Film Reviews

Funny Games Michael Haneke

Rating - 7/10

Following its recent release in the US, Funny Games took a lot of flak from critics. Interestingly, much of the criticism of this English-language remake of director Michael Haneke’s own 1997 film of the same name focuses around the press sheet, in which the director claims that the film is an attack on the American thriller and the way it exploits violence. Critics leapt to claim that in making a film such as Funny Games, which displays a bourgeois family on vacation systematically tortured mentally and physically by a pair of giddy youths, the director buys into this exploitation and, in doing so, undermines the sense of the director’s own supposed moral superiority.

This discussion forces a rather reductive view of the film, ignoring how well it functions from a formal perspective. Furthermore, rather than flaunting its moral superiority, Funny Games is an often shockingly amoral film when taken out of context of whatever claims its press sheet may make. The audience is alternately urged to sympathize with its two charismatic killers -- played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet with an anarchic glee reminiscent of Malcom MacDowell’s role in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange -- and the family they torture. The family’s distressingly raw presentation contrasts sharply with that of the highly stylized killers, who exist as a generic thriller element honed down to bare, polished essentials. These chic, attractive killers provide the only moments of levity in what is for the most part an unbearably tense and sober film, and their exuberance at their own actions leaves the audience drawn to them as the only points of potential enjoyment or amusement in this brutal film. This simultaneous attraction/revulsion to the killers makes for a seriously uncomfortable viewing experience.

This discomfort is clearly Haneke’s aim -- throughout the film, he presents the audience with potentially “thrilling” episodes and then refuses to fulfill audience expectation, subverting the potential for nearly all traditional forms of enjoyment derived from thrillers. When the wife (Naomi Watts, in an often stunning performance) is forced to strip naked, the audience is denied a view of her nudity – the camera remains riveted on the agony of her face. In a sequence near the film’s close, the audience around me literally cheered with excitement and relief, only to be stunned into silence as their satisfaction was ripped away by a bit of formal cinematic manipulation which some viewers will undoubtedly and understandably view as unnecessarily contrived and self-consciously clever. I won’t give away the trick, but you’ll know it when you see it.

Indeed, cinematic manipulation of the audience is the core of this film, the “funny game” of the title. This approach has always been central to Haneke’s work, such as in Code Unknown or last year’s art-house hit Caché, which place audience manipulation in the context of larger national conflicts. Funny Games, however, exists outside of any such larger context. As a commentary on the (American) thriller, it is successful in forcing the audience to view the film’s violence as exclusively horrifying and degrading, rather than as entertainment on anything other than an intellectual level, but despite the press sheet’s stated goals the film’s commentary expands not much farther than this. The film exists as a closed system of sadism with few ties to the outside world, but it’s also almost a humanistic sadism. Haneke’s refusal to turn the family’s plight into any form of traditional entertainment makes it clear that he has some level of sympathy for them, despite the horrors he so willingly puts them through. Within its self-constructed bounds, Funny Games is viciously effective; as a cinematic exercise in reclaiming torture as exclusively horror, it is brutally efficient. Whether or not you want to watch something so intentionally vile is a personal decision, but to dismiss the film as an empty exercise seems beside the point – that Funny Games is a brutal exercise is the point.