Mugging for the camera

You have to wonder: Why an American shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s decade-old Austrian film now? Because — and I think it fitting that O-Ren Ishii of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill probably said it best — now’s the fucking time.

Well, maybe three years ago would have been better, closer to the golden age of “torture porn,” ergo the more pertinently brutal this critique of how we consume violence would have been, but hey, you’ve got to take pre-production into account. And it’s not like these days are any less grim, really, with the resurrection of “grindhouse” cinema and the fourth installment of Saw still capable of taking in $63 million domestically (V is in the works, according to

For Americans, it’s clear, a bit of onscreen
affliction can be part of a fun night out. We put away blood and guts and sadism with the blind zeal of a kid tossing back a favorite box of Girl Scout cookies. Which begs the question: How do you take your violence? The pair of killers in
Funny Games pose this quandary to their audience with the gentility of polite hosts serving coffee.

They are two pale, berry-mouthed young men in white polos, shorts, gloves, and Chucks — preppy angels of death at first situated on an idyllically green-grassed golf course. You know, of course, from the previews, what these phantoms are out to do. That, or a clever friend coaxed you into seeing the film sight unseen. Part of the conceptual genius of Funny Games is in the misleading nature of its advertising. Those who aren’t aware of Haneke’s work will believe exactly as they are meant to: that this is another sick flick for the torture set. By responding to the advertising, we have in a sense agreed for the characters in Funny Games to be killed. We are complicit with its killers, who occasionally check in with us: “Do you think this is enough?” they ask. “You want a plausible plot ending.”

That Funny Games works as both a nail-biting suspense thriller and a commentary on torture as entertainment is a tribute to Haneke, a director-writer whose repertoire is no stranger to families in danger.

Darius Khondji’s camera — imitating the improbably named Jürgen Jürges’s — follows young Georgie as he chases his golden retriever up the stairs of his family’s vacation home. Haneke’s refusal to cut to what’s happening on the second floor cues to us that Funny Games is about what we aren’t going to see. As is often the case in No Country for Old Men, the act of violence itself is concealed from us, only implied. Long takes illustrate the results of aggressive acts: Broken eggs are cleaned from the floor, a grossly dismembered-looking woman with duct-taped wrists and ankles attempts to walk.

By the time Haneke is done with you, when at last he does fully depict a gunshot wound (inflicted on a perpetrator, no less), after a millisecond-long reflex of YES you’ll wonder why you’re really so happy about it.

But back to Georgie, and his parents George (Tim Roth) and Ann (Naomi Watts). They’re your run-of-the-mill cultured, well-off family unit — the kind we come out to see hunted and murdered at their lake house. They go about their business after an initial introduction to their future captors, and we knowingly wait for the blood to flow: Ann chops a steak; the Georges get to work on the dock. The construction of a sailboat hints at the frailty of the human skeleton. These characters are not the new super-human John McClane, who can fall though an elevator shaft, shoot through himself, and surf on the wing of a fighter jet. They’re brittle mortals who drip snot when they cry.

When perpetually hungry Peter, presumably a guest at the neighboring vacation home (but we know better) attempts to talk Ann out of all of the eggs in her kitchen, it’s almost as if you are watching an acting exercise: He changes tactics again and again to achieve his objective, which, of course, is to incite an act of violence.

He does, and more follows.

By the last 20 minutes of Funny Games, I barely had the capacity to breathe. My hand was clapped to my mouth and my body was searching for the mechanism to take in more than mere teabag-sized pockets of air every minute or so. Whatever the baseline is to keep one conscious, that’s what I was doing.

Unlike Uma Thurman’s Bride — or the female lead-victim in anyone else’s film, for that matter — who under a coat of blood, sweat, dirt, what have you, looks hot, Naomi Watts (an executive producer of Funny Games) resembles something more akin to what a woman might actually look like in the circumstances. It’s difficult to watch her. One of her eyes is bloodshot, her skin is splotchy; the lighting doesn’t hide quivering cellulite even on her slight, toned frame. When she puts on clothes after the home invaders insist on confirming whether or not she has “jelly rolls,” she doesn’t don the corset or see-through wifebeater that just happens to be lying there. She looks downright silly in a sweater-vest that’s meant to be Tim Roth’s (but I think it would drown even him).

It is Watts, the last to survive, who nearly overcomes her subjugators via firearm. But by creatively reversing this gunshot, Haneke denies us the questionable feminism of the last-woman-standing subgenre. (Normally we can feel good about ourselves, justified in the diversion we’ve just experienced, if only the lady conquers all.) The truth is that when you go to see a torture picture, you know what you’re in for abstractly — you’re just there to see how the specifics play out. So when Ann asks her captors why they don’t just kill her, she’s asking us. And we, the killers, reply: You shouldn’t forget the importance of
entertainment. •

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