Michael Haneke gives the United States the Funny Games it deserves
Michael Haneke would likely be offended if you said you enjoyed his movies though no doubt he would enjoy hearing you were offended by them. The chill surface neutrality of a Haneke feature such as Caché (2005) is designed to intrigue and then frustrate by depriving extreme situations of their usual sensationalism and neat narrative resolution so that we end up implicated by our own thwarted expectations. Even as a scold, Haneke is too disciplined to let us join him on his soapbox. The whole point lies in being discomfited.
The "normal" boy who kills a girl in Benny's Video (1992); the bourgeoisie unraveling due to exposure of their own race and class prejudices in Code: Unknown (2000) and Caché; and an entire society reverting to primitive behaviors after unspecified catastrophe in Time of the Wolf (2003) are all so disturbing because they're so banal. Even when portrayed by movie stars, these figures are willfully ordinary, observed at length performing dull tasks or making poor decisions for petty reasons. The one time he approached a conventional melodramatic arc and larger-than-life protagonist (if an antiheroine) was in the Elfride Jelinek adaptation of The Piano Teacher (2001) where Isabelle Huppert's character embodies the masochistic role usually played by his viewers themselves.
None of these films are exactly date movies, but they still orbit an audience's comfort zone more closely than Haneke's most notorious film, the original 1997 Funny Games. Now, Haneke has made the seemingly perverse choice of creating a shot-for-shot remake as his first English-language feature. Actually, it's a decision as coolly logical as any he's made, since he has said more than once that the original is more a comment on US society and media than their Austrian equivalents.
Beyond its sheer unpleasantness, both language and subtitling prevented the original from reaching his target audience. Still, it's unlikely people will be turning out en masse for Funny Games U.S., as the movie is being called everywhere but here. Those who do take the plunge are likely going to hate, hate, HATE it which will be one way of gauging that Haneke's subversion of standard genre rules is working as planned.
We meet the Farber family via eye-of-God aerial shots following their car to the exquisitely leafy countryside where their expansive lakeside summer home resides. With little Georgie (Devon Gearhart) in the backseat, Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) play guess-the-classical-composer. It's too perfect and we know it, because Haneke incongruously interrupts their banter with a jarring blast of cacophonous death metal (actually a John Zorn piece) the only music heard in the film that's not ostensibly played from CD by an onscreen character. Horror, it suggests, might just be a dial flip away from intruding on this cozy trio.
Stopping short of their own electronic gate, the Farbers greet strangely uncommunicative neighbors standing on their lawn with two unknown men. Later, while father and son prep the sailboat, Ann gets a visit from Paul (Michael Pitt), who says he's staying with the aforementioned neighbors and has been sent to borrow some eggs. Apologizing profusely, he nonetheless quickly manages to turn her hospitality into sputtering rage. Meanwhile, the dog disappears. Soon Paul is joined by Peter (Brady Corbet), his doppelgänger in tennis whites and floppy bangs. They look like consummate squeaky-clean preppies or Hitler Youth. They have a not-long-hidden agenda. Things degenerate very quickly.
For all their sadism, Peter and Paul aren't so much conventional villains as they are abstracts tools to indict the viewer for participating in these games, or expecting anything like the usual fictive payoffs. The casting of the instantly recognizable Watts and Roth distracts at first, but Haneke's approach (which employs agonizingly long takes, including one extreme instance that approaches 10 minutes in duration) and the actors' grueling expressions of physical and emotional distress hit the right note of violated ordinariness.
It's worth noting that perhaps Haneke's most ingenious (and frequently overlooked) gambit is that there is almost no onscreen violence. As much as Funny Games feels like particularly merciless, graphic torture porn, the actual moments of assault are almost always cut away from or just out of frame. The one exception turns out to be Haneke's single cruelest joke and naturally, it's on you. Without coming right out and saying it, Funny Games is now very much an answer to Hollywood norms and a larger cultural denial: here, violence is all suffering and no spectacle. *
Opens Fri/14 at Bay Area theaters