A commenter on my previous retrospective, that one for Todd Solondz’s Happiness, brought up a good point about it: that despite artistic merit, he couldn’t shake the feeling that Solondz was presenting unrelenting misery just to be a drag. I can certainly see where he’s coming from; Solondz’s gifts as a director are very much linked to his ability to make you uncomfortable. The reason, however, I think Solondz gets away with it, is that his films are largely pure character studies, presented without particular message or meaning. In fact, his flirtation with a message resulted in the cloying and highly unsatisfying Storytelling, in which he preempts his critics by having his characters criticize the movie they are in. Director Michael Haneke attempts much the same thing in Funny Games, a shot-by-shot remake of his controversial 1997 effort.
Here is a movie that should, by all accounts, be a success. The acting is potent, especially the performances from antagonists Pitt and Corbet, and the camerawork is sensible and chilling. It moves along at a brisk pace, and is virtually never boring. So why, exactly, do I find this movie to be such garbage?
Couple Anna (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) go with their son George Jr. (Devon Gearhart) to a vacation house in Long Island. There they are greeted by Peter and Paul (or Tom and Jerry, or Beavis and Butt-Head, pick your poison), two young sociopaths who subject them to a night of utter terror and pain. Suffice to say (and here’s where the spoilers start), none of them make it out alive.
But let’s step out of the world of the movie, for a moment. Haneke has described the film as a pointless exercise in violence, meant as a comment on America’s fascination with a sort of oddly voyeuristic character torture. I can certainly get behind his intentions, but his product is as ugly, disgusting, and voyeuristic as the films he is trying to decry. Unfortunately, that seems to be the point, which puts me in an odd position as a critic.
By placing his villains in a position of complete superiority, Haneke may fulfill his conceptual promise, but ultimately fails on the whole “movie” side of things. Suspense is built almost entirely on the idea of escape, of a happy ending. You don’t need that escape, or that happy ending, but it is that fleeting hope that keeps the audience engaged in the circumstances and the characters. In Funny Games, there was no doubt in my mind that the attackers would come out on top, especially after one of them ridicules the audience for wanting a satisfying conclusion. So far we have a suspense movie without suspense.
As mentioned above, Pitt’s character occasionally breaks the fourth wall, which does little but clarify things that don’t need to be clarified, in the most pretentious way possible. Not to say he’s spouting direct exposition, Haneke is too devious for that; instead, he pontificates and philosophizes, letting us know that because we are watching this, we are therefore sick bastards that deserve to be punished with misery an unsatisfying ending. The whole thing comes off as self-indulgent, Haneke sermonizing when he has no right to. So far we have a self-indulgent suspense movie without suspense.
In Haneke’s attempt to keep the film moving, he abandons any kind of characterization for shocking immediacy. Which is a fine idea, but this is a suspense movie we’re talking about. If we don’t know the characters, we can’t sympathize with the characters. The film deliberately keeps the viewer at arm’s length, an enormous flaw that Haneke poorly defends by calling attention to it, not unlike Solondz’s tactic in Storytelling. So far we have a self-indulgent suspense movie without suspense or adequate characterization.
There’s alienating your viewers for artistic effect, and then there’s sadism. What Haneke does to his characters is sick, but what he does to his audience is even sicker. Should the more informed of us moviegoers be subjected to such ridicule and derision? Is Haneke’s contempt for America so visceral, that he can’t discern the good apples from the bad? Tim Roth was apparently so scarred by the making of this movie, that he refuses to watch it. I have no doubt that Haneke has made good movies. I don’t even think he’s a bad, or contemptible man. But remaking his own movie, shot-by-shot, with a message that could be easily described in one sentence, and having a work environment so apparently detestable that your own star won’t watch the finished product? That takes a delusion of grandeur so immense, that it seems futile to even criticize. So far we have a sadistic, self-indulgent suspense movie without suspense or adequate characterization.
And that was exactly his intention.
So what’s there to say, really? Haneke wanted to make this movie, twice, apparently, and he did. He wasn’t misguided. He’s certainly not a poor writer or director. And his actors are capable. It’s sadistic in the worst sense, presenting a moment of relief near the end that is immediately undone by one of the laziest deus ex machinas I have ever seen, where Pitt’s character picks up a television remote, and literally rewinds the film. You’d think there would be a point to that surreal departure beyond giving the audience a treat and then cruelly taking it away, but there isn’t. It’s just mean. Mean to his characters, and mean to his audience. In fact, it feels less like his giving the audience a treat, and more like him momentarily stopping punching us in the face, only to continue immediately afterward. It’s more of a concept then a movie, an answer to a question that no one’s asking. If Haneke’s intent was to point at his movie and call it shit, then he succeeded more than he intended to.
The Good: Strong performances all around, excepting the obviously inexperienced child actor. Cinematography is competent, if not especially interesting.
The Bad: At nearly two hours, the movie overstays its welcome. The aforementioned child actor really grated on my nerves. Dialogue seems predictably stilted, as if (as it probably was) it were directly translated from another language.
The Ugly: Funny Games is not just an unpleasant movie to watch. It’s a deeply brutal and unnecessary one, too. It attempts satire, and fails quite miserably. The fourth-wall breaking pushes you out of the movie, rather than drawing you in. For a movie touted as a suspenseful thriller, it is neither suspenseful nor thrilling.
Final Comments: Despite solid performances all around, Funny Games breaks under the weight of its own pretentious meta-concept. The only thing worse than its hypocrisy is its smug acceptance of that hypocrisy, which it tries to pass off as high-art philosophy.
Coming up soon on Film Retrospective: I take a look at a more favorably reviewed Michael Haneke film, Cache.