TA groaning death rattle for society, compassion, hope, justice, and maybe the uncompromising career of its maker, Happy End is far from the best Michael Haneke movie. But it just might be the most Michael Haneke movie—a kind of grueling greatest-hits collection from the reigning scold of European art cinema. Now, for the first time ever, it’s all available in one place: the technological voyeurism of Benny’s Video; the fragmentary storytelling of Code Unknown; the colonialist trauma of Caché; the twisted adolescence of The White Ribbon; the fatalistic finality of Amour. Haneke has probably earned a career summation at this point—now in his mid-70s, he’s been churning out masterfully controlled, sometimes thrillingly bleak audience endurance tests for 25 years. But without a fresh master thesis, all we’re basically watching here is the director go back to the well of bourgeois critique, rehashing ideas he’s better explored elsewhere.At least the technology itself has been updated for our brave new world of indecency and indifference: Facebook messages prove pivotal to the plot, and when some offscreen mystery character shoots stalkerish vérité footage, it’s with a smartphone instead of a video camera. The amateur filmmaker turns out to be 12-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin, one of those child actors with eerily adult features and disposition), who poisons her mother with antidepressants in the opening scene, capturing the whole incident on her iPhone. With mom in the hospital, Eve is sent to stay at the family estate in Northern France, and it doesn’t take long to realize that she’s just the the latest rotten apple to fall off a very toxic tree. There’s her remarried father, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), hiding a compartmentalized second life of debauchery under a cheerful façade; her adult cousin Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), resentful fuck-up and eventual heir to the family business; and her aunt Anne (Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert, bringing the brittle), current head of said business, and conspicuously rocking the same name as Huppert’s character from Time Of The Wolf.
It’s not the film’s most explicit callback. Jean-Louis Trintignant, the 87-year-old French New Wave veteran, perhaps literally reprises his role as the retired music teacher of Amour, now desperate for someone to do for him what he did for Emmanuelle Riva in that movie. Amour, of course, was something unexpected from the Austrian provocateur: an almost unbearably moving love story, all the more powerful for how unsentimentally it depicted the final days of a life and a relationship. So it’s especially dispiriting to see Haneke walk back that hard-won humanism in this quasi-sequel, which snuffs out every flicker of warmth in Trintignant’s Georges, reducing him to a defeated shell of a man. It feels like pure spite, honestly—Haneke cruelly punishing anyone who looked at the tenderness of Amour and assumed he was softening with age. In that sense, Happy End is also the closest he’s come to proving his staunchest detractors right; it’s as if he’s gone out of his way to deliver the coldly misanthropic lecture some insist he’s been making all along.
he hero of “Downsizing” is called Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), and the clumsy name befits him. He stresses the first syllable, but everyone else stresses the second, with a long “a”; the mismatch proves to Paul that the world doesn’t really get him. He’s a drab and decent fellow from Omaha, who dreamed of being a surgeon but wound up as an occupational therapist. We see him tending to his sick mother, and then, ten years later, living with his healthy wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Nothing much has changed, except that a bit more energy has leaked out of him. So how about making a change? Why don’t he and Audrey downsize—not move house or cut down on sugary snacks, that is, but reduce themselves to .0364 of their original mass and volume? Why not live large by turning small?
Such is the delightful premise of Alexander Payne’s new film. From the opening scene, in a Norwegian laboratory, we realize that the necessary science is up and running. Moreover, its ethical basis is sound. Given that the planet is overpopulated, we are told, “the one practical, humane, and lasting solution to humanity’s greatest problem” is to give some of those humans—volunteers only—such a magical zapping that an entire family can be borne around in a cat basket. The average male will contract to thirteen centimetres or so, along the lines of a full-grown parsnip. And nobody is more average than Paul. He is the credible shrinking man.
“Downsizing” is not an update of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” and anyone hoping to see Paul go mano a mano with a Chihuahua, say, will be frustrated. Most of the time, the itsy-bitsy teeny-weenies do not dwell among us. Instead, they are housed in places like Leisureland—a vast biodome, self-enclosed and self-sustaining, to which the Safraneks travel for miniaturization. (When they decided to undergo it we never learn; for some reason, Payne elides that crucial exchange.) The funniest and strangest parts of the film show the process in persnickety detail: the shaving of all body hair, including eyebrows; gastric irrigation; and the extraction of the teeth, later to be replaced by mini-snappers. There’s a wonderful image, just after the zapping, of regular-sized technicians entering the room and scooping up each naked, sedated, and freshly shrivelled form with a spatula, as if they were flipping burgers. Paul might as well be a slab of meat. Then he wakes up, probes his mouth with his tongue, checks his groin, and becomes a sentient character again.
Once he is ensconced in Leisureland, something curious happens—gratifying to fans of Payne’s earlier films, such as “Election” (1999) and “The Descendants” (2011), yet disappointing, in the light of the fantastical setup that he has labored, on this occasion, to construct. “Downsizing” turns, first, into a regulation social satire, making easy, if queasy, fun of our taste for sunlit success. One of Paul’s acquaintances, who went small before him, greets him at a pool party with the mantra “Look around you, buddy! Life is good!” (Most consumer products, we are informed, are enticingly cheap on the far side of the procedure, and a hundred and fifty-two thousand dollars in equity swells to $12.5 million. But would the micro-economy not adjust accordingly?) Then comes an epiphany. Paul discovers a shantytown on the rim of Leisureland, where the tiny poor have established their own community; they strike him as less phony than the gated set among whom he resides, and he finds himself, pretty much by accident, becoming a dogsbody to Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a young Vietnamese woman with a wooden leg.
And still Payne is not done. Paul and his new friend travel to Norway, where the movie began, and join a utopian adventure—a village of the downsized, whose inhabitants aim to establish a subterranean home, where they will, over generations, sit out the ecological death and renaissance of Earth. We’ve come a long way from Omaha. This is touching and unorthodox stuff; Payne has not struck an apocalyptic note before, and Paul’s transformation from a mousy dullard to a visionary who plays bongo drums at sunset, beside a fjord, is one that maybe only Damon could handle. Just one question: where did the smallness go? Almost everything that befalls the hero, in the latter half of “Downsizing,” might equally befall a normal six-footer with a hazy political conscience, so what’s the point of his diminution? The film, having launched a sprightly comic conceit, lets it glide away.
The comparison here is with Swift, who was out to belittle mankind. Barely for a moment, in the first two sections of “Gulliver’s Travels,” does he let us forget that small is interesting only in relation to big. Payne has a nice gag about Paul’s wedding ring, which he is permitted to take to Leisureland, where it looks as massive as a life preserver, but there are pages of Swift that can boast half a dozen gags as inventive as that, and he’s markedly less prim. Think of Gulliver, in Lilliput, extinguishing a fire in the royal palace with a jet of urine, or of the “frolicsome girl of sixteen,” in Brobdingnag, who would “sometimes set me astride upon one of her nipples, with many other tricks”—Gulliver now being the size of Paul, and ripe for use as a sex toy.
The only person in the film who could dare to imagine such a jest is Dusan (Christoph Waltz), a Serbian sybarite and wheeler-dealer who lives in an apartment above Paul’s in Leisureland. Waltz’s wicked grin, as Paul opens the door, shakes up this placid and well-behaved tale, and Dusan’s belief that people are basically patsies and prudes (Swift wouldn’t disagree) allows him to treat the whole business of downsizing not as an environmental imperative but as a chance for commercial scams. As such, he threatens the movie’s ethical zeal, and is promptly shunted to the fringes of the story. Likewise, we hear in passing of undocumented mini-migrants and of terrorists who are forcibly downsized, as if sent into exile, but these fascinating ideas go largely unexplored. A less tasteful director might have revelled in the danger, the venom, and the sheer fun to be had in the kingdom of the pint-size, whereas Payne, ever scrupulous, is more attentive to minor acts of kindness than to the proportions of the folk who perform them. As for Paul, you can’t help feeling that, ground down as he was, he didn’t need to get shrunk in the first place. He needed a shrink.