The holiday season is really only just beginning and already it has been savage on my free-time. You may or may not have noticed a decline in posts and an abundance of Friday the 13th related news. So I can only imagine your surprise that I’m jumping into something entirely different. A few weeks back I caught an episode of Criminal Minds that had a set up that was suspiciously similar to the opening threats of Michael Haneke’s 1997 Austrian bummer, Funny Games, and I was inspired to act.
I can’t really say what would drive a person to make a movie like Funny Games. It’s not just mean to its characters, it deliberately fucks with the viewer and their expectations of the typical hostage/revenge scenario. The villains frequently break the fourth wall and taunt the viewer as much as the victims in the movie. For this, it’s quite a strong picture and given such a nasty tone, I was surprised to find out that the upcoming American remake by Haneke is shot for shot. While I’m sure that the remake will have a limited release, I still wonder if the average American moviegoer who might be lured into such a movie is going to be ready for it.
Georg, his wife Anna, their son Schorschi and the family dog arrive at their lake house, preparing for a well-deserved vacation. Trouble begins almost immediately when their lake-house neighbors pop over for a visit with two men, Peter and Paul in tow who are introduced as friends. Shortly thereafter as Georg and Anna settle in, they are visited by Peter, the brutish, dimwit from the previous encounter. He seems friendly, if a little intimidating and he’s dressed nicely enough and asks to borrow some eggs for the neighbors. The antagonistic games begin here as Peter continually breaks the eggs, returning for more and then winds up dumping the telephone into a sink full of water. Georg comes along, concerned for Anna and irritated by Peter’s behavior and as he’s about to kick him out, Paul, the smaller, more intelligent of the two “friends” shows up, comments on the quality of Georg’s golf clubs and then smashes his knee in with the club.
Funny Games begins as any thriller might. It follows typical movie conventions. Peter and Paul aren’t immediately established as the villains, but it’s clear from the outset that something is very wrong during their introduction. Georg and Anna both seem very pleasant, clearly the sympathetic characters during the times to come. There is nothing about them to suggest that what is on the horizon is something deserved. As it turns out, though, the titular funny games are anything but typical.
Peter and Paul kill the family dog and put the family through the ringer with a series of cruel games, ultimately betting Georg and Anna that they won’t live to see 9am.
It’s difficult to talk much about Funny Games without giving too much away. While it’s not a puzzle full of twists, it’s a movie that plays with your expectations. Social conventions in Hollywood dictate that the good guys always come out on top, no matter what they go through on their way to the conclusion. Even European cinema takes this approach. Honestly, who wants to go to a movie where the hero winds up tortured from the opening credits to the closing credits without ever reaching some kind of empowering resolution? French director, Gaspar Noe, has made a career out of doing this, but I Stand Alone and Irreversible end on a note that presents itself as it is. There’s no real reason for what you have just watched and that, to me, takes those movies down a notch. Funny Games, instead, seems to build a plot around an idea that turns viewer expectations on their head. The idea is more important than the plot and it’s extraordinarily effective in manipulating you, the viewer. Case in point, the now infamous remote control scene that has physically caused me to rise from the sofa and shout “THAT’S NOT FAIR!” before reaching for my own remote and taking the stop button into consideration.
Everything about the movie is carefully considered, even an early red herring that later on turns into a mean trick on the viewer when its role comes back into the movie. I realize that I’m speaking vaguely here but I’m desperately trying to comment on the fantastic surprises that this movie has in store without clueing anyone in to their part in the movie.
To sum Funny Games up, it’s a vicious attack on the viewer that left me intimidated by Haneke’s other movies, wondering what other horrific attacks on movie viewers he had in store. If you’re new to Funny Games and you survive the entire experience to the endgame, you’ll most likely be left in troubled silence, quietly shutting your TV off and retreating to a dark room to do your best to forget what you have seen. Not because it’s bad, quite the contrary, it’s a great movie and an idea that hasn’t much been explored since. Mostly because it’s so supremely unsettling since few filmmakers see a reason to, as they say, go there. On a final note, the violence in the movie is one of the most curious qualities of the entire affair. Nearly all of it takes place off screen, leaving the viewer with only the briefest glimpse of the aftermath. It often leave me with the same impression of people who try to tell me how gory Texas Chainsaw Massacre is.