Last year sometime, a friend of mine suggested I watch Funny Games. I put it on my Netflix cue, with some reluctance and very low expectations. All I’d seen of Michael Haneke’s work at that point was Cache (Hidden), a movie I found interesting when it came out in the theater, but didn’t totally appreciate right away. It wasn’t until my Netflix’d Funny Games arrived in the mail that I started to hear, or rather see, Haneke’s voice. That day I ran out and bought Cache, and upon second and third viewings really started to appreciate what Haneke is up to. Today I bought tickets to the first screening of the new Funny Games remake that I could make it to. And I was not disappointed.
There’s a lot of things that could be addressed in this remake of Funny Games. It is a shot-for-shot remake, more or less, of the original. Even more so than Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho remake. It is particularly odd because the director is remaking his own film in this case, simply replacing actors and languages. Many might ask Why? And I say Why Not? What’s the point? Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe, there is. Maybe it’s a non-issue.
Like the two villains in the picture who completely separate the gruesome murders they’ve just performed from the philosophical discussion they have at the end of the film about the distinction between physical reality and anti-physical reality, it is my contention that the point of this remake is simultaneously profound but ultimately a discussion that has nothing to do with the actual work itself.
What interests me in Funny Games, particularly this remake, is the partnership Haneke seeks to establish with his audience. Haneke expects his viewers to take part and intellectually participate in the cinematic experience, rather than sit back and mentally check out. Funny Games is not escapism, it is decidedly the opposite. It is provocation on a level seen rarely in the movie world – perhaps in the films of Stanley Kubrick or Jean-Luc Godard or Brian DePalma. Even Tarantino. But few others. Provocation may be a misleading term, however, when it is actually the heightening of awareness these directors seek. They respect the audience enough to include them in the process. These guys hope to include rather than exclude the viewer.
In an effort to accomplish this partnership Funny Games is self-conscious to a maddening degree. From the opening shots that recall the opening of Kubrick’s The Shining, the soundtrack alternates between classical orchestrations and the most overwhelming death metal. Even before that, the opening credits play small red text over a solid black screen, to no music, for what seems an eternity, the silence of the theater is so profound, and those watching the film fall into a sort of reverential silence, comparable only to the moment when one enters a museum, or the beats before a conductor raises his arms before his orchestra. People stop eating popcorn. They put away their snacks. They stop moving lest the chair squeaks or their clothes rustle.
Relating the story of a family of three (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and young Devon Gearhart) arriving at their seaside vacation home only to be summarily taken hostage in their own space by a couple of thugs who look like they stepped out of a Brett Easton Ellis novel, Haneke makes powerful use of long-takes and precise framing to inject the picture with inescapable tension. It doesn’t hurt that the young thugs (Brady Corbet as Peter and Michael Pitt as Paul) look like the rebellious youth of another Kurbick film: A Clockwork Orange. Dressed in all white golf attire, they recall the droogs in a not-so-subtle nod to one of cinemas most treasured meditations on violence.
Going in, I was not aware Darius Khondji shot this, and when his name appeared on screen I let out a little, “Yes!”, knowing the pic would be photographed flawlessly. Working with such cinematic giants as Jean Pierre Jeunet and David Fincher, Khondji is a master in his own right, particularly adept at exploiting monochromatic color schemes in single locations as he did in Jeunet’s Delicatessen and Fincher’s Panic Room.
Funny Games is also a film that takes place primarily in one locale, and is dominated by a single color, in this case white. Everything is white. The family’s sport of choice is golf, and white golf balls show up throughout the film. The presumptive reason the intruders first enter the home of Watts and Roth is for white eggs. The walls of the house’s interior are white, with white moldings, where white frames hold white pictures. And this is ultimately a film about white on white crime, the children of the bourgeoisie exacting extreme, emotionless pain and suffering on the generation that preceded them. It is no surprise that when Peter and Paul force Watts’ Ann to spend a portion of the film in her underwear that her bra is skin-colored and her panties are of the whitest white.
Funny Games is ultimately a picture about viewership, about the unannounced pact that is made between the author of a work and his audience. To be clear, it is not a movie about voyeurism. On the contrary, Haneke doesn’t want to spy on his characters or have the audience spy on them. Actually it seems like he aims to present his characters as complicit in their situation. It is about eliciting a response, each party taking responsibility.
More than a few critics have attacked the film for being exploitive, for being nothing more than torture porn, in the same vein as Saw or Hostel, merely wrapping its exploits in philosophical pretenses and hiding behind its superficial intellectualism. I see just the opposite. I get the feeling Haneke knows – just as Tarantino has argued and Peckinpah made clear and Hitchcock became famous for – that violence is in fact an important part of cinema. Not because the acts of violence themselves are justifiable in real life, but because violence is itself cinematic and not only justifiable but welcome on screen.
If violence is cinematic, and a work of cinema is disturbing to an audience, then that work is ultimately effective. Following this logic, Funny Games is most probably a masterpiece, for very few films have successfully inspired in its viewers such anxiety and discomfort. If you’re looking for other examples track down Gasper Noe’s Irreversible.