(My review of "Funny Games" is here. See also Your User's Guide to Movie Violence, a discussion below.)
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"You Must Admit, You Brought This On Yourself" -- advertising tagline, and line of dialog, from "Funny Games" (2008)
"Funny Games" (the 2008 Hollywood movie-star version of the virtually identical 1997 Euro-version) is a conceptual work, an aestheticized test. It's debatable whether the movie (already a replica) is necessary, except as an object that represents the larger concept -- like, say, an Andy Warhol Brillo box or Jeff Koons' vacuum cleaners in plexiglass cases.
You could say something similar about the high-concept "Snakes On a Plane," and you'd be right. The difference is that the marketing campaign behind the packaging of "Snakes On a Plane" was designed to sell exactly the entertainment experience that the title promised. With "Funny Games," there's a deliberate element of bait-and-switch involved. It's being sold as entertainment, but that's not at all what it intends to deliver. The experience of "Funny Games" exists in the tension between the pitch and the delivery -- which will largely determine the relationship between the viewer and the film he/she sees.
So, the promotional materials for "Funny Games" (poster art, trailers, online videos, etc.) are more than the usual extensions or enhancements of the movie. They frame the experience, but they're also essential elements of the movie itself. Why you decide to watch it (or not) is every bit as central to the movie's concerns as anything in the movie itself. That may be true of any movie, but "Funny Games" puts it right there in the foreground where you can't miss it.
Promotional art for the 1997 version.
If you go expecting entertainment and are entertained (or, at least, terrified -- held hostage by your own expectations), that will be one thing. If you go expecting a moral lesson about the appeal of violence in movies, and you feel chastened and sullied, that will be another. If you go expecting a thriller or a comedy and find nothing thrilling or funny about it, that will be something else. If you go expecting to be toyed with and, say, enjoy feeling that you're ahead of the movie (maybe because you've already seen the 1997 version), that will provide yet another experience. If you value writer-director Michael Haneke's other work and want to see why he's chosen to remake this one... well, I hope you get the idea.
So, the first part of the experiment involves your decision to participate or not. The movie is the second part.
A friend of mine describes "Funny Games" as an endurance test -- something that has to be experienced so that you can talk about it afterwards. I think that's a pretty good description, because the reviews and the discussion are at least as important as the marketing and the movie -- and very likely more emotionally engaging than the film itself. I see it as a different kind of test, a test of free will. Whether you loathe the movie, or laugh at it, or enjoy it, or find it edifying, or think it's dumber than you are, or wonder what all the fuss was about, all that really matters is: What will you sit still for, and why?
"Funny Games" is an experiment along the lines of the famous Milgram and Stanford prison experiments. In other words, the movie is also an incitement to action. To politely and willingly submit to the movie's terms of authority is to sheepishly put yourselves in the same position as the captives in the movie, to accept its premise that "You brought this on yourself."
Once you buy into that, even a little bit, then you are trapped. The film demands something more than that you just sit there and take it, especially if you reject what you're seeing. If you passively "give up," then both you and the movie have failed the conceptual challenge. Maybe this is taking Haneke too seriously, but if he really means what he says he's attempting to do, he might well claim that fitting, healthy responses to the film would involve forms of protest and civil disobedience that... well, you'll have to figure out where to draw the line yourself. For me, free speech demands more free speech.
J. Hoberman in the Village Voice writes:
"Funny Games" is ultimately about forcing the viewer to confront his or her expectations. Would you enjoy seeing a terrified, helpless, half-naked woman? (The remake's major concession to the American market is a long scene of Naomi Watts hopping around in her underwear; in the original, the wife is clothed.) Are you getting bored? Isn't it about time for something to happen? Do you want to see the worm turn? Or simply wish the movie would end? Professional obligations required that I endure it, but there's no reason why you should.
This ties back to Haneke's own statement that, "Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film, and anybody who stays does."
"Funny Games" represents the laborious execution of an abstract notion. The concept is the movie, kind of like Andy Warhol's 1964 "Empire," an eight-hour stationary shot of the Empire State Building. You don't have to sit through the whole thing to get the point, unless you really want to.
So, you will have your reasons for seeing "Funny Games" or not seeing "Funny Games." And you will have your reasons for sitting all the way through it or walking out. The essential thing is to understand why you are choosing to do whatever you do. If you're curious to see how it turns out, then go ahead. If you find yourself feeling that life is too short to subject yourself to this kind of game, that's OK, too. But it's your decision.
And now, for fun, here are some excerpts from the reviews. Haneke should be absolutely thrilled with every one of these -- perhaps especially the negative ones:
The picture, remade by the maestro Haneke himself, is every bit as gripping, suspenseful and upsetting as the original. And it's even more of a crock. [...]
Throughout the picture, Haneke demonstrates an imperial hauteur that completely undercuts his already dubious point. After having his characters establish the unreality of the piece by addressing the camera, he then depicts, as realistically as contemporary cinematic technology will allow, the very real pain and humiliation suffered by victims of actual violence. [...]
Not terribly convincing stuff, as it happens, and a bit too-little-too-late after Haneke's high-handed deck-stacking. Funny Games is an accomplished film... but my ultimate advice to movie lovers is to spare yourselves some needless abuse and not bother to play at all.-- Glenn Kenny, Premiere
The white gloves should be a tipoff, for, ingratiating good manners aside, the two are a couple of psychopaths whose idea of “funny games” is first verbal and then physical abuse and brutality. And the rules of these games, diabolical and repeatedly changed to keep screwing the unwilling players, have a kind of sick logic and a demented justice. As much as you want to root for the victims — excruciatingly portrayed by Watts, Roth, and Gearhart — you might also suspect that they’re getting what’s coming to them. Even the dog is an annoying yapper.
Yet not even [10-year-old] Georgie deserves what these creeps eventually dish out. [...]
Audiences, in America especially, are happy to be entertained by the spectacle of graphic violence and not so happy to have to confront the human toll in pain and loss. You could ask why, but what fun would that be? Moral queries aside, "Funny Games" is a masterpiece of making audiences squirm and understanding why they do.-- Peter Keough, Boston Phoenix
By withholding the worst we can imagine, yet finding ways to deliver worse, Haneke rigs the movie into a weapon against its audience. Like the infected porn that destroys perverts in Cronenberg’s "Videodrome," "Funny Games" means to kill our pleasure in the very thing we theoretically paid to see: zipless, guilt-free, morally untroubled mayhem.
That mission makes "Funny Games" an easy movie to despise but an impossible one to shake. The ultimate irony is that Haneke is very, very good at the genre he appears to hate: His anti-suspense measures prove far more upsetting than the usual thriller gear-grinding, which is why thrill junkies are already salivating over the movie’s opening day, eager to watch Haneke launch his assault upon an unsuspecting megaplex audience. I might even show up myself, just to see the suckers flinch. That’s entertainment.-- Jim Ridley, L.A. Weekly
Michael Haneke's nearly shot-for-shot English-language remake of his 1997 Austrian thriller "Funny Games" has to be one of the most perverse experiments in cinema history—more so even than Gus Van Sant's "Psycho," which at least had the advantage of updating a film that people consider fondly. Haneke's film, by contrast, doesn't play the audience like a piano so much as rap its fingers for touching the keys; his tone is deliberately aggressive, confrontational, and scolding, and many of the critics, festival-goers, and arthouse audiences who saw "Funny Games" in '97 responded with equivalent outrage and contempt. A chilly and extraordinarily controlled treatise on film violence, "Funny Games" punishes the audience for its casual bloodlust by giving it all the sickening torture and mayhem it could possibly desire. Neat trick, that.-- Scott Tobias, The Onion A.V. Club
Now it's your turn.
With "Funny Games," Michael Haneke's uber-disturbing remake of his own 1997 Austrian thriller, the director reasserts his omnipotence over all he surveys and constructs -- namely, a home invasion on Long Island's tony North Shore that features terror, murder, degradation and a Bunuelian bursting of characters' bourgeois bubbles, sans the Bunuelian laughs. It is a puppet-master's movie, a manipulation -- agit-prop dressed as absurdist black comedy. [...]
Some may ask why Haneke felt compelled to remake a film that was so unpleasant to begin with.... As the original film's purpose was a critique of American-style media violence, what we have now is a challenging movie made more accessible, at least to Americans.-- John Anderson, Washington Post
“Why don’t you just kill us and get it over with?” George whimpers. His would-be killer’s reply — “What about entertainment?” — carries beyond the screen, where the voyeuristic masses are implicated in the gruesome spectacle of senseless cruelty. Are we, though? What if the guilt trip never takes off? Or, even worse, what if the American audience, cretins that we are, were to embrace Mr. Haneke’s vision not for its moral stringency but for the thrill of, say, watching Ms. Watts, bound at the ankles and wrists, hop around in her underwear? Who will be implicated then? I started out by calling Mr. Haneke a sadist, but it seems to me that he may be too naïve, too delicate, to merit that designation, which should be reserved only for the greatest filmmakers. [...]
... (If Mr. Haneke wanted to break into the American market, rather than take solace in the ambivalent embrace of the intelligentsia, he should have undertaken not a remake but a sequel.) The “Hostel” pictures and their ilk revel in the pornography of blood and pain, which Mr. Haneke addresses with mandarin distaste, even as he feeds the appetite for it.-- A.O. Scott, New York Times
Michael Haneke's remake of his 1997 film is pure tension. I always complain about stupid victims; here, the victims are mature and privileged. Their arrogance -- bad things don't happen to people with a Long Island Sound summer mansion -- infuriates the viewer. These people cannot imagine anything bad ever happening to them. It's their downfall. [...]
German director/writer Michael Haneke presents a subtly frightening experience that American audiences haven't seen before. It's slow and deliberate. Except for some foolishness by the victims -- don't bother to pick up a knife but keep blow-drying the wet cell phone -- Haneke's style and the harrowing ending makes this the most chilling, best movie I've seen so far this year.-- Victoria Alexander, Films in Review
Hating Michael Haneke’s Funny Games would be altogether too easy, because that’s exactly what the movie wants you to do. Deliberately despicable, it’s an outrageous provocation aiming for obscenity. That it is also a model of impeccable craftsmanship makes it perhaps even more bothersome. An art-punk lecture gone weirdly wrong, the film works in ways the director presumably never intended. But the nasty thing works all the same.-- Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly
"Who on earth would want to see that?” —Overheard at a Los Angeles multiplex during the trailer to Michael Haneke’s "Funny Games"
“That was weird, but I kind of want to see it again.” —Overheard following the midnight premiere of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival
"Funny Games" offers a genuine revelation... in the form of the 26-year-old American actor Michael Pitt ("Last Days," "The Dreamers"), whose performance as the film’s alpha intruder, Paul (played in the original version by "Benny’s Video" star Arno Frisch), rivals Malcolm McDowell’s iconic turn in "A Clockwork Orange" in its balletic, gleeful amorality. It’s a performance so commanding, in fact, that it shifts the focus of the film from the homeowners to their uninvited guests. “In the Austrian version, you had the impression that the main parts are the parents, and now it’s different,” Haneke concurs. “Now you know that [Paul] is the main part.”
But the greatest strength of Haneke’s film remains its unceasing conceptual rigor. Seen a decade ago, the movie’s hard-line critique of media violence and its transformation of human torture into a spectator sport might have seemed a tad reactionary. In 2008, it feels like a high-IQ smart bomb launched into the culture of commemorative Abu Ghraib snapshots, the endless slo-mo looping of the 9/11 attacks, and the use of odds-making vernacular to turn everything from the Iraq war to the presidential election into their own brand of funny games. -- Scott Foundas, from an interview with Haneke in the L.A. Weekly
Haneke, the Austrian director whose "Cache" explored like-minded themes of paranoia, menace, and toggling realities (the hero's reality, and the moviegoer's), is devilishly smart. He's an adept manipulator who goes one better by calling attention to his manipulations, questioning them, and then, still, managing to freak us out in the coldest, cruelest ways.-- Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
Although derived from the siege situations memorably played out in "The Desperate Hours," Sam Peckinpah’s "Straw Dogs," or John Brahms’ agreeably hokey 1967 feature "Hot Rods to Hell," Haneke’s film refuses the cathartic release of those earlier movies. The particular greatness of "Straw Dogs" was in Peckinpah exercising recognizable social tensions surrounding sex, imperialism and machismo. "Straw Dogs" triggered the American appetite for justice or kick-ass resolution and then—masterfully—scrutinized it. Only people without Peckinpah memories will buy Haneke’s specious claim to modern sophistication. [...]
Haneke’s cruelest, chicest ploy comes when Paul taunts Anna to pray. She doesn’t know how, but the serial killer does; rigging her in a pathetic, supplicating position so that Haneke can dare a God-is-dead provocation. This hopeless message is now fashionable among the movie-culture elite. That explains the critics’ dismissal of Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, which explored human connection and the nature of vengeance in the post-9/11, post-feminist world. It’s also why the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men is willfully trivialized as a horror-comedy; critics misinterpret the ending as nihilistic, deliberately overlooking the spiritual hope expressed in Tommy Lee Jones’ wry concluding dream. Paul’s demand that Anna and George gamble on their fate recalls the Coens’ superior moment when Kelly Mcdonald rejects Anton Chigurh’s wager as phony existentialism. Haneke’s two-hour gambit is similarly perverse.-- Armond White, New York Press
It doesn't take long for you to realize that, as part of the audience, you are being held captive, as well. With one difference: Unlike the unlucky family in the film, you chose to be there.
And yet you'll see that I've given this film a positive review. How can that be, if it's an intellectual version of "Saw"?
Because in this case, ratings are almost impossible. Yes, I'm calling it a good movie. I could just as easily have called it a bad one. "Funny Games" exists somewhere beyond that kind of qualitative evaluation, or at least outside it. [...]
It's not a fun ride, but "Funny Games" forces us -- almost against our will -- to examine its characterization of violence and our response to it.-- Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
At heart, “Funny Games” is a stern rebuke to everyone who laughed a little too loudly at the scene in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” where the man in the back of the speeding car gets blasted all over the upholstery. Morally, he’s right; cinematically and dramatically in “Funny Games,” he’s a bit of a pill. The differences between the two versions of “Funny Games” are telling. In the original the louche young sociopaths turned to the camera at odd moments and treated the viewers as their partners in crime. This happens in the remake less often, I think. Yet without the Brechtian ironies, what good is this thing?
I don’t know if any major director—and Haneke certainly is that, despite his willful waterboarding of the audience—can create something of real value when settling for such a blatant photocopy of an earlier work. So why does a comparative lark such as “Cache” work its own games so insinuatingly? Because it is not an exercise, or a theatrical contraption. It’s a film with its own sureness of tone and sense of the unknowable. By contrast “Funny Games,” the U.S. remix, is just a dubious idea fulfilled.-- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
It’s one thing to make a movie filled with mayhem and then implicate the audience for watching it; it’s another thing entirely to come back ten years later with the same movie, hype it with a marketing campaign, and try to implicate the viewer again. One nice thing about America is that you can’t be tried twice for the same crime.-- J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader
But hang on: Despite the sight of Watts hopping around bound up and in lingerie, it's not an exploitation film. It's a critique of you for consuming them. Peter breaks the fourth wall several times, looking into the camera during the misery and asking, "Do you think they stand a chance?" and "Do you think it's enough?" After Ann makes a bold move, the film rewinds and takes it away. See how you're getting played, you gullible jerk? [...]
But that's outweighed by the tedium of the action — a looooong scene of Watts hopping from living room to kitchen nearly did me in — and of whatever statement he's trying to make about the consumption of violence. Are you complicit for watching the stuff? Would you be less of a jerk if you walked out? Is he wallowing in the thing he's critiquing and consequently a bigger jerk?-- Mark Rahner, Seattle Times
… I won’t say more, although I’d love to bury you under a mound of spilled beans. I watched to the end, removed the DVD from the player, and snapped it over my knee. Then, with a pair of scissors, I cut the halves into quarters, walked the pieces to the kitchen garbage can, and shoved them under the debris of the previous night’s dinner. It only hit me later that my melodramatic response would have delighted the director. It takes a special kind of talent to drive a critic who enjoys zombie cannibal pictures to cry, “Unclean!” [...]
The sociopaths of Funny Games are monstrous, but Haneke also seems to be mocking the American family they ravage for its privileged obliviousness.
I say “seems to be” because it’s difficult to grapple with serious themes when what comes through most vividly is the director’s sadism. In the end, the film is little more than high-toned torture porn with an edge of righteousness not unlike Peter and Paul’s. The home-invasion genre ("Panic Room," etc.) is an especially nightmarish one: Audiences flock to these thrillers because of an implicit compact with the filmmaker that the invaders will be vanquished and the family unit saved. You could make the case that Haneke deserves a measure of respect for showing us how pathetically dependent we are on that compact and its cathartic endings. You could, but I won’t, because Haneke’s assault on our fantasy lives is shallow, unimaginative, and glacially unengaged—a sucker punch without the redeeming passion of punk. -- David Edelstein, New York Magazine