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Funny Games

Troubled by the consumption of commodified violence of the sort churned out by Hollywood, Austrian director Michael Haneke made a clever provocation in 1997 entitled “Funny Games”, the story of a family on vacation at their summer home—husband and wife and young boy—who are mentally and physically brutalized by two lissome young intruders with psychopathic personality disorder dressed in tennis whites and golf gloves.   To show the consequences of violence, the part Haneke reckons Hollywood leaves out, was the point.   It was one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, yet I thought it fascinating—a rigorous, complicated, dialectical piece that wanted at once to sound the tocsin and to work as a harrowing narrative that expertly manipulated genre codes and artfully modified time and space.  

The idea motivating this new shot-for-shot American remake starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the mother and father is apparently to inject this adrenaline machine into the bloodstream of the American media-industrial complex.   It is an extraordinarily precise recreation, down to shot angle and length—I read that Haneke even procured the blueprints from the house used in the Austrian version so that the Long Island house would have exactly the same layout.   Watts gives an absolutely fearless performance: being the victim of the sort of scenario depicted in this film is amongst the worst nightmares a human being could imagine, and she goes there, all the way.   And young Devon Gearhart is absolutely convincing as the son—the terror in his eyes is so real.    

Like the original, the remake is brilliant cinema qua cinema.   Consider the lengthy shot of the blood-streaked TV screen showing a droning Nascar race: a complex visual synecdoche.   Take its use of sound: there’s no score, so in the background we hear birds chirping and, as the day turns into night, the buzzing of crickets; these ordinary sounds are somehow more disturbing than a pulse-pounding score.   Late in the film we hear a dropped golf ball rolling across the floor before we see it; because of what’s come before, we know that this sound signifies another round of horrors.        

There’s another twist: we realize that the leader of the two intruders seems aware that he’s in a movie.   From time to time he speaks directly to us.   Here Haneke is dragging out into the light the relationship between the film and the audience.   After the father calls out “That’s enough!” the young man turns to us and asks, “What do you think?   Do you think it’s enough?”   When Watts sobs, “Why are you doing this?” he replies, “You shouldn’t underestimate the importance of entertainment!”    

And so the American remake stirs anew the restless questions raised by the original: Is this film profoundly immoral…or deeply moral?   Does Haneke loathe the audience, or is he acting in our interest?   What interests him more: implicating us, or showing us how we’re being manipulated?   Is the film hypocritical?   Personally, I think Haneke can justify everything that happens in this movie.   However, because “Funny Games” is a provocation, anything one could say about it is fair enough, I suppose, except for one thing: you can’t say it doesn’t make you think.   Meticulously designed to be a bone in the throat of the consumerist system, it still can’t be easily swallowed.

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

- Mar 25, 2008

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