FUNNY GAMES — Michael Haneke, USA, 2008, 5
Rarely does a single number so poorly sum up my reaction to a film as this one. It doesn’t mean, as “5” usually does, that I think the film is passably mediocre, with good points and bad points in about equal proportion. I’ll be writing about two such “5-grade” movies next. Not this time — FUNNY GAMES is a brilliantly done thesis that frankly flirts with moral depravity (and in a certain sense, it simply IS depraved). But there’s one big honking question that I never got satisfactorily answered:
Haneke himself, who I count as one of my three favorite foreign directors (the Dardennes and Von Trier being the others), made this movie 10 years ago, when he was still a barely-known director in Austria. And I don’t mean that he made another movie titled FUNNY GAMES; I mean that he made, to the extent that one can, the exact same movie, with nary a change in the shots, in the angles, in the decor, in the story details. I’ve seen the Austrian movie twice — it’s #4 on my 1998 list, though it only moved up on a second retrospective viewing.¹
But FUNNY GAMES, whether 1.0 or 2.0, is a deliberately repellent movie — a couple of well-mannered and -dressed teens insinuate their way into a bourgeois family’s vacation home and proceed to play a game of tormenting them, unto death. And the point … well, there isn’t one, and that’s the whole point really (which is ultimately what makes this morally-indefensible film morally defensible; it’s as morally ugly as pointless nihilism should be). Haneke denies all meaning, all narrative logic, all social criticism, all context to its violence — in fact, the film explicitly mocks those very ideas.
He even refuses the pornographic pleasures of violence itself since the “money shots” are all offscreen and seen only in their effects — it’s all psychological torment in which the dread of the family as it realizes what is happening matches our uneasiness at watching this spectacle and the futility of our efforts to assign it meaning. The only real “pleasure” either film offers, though it’s a considerable one IMHO, is the spectacle of Haneke’s formal mastery and masochistically being under its control. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that so explicitly identifies its director and its audience with different onscreen characters and then have those characters be so explicitly and radically differentiated.
However, that’s when the film, either version, is viewed “meta” or viewed as discourse. Because viewed as a film-on-its-own-terms rather than a thesis, the only morally acceptable response to FUNNY GAMES is to walk out, as Haneke himself has said, which is part of why the current version has inspired such a hate-filled reaction. At a certain level, if the film weren’t widely reviled, it would be a failure.
There are some casting problems in the American version though. Michael Pitt as the lead invader is not Arno Frisch (i.e., he didn’t star in BENNY’S VIDEO and I think that matters) and Brady Corbett as his companion looks too much like Pitt (Frank Giering didn’t look at all like Frisch) leaving an inadvertant impression Haneke just doesn’t like round-faced dirty-blonds (vjm gulps). But more importantly, Pitt also is far too naturalistic when he delivers the camera asides that are *absolutely crucial,* in fact the film’s whole raison d’etre because they are what turn the film into discourse. And he also isn’t sarcastic enough when saying things like “he came from a broken home” that while, not Brechtian asides, are clearly intended for the audience of FUNNY GAMES in the theater — “do you actually think this morally disgusting movie would be improved if I told you some such claptrap?” Haneke says. To be effective, these moments have to throw you out of the movie. In fact this is why The Moment late in the film (and if you’ve seen either movie, you know what I’m talking about … the air is let out of the audience) is such a moment of perverse and perverted genius — it’s the ultimate indication of how arbitrary and “closed” a completed film is. Speaking vaguely, and to use a metaphor from another audience member that I refer to below, the invaders cannot lose the game. But the director can’t either, because he created and controls the universe of the film.²
But given that they are the same movie in every important respect, though, the American film never transcends it basic redundancy. It cannot give a convincing need for its own existence in a world in which the Austrian film also exists (and yes, I do wonder what my opinions of the two films would be if I had seen it in English first and German later).
When asked “why?” in interviews, Haneke himself has been pretty consistent: he wants Americans to see it and sees movie violence as an American. But then, that reduces the movie to getting a particular reaction from a particular audience. And at that level, FUNNY GAMES fails completely:
(1) it’s not playing to “the audience” (in general terms) who didn’t see the original, instead showing largely at art-houses or limited-run theaters. It’s playing on eight screens in the Washington area, only four of which I would call multiplexes (the casting of Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt ensured this). It also happens to be doing poorly at the box office, not even cracking the Top 20.
(2) its point, and the only terms on which the film is morally defensible (i.e., as a meta-film or what Jim Emerson at the Sun-Times calls a thesis), is too elusive for the multiplex. The audience with whom I saw FUNNY GAMES had 4 other people, two groups of two … and when the movie was over, the four just looked at each other and said aloud among themselves “what was that all about.” They couldn’t make sense of the film until I did it for them.
And yes, I realize I’m citing box-office grosses, screen counts, and “reviewing the audience” — none of which I consider legitimate forms of criticism, except under this specific circumstance. Or rather, if a circumstance other than “a movie that has no reason to exist as a work of art but only as a means to reach a particular audience” would justify such approaches, I can’t think of it. So FUNNY GAMES has to be chalked up as a well-done exercise in pointlessness.
¹ My first FUNNY GAMES viewing was my first exposure to Haneke and the film needs contextualization in his whole body of work more than most films do.
² … and parenthetically, how silly it is to praise a movie for open-endedness or supposedly freely putting ideas into conflict.