Haneke’s ‘Games’ Anything But ‘Funny’

By By Sam Potter and By Sam Potter

By Sam Potter

“Funny Games” is an ambitious movie with an important message. Unfortunately, its delivery is akin to some strident loud-mouth holding a megaphone to your ear and yelling at you for two hours. You get it and you might even agree. But in the end, you can’t help but feel very abused. Welcome to the world of Michael Haneke, a director whose greatest joy seems to be punishing his audience.

“Funny Games” is basically a shot-for-shot remake of Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film of the same name. The plot involves a happily married couple and their child who go to their lake house for the weekend and are visited by two strange young men who hold them hostage and play evil, sadistic games with them.

While this may seem like a fairly routine plot for a tightly-wound family-in-crisis thriller, it becomes apparent early on that Haneke isn’t too concerned with entertaining. An early scene of the family driving down the street while listening to an opera is shattered by a cacophonous rock song and blood-red titles. By the time one of the assailants breaks the fourth wall (read: speaks to the audience) and begins to spout his disdain for the expectations of American moviegoers, you know you’re in for a lesson, not a thrill ride.

The characters in “Funny Games” aren’t really people. They’re not even archetypes or clichés. The family members are one-dimensional pawns for Haneke’s antagonists to beat on for two hours. They’re the proverbial carrot Haneke dangles in front of his viewers, knowing how we hope that somehow, something will happen that will allow the protagonists to turn the tide and gain the upper hand.

Haneke has a message. He may have a couple. One is obvious: This is my film, so I make the rules. You, the family and the audience must play by my rules. You have no control over what happens.

The second message is one that, though important, has been done a bit too much in cinema: audience members are addicted to violence. “Funny Games” seems to be aimed at those idiots who flock to movies like “Saw” and other gore-nographic horror films whose sole entertainment value is the endless suffering of its many characters. Don’t believe me? I have honestly spoken to people whose favorite movies are, and I quote, “the ones where lots of people get maimed or tortured.” No lie.

With the recent surge in gore-no-shlock, Haneke’s timing for a remake is right. Fans of such movies are in for a well-needed bitch slap.

However, this is a message that has been tackled in many films, such as “Series 7,” “Natural Born Killers” and” A History of Violence.” Yet those films, while carrying a similar message, weren’t nearly as didactic as “Funny Games.”

No doubt, it’s an important message. But where “Funny Games” fails is in Haneke’s hypocrisy. He simultaneously makes a film for you to come see and asks for your support as a filmmaker (otherwise he wouldn’t charge money), then proceeds to point the finger and lay guilt on you for supporting it. At one point, one of the boys decides to kill Tim Roth with either a shotgun or knife but tells Naomi Watts that she gets to decide which. The boy then turns to the audience and says, “Well, isn’t that what you want? Some provocative plot development?” But by now we know that it’s futile. It doesn’t matter what we want. Haneke has the floor, and you will listen or leave.

I’m all for learning things in films. I’m also all for a movie that puts characters in a profound moral dilemma. In “A History of Violence,” David Cronenberg makes a powerful commentary similarly via the method of his displayed violence: The violence is grotesque, vulgar and very unattractive. But Cronenberg didn’t bludgeon you with the message as Haneke does here.

“Funny Games” does have its merits. Haneke obviously put some thought into the script and is trying to say something important. The cast is incredible, all turning in convincing performances. Watts, in particular, gets under your skin as an emotionally ravaged mother full of rage but powerless to stop the charade. (Will someone please give this woman a statuette already?)

While I commend the film for its efforts, I would feel guilty recommending it as the experience is too much to take. I felt scolded, belittled and punished. I hated it, and I think Haneke would smile hearing this.

Good for him, but not so good for those who have to sit through “Funny Games.”

“Funny Games”Warner Independent PicturesWritten and directed by Michael Haneke (“Cache,” “The Piano Teacher”)Starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, MiIchael Pitt and Brady CorbettRated R/107 minutesOne and a half out of four stars

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