FUNNY GAMES

Directed and written by Michael Haneke

With Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Frank Giering, Arno Frisch and Stefan Clapczynski

Distributed by Attitude Films

***


Given the enormous amount of money it takes to make even a "low-budget" film, most films desperately ingratiate themselves with their target audience by delivering exactly what they promise, whether that be an austere, snail-paced "art film" or a "kick-ass action comedy." There's not necessarily anything wrong with this strategy, but it sure doesn't leave much room for the virtues of anger and provocation, both of which are key to FUNNY GAMES. Whatever else it is - the most disturbing horror film since HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, a tract against violence as spectacle, an exercise in S/M overseen by a master, a prank played on everyone who makes it to the end - it's a film seemingly designed to make every spectator consider walking out. I'd be frightened of anyone who found it "entertaining" or "pleasurable" to watch. Consequently, it took two days for me to decide what star rating to give it. If watching it is a sadomasochistic exercise, there's plenty of sadism at play on both sides of the camera, but Haneke's contention is that anyone who comes to see a film about the torture of an innocent family expecting a fun night out deserves to take their punishment like a good little boy or girl.

The enormity of Haneke's talent is evident from the very first scene of FUNNY GAMES: a masterstroke which concisely summarizes one of the film's central themes (the horror and violence underlying the placid facade of bourgeois European life) and strategies (the juxtaposition of calm and brutality). Tracked from a helicopter, a family drives along the Austrian countryside, playing the first of the film's many games: listening to excerpts of classical music and trying to guess the composer without looking at the CD. All of a sudden, the classical music is replaced by a piece of John Zorn's screeching noise-rock, sung by a vocalist who sounds more like an animal being slaughtered. The blood-red titles descend. Unaware of their impending doom, the family continues onward, arriving at their lakeside vacation home for a weekend of golf, boating and relaxation. However, the mother, Anna (Susanne Lothar), is startled by a young man, Peter (Frank Giering), who introduces himself as a neighbor's quest and asks if he can borrow some eggs. Despite Peter's nervous, clumsy and apologetic manner, he's more threatening than he initially appears, especially when his more aggressive friend Paul (Arno Frisch) soon joins in. The father, Georg (Ulrich Mühe), walks in while Peter and Paul are arguing with Anna, ordering them to leave. They refuse, and after Georg slaps Paul, Peter breaks Georg's kneecap with a golf club. The "games" then begin in earnest.

As disturbing as FUNNY GAMES is, most of its violence takes place off-screen. Its tension is produced by skillful direction, editing and sound design, not gallons of gore. If Peter and Paul had been born 75 years ago, they would've made fine concentration camp guards; although they never express any overt political views, the overtones of Nazism in their behavior are unmistakable. Their violence is very European: polite, "rational," almost genteel. However, they remain motiveless ciphers; indeed, their motivation ultimately stems from the fact that they're the villains in a movie (and Paul, at least, is quite aware of this). When asked why they're holding the family hostage, Paul replies "Why not?" and he later runs through a laundry list of cliched motives, all probable lies, for Peter's behavior: a broken family, alcoholic parents, poverty, drug addiction. It's impossible to identify directly with them, but we can't comfortably place ourselves on the side of the victims either. As much as we identify with their pain and as much as we want them to stay alive, the narrative's flow requires a steady stream of sacrifices. Both the son, Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski), and Anna desperately try to escape, but if they succeeded, the film would be over. (At one point, Paul suggests that the games must continue because the film isn't yet up to feature length.) All of us (Haneke, the characters and the audience, assuming we don't walk out) are complicit in the proceedings.

FUNNY GAMES combines the formal characteristics of some European art films, especially a use of sound as a supplement to the image rather than a reinforcement of it, with a narrative that follows some of the conventions of American horror movies and thrillers. Haneke stages several scenes in very long takes, and his camera set-ups eschew the illusion of an omniscient narrator, able to come and go as he watches the film's events take place. The camera may function as our stand-in, but it's often an immobile one, too close or too far for us to get a "good view." (The close-ups are intimate to the point of claustrophobia.) Because it's as much a genre film (and an excellent one, at that - the first 20 minutes are worthy of Hitchcock) as an art film, certain expectations are set up - that animals and children are off limits, that a final female survivor (the "final girl," as Carol Clover calls her) will enact some kind of triumph, if only partial or temporary - which Haneke ruthlessly toys with, periodically reminding the audience that "it's only a movie." These reminders take nothing away from the horror, and if some of Paul's asides to the audience err on the side of the smart-alecky, they do set up a stunning scene in which he turns the tables by finding a new use for the VCR's remote control.

Critics as perceptive as J. Hoberman, Godfrey Cheshire and Jonathan Rosenbaum, along with some of the editors of CAHIERS DU CINEMA and POSITIF, have all registered vehement objections to FUNNY GAMES, and while I wouldn't go along with Hoberman's accusation that the film is "symptomatic of the fascist mind-set," I am troubled by the glee with which it demolishes the civilized veneer of middle-class European life. Were I Haneke's publicist, I would advise him to lay off the moralism and self-righteousness that permeate his interviews and public statements; even as he damns almost the entirety of American cinema to hell for trivializing and/or glorifying violence (indeed, he described his 1991 BENNY'S VIDEO as a "polemical statement against American cinema"), his own delight in sadistic fantasies and audience-manipulation set pieces are all too evident. (At Cannes last year, he introduced FUNNY GAMES as an "anti-Tarantino film," yet it sometimes resembles a feature-length extension of RESERVOIR DOGS' torture scene, with Mozart and John Zorn replacing "Stuck In The Middle With You.") Despite Haneke's hypocrisy, it's difficult for me to find FUNNY GAMES morally objectionable at a time when almost every moviegoer has sat through dozens of equally mean-spirited and manipulative films that simply exploit violence for cheap thrills without a thought in their heads. It's not a film that wants to be "liked". (If it was easy to like, it would be a complete failure.) Instead, it's a powerful experience: a challenge to endure and mull over, one that aims to leave scars and to force the spectator to become an active participant, even against his or her will, and one doesn't have to agree with all of Haneke's opinions about the representation of violence and the ethics of spectatorship to find his challenge worthwhile. Do I "like" it? I can't wholeheartedly say yes, but faced with a challenge of such proportions, the question no longer seems like the right one to ask.