Hanake's Happy End Done Right

So, I got tired of waiting for Michael Hanake's latest film, Happy End, to get released in the US.  It had its festival run last year, gotten all its reviews, and then just kinda parked with no word of a home video release.  Eventually, this past March, it came out on blu-ray in other parts of the world: from Warner Bros in Germany and Artificial Eye in the UK.  But nothing was ever announced here and I was beginning to wonder if we'd ever see it, so I just imported.  I picked the British blu because it has more extras, plus the Amazon.de official review suggests that disc was DNR'd.  Google translate says: "Hairstyles are not differentiated. Instead, the hair becomes a pulpy mass. ...In addition, there is sometimes motion blur with slight jerking."  Yeah, that's enough for me to steer in another direction.  Anyway, since my UK copy arrived in the mail, Happy End finally has been announced, coming from Sony Pictures Classics on July 24.  Oh well, I've already got the AE disc now.  Too slow, Sony!

Update 11/5/22: Okay, I've got the US Sony disc now. Happily, there are no pulpy masses to be seen.  In fact, it seems to have fixed my problem with the AE disc.  Although, there's a bit of a "two steps forward, one step back" scenario at play here...  And what's more: you might also want to check out my Killing Fields page, where I've finally added the Warner Bros' blu-ray.  Because it's Update Week 2022, and the updates must flow!
When I first heard about this movie, I remember people questioning whether this was some sort of sequel to Hanake's last film, Amour, since we're back in France with Isabella Huppert again playing Jean-Louis Trintignant's daughter.  But it's really like a crazy amalgamation of all of Hanake's films - going all the way back to early films like Benny's Video and The Seventh Continent, and yes, up to Amour, where... let's just say the circumstances of the Trintignant's wife are conspicuously identical.  It's as if all of his past movies were compressed into one, dysfunctional family.  And I don't just mean the characters, but everything from the stylistic flourishes to Haneke's ruminations on media and inventive concepts... two thirds of the way through this movie, I was just waiting for somebody to pick up a remote control and undo what we'd just scene, or for Huppert to stab herself in the shoulder.  It's like "The Monster Mash" of Haneke's body of work.
I don't necessarily think that's a criticism, but I see it has resulted in some less positive fan and critical reaction, largely because the film comes off as a bit unfocused.  Love or hate Funny Games, that movie's got one idea to explore, which it sinks its teeth into at the very start and never lets go of until the bitter end.  It's not as easy to zero in on precisely what this film's about; I see a lot of viewers online questioning what the "point" was.  There's an ensemble cast, and their issues and personal struggles never seem to quite dovetail into a singular, focused plot with a targeted resolution.  And I don't think it helps that there was some early press that this film was "about" the current European refugee crisis, when really, that's just a subtextual touchstone that occasionally rings out in the film.  But that said, I really don't think Happy End is nearly so convoluted or aimless as its harsher critics make it sound.
It's Haneke, so you should know going in that he's not going to hold your hand stressing out about whether anyone in the audience might ever get irritated.  But I really don't think there's an impenetrable barrier between audience and understanding being put up here.  It's all out in the open; this is Haneke's Happiness, with everybody struggling to reach and define their own happy endings in ways that really aren't terribly disconnected.  And I don't think anybody denies that it's an expertly photographed film with an unstoppable cast.  Also, if fans were worried Haneke has been softening up or losing his edge; this is a film that starts out with iphone footage of a woman being surreptitiously filmed in the bathroom, and the first lead character we're introduced to is a twelve year-old girl who poisons her mother with her own antidepressants.  And that little girl handily holds her own among all the great performances.  So if you're a fan of Haneke's other work, I really don't think there's any reason to be anxious about diving into this one.
2018 Artificial Eye UK BD top; 2018 Sony US BD bottom.
So honestly, there's typically less PQ to review in the case of a modern film, shot digitally, being released on disc.  There's no concern about what film elements were used, how closely they were scanned, how thoroughly grain was captured, etc.  The filmmakers create and release a final DCP and send that same file out to everyone.  Labels don't have to worry about restoring colors from prints that have gone vinegar etc; it's all digitally locked into place.  The film's presented slightly matted to the proper 1.85:1 on both discs, and compression seems perfectly fine.  But clearly I'm dancing around a noticeable difference.  It's really obvious seeing the two transfers together on the same screen now, but even when I could only see UK blu, it struck me that the AE disc looks a little pale.  Could it have been a stylistic choice?  I raised that notion at the time, but now seeing that Sony has fixed it, it was certainly a gamma issue.  Plus, the letterbox bars weren't even true black, which always rings alarms.  So that's a big score on Sony's side; their edition turned out to be well worth waiting for.

Audio-wise, AE gave us the option of a 5.1 DTS-HD mix or a 2.0 LPCM, with English subtitles for the French dialogue (this film also includes some English dialogue, which is not available subtitled).  I don't know why we'd want the 2.0 if we have the original 5.1, but sure, throw it on there.  Sony ditches the 2.0 but keeps the lossless 5.1, and provides two burnt in subs for the French dialogue and additional, optional subs for the English, which is a better set of options for those of us who aren't fluent in French.  Sony also threw in an English descriptive audio track as well.
Let's move on to the extras.  Both the US and UK discs share one key feature: a 22-minute 'making of' featurette.  This is quite good, low on clips from the film and high on sit-down interviews with Haneke and his crew and behind-the-scenes looks at production and post-production.  And it has the usual on-set interview soundbites from the cast.  If you own a lot of Haneke discs, you know his own collaborators seem to produce many of his extras (this one was directed by his regular editor, Monika Willi), resulting in much higher quality stuff than your standard promotional featurette.  That and the trailer are all the two discs in common, but the UK disc also has a 97-minute "masterclass with Michael Haneke."  This is essentially a long talk between Haneke and a critic about his entire body of work, including a few clips from his films and an audience Q&A session at the end.  It's quite good - the critic really knows his stuff - though it should be pointed out that they specifically avoid talking about Happy End.  In fact, they tell the audience that they'll be back later for a Q&A about Happy End later that day... why the heck isn't that on here?  That's a strange and slightly infuriating choice; but putting that aside and just focusing on what we do get, I have to say the masterclass was very interesting the entire hour and a half and I'm glad to have gotten it.  Artificial Eye's release also comes in a slipcover.
Okay, so should I have waited for the Sony disc?  Well, had it been announced back when I ordered this version, I probably would've waited to see how that one comes out.  But I'm not kicking myself.  I've got it now, and it is the superior presentation of the film.  But double-dipping isn't such a bad thing when it yields exclusive special features, as in the case of that master class.  So now that both discs are readily available, yes, start with the Sony.  But if you're a die-hard fan, you might want to spend a little extra to get both.

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