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Michael Haneke's Funny Games

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Warner Independent)

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Friday, March 14, 2008


Funny Games
Directed by Michael Haneke
(Warner Independent)

Review by Michael Joshua Rowin

As if the original weren’t enough provocation, or as if its reverberations had faded too soon and needed to be once again sounded, Michael Haneke has remade his infamously brutal Brechtian exercise in torture-thriller deconstruction, 1997’s Funny Games. It’s a deceptively simple gesture that gives rise to a host of questions, which has always been Haneke’s aim for a film idea initially intended to infiltrate the American marketplace as an “unconsumable” piece of genre protest. But does it succeed? And is it even necessary? These are also questions built into the very existence of a new Funny Games, and they’re the ones least favorable to Haneke’s gamble.

Let’s first put this out there: For a critic-proof concept, the original Funny Games dared itself to fall flat on its face. And for Funny Games U.S. — as its alternate title also designates it — this goes double. Watch the trailer for the film and you’ll see why: The mischievous strains of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” accompanying an increasingly accelerating cavalcade of the film’s titillating/disturbing highlights recalls none other than A Clockwork Orange and its Rossini-set carnage, the implicit link being the films’ stated agendas as commentaries on the savage imagery of a supposedly civilized society, though both exercises too easily cross over into consumable nihilism, their own violence just as sexily stylized as one of the trashier genre exploits they mean to take to task.

To be fair, Funny Games the film isn’t quite so frantic or even funny as this superficial allusion to Clockwork suggests, Haneke’s visual debt to Kubrick notwithstanding. The film’s premise is so basic that the shot-by-shot remake acts like just another stamp of a cookie cutter: A thirty-something couple, George (Tim Roth) and Ann (Naomi Watts), and their roughly 8-year-old son Georgie (Devon Gearhart), begin a vacation at their lakeside country retreat only to be beset by a pair of young, gloved hooligans (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) who dress up sick psychological and physical torture “games” in tennis whites and mock civility.

It’s a set-up almost classical in its simplicity, except that in just a few shots Haneke undoes expectations by breaking the fourth wall and confronting his audience in its perverse complicity with the torturers. There are several such moments in which Paul (Pitt) turns to the camera and either acknowledges our presence with a haughty look or else asks who we’re rooting for, if we’ve endured enough. Haneke also takes generic conventions to their logical, if painfully severe, conclusions — all routes for the family’s escape or revenge are teases, all Hitchcockian close-ups of potentially helpful weapons red herrings, all desire for some sort of cathartic justice crushingly frustrated. In one of the film’s most famous and controversial moments, Ann grabs a gun and shoots Peter (Corbet), only to have her action rewound by Paul via remote control and replayed as a failed attempt.

Divorced from their respective roles in the marketplace and culture, the 1997 Funny Games and the new version diverge in only minor respects. Not much has changed from Haneke’s Austrian original to the American remake — the actors and the language are obviously different, but everything else is almost exactly the same or else remarkably similar, including sets, costumes, music, lighting schemes, shot compositions and sequencing. Some of the dialogue has been altered, but only in minute ways. And that’s too bad because it proves that Haneke — a clinical, symmetry-minded auteur whose work has consistently probed the deadening effects of bourgeois morality and mediated violence — was perfectly happy with the flawed first Funny Games and has only sought to accurately transcribe it for an American audience. I don’t buy for a second, as does Robert Koehler in his Cineaste review, that Funny Games in English substantially reworks the material — it’s the same juvenile assault on upper-class formality and politesse as the original, with a meta-smirk or two in the direction of its viewers for superiority’s sake, only this time in the reviewer’s mother tongue.

As for the casting, an American audience’s greater identification with Roth and Watts actually works to the detriment of the film. When George wails at the off-screen death of his child (in a 10-minute take that has Haneke bringing exploitation’s often dubious claim on realistic depictions of suffering to an excruciating extreme), or when he tearfully tells Ann to forgive him, these emotional moments ring hollow, situated as they are in between belabored diagrams of just how we’re being manipulated, and to what end. Certainly the casting of Pitt, a usually reliable actor willing to tackle risky projects, amplifies the film’s annoying instructional purpose: Whereas Arno Frisch in the original sneered and scoffed in a manner befitting a possibly unique character (there are no others of real interest), Pitt is flat, and flattens the sale of the alienation-effect gimmick.

Defenders of Funny Games repeatedly point out that it shouldn’t be fun. But if it isn’t, then it should at least be subversive. That’s where Funny Games U.S. is supposed to justify its existence, and where it least achieves its conceptual goals. Now a commercial release in the American marketplace, it has been torn by conflicting demands. Too sensationalist and trendily cool in regard to its killers to escape becoming just another cynical entry in the current torture porn sweepstakes, but too highfalutin “smart” to bring in an audience much beyond the academics who revel in such Trojan-horse wankery, it’s a film whose questionable impact won’t even reach the very viewers it wants to surprise. Perhaps there exist contemporary versions of the thrill-seeking teenage me who walked into Natural Born Killers (a film Haneke wanted to counter with Funny Games) expecting pure, guiltless destruction and came out a confused, ethically upended spectator. But it’s difficult to imagine many being astounded by one-note bludgeoning and condemnation. The first time Paul turns around and directly faces us, the point is made — after that there’s more than an hour of the same idea, and doled out so tediously and with so much self-satisfaction that alienation isn’t fomented toward generic conventions, but toward Haneke’s righteous tone.

I write this review with a relatively heavy heart because in general I admire Haneke and the direction he’d been heading in until now. The original Funny Games was the last film of an early career phase that showed promise but was weighed down by a shock-the-bourgeoisie aggressiveness that was more pandering than truly transgressive. From Code Unknown (2000) until Caché (2005) Haneke added deeper accountings of character, politics, and motivation to his elliptical and illusion-busting investigations of power and media. Compare the blurring of “real life” and video images in Caché — a complex statement about thriller conventions, surveillance and social privilege — to the pranks of Funny Games and there’s no doubting that the latter is an extremely disappointing reversion to single-dimension filmmaking, one that makes room for the viewer only to allow a single moralistic interpretation of the rules it secretly worships. What would its games be without them?

 

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