Director : Michael Haneke
Screenplay : Michael Haneke
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Naomi Watts (Ann), Tim Roth (George), Michael Pitt (Paul), Brady Corbet (Peter), Devon Gearhart (Georgie), Boyd Gaines (Fred), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Betsy), Robert LuPone (Robert), Susanne C. Hanke (Betsy's Sister-in-Law), Linda Moran (Eve)
There is certainly nothing unique about a director remaking his or her own film, usually with the intention of somehow improving it. Alfred Hitchcock tried this with The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he originally made in England in black and white with Leslie Banks in 1934 and then remade in the U.S. in color with James Stewart in 1956. Most of the time, European directors do themselves a terrible disservice when they remake their films by gutting them for an ostensibly less patient and fussier American audience, the most serious offender being George Sluizer, who made a pathetic stab at updating his masterful 1988 Dutch thriller The Vanishing in 1993 by appending the original's brutal ending with a Hollywoodized kill-the-baddie climax that rang as false as star Jeff Bridges' inexplicable accent.
Michael Haneke's Funny Games, a remake of his own chilling 1997 Austrian meta-thriller, is like the anti-Vanishing. Haneke has not only refused to soften in any way the effect of his viciously effective polemic against the placid acceptance of film violence, but has rigorously remade his original film shot for shot on sets that match the originals in exact proportion. The new Funny Games is, in virtually every sense, the identical twin of the original with different actors and only slightly different set dressing. The question we are left with, then, is “Why?” Why would a director as gifted as Haneke return to the scene of his crime only to replicate it exactly?
My contention is that the remake is as much a perverse experiment in audience manipulation as the original, except once removed. For those American viewers who never saw the original, they will be subjected to the same experimental entrapment in which Haneke lures them into watching what should be unwatchable and then draws their attention to their unexamined desires. For those who have already seen the original and then see the remake, it's an even more sinister rebuke: Why are you back? In the 10 years since the original, not only has nothing changed (we still love the thrills of movie violence), but it's arguably gotten more intense in the era of Saw and Hostel torture porn. In this respect, Funny Games seems even more appropriate than when the original was made as a response to hyper-violent arthouse fare like Reservoir Dogs (1992).
The story is deceptively simple. It opens with a comfortably wealthy family comprised of father George (Tim Roth), mother Ann (Naomi Watts), and adorable preteen son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) driving out to their summer lakeside home in their Range Rover, towing a sailboat and playing guessing games with the opera on the CD player. Haneke immediately establishes that something will go terribly wrong when he breaks the reverie of Handle, Mascagni, and Mozart with the jolting screams of John Zorn's industrial heavy metal, an audacious and unsettling interruption that sonically foreshadows the intrusion of violence into the family's otherwise serene existence and constitutes the first of many assaults on the audience's sensibilities.
Violence comes to the door dressed in gleaming white polos, white gloves, and deck shoes. Two young men, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), whom George and Ann had seen standing in the yard with their neighbors a few minutes earlier, appear at their door asking to borrow some eggs. There is something not quite right--oddly disaffected--about them, but they are well-dressed, well-scrubbed, and have the proper level of politeness and gentility. What follows is perhaps the film's best sequence, as Ann goes through a verbal dance with Peter in which polite geniality is tested, then tested again, then tested yet again until it starts to crack and become terse frustration. The escalation is slow and methodical, and it's impossible to tell at exactly what point we realize that there is danger in the air, although all pretenses are dropped with an exchange of insults, a slap, and then a golf club smashing George's knee. At that point, it's clear that the family is in for hell.
What transpires over the next hour and a half is a sadistic game of cat and mouse in which the smiling, polite youth keep the family hostage in their own home, torturing them psychologically with a series of “games” in which their lives hang in the balance. The seclusion of the family's summer home--well off the road and safely ensconced behind an electronic gate--becomes their prison, ensuring that no one can hear them scream and no one is coming to their aid (a cell phone “accidentally” knocked into the sink cuts off all outside contact). In other words, with little effort the intruders are able to turn the family's security--the exclusive province of the wealthy--into a tool of their punishment. It should also be noted that all of the instruments of violence are not brought into the house by the intruders, but are already there: a golf driver, kitchen knives, and later a shotgun taken from the neighbor's house.
When the original was released in 1997, Haneke made it abundantly clear what his intentions were. In his director's statement, he noted that film violence has been “domesticated” to the point of no longer rightly offending the audience, thus the question becomes not “how do I show violence, but how do I show the viewer his own position in relation to violence and its portrayal?” To this end, Haneke steps outside the bounds of the conventional thriller and adopts several Brechtian techniques that directly confront the viewer with his or her culpability in watching the film. Several times Paul breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly either with his knowing gaze or by speaking to us, taunting us with what he knows are our generic desires. Do we want to see more? Do we want to see a proper ending? What would a proper ending in such a film look like? We get a glimpse when Haneke allows the film to diverge into more traditionally gratifying territory, only to cruelly rewind it and set it back on its original, nihilistic trajectory. It is this teasing attitude, this viciousness disguised as playfulness, that set off so many with the original, and Haneke has kept every bit of it intact.
The effectiveness of Funny Games to some extent lies with the individual viewer, which is ultimately true of every film. Haneke's experiment is a success if you walk out of the film not only talking about it, but questioning your own role as an accessory to the film's “crime.” Art film enthusiasts will likely do this if only because they know they're supposed to, which feeds into criticisms that the film is just a sop to the egos of “sophisticated” filmgoers who can revel in their own intelligence and bemoan the density of the general movie-going masses who won't “get it.”
In this respect, Haneke's remaking the film in English with, if not marquee movie stars, then at least well-known actors, is a brilliant ploy. Far from being a pointless shot-for-shot rehash, Haneke's remake makes it potentially more accessible, which is crucial to its point, especially for the gory horror movie crowd for whom human suffering is a typical night out on the town. Yet, the true brilliance in the film is this: Regardless of the viewer's response, Haneke wins. If they “get it,” then his film has successfully drawn the viewer's attention to the otherwise unexamined. If the viewer doesn't “get it,” then the film has proved the point that we are, in fact, inured to onscreen bloodshed. Either way, Haneke's film is vividly conceived and dazzling in its manipulation of audience expectations, simultaneously gratifying and thwarting them in the way that only a truly masterful filmmaker is capable.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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