The setup is simple, as it is in horror pictures of yesteryear like Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As Handel plays on the CD player of their car, we are introduced to an upscale couple, Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth), and their affectionate son Georgie (Devon Gearheart). The music abruptly switches to John Zorn as the title of the film slashes across the screen and we know immediately what is to come: These classical music lovers, content in their love for each other and obviously refined values, are toast. We can smell the burn approaching as their neighbors in Southampton, where they have come to vacation, act strangely at their arrival, as if something is amiss in the community.
Georgie is the first to pick up on the scent, when Peter (Mysterious Skin co-star Brady Corbet) comes calling on Ann (pictured), looking for some eggs. The introduction of Peter’s companion, Paul (Michael Pitt), raises the alarm — with their tennis togs, sallow skin, thick lips, and closely aligned personalities, these apostles of ill will look like mimes gone seriously bad. An uneasy face-off between the parties goes Code Red when the two young men hold the family hostage, bent on torture and protracted, painful murder.
Kevin Thompson’s pastoral set design, emphasizing whites and cremes, and Darius Khondji’s cleanly executed cinematography exacerbate the mood of steadily rising existential terror. On its own muted terms, Funny Games can be counted as a success. What worked in 1997 works us over again today. Remake queen Watts (King Kong, The Ring, The Painted Veil) adds another to her meta-resume, and she and a subdued Roth (in the part played originally by the late Ulrich MÃ¼he, star of The Lives of Others) suffer well. What drew them to these schematic, not particularly interesting parts is unclear, but never discount the allure of a cachet film on one’s resume (even as the film itself savages privilege and pretension). Corbet and indie movie zombie Pitt, products of a vacant popular culture (a channel-changing TV plays shrilly in the background for minutes) are as grating and irritating as the director could have hoped for. (This tracing from an original work is better cast than Gus Van Sant’s doomed Psycho, but that had a playful spirit — I still recall cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s soft, warm colors, which encouraged you to see the stoic black-and-white original with fresh eyes — whereas Funny Games is a downer in German or English.)
Funny Games is more of a thesis than absorbing cinema. Haneke’s intent, as stated in the press notes, was “to have an American audience watch the movie.” [One more afraid of subtitling than violence, I might add.] “It is a reaction to a certain American cinema, its violence, its naivetÃ©, the way American cinema toys with human beings. In many American films violence is made consumable.”
Assuming that we are what we eat, Haneke has heaped V.2 of Funny Games on our plate. His strategy is to remove all the bombast and contrivances from U.S.-made thrillers: There are no fancy makeup effects (just whimpering, agonized, “real” pain), no easy outs for kids and dogs, following the usual convention, and no last-minute rescues. When the plot turns in the family’s favor, Paul (who makes knowing asides to the audience, promising, for example, to up the film’s “entertainment” quotient) is able to reverse time by putting the film on rewind, a Brechtian gag sure to upset a multiplex crowd that is already crying uncle. There is no fair in the world outside of the cinema, Haneke is saying, so too damned bad.
What to make of all this? When Paul forces Ann to pray, and Ann is unable to come up with anything, the torturer completes the invocation — God is on their side, and the secular world, with its close-knit ties, high culture, and creature comforts, has been put on notice. As God has clearly left the building in Haneke’s other insinuating films, his sudden reappearance here is a mystery. Who is this non-believer to nail our presumed lack of belief to the cross? It seems another gratuitous body blow to our craven cineaste selves, in a film that spares us nothing.
The problem is, it gives us nothing in return. For one thing, it breaks its own rules, offering up plot holes and inconsistencies that the deity-like Paul can’t reverse (all the business with non-functioning cellphones, for example, or the lack of any police presence in what is close to a gated enclave). And it is flat, lacking any affect. You can read anything into its pallid, colorless tones. Have the bad guys morphed into post-9/11 terrorists? The Bush administration? Is it the U.S. villains vs. the Australian and British leads? The white gloves that Peter and Paul wear are suggestive — is Haneke afraid of Michael Jackson?
The cartoon violence that has plagued our cinema since the dawn of Schwarzenegger in the 1980s concerns me, too, even as the majority of us have the tools to separate ourselves from it. We know “it’s only a movie,” as the Last House posters teased us. [That stomach-turner has empathy for its victims, something that the chessboard of Funny Games does not allow for. So, too, does The Terminator. The problems come with the less circumspect knockoffs.] Digital technology in particular allows filmmakers to tear us apart in new and revolting ways, far from the human experience. The Saws and Hostels play off our degradation but, as George A. Romero commented, aren’t metaphors for anything, merely excuses for gorily elaborated stalk-and-slash setpieces. PG-13 movies push right up against the R wall in terms of bloodshed and the MPAA hardly blinks an eye, saving its mandates for sex.
I can imagine saying all this to Haneke and having him roll his eyes. Now that the imp has left the bottle and spread onto the world marketplace, my bourgeois American hand-wringing is not for him. From Hitchcock on down (and Watts is very much in the mold of a Hitchcock blonde, as her turn as Marnie in a recent Vanity Fair photo spread points up), Funny Games seeks to eradicate the very notion of a suspense picture. But the twists and turns of a well-crafted thriller are not the problem; indeed, they are a primary pleasure of cinema. The joke is on him: cerebral as they are, Haneke’s films are “guilty” of suspense, too. Funny Games is as much a case of self-loathing as it is an indictment of Hollywood auteurs and their unwashed audiences. Does the director really think that what we need to cure us of our addiction to movie thrills is a movie as remote and unengaging as a position paper? The punishment of Funny Games — aestheticized, cold to the touch, barren — is worse than the crime.