Michael Haneke has done a Gus Van Sant and remade his own controversial 1997 film almost frame for frame, only in a US setting and with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the hapless, well-off couple tortured by two freakily polite young men decked in immaculate white tennis outfits. The purpose of the film in both its incarnations is to challenge the public’s consumption of violent cinematic fare for pleasure and it certainly succeeds. The introductory scene sets the tone: a couple and their teenage son are on their way to their lakeside home, playing an urbane game of ‘name the classical tune’ to while the drive away. Suddenly a hellish death metal piece by John Zorn crashes onto the screen, jarring with the peaceful family tableau and sonically assaulting the audience. Funny Games sustains its all-out attack on the viewer to the very end, inducing a nauseous unease that lasts well after the final credits have rolled.
The tone is chillingly cold and detached, making the film feel almost like some kind of scientific experiment performed on the audience. As Paul and Peter play supremely cruel games with the family – the use of the golf balls is brilliantly sadistic – Haneke himself pitilessly manipulates the audience, setting us up to extract specific emotions from us. While the family’s undeniable smugness makes it difficult to feel any real sympathy for them, we desperately want them to survive as the director successfully forces us to identify with their suffering. Simultaneously, however, Haneke uses self-reflexive devices, as when Paul winks at the camera, or when he rewinds the images after events take a turn that does not suit him, and in that way makes us complicit with the killers, with the ‘funny’ games that they’re playing. But this film is the anti-Reservoir Dogs, and those scenes certainly don’t raise a chuckle, Haneke taking any idea of ‘fun’ out of the violence by putting all of his directing talent into the task of making us feel the family’s every jolt of pain and fear. So why watch such a film, you may ask. Precisely because through the unpleasantness of the experience Haneke intelligently probes our voyeuristic consumption of violence. And while I for one would certainly not support a blanket neo-puritan condemnation of violence on film, the recent glut of senseless ‘torture-porn’ movies such as Saw and Hostel makes Haneke’s provocative reflection all the more timely.
Haneke has claimed that he agreed to remake the film in the US because he’d always thought of Funny Games as an American story, meant for an American audience, the original film being made in Austria only for budgetary reasons. How odd though that a director of Haneke’s quality would want to waste his time in what seems like a pointless repetition, in the – misguided? – hope that a larger American audience will see his film. What’s more, having two highly recognisable actors in the central roles makes the story feel somewhat less real, and therefore less affecting. That said, the US version is (almost) as devastatingly powerful as the original, and it is certainly worth seeing if you missed it the first time round.