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Kids, did you ever have the feeling while sitting in class during a lecture that the person delivering the lesson may not be quite as brilliant as they think they are? Well, it happens rarely to Yon Elephant-Head because I reckon everybody has got more going in the smarty department than I do. However, this next film did give me the novel feeling of having my intelligence insulted for 110 minutes.

Funny Games is a shot-for-shot remake of German director Michael Haneke’s 1997 thriller. According to my interview with Haneke (- a very lovely fellow, by the way) he said he felt that Americans had such a romance with violence in movies that it was important for US audiences to see his film about violence being perpetrated for violence’s sake - and there’s your whole film in the nutshell, violence for violence’s sake.

An affluent yuppie couple and their son are on holiday at their summer home by a lake when they find their home invaded by two eerily ingratiating young men in summer whites. They take the family hostage, but want nothing from them except to inflict psychological and physical tortures that for some reason the two men find amusing. After promising the family that none of them will survive, they then take their time to carry out their plans to terrorise and degrade this innocent family. Utilising such allegedly cutting edge techniques as having a character directly address the audience and later a climatic moment is literally undone before our eyes; Haneke has constructed one gimmicky, pretentious mess of a film that deservedly or not, will generate controversy. Generating controversy, after all, is Haneke’s unabashed goal, would that it was making a better film.

The one good thing I can say for the US version of Funny Games is the performances by the cast are incredible. In my talks with Tim Roth, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, the film’s father and two torturers, I discovered that the creation of Funny Games was kind of a torture of its own. Fortunately for Haneke, directing an English-speaking cast, he employed actors who turned that frustration into grist for fine performances. Roth and Naomi Watts as the two parents are studies of the different reactions such random, unexpected terror can bring out in people. Watts’ Ann is like a trapped lioness, confused by what is happening but raging against her captors for the sake of her family. In her most raw performance, Watts displays physical weariness after being toyed with ruthlessly, shaking to her core and bleary eyed, she believably keeps what wits she has left about her.

Tim Roth’s George will forever be regarded as one of the worst fathers in cinematic history – probably mostly by Roth himself. The namby-pamby milquetoast intent on being civil initially refuses to listen to the panicked pleas of his wife to eject the two strangers who refuse to leave his house. The realisation that he really should’ve listened to Ann quickly arrives via a golf club to the knee, George spends the rest of the film helpless and impotent, even acquiescing to the visitors’ demand to have him ask Ann to strip naked for their pleasure. Without spoiling too much for the adventurous souls who will go see this, some truly horrible acts (- far worse than the strip command) occur right before George’s eyes and at no point does he ever fight back with any conviction, aching leg or no aching leg. He leaves all the aggression to Ann, knowing the lives of his entire family depend on his actions. For Roth, this must’ve been an acting triumph, a real test to keep his instincts at bay playing the most ineffective man in the world and it’s a tribute to his talent that he uses the challenge to make the frustration so evident in George’s eyes.

Michael Pitt revisits his old Murder by Numbers thrill-killer stomping grounds, this time as the leader, mocking and utterly psychotic. Brady Corbet as the lumpy, sociopathic sidekick does a wonderful job in baiting the audience into thinking for the smallest second that he might be swayed into sympathy for his victims and taking the hope away time and again. Funny Games is even more frustrating because we’re viewing these fine actors do some of their best work for such an unworthy effort.

The sheer crassness of the ham-fisted way Haneke believes he’s holding up a mirror to US audiences and teaching them a lesson, smacks of protesting too much. Sure, Americans like film violence, but I daresay Germans and other cultures do, as well. Who in the world hasn’t wanted to be Bruce Lee? Who hasn’t enjoyed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator films (- at least the first one)? Who didn’t hold their breath as Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita blasted their way out of sticky situations with the help of some outsized firepower? I’m also pretty sure that many of Michael Bay’s films have made a few euros, yen, rubles and pesos outside of the States.

The difference with Michael Bay’s films is that we’re not looking at reality; Funny Games in mood and action very intentionally tries to resemble a snuff film, and I’ve yet to see a US filmgoer who didn’t live in a rubber room give one of those a standing ovation. Haneke at one point delivers a scene that he emphatically believes is his personal “Gotcha” moment, catching the audience out in cheering for a murder. There is so much wrong with this statement, considering the scene (- which is twisting in my trunk not to give away) is completely engineered by Haneke to elicit the very response he is looking for, therefore buying into the very thing he’s complaining about. He drains the audience manipulation well too many times in different scenes to be forgiven. One other thing, I don’t know how this sort of thing flies in Germany, but I’m gonna put my trunk out there and say that for most filmgoers the relentless terrorising of small children is always a bad call. The whole exercise is arrogant, condescending and transparent, and that’s all the time I’m gonna spend on Funny Games.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got A Clockwork Orange warming up in the DVD player. I prefer a bit more style and a lot more competence in my anti-violence parables.


~ Mighty Ganesha

March 11th, 2008



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