Michael Haneke's Funny Games: One-Trick Phony
That the play must please is the most obvious truism in show business. But what about those aggressive modern works designed to affront the audience? The surrealist chestnut, Un Chien Andalou, was probably the first movie so conceived; it remains one of the successful because its 16 minutes of baffling insult are pithy, inventive, and comic. Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's Funny Games—a scene for scene, if not word for word, remake of the director's 1997 German-language film, also called Funny Games—is none of these.
Briefly described, Funny Games presents the ultimate bourgeois nightmare. A picture-perfect family retreats to their comfortable, gated, lakeside house and, before there's even time to restock the fridge, find themselves beset by a pair of clownish trespassers. Dressed in tennis whites, the lads swiftly evolve from innocuous preppies to annoying pests to gleeful psychopaths, holding the family captive and torturing them, presumably for our delectation. As Haneke makes clear in his press notes, Funny Games was always intended for an American audience: "It is a reaction to a certain American Cinema, its violence, its naïveté, the way [it] toys with human beings."
Right on! Funny Games is not without a certain artistry. An image of one captor idly channel-surfing with his lissome captive bound and gagged on a couch beside the large-screen television set has the bored depravity of an Eric Fischl bedroom painting. But for all the laughs it pretends to laugh, Haneke's movie is essentially founded on the programmatic denial of catharsis. "I want the spectator to think," he's been quoted as saying—although with regard to Funny Games, his hope seems as touchingly utopian as the notion that an illiterate might teach people to read. (In any case, the American audience whom Haneke seeks to address is less apt to see Funny Games as a critique of dominant cinema than an argument for personal handguns.)
As enacted by Tim Roth, little Devon Gearhart, and especially co-executive producer Naomi Watts, the family's suffering seems naturalistic enough. They are recognizable people, while their scarifying captors (in this version, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) are deliberate ciphers who anticipate the implacably murderous, Oscar-winning joker created by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. As suggested by their cartoon nicknames (Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butt-head), their white Mickey Mouse gloves, and the fun they have inventing motives for their inexplicable antics—not to mention their occasional asides to the audience—Haneke's villains are blatant textual effects. (As a strict exponent of unpleasure, however, Haneke will permit none of the narrative thrills the Coens provide in their funny games.)
Everything is calculated. Self-consciously manipulating conventions more or less invented by D.W. Griffith in the days of the nickelodeon, Funny Games is what a German might call a "devilish trick," or schelmenstreich. But, unlike other prankster showmen—the names Lars von Trier and Carlos Reygadas cavort to mind—Haneke is pretty much a humorless pedant. I did admire his adaptation of The Piano Teacher, thanks largely to Isabelle Huppert's bravura performance, although, reading Elfriede Jelinek's novel, I was surprised to discover that it was actually comic. Thus, Das Funnygame is a very severe schelmenstreich. The movie's early emphasis on the family's innocent, time-killing competitions is preparation for the joyless sport Haneke will have with the spectator.
Without ever acknowledging his own sadism, Haneke self-righteously lays his aesthetic and moral cards on the table. The use of music—largely a blast of John Zorn neo-punk noise—is anything but subliminal. The violence is all imaginary, a factor of clever editing, precise camera placement, and the power of suggestion. Moreover, its sickening escalation is rigorously based on the host family's lack of "manners." The wife loses her temper with the visitors well before anything bad really happens; her husband strikes the first blow; their child fires the first shot. Everything is, of course, returned in spades.
Perhaps these victims deserve their fate. One of the movie's persistent ironies is that the family is a victim of their insistence on bourgeois property rights. Their own toys are inevitably turned against them as weapons: More than once, they are trapped by their own fancy security system. Funny Games is nothing if not a punitive movie—and once Herr Haneke gets you to admit your own bloodlust, he's got you.
Funny Games is ultimately about forcing the viewer to confront his or her expectations. Would you enjoy seeing a terrified, helpless, half-naked woman? (The remake's major concession to the American market is a long scene of Naomi Watts hopping around in her underwear; in the original, the wife is clothed.) Are you getting bored? Isn't it about time for something to happen? Do you want to see the worm turn? Or simply wish the movie would end? Professional obligations required that I endure it, but there's no reason why you should.
Rabble-rousing as it often is, Film Forum's new Chinese feature, Blind Mountain, easily fits the paradigm parodied by Funny Games. The difference: This movie actually has a political point.
Li Yang's follow-up to his 2003 Blind Shaft (a shockingly direct account of greed and murder in China's illegal coal mines) exhibits a similar documentary subtext and "blind" narrative force, detailing the spectacle of a spirited, pretty college student (Huang Lu) abducted and sold as a bride to a troglodyte husband, then held as a virtual prisoner in a remote Shanxi village. "This can't be happening," Xuemei wails, waking from a drugged sleep to find her duplicitous traveling companions gone and ID vanished, leaving the viewer to ponder the enormity of losing one's identity in China—a land where government authority appears helpless, and bad luck rules. Blind Mountain forces its way through numerous illogicalities and several plot lapses to a violently abrupt ending that brought down the house at the movie's Cannes press screening last May.
Although Li evidently made a number of cuts before Blind Mountain's international premiere, the movie manages to land its share of eye-blackening blows. Rural medics are seen demanding payment up front before attending to a dying patient. The ruggedly beautiful, indifferent landscape cares more about Xuemei's plight than do the police. The point is made: Although the movie is strategically set in the early '90s, slavery has hardly been eradicated in China. (Barely a month after the movie's Cannes premiere, another Shanxi scandal erupted with news that hundreds of migrant workers and children had been kidnapped for forced labor in the local brickworks.) A colleague dismissed Blind Mountain as a heavy-handed social-problem film; the Chinese government had its own issues.
Like Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, which opened in China around the same time, Blind Mountain exists in both international and domestic versions. Not surprisingly, local critics received it as a foreign film. At least one compared the movie to Dogville—although Deliverance might be a better analogue in its spectacle of a city mouse abused by backwoods hillbillies. Another reviewer gave thanks to the censors for the modified positive ending. As Michael Haneke might tell you, catharsis is strictly for export.
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