Life is, whether we like to admit it or not, a series of reckonings.
Going to school for the first time. Leaving home and starting life as a newly-minted grown-up. Marrying. Having kids. Not having kids. Securing that dream job.
And as explored in Hella Joof’s supremely self-assured film Happy Ending, retirement, an event that most people look forward to as a kind of new beginning rather than an ending of life in the workforce.
That is certainly how 69-year-old Helle (Birthe Neumann) sees the retirement of her husband Peter (Kurt Ravn) from his powerful job at the head of a company which consumed 60 hours of his life every week for 40 years.
Driving home from a big farewell party at which all the right words are said and congratulations given, Helle, smushed into her car seat by a huge bunch of flowers, the overflow from a backseat full of them, talks excitedly about traveling somewhere together, her mind obviously excited by the time of time with Peter in a world where he isn’t required to be anywhere.
Peter seems altogether unwelcoming of the idea but dismisses Helle’s query about his ill-temper with a suggestion that she take their daughter Nanna (Rikke Bilde) instead and chalk up some quality mother/daughter time.
Something is clearly afoot, but Helle, blinded by golden dancing visions of the future, is blind to the dynamics swirling around her, convinced that after a lifetime of loneliness and raising her daughter alone, that she finally has her reward in the form of time with Peter.
That is until Peter tells their small group of friends over dinner – free-spirited Linda (Marianne Høgsbro) and loving husband Claus (Claus Flygare) and ice cold Birgitte (Mette Munk Plum) and lecherous Jess (Kurt Dreyer) – that he has invested all of the couple’s considerable savings into a part share into an Austrian winery.
Not even consulted about this major retirement dream-busting move by her husband, Helle is shocked and then horrified when a visit to the bank to meet with their financial advisor Trine (Charlotte Sieling) reveals that their joint account is almost dry.
If that’s not bad enough, and it is is when you’re suddenly forced to trade dreams of languid resort stays for vineyard oversight, Peter turns up outside the book and says he thinks they should take a break, a cataclysmic announcement that becomes even more dire when he later admits he misspoke and actually wants a divorce.
In one tumultuous 48 hour period, Helle goes from chilled stars in her eyes to the stark reality of life without her husband, whom she still loves – even though he often comes across as possessing the emotional intelligence of a squashed turnip – her dream retirement years and a cosy future that has fits the contours of long-held expectations.
She is, as you can imagine, bereft.
Thankfully while there is some anguished, angry cutting up of suits, and morose lounging on couches and beds, Joof’s charmingly grounded film, working to an adroit script by Mette Heeno, largely eschews many of the obvious cliches of the break-up genre.
Instead, Happy Ending examines how even the most catastrophic of events tend to place against the backdrop of the minutiae and banality of our everyday lives.
While Helle’s world is indeed falling apart, something represented in ways both heartbreaking and almost whimsically funny, much of the film’s story accommodates the fact that life goes on, whether you’re ready for it or not.
Dinners still occur with friends, awkward though they are. Peter moves in with Nanna and the grand kids who act as if nothing is amiss (they’re kids; they just accept that life goes on). And eventually, Helle, who finds immense support in the form of a growing friendship with Trine, herself, relatively freshly divorced, moves on, not in some over-exultant Hollywood-esque way which never feels emotionally real, if it is uplifting.
Rather, the steps she takes are tentative, small, back then forward then back again, the kind any of us might take in the afterwash of something so brutally life-changing.
It would be nice to think we’d take stock, get inspired and move triumphantly on with the empowering words of Tony Robbins ringing in our ears but that’s not even realistic.
Like Helle we need time to grieve, to reflect, to get angry, grow sad, to try and re-embrace the past and then realise that is probably never going to happen in any kind of meaningful way.
The way Happy Ending tells it feels very much like it would happen.
Hopefully none of us go through that kind of reckoning at the end of our lives, but if that kind of late life fate befalls us, it’s likely to play just as Joof’s renders it.
In otherwords, in ways that are more often small than big, despite the monstrously large emotional shifts in play, in circumstances that aren’t epically transformational but rather ordinary and in direct contravention of how we feel they should look, all of it leading to a future that ends up being like we imagined before or after the great reckoning that changed everything.
Helle does find herself challenging everything about her life and does come to some pretty far-reaching decisions, and while things partly play out as you might expect them to, Heeno’s script ultimately plays with your assumptions to a wholly pleasing extent.
Just like life itself, the storyline of Happy Ending doesn’t heed our ideas of where it will head or how the characters will fare.
It’s not the most gobsmacking of twists but it is sufficiently clever and ultimately life-affirming that you realise once again that life is full of surprises, even in the darkest of times, and we should never be shocked when where we land is a long way from the way we thought we would find ourselves.
Helle is a long way from her imagined Kansas when the film ends but in many ways, she is far closer to where she needs to be than she realises in the initial wake of Peter’s ill-considered betrayal, with Happy Ending at its heart a celebration of the endless permutations of life’s possibilities rather than, as you think early on in the film, as a mourning of their loss.