Funny Games

| March 23, 2008

When George Sluizer remade his late-’80s, Euro art shocker The Vanishing for American audiences, his original vision got a bit lost in translation. Gone were the Euro, the art, and the shocks, but what truly got buried in the filmmaker’s watered-down, dumbed-down, Hollywood do-over was that bleak, claustrophobic corker of an ending. Stripping the tale of its most distinctively disturbing element, Sluizer effectively neutered his own baby–what remained was little more than a crowd-pleasing genre trifle. Those expecting a similar sell-out compromise in Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s American remake of his Euro art shocker, should probably bone up on their Haneke. Austria’s premiere provocateur, the veritable fascist prince of art shock cinema, doesn’t do crowd-pleasing genre trifles. In fact, he’s more of an anti-crowd-pleaser, having built an entire career around poking, prodding, hectoring and fucking with his audience. We, the proverbial men and women in the dark, are the guilty party. If our crime is bourgeois complacency and a scarcely repressed bloodlust, our punishment is one chilly, didactic, formally elegant anti-thriller after another. His fans call him a scathing genius, his haters call him a preachy blowhard, and in the center of the ring lays the original Funny Games, the film that made Haneke an international sensation, at once his cruelest and his most accessible stunt. Compared to the confounding twists and soul-crushing turns of this calculated sucker punch, The Vanishing‘s third-act surprise comes out looking downright tame and conventional.
Ten years on, and Funny Games has lost none of its queasy, infuriating power–Haneke’s sickest of sick jokes still chills and boils the blood in about equal measure. Which is why one has to seriously question the value, necessity, and artistic merit of the writer-director’s English-language remake, inelegantly dubbed Funny Games U.S. Line for line, beat for beat, shot for shot, it’s an exact replica of its love-it-or-hate-it predecessor. And I do mean exact: everything from the sets to the music to the speed/cadence of the delivered dialogue has been meticulously, painstakingly recreated. It’s an impressive feat, but to what end? When Gus Van Sant infamously gave Psycho the carbon copy treatment a decade ago, there was at least the nervy fascination of one artist mimicking the rhythms and aesthetic tricks of another–his was an exercise in fetishistic homage, albeit a somewhat pointless and misguided one. Haneke’s sleek Xerox, given a studio spit-shine and a new cast of white-bred sacrificial lambs, is an even more dubious affair. Why return to a past effort if you have nothing fresh to bring to the table–no tweaks, no improvements, no variations in style or content? For Haneke, the rationale is simple: here, at long last, is an opportunity to smuggle his Meta cherry bomb out of inner-city art-houses and into the malls and multiplexes of America. But will this faithful redux find its way into the nightmares of a new, unsuspecting demographic, or just have the same ol’ blue bloods clucking their tongues in disgust and disapproval? Is Haneke spreading the gospel, or just preaching to the choir?
Either way, the sermon remains the same–all fire-and-brimstone. “You have to admit, you brought this on your self,” says Paul, one half the preppy-psycho tag-team of Funny Games, cheerfully blaming his victims for the torture and terror he inflicts upon them. But it could just as well be Haneke himself, arching his eyebrows and pointing an accusatory finger at all of us, the sick fucks who pay good money to see ultraviolent shit like this. After that omnipotent opening shot–a Kubrickian bird’s-eye-view of a vehicle in transit, its inhabitants little more than insects waiting to be squashed–we’re right there with Ann (Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth), and pre-teen son Georgie (Devon Gearhart), the smiling, picture-perfect family en route to horrors they could have scarcely imagined. The ape-shit heavy metal music that blares over their placid car ride is a loud omen–these oblivious yuppies are in for a nasty comeuppance!–but it’s also the first instance of Haneke rudely and crudely inserting himself into the film, cramming his stern, overbearing presence into the empty spaces of each frame. It will not be the last.
Before long, the family’s idyllic getaway is harshly disrupted by the appearance of Peter and Paul, two well-dressed, insidiously polite maniacs, who take them hostage in their Long Island vacation home and begin playing sadistic, life-and-death games with them. Chillingly embodied by the baby-faced Michael Pitt and Mysterious Skin‘s soft-spoken Brady Corbet, these ivy-league terrorists may be the most blandly amiable and flippantly amoral psychopaths in film history–think Patrick Bateman’s prankster nephews, without a care (or conscience) in the world. Yet they’re also the Greek Chorus boogeymen, the all-powerful, time-and-space defying demigods, of Haneke’s seminar-in-a-box. From the moment Paul turns to the camera, shattering the fourth wall with a wink and a nudge, Funny Games becomes more than a brutally, mercilessly effective home invasion thriller–it becomes a self-satisfied, post-modern critique of such skuzzy offenses.
Haneke, whose intellectual and aesthetic palette expanded immeasurably after his first run at this material, knows a thing or two about manipulation. Here, he cleverly toys with our expectations, playing on the audience’s collective familiarity with genre clichés. A knife disappears early on, and he expects us to remember it, to map a presumptuous path to its triumphant rediscovery. He stages a mock explanation of evil, Peter’s teary-eyed confession of a traumatic childhood, only to laugh at us for buying it for a second. (These monsters have no past or future, just a terrible, dead-zone present.) Mostly, Haneke counts on us to play odds maker, to start making guesses early on about who will or will not survive the night–“You think they have a chance?” Paul glibly inquires, though it’s really the cruel puppet-master doing the asking. By Haneke’s warped estimation, it is we who are to blame for this suffering, and when he slaps our wrists for it, he slaps hard. Punishment is the man’s stock-in-trade–some would say his tiresome, loathsome shtick–and Funny Games takes obscene pleasure in violently, painfully subverting our alleged desires, the sick fascination we all have with onscreen carnage.
Of course, in the era of torture porn, Haneke’s critical conceit, repackaged and replayed, somehow feels both increasingly relevant and a bit old hat–don’t the reprehensible Hostel films play that same “audience complicity” card? The irony is that when it’s not wagging its meaty finger at you, Funny Games remains deeply and genuinely terrifying. Though nearly all of the violence occurs off-screen–in one gunshot-punctuated case, to absolutely devastating effect–Haneke builds and sustains suspense like an old Master of Horror, immersing us in the suffocating fear of these assaulted innocents. The film’s first half is a slow and steady escalation of tension, the cheerfully mundane being invaded by the casually sinister, and his uncomfortably long master shots inspire the same sort of shuddery unease as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s. Equally essential in drawing us into this sticky web of compassionate dread are the performances of Watts and Roth, real performers making real drama out a shock-buzzer experiment. Though they’re playing little more than proverbial punching (stabbing?) bags for Haneke’s Demonic Duo, both actors invest their awful ordeal with agony and weariness and wounded, fading humanity. The film’s single most empathetic moment is a 12-minute still-shot of grief-stricken paralysis, a marathon one-take that’s nearly unbearable in its unblinking depiction of raw human misery.
It’s in moments like these that Haneke veers dangerously close to actually caring about his victim-targets, to giving his bourgeois pawns a measure of dignity and autonomy. Don’t be fooled. It’s all just shrewd, careful set-up for the filmmaker’s ultimate slap in the face, the nastiest bait-and-switch of his entire career. We presumably enjoy the madness and cruelty of Funny Games with the assumption that a turn-around will come, that these besieged innocents will get their just-deserves, the bloody vengeance that’s owed to them. But Haneke giveth and he taketh away: in the film’s outrageous Diablo ex machina–a smug, frustrating, but wholly subversive bitch slap to cheering movie mobs everywhere–the director exposes our thirst for righteous violence, caters to it, then promptly snatches it away. It’s like a searing corrective to all those Hollywood revenge thrillers, the ones that pretend to be about the cost of violence on the soul, but really just offer comfortable catharsis through said violence.
Yet this groan-inducing prank is also the exact moment that Funny Games officially announces itself as the shrill, bombastic exercise it’s been all along. We’re the real victims of Peter and Paul’s vicious follies, the saps being knocked off our high horses into the murky depths of the lake. And we all deserve it, says a sneering Haneke. Of course, whether or not the controversial filmmaker includes himself in this damning critique is worth debating. Discussing his original Funny Games, he once arrogantly remarked that the people who truly need the film are the ones who stay till the end credits, the ones who sit through his twisted, imploded genre assault in its entirety. Ten years later, and Haneke’s still got that righteous indignation in spades–what is this new model regression but an attempt to lecture a whole new generation of unsuspecting moviegoers, in their own language no less? What he evidently hasn’t gained is a penchant for self-reflection, or the ability to acknowledge his own sadistic role in sending those lambs to the slaughter. Like Oliver Stone, he’s always more than willing to blame the violence in his films on the phantom, theoretical audience he makes them for. But what of his own bloodlust, so evident here and elsewhere? In German or English, Haneke’s dirty jokes still kill, but maybe he should try learning some new ones and telling a couple at his own expense.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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