August 2008

Arts & Letters

Horrorshow

By Luke Davies
Michael Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’

“And when he overcomes the gravitational forces, it turns out that one universe is real and the other is fiction.” Two young men, barely more than teenagers, out on a lake in a small sailing boat, are discussing the premise of a science-fiction film. We know this kind of nerd. What he's responding to is science fiction's inherent metaphysical bent: what is Being? The discussion then turns to the nature of film itself. “But is the fiction real? You can see it in the movie, right?” “Of course.” “Well, then it's just as real as reality, because you can see it, too. Right?” It's aimless small talk, and you can scarcely pick it up above the blustery wind on the water and the flapping of the sail. Our sci-fi buff and his friend surely rank among the worst of all screen villains. What has just passed has been a harrowing ordeal for the viewer. Yet this small fragment of conversation, heard as if by accident, cuts to the heart of Funny Games and what makes the film so fascinating.

Michael Haneke makes controversial, and confronting, films. The Piano Teacher (2001) was for many a confounding experience: its brilliant first hour, in which an emotionally frozen Isabelle Huppert seems to be trying to force feeling upon herself in her dalliance with a young man, descends into a vortex of nihilistic self-harm and masochism, and ultimately becomes bleak and almost unwatchable. More recently, Hidden (2005), a taut contemporary thriller that delved into France's troubled Algerian past, kept everybody talking about the buried clues that might explain its ending.

Funny Games (or Funny Games US, to give it its over-explanatory American title) is Haneke's remake of his original Austrian film, released in 1997. The first Funny Games was shocking, and brazen, and challenged highbrow cinemagoers' dismissal of violence-as-entertainment while questioning lowbrow's embrace of it. It was a film that made everyone uncomfortable, and yet it was undeniably riveting, crackling as it did with malevolent dynamism. Given Hollywood's record of sanitising and de-fanging non-Hollywood originals, a great deal of anxiety surrounded this new version. Surely the system would not allow so dark a film to come out of the sausage grinder without a little corn starch and preservative?

In fact, this Funny Games is nearly identical to the original; Haneke has made a shot-by-shot replica. In one viewing I watched the two films simultaneously, one on TV and the other on computer. Occasionally I had to pause one for ten or 15 seconds to wait for the other to catch up, but in general even the cut points were the same, not just between scenes but within them. As trainspotting experiences go, it was enlightening. Dialogue, framing, even the blocking of the actors: all are essentially the same.

Some critics have taken offence at the new version. The original was kinetic and revelatory, the argument runs, while the new one is callow, cynical, drained of energy. I fail to see how this could be the case, so faithful is Haneke to the meticulous architecture of his original. All that is different is context, and the lingering question of why the Hollywood monster needs to remake a perfectly good film. Gus Van Sant made a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1998), almost as an abstract exercise. But he gave his actors free range to make their own interpretations, and hence the Hitchcock original is clearly better, since the actors in the Van Sant continually make strange, or just plain bad, choices. With Funny Games, it's more a matter of fine actors being tightly reined in by Haneke, ensuring that the power of the original is not diluted in the remake.

A friend who very much liked the first Funny Games told me he found the new one to be "torture porn". But at all times the violence is subservient to the dark, intelligent narrative - it is not emotionally solipsistic and narratively gratuitous, as porn is. And the violence, bar a one-second flash, happens entirely off-screen. I can only interpret my friend's comment as meaning that his sensibilities have changed over time. If asked which is better, the Austrian original or the American remake, my answer would be: Take your pick. One is in German and one is in English, if that helps. Perhaps see the new one, because everything is better, terror included, on the big screen.

In the new version, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play George and Ann Farber, an upper-class couple on vacation. Along with their son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart), they are set upon by a couple of sociopathic dandies (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, as Paul and Peter) whose sole intention seems to be to menace them to within an inch of their lives, and then take that final inch.

The Farbers arrive at their summer home. A pleasant time beckons. While George and Georgie are down at the lake getting the boat in the water, Peter arrives from the estate next door, looking for eggs. Soon he is followed by Paul. Ann, all sunny suburban privilege, tries to be helpful. The two boys are polite, but something's not quite right. Their white gloves add an unsettling touch. They're anachronistic, like something out of Gatsby: "The driver's first-class," Paul says to Peter, referring to a golf club. "Really." It is all a facade, and it won't last long. A barking dog off-screen punctuates the increasingly strained interaction. The visitors are in equal doses courteous and insolent, and the result is a simmering unease.

Ann asks them to leave just as George gets back from the lake. He's bemused by the tension. "Look, honey, they just wanted some eggs. Why are you so angry?" It's the sort of small moment that could later result in an argument - Why didn't you back me up today? - but there will be no more time, from here on, for such nuances of marriage. The cruel joke - the funny game - is that they are doomed, no matter what they do. The film compresses, with a kind of evil glee, our collective destinies. We know we will die, and try not to think about it. What must it be like to know that it is coming, in less than a day, and with maximum terror?

"OK, let's play another game," Paul says throughout the film; even the first time he says it, he ominously uses that word "another". (The Farbers' unfortunate neighbours, we learn, form part of the back - and indeed the forward - story.) "We bet that in 12 hours all three of you are gonna be kaput." "What?" Ann whispers, incredulous. "You bet that you'll still be alive by nine o'clock tomorrow," Paul clarifies. "And we bet that you'll be dead. OK?"

Naomi Watts is excellent as the mother and wife watching her life drop away in freefall. "I love you, God, with all my might ..." she mutters, forced by Peter and Paul to recite the only prayer any of them can come up with, a childhood prayer that Peter remembers. "Please keep me safe all through the night." Not happy with her recital, Paul forces her to say it again; her second attempt is filled with searing, guttural desperation.

Haneke favours the long, static take. There's none of the frantic overdrive of Oliver Stone's flawed Natural Born Killers, a film so high on nightmarishly Boschean juices that its attempts to commentate on American cinema's relationship with violence were deeply ambiguous. Funny Games shoots straighter. Haneke lets entire conversations run in single-take mid-shot, where we only see the back of one character. Elsewhere, we stay with the reaction shot as a character listens to dialogue from off-screen. All this visual reticence, coupled with the absence of on-screen violence, enhances the film's hypnotic and growing sense of dread.

"Look at the captain's wife," Paul says to Peter, who he teases relentlessly and nicknames Tubby. "You think she thinks you're hot? With those jelly rolls?" Of Ann, he says: "Now that is a well-toned body. There's not an extra calorie on it." We know where this might lead, and so, with dawning realisation, does husband George, pale and aghast. He, too, is instructed to recite dialogue concocted by Paul in his role as "director" of the games. "Take off your clothes," George says, almost inaudibly, to Ann. "Take off your clothes, honey," Paul coaches. In the long, weary pause that follows, we understand just how small the Farbers' world has become. "Take off your clothes, honey," George says. In that moment, Tim Roth delivers a wrenching blend of tenderness and utter resignation to terrible destiny.

At one point, the boys leave ("It's not a game if it doesn't involve chance") and there is a ten-minute single-take wide shot: Roth, immobilised and almost out of view behind a couch; and Watts, trying to find her feet, her wrists and ankles bound with gaffer tape, her emotional and physical reserves almost exhausted. The scene is as excruciating as it is dramatically brilliant. Haneke is audacious in pushing our level of discomfort, and Funny Games is in this sense similar to Gaspar Noé's Irreversible (2002), a great film that is nonetheless very difficult to watch. The first scene of Irreversible is the murder that is the revenge for the rape that is the second scene. The third scene shows the events leading up to that rape, each disastrous turn of fate. And so on, as the film plays backwards through time, to a perfectly beautiful post-coital morning, and beyond that to its protagonist reading a book in a park, with not a care in the world. Thus Noé rejects the linear build-up of suspense that is the norm in garden-variety thrillers. The suspense comes instead in our finding out the reasons for the previous scene, and the film becomes something of an elegy, documenting the destructive passage of time.

In Funny Games, the device that has the same effect, that makes our engagement with the story at the same time voyeuristic and intellectual, is - without giving too much away - Haneke's mischievous breaking of the fourth wall, which happens on four or five occasions. For thriller purists, these moments will ruin a perfectly good fantasy. This is clearly Haneke's intention. The 1997 version, he has said, was "a reaction to a certain American cinema, its violence, its naivety, the way [it] toys with human beings," and the way in which, in so many American films, "violence is made consumable." The American Funny Games is a Trojan Horse of a film; it sincerely - and radically, in those transgressive fourth-wall moments - protests the banalisation of violence. "I'm trying to find ways of showing violence as it really is," Haneke said recently. "It is not something that you can swallow."

Like Irreversible, the film tells the very story it critiques. Deep in the ordeal, Ann asks Peter: "Why don't you just kill us?" "You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment," he chides gently.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Cover: August 2008

August 2008

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