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Funny Games U.S.

April 23, 2008
It’s been ten years since Michael Haneke made Funny Games in his native Austria, and bludgeoned his way to a slew of prizes and nominations at the top festivals, with plenty of people praising that particular movie for its serious arty take on our obsession with violence. Since then he’s made a couple of very good films, including the hugely underrated Caché (Hidden), but now he decides to come back with a frame-for-frame word-for-word US remake of that original attention-grabbing work.

Why? Funny Games US, apart from the English language content and actors switch, is exactly the same as the first Funny Games. Maybe that’s the point; maybe in saying that the Arthouse crowd got it, now it’s time for a stab at the mainstream, pun intended. And the American mainstream at that…stick in Tim Roth and Naomi Watts and it’s time that Ohio and Iowa and Colorado got to see what violence is doing to us all.

Well, maybe. The fact is that it’s only the Americanisation of the voices within the film that have changed. Check out the respective trailers (1997) and (2008) to see just how painstakingly close they are to each other.

The story is very simple. A rich and faintly nauseating family are taken hostage by two preppy adolescents, tortured and then subjected to various humiliations. Throughout, the violence done to these people is all off-screen (more often than not the camera suddenly leaps to an outside shot, gazing at the house, or simply exits the room), and at various points the main protagonist, Paul, looks at the audience and challenges us directly to consider what it is we’re not only viewing, but taking a tacit part in.

And it is challenging. It’s very challenging. Although we don’t actually see the violence (except in one sequence, which is quite explicit, but tellingly doesn’t actually happen…a confusing thing to say, I’ll get back to this in a minute) we do see the results of it. Similarly, a forced humiliation of the Naomi Watts character, where she is forced to strip, only shows her crying from the shoulders up, but afterwards we see her tied up in her skimpies, which means we actually aren’t saved from any of the nastiness. I’m certain that the point of this is Haneke sneering, “you’ve come to see a gauche show of sex and violence, well we’re not going to do that, we’ll just show you how it affects people” and that’s all very good, but to show us a boy lying mostly out of camera shot, but a mess of blood and brains on the wall is just as bad, frankly. And just because you don’t see a woman’s tits, to concentrate then on her, half-naked and crying uncontrollably, covered in snot and spittle, and shivering in fear, is again a fucking awful sight. We’re not saved.

The so-called explicit scene involves Naomi grabbing a shotgun and blasting one of her tormentors in the stomach, his bloodied body flying through the air, to land crashing splattery against the wall and floor. “That wasn’t supposed to happen!” screams Paul, at which point he grabs the TV remote and winds back the action to the point where he can grab the gun first.

Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.

There are clever-clever tricks like this all the way through and rather than appear smart, they appear smartass. Paul’s to-camera sequences last in toto less than a minute; a wink, a sentence, another sentence, and really, that’s it. It depends on your take with regard to the fourth wall; do we break it down, or leave it to the viewer to decide, well, what he wants to decide? I loved Francis Urquhart’s soliloquies, but they were extensive character-led mises en scene that were an essential part of the story. Here, they’re a brief, oi-did-he-just-speak-to-us distraction, and in conjunction with the rest of the film they, the structure and the plot and the whole didactic mix of the thing, add up to a pretty patronising treatise on how rubbish we are as an audience for allowing this kind of thing to happen. How fucking dare we watch exploitatively violent or sexist films?

Well, hang on, that is a good point, of course. Our attitude to violence and sexual violence in particular does need to be challenged, of course it does, but in handing the teacher’s role to Paul (Michael Pitt) it’s a position that loses much of its impact. Not that Pitt isn’t a good actor, in fact he’s excellent, and is scary and menacing and fiercely intelligent in the part, but I would have much preferred that he was someone we could sympathise with. That really would have fucked with our heads. The main problem with all of the characters, even the young boy, is that nobody here is particularly sympathetic. Roth is vanilla and a bit weedy, Watts seems spoilt and whiney, and the two offenders are supremely irritating. In a stagey movie that cries out for a leftfield dynamic what we actually have is a group of annoying people shouting at each other. Instead of making the awful Jumper, how much more interesting would it have been to have seen Jamie Bell as Paul? Or – perhaps a little too old – Christian Bale?

And so, almost all of the impetus and impact is lost because although it’s horrible to see people suffer, it would have been much more interesting to see people we connect with going through the wringer. And without the snide asides. But then, let’s be honest here; it’s not an actor’s film, it’s Haneke’s, and he’s the one talking directly to us. Pitt and Watts and Roth are just his mouthpieces. And being talked down to like this gets tiresome fairly quickly. After half an hour, Roth says to Pitt “I get it, I get what you’re trying to do,” and so do we. If there’s anything more wearing than being talked at like a child, it’s working out the big idea before the smug reveal.

I wanted to like this because there are certain cinematic staples that are swept aside. Cute dogs and cute kids? Cavalry coming? Pretty people triumphing? All good references to screw up, but – and there’s no other word to use, I’m afraid – they’re wasted. So it’s not a shame on us Mr Haneke, trust me.

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