Synopsis: Widowed driving instructor Jonna (Ann Petren) takes her adult son, Peter (Gustaf Skarsgard) back in after he experiences a breakdown and is deserted by his girlfriend (Hanna Malmberg). The vulnerable painter then becomes smitten with his mother’s cleaner, attractive Katrine (Malin Buska). Katrine is already involved in an abusive relationship with her partner (Johan Widerberg).
Subtle cross-narrative drama has top performances.
Even when the connections between the characters are invisible, the individual dramas are strong
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: As did Jeong Ji-woo’s Korean film of the same name in 1999, Swedish film Happy End begs some questions. Is the title ironic? Will it present an actual happy end? Compared to what? While the film critics’ code about revealing finale details prohibits further discussion, I can at least hint that this film has a satisfying finale and that’s really all any audience wants.
But is it happy? Characters in Happy End include a tortured artistic soul who takes overdoses of any drug at hand and a young woman that is beaten by her explosive tyrant boyfriend who owes money to vicious loan sharks. There’s also a curmudgeonly middle-aged man who takes compulsory driving lessons after having lost his license as the result of alcoholic binges, triggered by his wife’s death. Happiness, when it comes, is fleeting.
Steering the story is controlling driving instructor Jonna (Ann Petern). Sober – thanks to AA – middle-aged man Marten (Peter Andersson) is one of her many clients. In the midst of a lesson with Marten, Jonna dumps him in the middle of nowhere so she can rush to her son Peter (Gustaf Skarsgard) who has been taken to hospital. At casualty, she discovers that though Peter will survive, his fiancée, Nina (Hanna Malmberg), who has been on his overdose merry-go-round too many times, wants out. Jonna takes her son back into her own home, where he meets Katrine (Malin Buska), an attractive woman who cleans Jonna’s home. Katrine cleans in order to make ends meet, while her increasingly violent boyfriend, Asger (Johan Widerberg), wallows in his failures and dodges thugs from whom he borrowed large sums for what is now a belly-up business venture.
Happy End plays a slow, crafty game in introducing these characters and is almost brutal in its initial withholding of the exact connection between their disparate and desperate lives. The film is almost half completed before the story reaches its decisive dramatic moment, but Bjorn Runge’s handling of the material is excellent. Even when the connections between the characters are invisible, the individual dramas are strong enough to rivet the attention. When the dots have all been connected, the drama plays out with expert care, mindful of the audience’s need for emotional heft.
All the performances are excellent, with Malin Buska running the greatest risk of losing sympathy due to Katrine’s passive acceptance of Asger’s beatings. With the protection of Kim Fupz Aakeson’s script, Katrine keeps our sympathy, in contrast to Asger who – rightly – garners no sympathy at all.
It is interesting that due to cool detachment, that that this clean, non-hysterical depiction of domestic violence actually represents the interpersonal dynamics more accurately than knee-jerk films that take the victim’s side. And if there are moments – mere seconds – where it seems like Katrine ‘is asking for it’, the film is wise enough to show how limited her options have become and how inevitable in her given circumstances, the receipt of violence is.
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