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I walked out of Funny Games desperately needing a drink. Not because I was so disturbed by what I had seen on screen, though I was, but because I was so frustrated and angry that I’d been forced to sit through it. Michael Haneke made Funny Games 10 years ago, in German, and now has remade his own film, shot by shot, in English, for the sole purpose of getting more Americans to see it. I guarantee you that will not happen.
Funny Games is being marketed as a by-the-numbers horror thriller, in which two psychos torture an innocent, blond family. In one way it is that, but it is much more a movie about filmmaking, examining the power a director has over his audience and an audience’s desire to see awful violence in movies. Haneke has made a horror movie but he hates them, and uses his admirable arsenal of film knowledge to help the audience see the error of their torture-loving ways.
The setup is fairly boilerplate horror movie stuff. A wealthy family arrives at their vacation home, only to be interrupted by two white-clad young men, who want nothing more than to bait, torture, and kill. You know from the beginning how it’s going to go, but the interesting thing is how Haneke goes about it. Early on one of the young killers (played by the entire loathsome Michael Pitt) winks at the camera; later he turns straight to it and asks the audience what the killers should do. Haneke breaks the fourth wall to remind you of your own desires; you’re in on the plot with the killers, because really, you’ve come to this movie to see some killing.
As the boys torture their victims, so Haneke tortures us, the presumed horror movie audience. At one point the wife, Ann (Naomi Watts), is forced to strip, but we see only her anguished face in close-up. Later a character is shot, but all we ever see is a splatter of blood on the wall. It’s like Haneke is slapping our hand, saying “Oh no, you can’t have your violence! You’ve been very, very bad Americans!”
The overall effect, needless to say, is entirely obnoxious. Haneke understands very well how to manipulate an audience, the usual cinematic tools used to pique interest, provide catharsis or satisfaction. But when trying to break these rules he missteps fatally. By reminding us over and over that it’s “just a movie,” Haneke makes us aware that he’s there, pulling the strings behind the scenes. But later, when he wants us to be horrified by the violence and torture, he’s already tipped his hand. How are we intended to engage in a movie that refuses to give us the courtesy of suspending our disbelief?
Haneke wants the Americans who have made Hostel and Saw such hits to see this movie and renounce their love of horror, but the only people who will see this and stay the whole way through are film critics, who will be fascinated by Haneke’s use of style and possibly sucked in by his message. Funny Games is a movie that lives and dies on its gimmick, and when you figure out that all it’s doing is toying with us, there’s nothing left worth watching.
The kicker is that Haneke isn’t the first director, by a long shot, to implicate the audience in on screen violence or other bad behavior. Hitchcock did it in virtually all his movies, same for Brian De Palma, and even No Country for Old Men let us enjoy Javier Bardem’s killing spree before breaking our hearts when it takes our favorite victim. Haneke’s confrontational use of film style to get across the same point does not make him innovative or unique; it makes him childish. In the end the only funny games are the ones Haneke is playing with the audience. Unlike the poor, victimized family of the movie, the audience has the choice not to play.