Saturday, January 16, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Happy End

Simon’s family is haunted. Yes, there really is a ghost, though they never see the spirit of his late wife Ada watching over them. It is more their painful memories of the Holocaust which cast dark shadows over the extended Dutch family that has now gathered at what may well be Simon’s deathbed. Director Frans Weisz has revealed their family secrets in a trilogy of films that concludes with Happy End (trailer here), which screens at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Lincoln Center Film Society.

As End opens, the ghostly Ada provides an overview of the complex family relationships for the benefit of new viewers. Frankly, it brings to mind the deliberately convoluted introductions to the old sitcom Soap. However, the precipitating crisis is clear enough. Simon’s condition is quickly deteriorating and his friends and family are having difficulty coping. While quality of life questions are always difficult to grapple with under such circumstances, it is particularly hard for Simon’s loved ones, because of his experiences during the Holocaust. “One hour above ground is worth an eternity six feet under,” he always told them.

As a man who treasures life, Simon led a full one. He is the father of the fifty-ish Lea and the eighteen year-old Isaac, but by different women. Lea was married to former hospital administrator Nico, who later remarried his first wife Dory. Dory is Isaac’s mother, but she has little time for him, so the teen has essentially been raised by the elderly Simon and his half sister Lea. Confused? Actually, it is even more complicated when Nico’s side of the family is taken into account, but End’s central themes are clearly delineated. As the head of the family, Simon has been the glue holding everyone together, but he is in his twilight years. Conversely, Isaac is awkwardly finding his way in the world as a young man. Yet, even he is deeply affected by the family’s survivor legacy.

A film about a dysfunctional family paying their last respects to their Holocaust survivor patriarch might sound utterly depressing, but End is surprisingly life-affirming. As we encounter Simon in flashbacks, the message that life is to be celebrated comes through clearly and persuasively. Though the ending might seem more than a bit contrived, it is still satisfying in an unabashedly sentimental way.

Weisz’s approach is admirably restrained and sensitive, but the pace never falters. Indeed, the ensemble cast is quite remarkable, keeping the audience fully invested at all times, but never overplaying material that could easily lend itself to melodrama. They truly look and sound like people with decades of shared history (as is indeed the case, since most appeared in the previous installments, Qui vive released in 2001 and Polonaise from 1989). Particularly effective are the scenes between Simon and his unlikely son Isaac, nicely turned by Peter Oosthoek and Jip Loots, respectively.

End presents a consistently interesting cinematic family well worth meeting, despite their many faults. Though it initially suggests a bit of a TV movie vibe, End is a refreshingly mature and nuanced drama, brought to life by a truly fine ensemble cast. It screens during the 2010 NYJFF at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this coming Sunday (1/17) and Tuesday (1/19).