|Brady Corbet (above) plays a psychopath who, along with a friend, tortures a family at their lake house in "Funny Games." (Nicole Rivelli/celluloid dreams productions)|
A friend who works at a local independent cinema recently forwarded me an e-mail from a customer who'd caught a trailer for the upcoming "Funny Games" and was desperate to keep the film from opening at his theater.
The woman had seen enough to know the movie was about two young psychopaths who invade the weekend home of a wealthy family and torture them mentally and physically. She was in a panic that impressionable minds would see the film, that a copycat murder spree might ensue. Her response was to mount the barricades and pronounce NIMBA: Not in My Backyard Arthouse.
The correct response is: Relax, dear lady. Director Michael Haneke abhors mindless cinematic violence as much as you do. He just has a different approach: high-minded shock therapy. With "Funny Games," the filmmaker hopes to attach electrodes to a jaded, thrill-seeking American audience and jolt us out of our bloodlust.
He tried it once before, but it didn't take. The original "Funny Games," made by Haneke in 1997, was a cult sensation in Austria and on the international festival circuit. Wherever it appeared, the film exuded a miasma of dread and left critical punch-ups in its wake. But the director always intended "Games" as a critique of Hollywood violence and our own complacent voyeurism, and so he was holding the mirror up to the wrong audience. With the success of 2005's "Cache (Hidden)," he finally had his entry to America.
Thus this new "Funny Games," a shot-for-shot English-language remake of the original with a few name stars to sucker us into the dark. Naomi Watts (who also executive produced) plays the wife, Ann; Tim Roth, the husband, George; Devon Gearhart is their young son. Arriving at their lake house, they see a pair of young strangers talking with their neighbors, and soon those strangers have invited themselves in.
They are named Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet) - or perhaps it's Tom and Jerry, or Beavis and Butthead. They wear tennis whites and cotton gloves, and they're unfailingly polite even as they're wielding a golf club or loading a shotgun. They have no motive. "Why are you doing this?" asks George. "Why not?" replies Peter.
The games of the title refer to the sadistic mind trips these two play upon their victims over the course of one very long night, but they also extend to the movie and anyone watching it. Each time Paul turns to gaze at us through the camera lens, or wonders who the audience would like to see survive - or, in a key scene, fiddles with the temporal flow of the movie itself - "Funny Games" explicitly asks us: Do you want to play this? Are you sure?
If this is daring in theory, it's a failure in practice. Exactingly well-made, the movie is grueling and unpleasant in the extreme - that's the point - but it's also working from a specious premise, that film-school Brechtian devices can bring on mass enlightenment.
In interviews, Haneke has spoken of making audiences question their own violent urges when they cheer a particularly bloody turn of events. The scene in question doesn't prompt self-examination, though, but anger at the movie itself. The director seems to think an appetite for voyeuristic violence is a recent construct - one he's personally above - when it's actually hard-wired into the human subconscious. (Gore stories go back to "Beowulf" and beyond; the movies just re-create mayhem more faithfully than epic poetry does and, yes, the modern entertainment industry caters to that.) The question that should be asked is why.
The director doesn't care why, because "Funny Games" is really about punishing us. There's a prissy academic smugness that renders the 1997 movie more unbearable than anything that happens in it, a smugness mitigated in the new version only through the skill of Watts's performance. She's less of a sheep than the original's Susanne Lothar, and because Pitt's Peter is softer, less arch than Arno Frisch in the first film, the split between cold-hearted farce and sadistic tragedy is less evident. That blunted edge makes for a marginally more watchable movie - probably not what Haneke had in mind.
There may be a way to shock the weekend lemmings into questioning why they go to "Saw" movies, but torturing them for one's own high-minded jollies isn't it. In the end, it's Haneke's refusal to implicate himself that renders the movie infuriating and moot. The tagline on a poster for the new "Funny Games" gives the Euro-snob game away: "You must admit, you brought this on yourself." The ladies at the arthouse would beg to differ, I think. And the people who need to hear it aren't listening.