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March 27, 2008

Funny Games

Funny_games Michael Haneke certainly likes to provoke polemic around his work. His penultimate film, Hidden (2007), stirred and intrigued audiences. But it also left many of us disputing that unresolved ending, burrowing for exactly what was hidden in that final scene and pondering over what it all meant.

Haneke’s latest offering, Funny Games, is an English language remake – and near carbon copy – of his 1997 French thriller of the same name. Every scene has been recreated and even the house where most of the events take place is modelled on the original.

If you go into the auditorium knowing nothing about this film, you’ll get a snippet of what’s to come from the heavy metal soundtrack that thumps along to the red-blood credits. As the first scenes unfold, we see a couple and their young son arriving at the family holiday home for their summer vacation. They’re all in good spirits and happily slip into the normal gender: George (Tim Roth) and George junior (Devon Gearhart) roll their sleeves up and start preparing the sailing boat while Ann (Naomi Watts) busies herself in the kitchen. The impression you get is of a happy, nuclear family with a comfortable, middleclass lifestyle and few worries in the world.

When the neighbour’s ‘nephew’, Peter (Brady Corbett), who’s a polite, slightly awkward kind of lad, pops over to the house to ask for some eggs, nothing appears particularly untoward. And even when he drops and smashes those eggs, you could put it down to clumsiness. But the next ‘mishap’ – involving Ann’s mobile phone and a sink containing water – makes you realise that this character is playing some kind of strange game, one that becomes even more bizarre when Peter returns with his sidekick Paul (Michael Pitt) insisting on being given more eggs. With George now a part of a tense altercation, you realise that things are on an extremely slippery slope. Yet its only after he’s attacked that the viewer starts to realise the full significance of their white gloves, donned ostensibly to play golf, but clearly because these straight-looking, college types are intent on doing serious harm.

Funny Games completely shatters the conventions associated with its genre. Firstly, the villainous duo is so far removed from the standard ‘baddie’ stereotypes that you almost don’t believe they’re capable of any ill. Their slightly square freshman-style clothing and haircuts, impeccable manners and less-than-imposing presence, make them appear more wet behind the ears than out to cause trouble. Secondly, at a few key points during the film, Paul suddenly addresses the camera directly. The first time we see this, it really jars, having come from nowhere and appearing to sit more in a comedy than a thriller/horror. But when it happens again, at a crucial moment in the final portion of the film, and events are literally rewound, we realise that the director is the one playing self-indulgent games with his audience. Thirdly, it’s rare – if not unheard of – for a film not to reveal the motives of its characters, especially if they are involved in repugnant behaviour. Even in the Coen Brothers’ latest moral-buster, No Country for Old Men, you might not emphasise with Chigurh, but you know what drives him. In Funny Games, you can search all you like but you won’t find an atom of a clue as to why these apparently educated, articulate and well-to-do boys are doing what they’re doing. Fourthly, apart from the credits, there is a striking absence of music in the film, clearly a ploy to make us as excruciatingly uncomfortable as possible in circumstances that continually edge us to the brink of endurance.

Corbett and Pitt are both convincing in their opposite roles; Corbett as the vulnerable follower, Peter, and Pitt as his highly-composed leader, Paul. A master of hyperbole, Paul delivers rhetoric scarily well and uses it as a way of exerting psychological dominance over a situation that only he ever controls. He dabbles in sarcasm claiming to be “Jaded and disgusted by the emptiness of existence”; he steps into preacher mode on hearing that the family aren’t religious; and constantly proffers advice on appropriate behaviour.

Naomi Watts is also well cast as the indignant Ann. Her body language reveals depths to her character that she’s unable to communicate through dialogue. But Watts also solidly conveys Ann’s instinctive nature and strength of will. Twelve-year-old Gearhart (George Junior) is highly expressive too and uses his already developed acting skills to powerfully convey the terror and anguish that a boy his age would undoubtedly feel. Tim Roth, on the other hand, isn’t given much room to develop a character that is disappointingly underwritten and ever so slightly annoying.

So what then is Funny Games all about? Is it pointing an accusing finger at America and the kind of pointless violence that it has spawned and continues to nurture? Or perhaps it’s telling us that there’s no hope now or for the future? What was the thinking behind remaking a film – almost frame by frame – over a decade on, without making any new observations or comments?

I’m afraid that I’ll never have the answers to these questions. But if you don’t mind subjecting yourself to pointless brutality or uneasy voyeurism, you might find an explanation buried somewhere in this disappointingly oblique piece of cinema.

[Reviewed and posted by HC]


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