Funny Games: Michael Haneke’s First English-Speaking Feature

U.S.-U.K.-France-Germany-Italy

In “Funny Games,” Michael Haneke’s first English-speaking work, which is actually a remake of his 1997 Austrian film, violence is presented in such vicious, shocking and disturbing ways that the ultimate reaction is to simply turn off–not to watch the film. (I’ll explain later, but you’re expected to be disturbed and even hate what you see).

Haneke, probably the most cerebral European filmmaker working today, is intellectually smart and shrewdly manipulative. He knows that we will stay on and watch, since his thriller is designed to elicit conflicted responses. By turns, it appeals to, exploits, and repels our instinctive attraction to violence and our sense of voyeurism, which is the basic principle of cinema.

As such, the movie is the latest addition to the “Theater of Cruelty,” begun with Artaud, and “Cinema of Sadism,” hailing back to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali.

In intent, “Funny Game” is not an exploitation film, though I think it will be perceived as such by other critics, particularly those who also found the original movie to be deliberately manipulative. Moreover, placing the movie at the Midnight section at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival taints and labels it in undesirable ways, turning “Funny Games” de facto into a gory exploitation item.

It’s too bad that the gifted Haneke, whose work (except for one film “Cache”) is still little known in the U.S., has chosen such a subject for his Hollywood debut, for despite its stellar cast, headed by Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt, “Funny Games” is bound to fail commercially. Warner Independent Picture will release this peculiar violent art film March 14, but I doubt if many people will see it.

With very minor alterations, Haneke the writer and helmer has slavishly remade (nearly shot by shot) his 1997 movie, which premiered in Cannes in the competition section. Back then, “Funny Games” left the festival empty-handed as far as prizes are concerned, but it catapulted Haneke, who’s German-born but based in Austria, into a higher class of major European auteurs, a position he confirmed with his next and better pictures, “The Piano Teacher” and “Cache,” both of which played at Cannes and were seen by more people in the global arthouse circuit than “Funny Games.”

The narrative is largely based on the classic paradigm of stability (or equilibrium), instability (disequilibrium), but then an unsuccessful effort to restore stability on a different level, which is one of the film’s most problematic aspects. The saga begins on a quiet, beautiful, almost perfect day, when the Farbers, a typical bourgeois family is about to begin its annual vacation. Ann (Watts), George (Roth) and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) are on their way to their lush summer home with a yacht in tow.

Stopping by their reliable neighbors Fred and Betsy Thompson (Boyd Gaines, Siobhan Fallon) in the gated community, they notice that the Thompsons entertain two young, unfamiliar male guests. Nonetheless, they don’t ask questions and proceed with making plans to play golf the next morning.

Ann begins to make dinner, while her husband and son are busy with their newly restored sailboat. To help George work on his boat, Fred comes around with one guest, Paul (Michael Pitt), claiming he’s the son of a business associate. Meanwhile, Ann finds herself face to face with a polite young man, who introduces himself as the other neighbors’ guest, Peter (Brady Corbet). He says he has come to ask for some eggs because Betsy has run out.

Ann is about to give Peter the eggs, but hesitates. How did he get onto their house Peter explains that there’s a hole in the fence that Fred had pointed to him.

Things seem strange from the beginning, and they get worse when Peter joins forces with his buddy Paul. Tension builds up to unbearable proportions before the torture begins. The first reel is excellent in methodically building suspense in a chilly mode, a mood that’s reaffirmed by the look and initial conduct of Paul and Peter, who both wear white gloves, and are extremely polite. (Hitchcock, the first director to introduce suave villains, will rejoice at their sight).

Turning point occurs when dad George finally cracks and smacks one of them in the face, thus launching a series of “funny” games that are played in earnest, like shooting the family’s dog.

Haneke had said that he has always considered the story more American than European, which is fair enough. However, set in Long Island, this “Funny Games” will inevitably be compared by American viewers to other movies about invaded families in danger, such as “The Desperate Hours” (1955), Bogart’s very last movie, which was remade by Michael Cimino three decades later, or the two versions of “Cape Fear” (the first in 1962, the second by Scorsese in 1991).

Haneke has explored the depiction of violence and its treatment by the mass media in most of his films. His trilogy–“The Seventh Continent” (1989), “Benny’s Video” (1992), “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance” (1994)–exposes the various consequences of the media’s portrayal of violence.

Ultimately, “Funny Games” aims to play with–as well subvert–genre conventions, to encourage and make the viewers complicit by forcing them to see their own role through a series of emotional and analytical episodes of violence. Holding that explanation would be too comfy and reassuring, Haneke deliberately refuses to provide any psychological motivation, catharsis or resolution.

However, like many pictures that purport to look critically at violence in the mass media–say Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers-“Funny Games” signals the same alarming suspicion that it trades on the very exploitation it aims to expose.

Haneke had said he wished to show violence as it really is-“to depict the reality of violence, the pain, the wounding of other human beings.” In theory, his movie is meant as a critique of dominant American cinema, the way Hollywood movies toys with human beings and makes violence utterly consumable. But, instead, what we get here is a semi-Brechtian analytic movie that more than anything else plays with audiences expectations of thriller and horror films, conditioned by decades of seeing such fare.

Hence, some scenes encourage the viewers to sympathize with the victims, while others deny them any emotional involvement, not to speak of satisfaction based on fulfilled expectations. Since most of the violence occurs off screen, we are denied specific reactions to the violent acts themselves and only ask to observe the before and after effects.

As the saga unfolds, it becomes evident that there’s only a schematic plan but not really an emotional point to the story. What we’re witnessing is a largely intellectual exercise, devoid of in-depth characterizations of both the family members and the criminal duo. Who are these people The script remains enigmatic up to the last frame.

Haneke discloses the manipulative nature of his film in a scene, in which Paul uses a remote control to rewind the action just seen and replay a different version, thus showing that ultimately, it’s the director who calls the shots by engineering his viewers’ responses in the editing room! So who’s to blame more for the escalation of screen violence: the director or the viewers

In the 1997 film, George and Ann had more or less equal roles, whereas in this picture, Anna is the main heroine, perhaps because Naomi Watts is also the executive producer. Other than that, the text, the dialogue, and even the design are the same as they were in the original.

Haneke has gone on record saying that the American version is only several seconds longer than the German one, and that the difference in running time (about 3-4 minutes) has to do with the number of credits enlisted in the U.S. remake, which makes it longer.

The only significant change I could detect is that in the crucial torture sequence Anne is in her underwear rather than fully-clad. Which again could be interpreted as a tease or another experiment by Haneke to see whether we pay more attention to violence if the body of an attractive woman is exposed.

Director of Photography Darius Khondji’s imagery is defined by distilled, metallic colors of blue, gray, and white, which reinforce the detached ideological scheme. Like most of Haneke’s films, “Funny Games” is accomplished as far as Kevin Thompson’s elegant production design and Monika Willis’ crisp editing are concerned. In fact, as a movie aiming to expose raw nerves, “Funny Games” may be too polished for its own good.

Cast

Anna Farber – Naomi Watts
George Farber – Tim Roth
Paul – Michael Pitt
Peter- Brady Corbet
Georgie Farber – Devon Gearhart
Fred Thompson Boyd Gaines
Betsy Thompson – Siobhan Fallon
Robert – Robert LuPone
Eva – Linda Moran
Credits

Warner Independent Pictures (in U.S.) release of a Celluloid Dreams (France)/Warner Independent Pictures (U.S.) presentation of a Halcyon Pictures, Tartan Films (U.K.)/Celluloid Dreams (France)/X Filme Intl. (Germany)/Lucky Red (Italy) production.
Produced by Chris Coen, Hamish McAlpine. Executive producers: Hengameh Panahi, Douglas Steiner, Carol Siller, Naomi Watts.
Co-producers, Jonathan Schwartz, Rene Bastian, Linda Moran, Andro Steinborn, Christian Baute, Adam Brightman.
Directed, written by Michael Haneke, based on his 1997 film Funny Games.
Camera: Darius Khondji.
Editor: Monika Willi.
Music: Handel, Mascagni, Mozart.
Production designer: Kevin Thompson.
Art director: Hinju Kim.
Costume designer: David C. Robinson.
Sound: Tom Varga.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 112 Minutes.