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If you’ve seen the trailer, you think that Funny Games is about two fratboyish sociopaths (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) named Paul and Peter terrorizing a family at their country estate. That is a complete distortion of the truth. Yes, there are sociopaths, and yes, there is a family, but German director Michael Haneke (Caché) is playing at something very different than filmmaking. Marketing departments often engage in dubious ethics, but Warner Independent Pictures has stretched that ethical line to the breaking point with Haneke’s Funny Games.
Haneke isn’t telling a story here, he’s conducting an experiment, with the audience serving as his little white lab rats. It’s not about story, it’s not about character, it’s not even about dialogue or cinematography or any of the things movies are typically about. It’s about subjecting the viewer to unthinkable violence (strangling young children, for example) and demanding a reaction from them. Haneke certainly gets a gold star for postmodernism. Even as Paul and Peter play games with their victims (“Successfully recite the Lord’s prayer backwards and you’ll get to choose how your husband dies!”), Haneke is playing games with his audience. Will you stay in your seat or will you get up and leave? Will you enjoy it or will you be disgusted? Either way, you’re a pawn in his experiment. In 1998, the first time he conducted this exercise (this version is a shot for shot English remake of his original Austrian film), he had this to say:
Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film, and anybody who stays does.
I nearly left but stayed so I could write this review. The appropriate response for me, then, seems to be to play a game of my own. That’s why I’m going to do something I’ve never done in a movie review before and I doubt I’ll ever do again: I’m going to break the cardinal rule of film criticism, and I’m not even going to warn you before I do it. The three members of the victimized family, Anna (played by Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth), and their 10 year old son Georgie (Devon Gearheart), are all dead by the end, and their killers are not. Gotcha.
Oh, you don’t like being toyed with like that? Then you’ll hate Funny Games, since I basically just recreated the experience for you. I haven’t ruined anything either since Haneke doesn’t care about the plot – his story is only an excuse to get you into the theater and into the experiment. About 90 minutes in, Michael Pitt’s character breaks the fourth wall (i.e., directly addresses the audience) and says, “You want a real ending with plausible plot development, don’t you?” Funny Games is the cinematic equivalent of a bait-and-switch, which is why Haneke has his sociopaths tease you about your expectations. At one point he even gives you two versions of the same scene, choosing the brutal version over the emotionally satisfying one, but not before dangling it in front of your face like a carrot. He’s only interested in forcing you to decide how complicit you’re going to be in his game. If the thought of being part of an existential experiment intrigues you, then it doesn’t matter that I’ve told you the ‘ending’ (I use that term very loosely) – you’re probably already on your way to the theater. On the other hand, if being jerked around like a marionette isn’t worth 10 bucks and 2 hours of your time, then I’ve spared you a lot of unpleasantness.
Besides my friend and I, there were eight people in the audience. Two of them left, at the point where Paul puts a pillowcase over the little boy’s head and strangles him until his mother willingly undresses. A third person laughed inappropriately at every incident of torture and humiliation. Typically I have zero tolerance for such people. During Open Range I almost got in a fight with a drunk after I politely, but loudly enough for the entire theater to hear, asked him to be quiet. This time I said nothing, as the cackler’s presence felt appropriate for the occasion. How long would he, could he, keep laughing? During the strangulation scene he quietly got up and left, and when he came back he didn’t laugh any more. Perhaps Haneke, in all his pompous arrogance, accomplished what he set out to do, although that doesn’t make me any more appreciative of my stint as his personal guinea pig.
One final observation. At the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. there is a light bulb on a stand. A plaque next to it explains that the bulb randomly turns on once every year for ten seconds. Your participation – how long you’re willing to stand there in the off chance you’ll see it light up – is part of the art. The exhibit is fascinating to think about and enjoyable to discuss, but it is neither compelling nor amusing to experience. Such is Funny Games. I’ve never had a more engaging post-film discussion, but I’ve never had a more miserable, manipulative, and soul-crushing cinematic experience either.
Note: Luke Harrington, who saw this with me, had a very different reaction, and will be posting his review later. We expect to engage in vociferous debate over who is right and who is wrong.