are likely to encounter the names Georges and Anne (or Georg and Anna), and maybe the face of his frequent on-screen muse, the brilliant French actress Isabelle Huppert.
The forces bedeviling these families vary in nature — an apocalyptic disaster in "Time of the Wolf," inexplicable suicidal urges in "The Seventh Continent," memories of past transgressions in "Caché" — but see enough of them and you will soon realize that every tormentor is a front for Haneke himself. Nearly all his films are predicated on a home invasion of sorts, some of them explicit, as in his twin versions of "Funny Games," and some of them metaphorical, as in his 2012 masterpiece, "Amour," in which the lethal intruder turns out to be time itself.
No locks get broken and no ominous packages are delivered in Haneke's "Happy End," an unhappy-family drama every bit as devious as its poker-faced title. This is a more playful, slippery version of a story that Haneke has never really stopped telling: Steadily and ruthlessly, he chips away at an upper-class Western family whose members are ensconced in their own privilege, deaf to the guilty howls of conscience and oblivious to the suffering in their midst.
The Laurents are a multi-generational clan living in a large house in the French coastal city of Calais. The patriarch is Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, "Amour"), a widower just shy of his 85th birthday. His brittle, exceedingly competent daughter, Anne (Huppert — told you), runs the family's construction business and tries to groom her volatile man-child son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), for a prominent role in the company. Anne's weaker-willed brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), is a doctor with a wife, Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), and an infant son.
We meet the Laurents in the wake of two serious crises. A wall collapses at one of the company's construction sites, injuring an employee. Thomas' 13-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Ève (Fantine Harduin), comes to live with them after her mother falls gravely ill.
Both inciting tragedies are shown, or at least suggested, by a secondary camera — security footage of the construction accident, a series of eerie videos shot on Ève's phone — and that sense of chilly, detached observation persists inside the Laurents' home, where no tragedy seems capable of disrupting the family's routine.
Unfolding as a series of brisk, meticulously composed, perfectly acted scenes held together with little or no exposition, "Happy End" is diffuse in its storytelling — no single character emerges as the protagonist — and elegantly serpentine in its construction. A single cut can propel the movie forward by untold days or weeks, but the overall narrative progress feels disquietingly circular. The unblinking gaze of the camera, often taking in the action from a deliberate distance, lends even seemingly banal activities a queasy, hypnotic power. (The superb digital cinematography is by Haneke's regular collaborator Christian Berger.)
Again and again, the director sows seeds of dread and disaster, only to uproot them before they can blossom into full-on horror. Tension convulses the picture whenever Ève, a disaffected teen played with breathtaking poise by Harduin, finds herself alone with her baby brother. But if "Happy End" is something of a bad-seed nightmare, it turns out to be an unpredictable one, marked by unexpected flashes of warmth, sympathy and blistering humor.
Haneke has often been dinged as both a punishing moralist and a perversely withholding storyteller, and so it's fitting that his masterstroke in "Happy End," delivered almost with a shrug, is the withholding of punishment. A more redemptive, politically righteous movie might have held its characters to account for their callous indifference, the way Haneke did in "Caché," but it's as if he doesn't see the point: Up until the movie's ghastly, hilarious final tableau, these characters exist beyond the reach of shock, guilt, shame or retribution. Only in a Haneke film, perhaps, could such a reprieve wind up feeling like the most damning judgment of all.
"Happy End" — 3.5 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language, drug use and some sexual content)
Running time: 1:47