FUNNY GAMES Written and directed by Michael Haneke, with Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet and Devon Gearhart. A Seville Pictures release. 111 minutes. Opens Friday (March 14). Rating: NN
Imagine you’re watching a movie made by an undeniably talented director who’s also an unbridled sadist and wants to punish you for showing up. That’s Michael Haneke in a nutshell.
Having conquered the art-house world with his brilliant Caché, a psychological drama that seemed a summation of all the cruel, austere thrillers he’d directed over the past two decades, Haneke announced that his next project would be an exact American remake of his German-language 1997 film Funny Games, in which a bourgeois family is set upon by two creepily well-mannered young psychopaths at their remote cottage and tortured without mercy.
He wasn’t kidding. Funny Games U.S. is as close to an exact replica of its predecessor as is cinematically possible – not just scene-for-scene, but shot-for-shot, with sets, dialogue, wardrobe and even hairstyles duplicated from the original. I suspect the new script was generated from the subtitles on the North American DVD.
The most glaring difference between the two versions is that the family dog is now a golden retriever; in the original, it was a German shepherd.
As an act of cinema, this is entirely unprecedented. Directors have remade their own work before, but never like this: Hitchcock’s two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much are rather distinct works, and George Sluizer’s Americanization of The Vanishing destroyed his brilliant original to give the story a relatively upbeat ending. In this respect, Funny Games U.S. is a film unlike any other.
But it’s still Funny Games. And Haneke still doesn’t want you to see it.
Funny Games (and this applies to either version) poses as a conventional home-invasion thriller, but its structure denies the characters – and the viewer – any hope of escape or release.
The more talkative of the two maniacs (Arno Frisch in the original, Michael Pitt in the remake) keeps dangling an out, though: follow the rules, he says, and everything will be okay. And then he turns to the camera and asks us if we’re still rooting for the family, or the killers.
In 1997, this was a maverick act, and Haneke stated that his goal was to drive people from the theatre by presenting them with the most horrific sadism imaginable. If they stayed to the end, he’d failed as a filmmaker.
Throughout his career, Haneke has forced his viewers to question their complicity in what’s happening on the screen. In Funny Games – and this applies to either version – he uses that sensibility to make us ask ourselves whether we truly want to see human suffering on the scale the film offers.
That question is meaningless in the sado-porn age. In 1997, Haneke was trying to define a culturally acceptable limit of bloodletting and nihilism. Today, in the age of the Saw and Hostel franchises, we know there isn’t one.
More important, while we’re watching Funny Games, presumably having identified with the evidently normal characters played by Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Devon Gearhart, we aren’t thinking about what it all means on a larger scale; we just want to know what happens next. The narrative is far more important than the metaphor.
That’s something Haneke understood in Caché – and he deliberately overlooks it here, the better to let his characters take out their knives and literally shove the point home. It’s artistic backsliding is what it is.