Funny Games is Michael Haneke's intellectual provocation to audiences who enjoy cinema violence, simultaneously denying fans and the curious any overt footage of cruelty, and obsessing on the emotional turmoil and often dull rhetoric between the nasty games two bourgeois snots inflict upon a couple and their son.
There's little doubt Haneke is manipulating viewers at every turn, with each shot, sound, and laboured long take maximizing tension or inflicting interminable stillness that, within a normal thriller, usually signals a major onscreen shock but in Funny Games is completely denied.
The main shocks begin discreetly – the portly killer who comes for a quartet of eggs placing his latex-sheathed hand on the kitchen counter – and progress to post-trauma shots of blood and the crumpled legs of fresh cadavers, but the director never shows us a violent bloodied act except in one instance which, in a controversial movie, is taken away, denying genre fans the revenge blast that's 99.9% written into a film so audiences can leave with some sense of justice meted out by a victim towards his/her tormentor.
In following through with his vicious plotting, Haneke ends the film much like the unrelenting shock finale of George Sluizer's original Dutch version of The Vanishing / Spoorloos (1988), and sets up the continuation of further carnage in a sly, understated European style. Each of the final scenes are natural segments of the killers' efforts to carry on their games, so their own little 'Olympics of intimate cruelty' are reset with new forced participants whose personalities, familial relations, and intimate flaws will offer new experiences and behavioural surprises for the malicious duo.
Logically, one can presume they'll continue to spend the summer trotting from neighbour to neighbour in isolated lake communities until the police get wind of their actions or until they become careless, but in designing a cerebral venue to challenge audience expectations of media-sensationalized violence, Haneke also demands audiences accept the reasons specific characters at specific moments simply don't bolt, swim to safety, or run for help far from the physical proximity of the psychos.
Haneke opens up the drama locations twice in the midsection by allowing two characters to leave the house, but they're cheats; it's a genre convention that ensure no matter where a freed victim runs, the killer will be right behind them, or just around the corner.
It's also a dumb conceit we accept in a B-thriller, and while one can accept Haneke throwing in these moments to comfort audiences wanting a familiar release that begets the usual physical battle prior to death, abduction, or further torment, even though he denies the physical battle (and resulting onscreen violence), Haneke's use of these familiar conventions arguably weakens the believability of his story; Haneke merely reconfirms Funny Games isn't a narrative movie, but an endurance test for those willing to wait in the hopes he'll deliver on violence, or for those wanting a masochistic relationship with a thriller film. By denying visual gore and aiming for a kind of mundane-paced emotional sadism, his film isn't a cathartic thriller but a meticulously organized experiment, and quite sterile.
Rather than compare Funny Games to standard thrillers of any era, there's perhaps an argument to me made in citing the film as an anti-movie template that can be applied to several genres: to deny the happy events in standard boy-meets-girl fluff romances, the resilience of an underdog fighting oppression and his victory, or a home-grown football team beating the odds and winning the championship are anathema to mainstream films, and when Haneke's template of non-reward and non-compliance is specifically used on American genre conventions, the results would be just as intriguing on a theoretical level, if not frustrating for audiences denied the relationships, plot turns, and finales they expect in their cookie-cutter escapism.
(Put another way, imagine the grotesquely maudlin and repulsively manipulative sports drama We Are Marshall without its rallying speeches, clichéd archetypes, homespun wisdom, the larding of pop songs and training montages, and a finale where nobility inspires a town, a nation, and the world for generations. The transformed film would be rather sterile, but like Funny Games, the clinical reconstruction of such a genre entry would make for a fascinating experiment, and lay bare the mechanisms writers use to create a banal albeit highly successful genre entry.)
Kino's DVD offers a clean transfer of Funny Games with an excellent interview (conducted in French with English subs) where the director explains the roots of his film - borne from the outrage of Benny's Video (1992) and his own research that apparently revealed a significant amount of vicious crimes committed by rich snots wanting new sensations – and what he tried to achieve in his mean little experiment.
His self-reflective comments are often intriguing, as are some beliefs that aren't wholly assured: people will sit through Funny Games not because of a need to be brutalized, but through a basic curiosity in problem solving (who will survive) that has less to do with violence obsession and more with knowing the conclusion to a mystery element; we still want to know who are these guys, and whether Anna will survive the night.
Moreover, because of the film's reputation for not showing onscreen violence, one can watch it with a measure of security in spite of the performances being far more affecting than watching someone get their head blown off in grand, bloody detail.
Haneke chose to remake Funny Games in 2007 (starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), but it seems like a wasted effort not just because it's a shot-for-shot English version with a cast resembling the original actors, but due to the emergence of orgiastic blood-letting in the still-beating torture porn and sado-porn genres. There is a place for intellectual experimentation, but he's preaching to the wrong fan groups, unless the effects of cruelty on an average family in a pretty home still provoke thought instead of watching teens and youths being disemboweled, dismembered, or sexually violated. If the emotions of everyday victims in banal surroundings still resonate, then Haneke's shock film will maintain its impact for another decade.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan