Funny Games (1997)

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*. Cynicism and nihilism are near allied, and the artistic form they produce is parody, the mockery of meaning.
*. You could call Funny Games a parody of a home-invasion horror film, and Michael Haneke has said that the point of what the preppy killers are up to is that there is no point aside from its entertainment value. It’s a form of art for art’s sake. But I don’t think Haneke has the same attitude.
*. The reason I say this is because Haneke is an angry guy, and anger takes the form of polemic, not parody. Haneke is not a nihilist. He has a mission, and something to say.
*. Nevertheless, Funny Games was attacked by a lot of critics, I think mainly for its cynicism. It was a movie that pushed a lot of people’s buttons, but it’s worth asking why and how.
*. David Edelstein, for one, took the DVD, snapped it in two and then cut it up into pieces before throwing it away. Now that’s a reaction! Exactly the sort of thing Haneke was aiming for.
*. What upset Edelstein was that he found Funny Games to be “little more than high-toned torture porn.” Seeing as Edelstein is often credited with coining the term torture porn, one thinks this should mean something. But it doesn’t. Nor does A. O. Scott’s likening Funny Games (the 2007 edition, but for all intents and purposes the same as this film) to Hostel in its reveling in the “pornography of blood and pain,” an appetite which Haneke hypocritically feeds while managing to express his own “mandarin distaste for it.”
*. “Mandarin distaste,” by the way, is offensive because it’s the preserve of critics like Scott. I don’t think he likes Haneke jumping the queue.
*. I think complaints like these are nonsense. The fact is, Funny Games is not a graphically violent movie. The murders, even of the dog, take place off screen (except for that of Peter, who is immediately brought back to life). There’s plenty of potential here for nastiness, but we don’t see it. The other chief act of violence, where Anna is made to strip, only shows her from the neck up. There’s nothing prurient or porny about it.
*. If this is a violent movie, it’s one where you have to imagine the violence. Isn’t the powerful, hard-to-watch effect the film has, that it manages to shock and disturb without being graphic, to Haneke’s credit? That perhaps the most frightening scene in it is Peter’s quietly persistent asking for eggs?
*. The other thing that seems to have really bothered critics is the breaking of the fourth wall.
*. Innocent or naive critics thought this unfair, or in breach of the rules. That Haneke was deliberately setting out to draw attention to and mock those rules (the need for such a story to still respect a basic sense of justice and narrative decorum, for example) seems to me, again, to only draw attention to his success.
*. More advanced critics understood what Haneke was doing, but thought it was too obvious and old hat. In his review of the 2007 remake (also directed by Haneke) A. O. Scott makes reference to “techniques that might have seemed audacious to an undergraduate literary theory class in 1985 or so.” Get that? Undergrad. Yes, horror movies make us all into voyeurs, adopting the point of view of the killer, etc., etc. We know all that. Psycho had said the same thing and done it with more intelligence and style. We don’t need the actors winking at us or being able to magically rewind the film. Apparently Haneke’s drawing attention to the film’s artificial status makes him a “fraud” (Scott). Why?
*. If it was such a tired point to be making, and in such an obvious manner, why did it upset so many people so much? Would they have liked it more if it had just been a traditional home-invasion, family-terror film? With a happy ending?
*. I don’t want to make the claim that I think Funny Games is an incredible breakthrough or particularly bold or original in its form or message, but I do find most of the complaints about it not just unfair but downright bizarre.
*. Kim Newman, for example, finds both versions of Funny Games to be “effective horror,” but finds Haneke’s “smugness” unbearable. According to Newman, Haneke “is ashamed of cinema and only embarks on genre movies with contempt.” I don’t believe that, and can’t see any evidence for it here.
*. Most critics do grant that the film is well made, but then immediately go on the attack with both barrels. Newman again: “Most of his [Haneke’s] films are rewarding, stimulating and affecting, but the only way to get people to watch them more than once is to remake them in different languages.”
*. I’ve watched Funny Games more than once. It has an interesting look, builds suspense very well, and the actors are all fun to watch. It’s hard to take your eyes off of any of the main four, and if the father is presented as too much of a wimp (he should be able to get around better than that even with a broken arm and leg), that’s the only criticism I can make in the premise.

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*. Also very effective is the way the two sets of characters (the family and the intruders) seem to inhabit two different fictive worlds. Haneke thought that Peter and Paul were essentially clowns, figures belonging to a comedy, while the family are tragic characters. This makes sense as Peter and Paul stand outside of the action, controlling it in a god-like (or director-like) fashion, while the fate of the family is to suffer. But is it cynical to draw attention to how we empathize with them? Do we really enjoy their suffering? I don’t think the audience is meant to identify with Peter and Paul, who are just after sensation and entertainment.
*. Haneke describes Peter and Paul as anarchic figures who “make fun of all the rules that exist to keep society running.” In much the same way, they make fun of the rules that exist to keep us believing in the film. There may not be anything profound in that equation of the rules of artistic convention with good manners (which the intruders are careful to insist on), both of which Haneke seems to despise, but I think it’s a perfectly valid point to make. Good manners can be not just absurd but disgusting. Hannibal Lecter always insists on them too.
*. It’s not Haneke who is the smug undergrad but Peter and Paul, and I don’t see them as the auteur’s avatars. They seem typical students, and in their final conversation on the boat they even get into an undergrad rap session about postmodern fiction of the kind they enact. Paul’s loud, horsey laugh after he throws Anna overboard gives the game away. He is an ivy-league jock, a privileged boor with a smattering of learning and nothing else.
*. The basic critique of the portrayal of violence in film is, I’ll admit, nothing new. But I think it’s presented in a powerful and original way. My own reading of the film is that it’s about the tragedy of entitlement. The family are living an affluent fairy tale of a life. We don’t like them right from their opera guessing-game in the car, and a gated cottage will probably strike us all as more than a little much (the cottage itself being as big as a barn).
*. Of course we’ve seen our share of zombie movies and films like The Purge, so we know that civilization, however privileged and pretty, is a tissue-thin layer that just barely conceals our desire to rape and murder our neighbours. So we want to see the family taken down. Their lives seem a little too perfect, even if what they have are all the things that we in the audience aspire to. Maybe they didn’t earn it, but they’re entitled to their lifestyle. It may not be fair, but that’s the way the world works.
*. Values like these are not to be trifled with. Having paid for our ticket, we feel we’re entitled to the same thing as the family: entertainment, fun and games. Perhaps more violent and shocking than what they’re in the market for, but still entertainment that plays by the rules, that has good manners. Maybe some partner-swapping with the other couples around the lake. But Haneke has cheated us. He is, in Scott’s telling final judgement, a “fraud.”
*. A fraud! Do these critics want their money back? Talk about entitlement! They didn’t even pay in the first place! What more do they want?
*. Whatever it is, Haneke isn’t interested in providing it. He’s less interested in criticizing our atavistic desire to be entertained by pointless violence than our faith in a transaction that will faithfully give us what we pay for. If you think art has to play by the rules then you’re no better than the dull, bourgeois family. Which means you’re in real need of a wake-up call.

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