Film implicates audience in acts of cruelty


Funny Games: 112 minutes. Rated: MA. Director: Michael Haneke. Starring: Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt, Tim Roth, Brady Corbet, Devon Gearhart

Funny Games movie poster, Naomi WattsThe opening sequence of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's first English-language film is ominously soothing. A wealthy family on vacation plays aural guessing games with the classical music lilting through the car stereo.

The melodiousness of their present existence is reinforced visually: an aerial shot reveals the road line markings and median strip as the five-line staff used for music transcript. They cruise the highway with gentle legato.

It's not so much the calm before the storm as a state of Zen before a nervous breakdown. Abruptly the sounds of demented death-metal blast across the film's soundtrack, coinciding with an interior shot of the smiling, cherubic family. They are en route to terror and chaos: we know it, even if they don't.

So from the outset, Funny Games, a shot-by-shot remake of Haneke's eponymous 1997 Austrian thriller, is executed masterfully. Portents continue to abound. A neighbour responds nervously when Anna (Watts) and George (Roth) slow down and greet him as they near their destination. Soon after, said neighbour visits them at their lakeside abode, and he's accompanied by a mysterious and eerily polite stranger (Pitt). The family dog barks uncontrollably.

Further innocuous moments assume an air of foreboding. Anna, on the phone to a friend, comments that her kitchen clock isn't working. Her young son Georgie (Gearhart), who's been helping his father launch their sailing boat down at the dock, comes to the kitchen in search of a sharp knife. By the time a second young stranger arrives at the house, ostensibly in search of eggs, the film is swathed in a sense of impending doom.

Funny Games is conventional, but self-reflexively so. It doesn't take a genius to work out that the two white-clad strangers, Paul (Pitt) and Peter (Corbet), have menace on their minds. Sure enough, before long George, Anna and Georgie find themselves besieged by these merciless, motiveless sadists.

During the ensuing hours they are emotionally and physically tortured by their assailants, ever conscious of Paul's promise that by morning, they will be dead. It's no relief that the vast majority of the violence in Haneke's film takes place out-of-frame. This is harrowing, bleak subject matter; a brutal assault upon a living, breathing, feeling portrait of the American Dream.

A post-modern flourish adds an academic distance to the proceedings. It's a kind of directorial wink to the audience that there's something more on Haneke's mind than simply thrills and kills. In the midst of threatening violence, the character Paul turns to camera and addresses the audience.

At this point, those familiar with Haneke's work will start to cotton on. Haneke has long been interested in the relationship between violence and media. Benny's Video (1992), for example, portrays an adolescent boy who repeatedly views footage of a pig being slaughtered, then mimics the brutal act by murdering a young girl.

The implications of that film were sweeping. It was not simply about blaming violent media for provoking violent acts. Rather Haneke theorised that, in a society saturated by media, individuals can become distanced or disconnected from reality. Hence Benny commits his crime in order to 'learn what it feels like'.

The same fiction-reality disconnect is evident in Funny Games, although the implications here are more specific. By taking the audience into his confidence, the killer makes each viewer an accomplice. We are complicit, for without an audience, these characters don't exist. We long for an end to the cruelty, yet we keep watching. The film is a critique of 'violence as entertainment', and every audience member is implicated.

The problem with 'postmodern flourishes' is that they can be gimmicky. In Funny Games they occur infrequently but with increasing intensity, and while in the decade-old original they are clever and surprising, in this modern-day remake they border on trite. But Haneke's thesis is carried off efficiently. To paraphrase the director, it's a film that if you don't need it, you'll look away. Chances are, you won't.

Michael Haneke DVDs (Madman Entertainment)

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue. Email Tim


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Funny Games, Michael Haneke, Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt, Tim Roth, Brady Corbet, Benny's video



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Existing comments

i won't be seeing this movie. i think 'porn' with ultra violent stuff like this, and it isn't good for the spirit to enjoy it.

Moira Rayner | 11 September 2008  

I haven't seen the remake, but I have seen the original. The fact that the camera is almost always pointed the other way when the violence happens seems to exclude it from the 'violence-porn' category. Most of the 'torture' is emotional in nature.

It's interesting to notice that the original was given an R18+ classification when it came out on DVD last year, yet this 'shot-by-shot' remake only receives an MA15+! Does that say something about the fickleness of the classification process in Australia?

Charles Boy | 11 September 2008  

The review explains exactly why this film doesn't interest me. When violence is fetishised in film, I think it does leave the audience implicated. What are we doing to ourselves in watching this sort of film?

On the other hand, violence permeates so many movies. Most of the time, we're passive observers. We're rarely called to answer for watching these films. So perhaps we need films like this to make us question why we subject ourselves to watching violence in film.

Either way, I won't be subjecting myself to it this time.

Joseph Vine | 11 September 2008  

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