Naomi Watts in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games
Funny Games, starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth is director Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot US remake of his own German language thriller from 1997. Why has he remade his own film? Because the English language offers a new and bigger audience for him to lecture and a lecture is what Funny Games is really all about. Haneke either wants the audience to reevaluate their response to violence in movies, or he wants to abuse them for taking pleasure in that same violence. If it’s the former, he’s a fool and if it’s the latter, he’s a smug, superior prick. Either way he’s created a film on which he expects you to walk out. If you don’t, he aims to punish you for it. Unfortunately for the director, he’s tripped himself up in his own intellectual arrogance and he’s bungled his message. The result is a film that will resonate primarily with the sadists he hopes to counsel or to those who already accept his message. Either way, both versions of Funny Games are nearly complete failures.
Watts and Roth play married couple Anna and George Farber. As the film begins, they’re driving out to their fancy vacation home with their young son for a week or two of golf and sailing on the lake. They’re a comfortably soft, upper middle class family listening to opera in their SUV, but when the opera is interrupted on the soundtrack by the harsh, discordant, thrash and squeal of Naked City’s Bonehead, it’s clear Haneke has something else in store for this trio besides a peaceful holiday idyll.
When the family arrives at the lake, something’s already amiss. The neighbors are acting oddly distant and there are strangers in their midst, two young men dressed for tennis and wearing white cotton gloves. Rational explanations are assumed as they usually are by civilized people, but all notions of reason are distorted and ultimately defeated by what eventually transpires. As George and the boy tend to the sailboat and Anna prepares dinner in the kitchen, one of the young men (Brady Corbet) shows up at the door, introducing himself shyly as Peter and looking to borrow some eggs. What begins with a simple request slowly and strangely escalates into a game where Peter and his partner Paul (Michael Pitt, The Dreamers) toy with the family, seemingly for their own amusement. Before the evening is over, toying turns to torture and the Farbers find that the clock is ticking on their very lives.
For the first three quarters of the film or so, Haneke succeeds at mounting a seductive and very compelling thriller in a traditional horror or suspense vein. The Farbers first react to these intruders with the social niceties you’d expect, but Paul and Peter use the family’s ideas of etiquette against it as they continually up the ante, making stranger and more extreme requests. By the time the Farbers realize they’re dealing with two people who operate outside of the rules of society, it’s already too late.
What follows is genuinely suspenseful and horrifying. As the abuse is escalated, you keep hoping the victims will find a way to escape and the tension increases as they fail at every turn. When one character is forced to make an impossible choice between two deadly outcomes, it’s thoroughly nerve jangling. This is classic material and it’s undeniably well executed, but when Paul at one point turns to the camera and winks directly at the audience, even if you’ve never seen another Haneke film, you know he’s got something else on his mind besides a good suspense yarn. It turns out, he doesn’t want to entertain you, he wants to teach you a lesson.
These smug, winking asides from Paul (there are 3 or 4 of them) are a transparent attempt to implicate the audience in the horrors on screen. Haneke would blame you the audience for the tortures to which he’s subjecting his characters. The irony is that, not only is this intellectually dishonest, it completely misfires. Instead of making us culpable for the horror, the gimmick lets us off the hook. This smart-assed breaking of the fourth wall reminds us we’re just watching a movie and, rather than becoming a part of the action as Haneke intends, we’re distanced from it. Haneke thinks he’s smarter than you when in fact he’s too dull-witted to realize he’s just destroyed his own film.
Another trick Haneke pulls is to keep all of the sex and violence largely off screen. His intention here is to deny the audience what he thinks it wants and also to keep his own hands clean, essentially having his cake and eating it too. He wants to push your face in the muck he’s created while staying above the exploitation himself. Unfortunately, it’s yet another technique that creates distance between the audience and the horrors on screen and it further undermines the director’s intentions.
Breaking the established pattern, there is one act of violence Haneke shows quite explicitly. This is intentional because Haneke is trying to get a certain reaction out of the audience so he can then rub their noses in it like dogs when he ultimately pulls the rug out from under their feet in a bit of cinematic trickery. I won’t reveal what happens exactly because, unlike Haneke, I have respect for the audience. If you still want to see this movie once I’m done with it, its your choice and you should have every chance to see it the way I did. Best of luck to you on that score.
What I began to realize as I watched Funny Games is that Haneke’s contempt for his audience is also directed at his victims. He doesn’t like these soft materialists with their artificial surface niceness. This is especially clear in the US version of the film as Watts and Roth are relatively unsympathetic and the villains are kind of charismatic and amusing, particularly Michael Pitt. Furthermore, the gulf between the original and the remake makes it clear that, for Haneke, Anna and George are stand-ins for the United States. He doesn’t like us very much, particularly in light of recent current events, and he buys into the perception that we’re a spoiled and content, but violent and revenge-happy people. The fact that he may have a valid point and that American cinema may bear its share of responsibility for our behavior, particularly in the last 6 or 7 years, makes it all the more unfortunate that Haneke has blown it.
Through his numerous missteps, Haneke has created a grim, nihilistic mash-up of Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange. In the process he’s stripped both films, which are superior in every way, of their meaning. As a clever bit of sadism, it’s expertly crafted. The performances are terrific, Pitt and Corbet are genuinely creepy and unsettling and the suspense is wrenching at times, but Haneke’s anti-violence message is utterly fumbled. Funny Games will probably amuse parts of the very audience Haneke believes he is enlightening and will otherwise only appeal to those who already grasp its message.
A final word about the original vs. the remake: if you’ve seen the original, you can skip this new version. It’s a nearly shot for shot and set for set recreation. There are a couple of minor changes and some of the dialogue seems different, though this may have more to do with nuances lost in the original’s subtitle translation from German to English than any intentional changes. The victims played by Susanne Lothar (The Piano Teacher) and the terrific but recently deceased Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others) are more sympathetic in the original and the villains played by Arno Frisch (Benny’s Video) and Frank Giering are less so, but otherwise it’s essentially the same movie. I’d give the original an extra half star simply for being original.
Funny Games. Italy/Germany/UK/France/USA 2007 (released in 2008). Written and directed by Michael Haneke. Cinematography by Darius Khondji. Starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet. 1 hour 52 minutes. MPAA rated R for terror, violence and some language. 2 stars (out of 5)
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