26 March 2008

Funny Games

Written & Directed by: Michael Haneke
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A

Michael Haneke has said that his 1997 German-language film Funny Games was intended, most of all, for American audiences. Of course, the way to reach Americans, particularly those with the bloodlust Haneke’s film is meant to admonish, is not through subtitles, so the director, in an unprecedented move, has changed the actors and the language but otherwise produced a shot for shot remake of his own film. (Thus distinguishing himself from, say, Alfred Hitchcock, who remade his own The Man Who Knew Too Much, but not shot for shot, or Gus van Sant, who remade Psycho shot for shot, though it wasn’t his film originally.)

Haneke’s got good timing, if nothing else; if Funny Games, which uses cinematic hyperviolence to criticize hyperviolence in cinema, were ever coming stateside, on the heels of 2007, a particularly violent year for American movies as has been extensively noted elsewhere—from critics’ end-of-the-year essays to letters-to-the-editor—would be the time. But is Funny Games legitimate metacriticism, or is it merely glorified torture porn?

Watts and Tim Roth star as a husband-and-wife team who are terrorized, along with their prepubescent son, by two perfectly pleasant and yet sociopathic young men (Michael Pitt & Brady Corbet) who invade their idyllic Hamptons vacation home. A perfectly innocent domestic set-up—a squirm-inducing scene over borrowing some eggs—leads to a not-so-innocent result: Roth slaps Pitt in the face and the boys retaliate by breaking Roth’s knee cap with a golf club, turning one of his many bourgeois accoutrements against him, the ones Haneke obsesses over in gorgeous, fetishized close-ups. The boys proceed to beat and humiliate Watts, jump on Roth’s busted knee, wrap the kid’s head in a pillow cushion and terrify all of them with their blithe violence and lack of reason. (One of Haneke’s cheekiest moments is when he has his two torturers jokingly run through a list of conventional motives: Pitt says Corbet is a gay, white trash, drug addicted, thrill-seeking, spoiled rich kid with divorced, alcoholic parents—and a mother fucker. Another, more subtle suggestion of motive, comes when Haneke shoots Corbet standing in a door jamb, holding up a golf club like a mighty, solid phallus.)

Plus, they kill the family dog and reveal its corpse with a cruel and possibly hilarious game of “hot and cold”. If it’s true, as Haneke argues, that Americans eat-up violent movies for their violence, then Funny Games is their punishment, like the father who, catching his son smoking, makes him smoke the whole pack in succession. But what if the kid likes chain smoking? The film provokes an unbearably visceral reaction as Haneke relentlessly tortures his protagonists and, by extension, the audience. (It’s a tour de force of acting, from Pitt’s gleeful sociopath to Roth’s excruciating evocations of physical pain and emotional exhaustion; even Devon Gearhart, as the little boy, is terribly convincing as a scared shitless rugrat.) But it’s tough to believe that there’s much overlap between the multiplex crowds and the arthouse audience; that is, how many of the people filling the seats at Funny Games are torture porn enthusiasts tricked into Haneke’s scolding, and how many are masochistic arthouse junkies who thrive on Haneke’s spanking?

Therein lies the rub; Haneke may say his film is meant for American eyes in particular, presumably the kind that dole out millions in tickets for violent fare like the Hostel films, but really it’s only going to be seen by a different kind of American audience, who may still enjoy their violent movies, just with a bit more fine-tuned scripting, professional acting and intelligent direction.

Up against such audiences, Haneke’s film inevitably repels viewers if not by its sadistic violence then by its smugness. Where does this Haneke character get off thinking he’s fit to hold a mirror up to us? But if he can be forgiven his holier-than-thou attitude, he does provoke a conversation worth having about whether or not there is something terribly perverse about reveling in film violence of any kind, whether through voyeuristic pleasure or through catharsis. (Haneke’s film cruelly teases the audience and rejects the possibility of either.)

Near the film’s end, Pitt sums up Haneke’s controversial position when he posits that fiction is “just as real as reality.” (To his credit, Haneke has Corbet answer: “bullshit”.) For Haneke, it’s just as disturbing for us to not be repulsed by a violent film as it is for Corbet to sit in Watts and Roth’s posh living room and watch Nascar on the widescreen, high-definition television set while the couple sit next to him bound, gagged and in pain. (And, in Watts’ case, half-naked.)

More to the point, though, Haneke’s film is perversely entertaining for audiences with a taste for violent movies. Is there a fundamental contradiction between Haneke’s contempt for violence and his relishing in a violent attack on his audience, one that negates his intellectual argument? I saw Haneke’s original film for the first time, on DVD, a little over a year ago and I remembered it as being, above all, academic. I’m not sure if it was that my memory failed me, but watching the new version I was on the edge of my seat, feeling as emotionally distraught and tortured as his diegetic victims. The moments of metacinema, as when Pitt turns to the camera for Ferris Bueller-like asides on cinematic identification, nearly went right past me.

I suspect it may have been a result of expectations—I don’t expect movies in which people speak English to teach me overt lessons in film theory. Or perhaps it’s that subtitles rob a film of some of its potential emotional wallop; there is something to be taken from a work of art in its original language. Funny Games U.S. is far more thrilling than its ivory-tower predecessor; watching it was akin to watching any other horror movie, though with the emotional involvement raised exponentially. Funny Games offers up nothing to enjoy, only things to get upset about and lessons to learn; that is, it certainly does provoke an intellectual reaction, but much more so it elicits a pure emotional response, both awful and profound. At that point, there seems a disconnect between Haneke’s attempt and his end result—there’s still something perversely entertaining about his punishing cinematic exercise, and it’s not the stern talking to he tries to dish out.

Watch the Trailer:

No comments: