Thursday, March 13, 2008
In 1997, Austrian director Michael Haneke (Caché) made the deeply unsettling meta-thriller Funny Games. Because it was a German-language film, it was seen by relatively few Americans. A decade later, Haneke has re-made his own movie in English, with familiar actors for wider American release – because he’s never content with pissing off a few people when he can piss off a lot more.
That’s an over-simplification, of course – but probably not by much. Many who saw the original were actively angered by it, but the film’s thematic targets seemed much more appropriate within the context of American pop culture. Cinema junkies familiar with Haneke’s original have already let loose a fusillade of “why bother,” insuring that even those usually in his artistic corner now have something to complain about as well. In a film landscape dominated by artists bent on ingratiating themselves, the guy makes an impression.
But the chilling 2008 model of Funny Games reminds us that Haneke succeeds at more than mere provocation. The premise is identical to that of its predecessor: Upscale couple George (Tim Roth) and Anna (Naomi Watts) are driving to their lakeside vacation home with their son Georgie (Devon Gearheart). Upon arriving, they notice their neighbors behaving strangely, and soon receive a visit from two young men claiming to be guests of those neighbors. But Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), despite their clean-cut looks and white tennis clothes, aren’t particularly pleasant guests. And the games they have in mind for Anna, George and Georgie are considerably more brutal than tennis.
The basic plot mechanics aren’t the only thing that should be familiar to those who saw the 1997 version. Haneke isn’t the first foreign auteur to re-make one of his own movies in English, but what’s remarkable about Funny Games v. 2.0 is that it’s practically a shot-for-shot, word-for-word reproduction of the original. The sets are the same; the credits are the same; the music cues are the same; even the oversize sweater worn by the female lead at one point appears to be the same. There’s something remarkably, almost refreshingly arrogant about the gesture: Haneke is basically saying, “I nailed it the first time, so why mess around with superficial changes?”
And damn him, he’s right. Funny Games in both its incarnations delivers an assault on the entire idea of what we permit ourselves to find “entertaining,” by breaking down the buffers between media violence and its viewers. From the moment that Haneke dares to kill off a family pet, he begins to hammer at the expectations of his genre. His “villains” address the camera directly, taunting our helpless voyeurism; a moment of cathartic release suddenly turns into a sucker punch. Rarely has a film pushed an audience so hard to ask itself why the hell we’re watching in the first place.
But what’s remarkable about Funny Games is how masterfully Haneke manipulates emotions even as he’s reminding us repeatedly that he’s not playing fair. The dull, excruciating mechanics of simple survival dominate a single sustained take that may last seven or eight minutes, but feels infinitely longer. As a simple exercise in genre filmmaking, it’s terrifically tense, especially because there’s no way to anticipate where Haneke will go.
FUNNY GAMES (3½ ) Directed by Michael Haneke • Starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt. • R, 107 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.