Thursday, January 10, 2013

Film Review: Funny Games (1997) by Michael Haneke (Spoilers)

How much therapy did this child actor need after starring in this movie?
An affluent couple and their little boy are held hostage in their summer home, the gates and locks installed to provide security ironically keeping them prisoner. They are terrorized and eventually murdered by a couple of clean-cut looking young men who appear -- at first -- to be quite normal except for the white gloves. Most of the violence takes place off-screen, which somehow makes it more unsettling.

The excellent performances, cinematography, pacing, and starkly believable scenes evoke many feelings. I could sense the powerlessness, shock, and confusion such a situation would create along with the absolute despair of losing a child. Paradoxically, I also felt a sense of detachment from the characters and story, a feeling heightened by the whole "breaking the third wall" thing. One of the perpetrators periodically winks at the audience, asking us if we feel we're getting what we came for. He also berates and toys with his victims for asking the question that was foremost in my mind: "Why? Just why?"

The film deliberately goads viewers for choosing a violent film as "entertainment." At the same time, it mocks our natural human desire to make meaning of such senseless violence, to be offered some reason -- or at least some context -- to help us understand why this is happening. It's as if we're being told, "Hey, you signed up for this, so you've gotta sit back and watch. And don't ask us to make it easier for you in any way, or help you make sense of this madness, because that ain't gonna happen."

Roger Ebert referred to this film as an exercise in learned helplessness -- this is very apt. The story moves relentlessly toward its grim conclusion, and when the tables finally turn -- just for a moment -- the perpetrator gets to rewind the movie. WTF? And the knife we see left on the family's sailboat near the beginning of the movie? I predicted that, like Chekov's famous gun on the mantlepiece, it would come into play. And it did. But it was underwhelming to say the least.

Was that the filmmaker's master move? Stripping away ordinary literary and cinematic conventions, leaving us with nothing but cold, brutal reality? Hell if I know.

I appreciated but didn't enjoy this film. I admired the technical accomplishment and outstanding performances. But honestly I had to force myself to sit through it. It's sadistic, tedious, and way more manipulative than any movie has a right to be. Ebert referred to the film's "insufferable smugness." Yup -- that too.

Ebert described this movie as a "Skinner Box" in which the lab rats -- movie viewers -- are being tested to see how much negative stimuli we can take before doing the sensible thing and walking out. Haneke reportedly said: "Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film, and anybody who stays does."

What would he say about a viewer who forced herself to sit through the movie? Holy crap -- I don't even wanna know. :-)

I won't dispute Haneke's unique style and tremendous skill, and I'd still like to watch more of his work. But I may have to detox from this for a while first.


  1. I hated Funny Games. "Insufferable smugness" is a great way to describe it. Then there's the fact that he remade his own movie, shot for shot, for American audiences specifically because we are apparently "the worst." That's a dick move in my opinion and really sours me on Hanke. I'll give him credit where it's due, The White Ribbon is great, and The Piano Teacher is very well made, and I do wan to see Amour. But Hanke is still treading closely into Lars Von Trier douche territory for me.

    1. "Haneke is still treading closely into Lars Von Trier douche territory" ... that cracks me up. :-) I get what you mean about the shot-by-shot remake for U.S. audiences being a dick move. Obviously I didn't hate Funny Games, but I definitely didn't love it either. And I am generally not a big fan of "message" movies.

      So far this is only my second Haneke movie. I also saw Cache, which I thought was magnificent. I definitely want to see The White Ribbon and Amour. On the fence about the others.

  2. I liked Haneke's remake with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth (which was quite disturbing at times), but I haven't seen the original version yet. I'll have to dig into his pre-2000s work at some point.

    1. I understand the remake is identical to the original, scene by scene. You may want to watch it anyway -- the performances were terrific. I bet Naomi Watts and Tim Roth are great, too.


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