For those who’ve followed the work of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, watching Funny Games will also provoke considerable, perhaps undesirable, déjà vu. Haneke is not only remaking his own 1997 Austrian film of the same name, but delivering a shot-by-shot duplication: the story, characters, even the lighting, props and layout of the house and surroundings where it all takes place, everything has been lovingly recreated, only this time in English and with English-language actors. The duplication is so precise that while watching the new film the viewer can’t help but become distracted by the most incidental shift in detail. (Hey, there’s soymilk in the fridge this time!)
With regard to the performances, as someone who doesn’t speak German it’s hard to gauge what’s largely a matter of linguistic familiarity. While the characters are virtually unrecognizable as human beings, even sociopathic human beings, Peter and Paul, here played by Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt, do seem slightly more textured. Their victims, Ann, George and little Georgie, likewise have one or two moments that caught me off guard. Executive producer Naomi Watts, who seems to possess a special interest in horror/fantasy remakes (see The Ring, The Ring 2, King Kong and, coming soon, The Birds) is certainly committed, and begins the film with a bit more vulnerability than Susanne Lothar, her 1997 counterpart. Tim Roth, in a role previously played by the late Ulrich Mühe, creates what for me is by far the film’s most affecting moment, the scene in which George, suffering unimaginable shock, barely able to stand, asks his wife to forgive him for not being able to somehow prevent the catastrophe that’s beset their family. Overall however, both versions prompted exactly the same response in me: intrigue, followed by a period of extreme anxiety and repulsion, followed by utter, exasperating boredom, and, once the film was through, a degree of grudging intellectual appreciation.
The ostensible point of Funny Games, in both versions, is to function as a critique of the commodification of violence in movies. The critique filters into the film through numerous, highly calculated attempts at subverting audience expectations. We might expect to see exciting, dynamic violence; we might expect suspense; we might expect to see the antagonists undone by some mixture of ingenuity on the part of their adversaries and unpredictable forces from the world beyond this house under siege: Haneke denies us all of these things. The problem is that what he’s put in their place are the sort of winky alienation techniques you might expect from some annoyingly smarty-pants film student, such as having the antagonists condescendingly talk directly to the camera or, in the film’s most tiresome scene, pick up a remote control and rewind back a few minutes so they can correct events in a way that suits them better. There are simply no identifiable rules, no interior logic, to Funny Games, a fact which no doubt upsets our bourgeois notions of cathartic drama, but nonetheless does little to implicate us any further in what’s unfolding, because to implicate us we’d need to care a lot more.
Let me be clear: I greatly admire the films Haneke’s made since the first Funny Games. Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf and Caché all seem to succeed where both versions of Funny Games fail: they make a deeply troubling spectacle of violence and withhold certain pieces of what would normally be crucial information as a way to coerce our more active participation with the narrative and the many layers of significance inherent in it. In his Cineaste review of the film, Robert Koehler suggests that Funny Games “is best addressed not in terms of whether it actually works on screen, but as an object that spews out ideas.” I agree that you do indeed need to actually see Funny Games to be able to appreciate the ideas it has to offer. But do you need to see it in two languages? Do you even need to see it twice? And furthermore, does a thriller or horror film need to be so loftily schematic and relentlessly cold in order to engage us in questioning how we consume and/or become disaffected by violence? If viewers are required to be self-reflexive anyway, could they not be just as provoked by a smart genre film, say one by Hitchcock, Verhoven or Cronenberg, that’s infused with ideas, auto-critiques and still delivers the goods with regards to emotional investment in story and characters?