...a lurid piece of business, made all the more offensive for its apparent higher aspirations.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Among the worst few hours I've ever spent in front of a TV set.

And that includes the time in 1957 my mother insisted I watch an episode of "As the World Turns."

Sitting through 2007's repellant, semi-comedic "Funny Games" is not so much a matter of viewing a visual experience for pleasure or enlightenment as it is trying not to get up and leave while the filmmaker lectures you on how to watch violent movies. Presumably, German-born writer-director Michael Haneke takes exception to the way people, especially Americans, glorify violence in the media, so in 1997 he made a violent, German-language film treatise on the subject called "Funny Games." Ten years later, for reasons of his own choosing (possibly involving money), he remade what I understand is virtually the same film in English, which we have here. I never saw the first one, but if it's anywhere near as unpleasant as this one, I must be better off.

The idea of "Funny Games" is that two psychopathic killers terrorize families they do not know, all the while stopping to address the audience on what they are seeing and how they should react to it. "Funny Games" is a low-budget thriller (with a big-name cast) that has an ostensibly intellectual bent, apparently aiming for what people used to call the art-house crowd. But a highbrow horror flick by any other name is still a lurid piece of business, this one made all the more offensive for its apparent higher aspirations.

OK, I'm sure Haneke meant at least a part of this thing as a joke--a dark, really dark, teasing comedy. Yet it's done so realistically most of the time (except when the actors break the wall separating their fantasy world from our actual one) that it's hard not to find it simply exploitative. Although the movie will no doubt leave some viewers talking about how thoughtful and insightful it is about our voyeuristic culture, it left me only more than ready to walk away early and never come back. If that is the kind of ambiguous reaction Haneke expected to evoke in his audience, I suppose he succeeded. I just wonder if he couldn't have accomplished his purpose in some other way. I mean, Oliver Stone already covered much this same territory in "Natural Born Killers" (1994) several years before Haneke's first film, and Stone did it with a lot more gleeful, gruesome panache.

"Funny Games" grinds on interminably as we watch a polite, soft-spoken, clean-cut pair of young monsters torment, torture, and murder people from house to house. The particular setting is an idyllic vacation home in an affluent bay-side community. Two maniacs, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), insinuate their way into the home of Ann (Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth), and their ten-year-old son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) and proceed to have their inevitable way with them.

That's it. That's the whole plot. For almost two hours the film subjects its audience to the needless cruelty the killers inflict upon their victims with golf clubs and shotguns. Meanwhile, Haneke demonstrates his mastery of film art by eliciting slick photography from his cinematographer, fine acting from his stars, and ironies at every corner.

My question is, Why?

Apparently, as I've said, it's Haneke's attempt not to interest his audience in the plot but to interest them in his thesis: that people become too wrapped up in the vicarious thrills of death and destruction they see in the media. I guess according to him it's why people stop to gawk at the scene of accidents or why they watch "reality" TV or tune in for the grisly details of murder cases on documentary channels. Accordingly, Heneke has his two murderers stop during the film, look at the camera, and speak directly to the viewer, asking them what they think of the goings on. He even has one of the characters stop and rewind the picture at one point to show how the media can alter and manipulate our perceptions.

To reinforce the ironies of life--people saying they deplore violence while reveling in it second-hand--Haneke gives us villains who are the epitome of sweetness and light, dressed in white polo shirts and white gloves, with the names Peter and Paul to further emphasize their angelic sainthood. We get opera-loving heroes to symbolize their civilized behavior, and hard-metal-rock-loving baddies to symbolize their evil. It's all pretty blatant.

And why are these miscreants terrorizing and murdering families? They say it's for "entertainment." Like the six o'clock news. As well as to relieve their boredom and their empty existence. Of course, the double sarcasm here is that the couple they're terrorizing seem as vacuous as the killers. Then the filmmaker goes a step further in the irony department by giving us a torture-porn flick where he presents all of the violence offscreen. More derisive humor?

Moreover, not only does the film rejoice in its wanton cruelty, it does so at an exceptionally slow pace, like a sadist playing with his prey. I tell you, putting a child in danger is the least of this film's transgressions.

Clearly, Haneke wants us to believe that all of the action is fictitious (why else have the actors make asides?), but then he presents it in such suggestively graphic detail that it's almost sickening, meant, no doubt, to confuse us further and blur the line between movie fiction and real life. Enough is enough, I say.

So, how are we to interpret all this? Does the filmmaker seriously think that viewers can't tell the difference between fictional violence and reality? Actors have been shooting one another in movies for over a hundred years, and little boys grow up with toy guns. Does that make us all voyeuristic perverts? Is Haneke advocating filmmakers not make any more violent pictures by making a violent picture himself? Or is he just mocking the audience with contradictions for his own amusement? I rather think the latter is the case, but it doesn't make the movie any easier to watch.

"Funny Games" is one grim, slow, confused, discomforting, and highly unappealing film.

Warner Bros. offer the film in two screen ratios on flip sides of the disc: 1.33:1 full-screen and 1.85:1 widescreen. The widescreen seems to provide more information to the left and right most of the time, although in selected comparisons, I saw the full-screen also providing more information left and right, so the full-screen is not a straightforward pan-and-scan. Nevertheless, I watched in widescreen.

Colors are mainly in the black-and-white, high-contrast range to highlight the film's intentionally sterile, antiseptic look, but everything is bright enough, and object delineation is fine. More than a bit of grain gives the image a proper texture but also imparts a slightly gritty look to the proceedings. Close-ups are good, but medium and long shots can be vague. The overall video quality is somewhat dark, leaving black areas devoid of much inner detailing. Then, too, the screen often looks more brilliant and glossy than real life, again probably meant to sarcastically comment on the cultured yet savage society he sees in the world.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack has little to do beyond reproduce some midrange dialogue, which it does with an easy naturalness. Beyond that, there are a few environmental sounds in the surrounds--crickets, waves--and not much else. To be fair, yes, the audio does its job, as little as that is.

You get the two screen formats I mentioned, plus a few trailers at start-up only. That's about it. I guess Warner Bros. weren't interested in spending any more money than they had to on a film that already lost them a bundle. There are twenty-three scene selections but no chapter insert, English as the only spoken language, French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired. I can't imagine what kind of extras the disc might have provided in any case.

Parting Shots:
"Funny Games" is ugly and mean-spirited, which is I guess what its creator intended. If the idea appeals to you of spending 112 minutes with high-class, well-executed torture porn, this is your film.


Film Value