Such a low score for a film that is clearly well made and acted is a little puzzling.
But if you look at the tidal wave of indignation gushing forth from some of the best critics in the US, one can only assume Mr Haneke has somehow touched a nerve.
The film calls attention to its own artificial status. It actually knows it’s a movie! What a clever, tricky game! What fun! What a fraud.
In addition to being borderline unendurable, Funny Games is inexplicable, and I don’t mean in any philosophical sense.
Professional obligations required that I endure it, but there’s no reason why you should.
As shocking and deliberately manipulative as the original movie and — some may reckon — even more pointless.
David Edelstein in New York Magazine so disliked the original that he says:
I watched to the end, removed the DVD from the player, and snapped it over my knee.
Then, with a pair of scissors, I cut the halves into quarters, walked the pieces to the kitchen garbage can, and shoved them under the debris of the previous night’s dinner.
Now, most of the time, all of the above critics are sober and intelligent judges of films, whether you agree with them or not.
So why do these all critiques have the tone of a child who has just learnt that Santa Claus doesn’t actually exist?
If you haven’t seen the original Funny Games, the basic premise involves two young men who hold a family hostage and slowly terrorise them in their own home.
Director Michael Haneke (best known for dark dramas like The Piano Teacher and Hidden) has now remade the film in the US with Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as the married couple and Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet as the two young sociopaths.
Strangely he has opted for an almost shot-for-shot remake which both looks and feels remarkably like the original in nearly every respect. Despite the change of country, even the locations appear eerily similar.
It is not an easy film to sit through. When I saw it, some of the audience had walked out in disgust before the end and you could feel a palpable sense of unease in the screening room.
After it had ended, I wasn’t sure what to think. After all, why make a film so similar to the original? And why does this version feel even creepier than the original?
One thing I felt quite sure about was that certain US critics would loathe the film. Is it because they secretly loathe what they perceive to be Haneke’s condescending attitude to some of the darker and dumber aspects of US culture?
Are they subconsciously offended that the terrorised middle class couple in the film would almost certainly be avid readers – if not subscribers – of publications like the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal?
Well, perhaps that is part of what’s going on, but I think the main reason is that Funny Games – in both incarnations – is simply a film that gets right under your skin, whether you like or loathe it.
A lot of the discussion about it – both positive and negative – appears to be based around the idea that it toys with how an audience views violence on screen.
In a New York Times magazine piece on Michael Haneke last year John Wary articulated this view:
“Funny Games” is a direct assault on the conventions of cinematic violence in the United States, and the new version of the film, with its English-speaking cast and unmistakably American production design, makes this excruciatingly clear.
More surprising still, Haneke remade this attack on the Hollywood thriller for a major Hollywood studio, Warner Independent Pictures, and refused to alter the original film’s story in the slightest.
Whilst it is mystifying – though also refreshing – that a company like Time Warner are releasing a film as disturbing as this, the view that Funny Games is some kind of lecture on US attitude’s to violence is a reductive one.
Haneke himself has said that:
“Funny Games was always made with American audiences in mind, since its subject is Hollywood’s attitude toward violence…”
But I think he is being a little disingenuous here. Although it certainly does play around with this idea, the film burrows a lot deeper.
In fact, many volatile ingredients are bubbling beneath the surface: class, sex, violence, the absence of God, the nature of evil and perhaps most effective of all, the ‘game’ Haneke is playing with the very type of people who are likely to see this film.
Added to all that, is the interesting difference between the two versions. With all the care that has been taken to make them look and feel visually similar, it is notable that the US villains are somehow even more repellent – and therefore more effective – than those in the European film.
Why is this? I don’t think it is just a case of Haneke taking a cheap shot at Americans in the climate of anti-US feeling in an age of Bush and the Iraq war. Rather, he has found a way of enhancing the inherent darkness of his original for a culture more acquainted with optimism and hope.
The bad guys here feel as monstrous as Anton Chigur in No Country for Old Men but there is no dignified old timer played by Tommy Lee Jones to remind us that some people do care. The suffocating world of Funny Games is disturbingly plausible – a place where hope is violated relentlessly with a cold, almost scientific, precision.
I doubt that this remake will do much business at the US box office, but in an age when horror films like Saw 4 and Hostel 2 are notable for their high level of sadism but lack of anything really disturbing, it is interesting to see Michael Haneke ruffle some feathers with a truly scary movie.
Funny Games opens in the UK on April 4th.
> Official site for Funny Games US
> John Wray’s lengthy profile of Michael Haneke in the NY Times last September
> Michael Haneke at the IMDb
> Reviews of Funny Games at Metacritic
> A.O. Scott with a more reasonable audio assessment of Haneke’s work