Although it strives to appear fraught with meaning, “Happiness Is No Joke” is a prolonged and morose shaggy-dog story.
Slow-moving nocturnal tale, directed and written by Guillaume Nicloux, follows somber Michel (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) on his coincidence-laden peregrinations through Paris and environs late on Christmas Eve.
A dreary lug whose wife died recently in a car accident, Michel shares drinks with Andre (Philippe Nahon) in an escargot-paced prologue, then appropriates and refuses to return a yellow scarf belonging to Nadine (Laura Morante) before enduring a series of random encounters. Some of these show people to be essentially good, others pathetic. Michel and Nadine meet again in the course of the night, tryst, and trade confessions that are supposed to tie up the loose ends. But narrative — and viewer’s temper — remain frayed.
Donnadieu, who starred in the original version of “The Vanishing,” projects personal resolve and deep-seated unpleasantness in equal measure, and casting of faintly sordid ordinary folks is on the nose. Creepy family gathering at Andre’s house is a good portrayal of relatives at their worst.
Raoul Coutard’s lensing, in which long takes prevail, is technically competent but lacks distinction. From cello to jew’s-harp, score’s varied instrumentation conspires to imply that narrative is headed somewhere. It’s not.