'Funny Games': Deadly Serious
Friday, March 14, 2008
D uring an interview for Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher" back in '01, the French actress Isabelle Huppert talked about her director and his taste in music: Haneke sneered at Brahms, Huppert said; Bach, however, was God. While it was easy to understand the appeal of Bach's mathematical precision to the less-than-romantic Austrian, what was harder to buy was the concept of Haneke sharing divinity with anyone.
It's no easier now. With "Funny Games," Haneke's uber-disturbing remake of his own 1997 German-language thriller, the director reasserts his omnipotence over all he surveys and constructs -- namely, a home invasion on Long Island's tony North Shore that features terror, murder, degradation and a Bu¿uelian bursting of characters' bourgeois bubbles, sans the Bu¿uelian laughs. It is a puppet-master's movie, a manipulation -- agitprop dressed as absurdist black comedy.
Some may ask why Haneke felt compelled to remake a film (almost shot for shot!) that was so unpleasant to begin with, but what's different now is that the film is in English, with certifiable English-speaking stars -- Naomi Watts as Ann, Tim Roth as George, the perversely rose-mouthed Michael Pitt as the psychotic Paul. As the original film's purpose was a critique of American-style media violence, what we have now is a profoundly distressing movie made slightly more accessible, at least to Americans.
"Funny Games" is not a date movie, and while that may sound facetious, bear with me: A date movie is meant to appeal to that soft part of the brain that, when probed, releases hearts, flowers, endorphins and a fond feeling for whoever is sitting besides you. "Funny Games" accomplishes the reverse: During the humiliation and assault on the family, the feelings generated are repugnance, anxiety and a thirst for reprisal. We are under vicarious attack and want to perpetrate our own retributive violence on the criminals invading our field of vision. It isn't a pretty feeling. Fortunately for any innocent bystanders, or those lunatic enough to send text messages during the more anxiety-provoking moments of the movie, only "civilized" people attend art-house cinema. And anyone under the impression that he or she is civilized is precisely whom Haneke is out to tweak.
The feelings of violence generated by "Funny Games" are not because of the charms of the victims. Quite the opposite. Haneke is a master at creating tension, but he is also a kind of counter-alchemist, who scratches away at a gilded surface in order to reveal the leaden corruption beneath. "Corruption," in fact, is too glamorous a word; call it complacency, or banality. Why should a family on vacation, with a smiling blond boy in the back seat (Devon Gearhart, of "Canvas"), foster such feelings of repugnance? As they tool down a tree-lined street along Long Island Sound, their sailboat in tow, George and Ann play their own opera quiz, putting CDs in the car stereo and challenging each other to guess the singer, composer and aria. Doesn't that sound nice? Very innocent and sophisticated? In fact, it's joyless, and about as irritating as George's overly wrinkled designer shirts, or Ann's meticulously tousled hair and feigned gentility: When they reach their palatial summer home, and Peter (Brady Corbet), Paul's dimly lit partner, comes by to "borrow some eggs," Ann's feigned sweetness evaporates so quickly there's a sense of cool breath left hanging in its wake.
Haneke may not have a benign worldview, but it is consistent. His "Piano Teacher" was a study in self-abasement. "Time of the Wolf" made the end of the world into a failed test of human character. The human heart, a la Haneke, festers under a patina of refinement, something made into high satire by Paul and Peter -- who alternately call each other Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butt-head, or, as Paul says to Peter, "Tubby." Insisting on a well-mannered exchange with Ann and George, even after breaking George's kneecap with a golf club, or sliding shells into a shotgun, they use courtesy as cruelty. Not one of Haneke's more subtle maneuvers, perhaps, but toward the cause of critiquing society, it certainly works.
While the movie's star -- and ruler, and ship's captain, and grand pooh-bah -- is Haneke himself, his actors are sublime. Roth, despite being in the subordinate role to Watts's resilient Ann, is so wrought with shame -- and grief, and grief for his own shame -- that he provides a perversely elevating element to an otherwise dour story. Watts is magnificent in what seems to have been a toughly physical role. Both Pitt and Corbet make their repellent characters funny as well as frightening -- or frightening because they're funny -- and the cinematography by Darius Khondji ("Delicatessen," "City of Lost Children") rivals that of Juergen Juerges's work in "Time of the Wolf," which also existed in a finely calibrated space between twilight and nightmare. As such, they mirror their director, with Bach-like precision.
Funny Games (110 minutes, at AMC Loews Georgetown and Shirlington and Regal Bethesda) is rated R for intense action, violence and vulgarity.