Sunday, October 27, 2013

FUNNY GAMES (Michael Haneke, 1997, Austria/2007, USA)

The MPAA rated this film R for Terror, Violence and Some Language…but don’t worry about the Language. This review applies to bother version of Haneke’s film: The original 1997 Austrian version and the shot-by-shot American remake.  However, the US version applies the Spectatorship theory to an extra-diegetic level by casting well-known actors (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) and placing them in this diabolical experiment, thus contradicting audience expectations through use of advertising and Hollywood genre tropes. 

The plot is fairly basic: two genial looking young men hold a family hostage in their summer cabin. These clean-cut antagonists begin to play sadistic games with these totally innocent victims by torturing them both physically and emotionally. Simple enough? This plot has already been recycled in the past few months with films like THE PURGE and YOU’RE NEXT. So what does director Michael Haneke do differently than his progenitors and progeny? 

FUNNY GAMES is better experienced from the perspective of Spectatorship; that is, recognizing that this is a Film first and foremost, allowing for suspension of disbelief to be suspended. This Brechtian philosophy of emotional distance allows the viewer to recognize genre conventions while the narrative unwinds. The film is a self-reflexive meta-narrative utilizing an aside as dramatic function, where one antagonist (we never learn their names) speaks directly to the audience but is unheard by the others. This makes the viewer complicit in the drama as the antagonist makes it clear that this is happening for the benefit of the audience: ironically, the audience is as helpless to stop the carnage as the victims. Of course, the viewer is free to leave (or turn off the disc) at any time.

Haneke begins the film with a typical nuclear family; husband, wife, child, and dog on their way to a summer house away from the city. The husband and wife (George and Anna, Haneke’s generic tableau) are playing a game: they play a classical music cd and must guess the composer and piece in as few notes as possible. Haneke keeps our perspective in the car with the bourgeois family as they talk playfully together. We also see their car from a very high angle, a helicopter shot as they journey towards their destination. It’s as if Haneke wants us to see them as small and insignificant. Suddenly, the lulling swirls of diegetic orchestra are replaced by omniscient bombastic music: John Zorn’s Naked City, a primal screaming avant-garde jazz score that is totally surprising and nerve-shattering. Juxtaposed with the complacent characters this frisson sets up the violent narrative to come. 

Haneke builds the story slowly through rather mundane routine and generic cinematic devices. George drops a knife in the first act and Haneke cuts (ha ha) to a close-up of it falling under the seat of the sailboat. Haneke knows the audience is trained to follow the principal of Chekhov’s Gun. He also tests our patience (as well as Anna’s) during the first act when one of the strangers visits to borrow some eggs. As the stranger’s genial behavior leads to more and more broken eggs, Anna is amused, exasperated, then angered by his seemingly stupid actions. When she is berated by the strangers for being angry over something trivial even George doesn’t understand. It’s not until the physical violence which happens very quickly, that George is crippled by a blow to the knee. This outrageous violence is shocking because it is unprovoked and the strangers remain calm. Here, Haneke has effectively removed George as an active participant in the story so the “strong male character” is now reduced to spectator and victim. Unlike a traditional film, the injury and its effects are realistic: George is not going to struggle to his feet for any last minute heroics. But Haneke knows the viewer is expecting as much! 

In FUNNY GAMES, the film then begins to center upon Anna as the active target but her actions are kept realistic and ineffectual. She is reactive and victimized by the two sadistic intruders who offer her choices to make; for example, die by stabbing or gunshot. When the child is punished she can save her child pain by stripping away her clothes. Once again, Haneke serves to titillate because we expect a scantily clad woman in a horror film but the director in his omniscient way deconstructs that notion too: he makes Anna’s nakedness shameful. This act is awkward not only to the brutalized couple but to the perpetrators and audience as well (even though in both films she’s an attractive woman). This is a slow process that makes the viewer embarrassed and angry and is very difficult to sit through. And it should be. Haneke wants the viewer to consider the conceits of horror cinema and apply them to the ‘real world”. 

George and Anna are unable to even save the life of their son. With a bag placed firmly over his head he is threatened with a shotgun. The first film was years before 9/11 but the image is eerily evocative of the torturing of both American and Taliban prisoners by their captors. This brings a political edge to the meta-narrative. As the camera follows one of the strangers out to the kitchen in a mundane task of making a sandwich we hear the shotgun blast. Haneke’s narrative ellipsis has not revealed what exactly has happened. The camera slowly tracks into the room and we witness the unbelievable: blood and brain matter spread across the wall. Anna is sobbing deeply, taking in breath but unable to let it out, until she wails in suffering. George is devastated and unable to physically or emotionally react. On the TV is the hollow drone of some typical sports broadcast. Haneke keeps us immersed in their suffering for approximately five minutes without a cut. He allows the viewer to experience the anguish of the characters instead of cutting away to the “escape” of the two strangers who have now disappeared. 

Throughout the narrative one of the two antagonists speaks directly to the audience. The other characters do not react to this meta-diegetic dialogue: this seems to be an aside meant to make the viewer complicit in the events. The stranger makes up reasons for his conspirator's behavior; is it a bad childhood, was he abused and neglected or is he rich and bored? He also condemns the viewer for expecting what is soon to happen. When Anna makes a bold move and commits the fraudulent act of cliché, he even grabs a remote and the actual film rewinds and resets so he can move the shotgun from her reach. Anna is unaware of the alteration: it is a nasty game that affects the audience. This frustrates and angers many viewers who don’t enjoy being tricked but that is part of Haneke’s message: you can be tricked because you are immured in genre convention. He constructs the tale with the usual set of standards then subverts each one, sometimes subtly and other times forcibly. Even the knife we see at the beginning is a ruse: when the two return and tie Anna (the only survivor, so far) they take the sailboat out on the lake. We remember the knife and Anna discovers it and starts cutting the ropes. Will she escape? Of course not, as she is casually pushed overboard to drown. The men talk elliptically about a science fiction story but it’s a metaphor for what we've just witnessed, how the reality of the screen subsumes our objective realities and how audiences fail to tell the difference. 

Again, why is FUNNY GAMES so frustrating? In Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT series, more people are killed in five minutes of screen time than in Haneke’s feature. Very few have accused Nolan of making an “inhuman” film (though I’d accuse him of making a trite and banal set of films). I suppose it’s in humanizing the people who are murdered even though he withholds on-screen violence. Everything happens outside of the frame though we experience the effects of the violence: the killing of the dog, the killing of the neighbors, the boy’s death, and even George’s murder is shown in close-up of the killers face. Somehow just hearing the trauma is worse than seeing it as we the audience are immune to the blood and gore that pervades modern cinema.  

There is a trick to FUNNY GAMES and it’s this: Haneke manipulates the audience into victim blaming. Nearly every single person who watches this film exclaims that this situation would not happen to them; they would run away, call for help, or get a weapon and fight back. He even sets up a few scenarios to foster this belief. He wants to incite the audience into an emotional backlash against George and Ann. As the sadism progresses we begin to feel that they somehow deserve what’s coming to them for being so stupid to put themselves in a helpless situation. 

It’s no mistake that the murderers are young, good looking intelligent young men; Haneke manipulates us into accepting them (and here’s the Game) at the victim’s expense. Once we the audience imagines their own heroic actions and escape, we cease to empathize with the true victims and become the sadists. 

Final Cut: (A)