An upper middle class family — mother, father, young son, and dog — travel to their country home, boat in tow. Soon after they arrive, their household is invaded by a pair of young men in tennis whites who hold them hostage and torture and degrade them, both physically and psychologically. Relentless in its vision of brutality, the film questions the sanity and sensibility of the audience that pays to sit through such a display of human crudity and baseness.
Didn’t we hash all this out for ourselves about the time Wes Craven made Last House on the Left? The key difference between Funny Games and Last House is that Craven, who would later become the undisputed king of both multiplex horror and the reflexive slasher film, made a straightforward B-movie that catered to the grindhouse crowd. Haneke’s self-consciously bleak film (which is, incidentally, about one-tenth as disturbing as Craven’s “straight” version) is an implicit criticism of its own audience.
Essentially, Funny Games plunders the nastiest bits from Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, and I Spit On Your Grave and fashions them into a film that eschews context and any sense of closure in favor of a metacinematic style that, apparently, seeks to identify the audience with the psychopaths. The first time one of the killers (the smart, handsome one) tossed a wink back over his shoulder at me, the allegedly complicit viewer, I thought, “Aw, fuck. It’s a violent movie that wants to blame me for liking violent movies.”
Let me say unequivocally that I do like many violent movies, sometimes even cruelly violent ones. And so what? Unless I begin confusing brutality in the movies with brutality in the real world (and Haneke seems to suggest that I should), it seems to me that it’s a private matter between me, Wes Craven, John Woo, and Sam Peckinpah. However, unlike his forebears in violent cinema, Haneke isn’t investigating the expressive potential of violence. What separates Funny Games from its less outwardly intellectual genre counterparts is its obstinate refusal to give the audience what it wants. Funny Games denies its victims even a minimal triumph over their aggressors — an element that’s crucial to the horror formula. It’s an interesting bit of theory, but it comes at least 20 years too late to qualify as “insight.” Truth be told, I think the Scream movies are a more valuable addition to the genre.
That’s not to say that Haneke’s not onto something interesting. I just wish it cohered better aesthetically. It’s hard to become emotionally involved in a picture (and I think Funny Games demands some level of involvement) when you can feel the director forcing every minute of celluloid right down your throat. Funny Games should be an art picture with an exploitation sensibility. Instead, it’s an exploitation picture that can’t free itself of the rigors of its own pretensions. Held in the camera for an uncomfortable length, one static tableaux is reminiscent of Bergman, although it lacks Bergman’s sense of the mystical. And even a Bergman film would collapse under the strain of the austerity that blanches every frame of Funny Games.
Eventually, it was all I could do to keep from laughing. This is a very talented cast, particularly Susanne Lothar in the physically demanding role of Anna, the wife. But toward the two-thirds mark, the characters have been beaten and broken in so many different ways that their struggles take on a desperate comic poignance, like something out of Buster Keaton or Chuck Jones. Haneke heaps it on so thick that for a moment I hoped he was making a black comedy.
Am I proving the director’s point by failing to be appalled at the proceedings? In my own defense, I must note that this all reeks so baldly of a set-up that it’s hard not to approach it clinically. We’re given no real stake in the lives of the family, because the characters are drawn in the blandest possible terms. When we first see them, they’re cruising through the country, boat in tow, playing banal name-that-composer” games with the Sony CD player. They’re carefree, thinking only of boating and golfing. When the two young psychos come to visit, it’s plain that they’ve got the plum roles, with amusing quirks and a frightening agenda: They’re toying with an overprivileged but woefully underequipped family unit. If we take even a grim sort of pleasure in their sick shenanigans, Haneke has put us where he wants us.
Haneke’s games are played on a smaller scale, as well. When Anna is forced to undress for her captors, the camera moves in deliberately for a close-up, denying us the presumed pleasure of seeing her naked. Later in the film, in an apparent sop to the audience’s lecherous nature, we see her strip down to a completely sheer bra. Elsewhere, Haneke doles out pleasure and then takes it away, as in one key scene that’s literally rewound and replayed to excise a moment when the tables are turned on the captors. Early on, he throws in a close-up of a kitchen knife that’s been left behind, using a standard trick of the thriller to clue us in that the knife will be an important prop later in the film. When that moment comes, of course, Haneke makes it as anticlimactic as possible, further confounding our expectations.
So Haneke is as skillful a manipulator of an audience’s sensibilities as the director of an average B-grade slasher film from the 1980s. So what? Michael Powell’s proto-slasher flick, Peeping Tom, implicated its audience way back in 1960, and Haneke doesn’t add anything new to the discussion. Later films, such as Last House and John Carpenter’s Halloween, would give theorists plenty more to ponder, such as whether the audience’s interest in a horror film is necessarily sadistic. (For the record, I nearly always identify with the “victim” when watching horror films, and I think most of the audience does, too — teenaged girls, especially, flock to movies like the Scream series or I Know What You Did Last Summer for three reasons: they like to see strong actresses in the lead roles, they enjoy watching the cute young guys cast opposite the girls, and finally, they want to be scared.)
Viewed as a horror film, Funny Games is little better than mediocre. There are a couple of honestly gruesome moments, and Arno Frisch is credibly maddening as Paul, the smug psychopath. A long stretch at the end of the second act is fairly suspenseful, and represents the film’s closest approach to a conventional thriller. But Haneke’s agenda precludes thrills. He’s intent on denying the audience everything but the basest pleasures imaginable. In my case, suspense quickly gave way to impatience, as I waited out Haneke’s grand experiment. The whole piece bears the patina of Art, negating any real horror or discomfort on the part of the audience.
As theory, it’s just obvious. If it’s really a metacinematic treatise on the audience’s complicity in sadistic entertainment that you’re looking for, well, let me refer you to the Belgian shocker Man Bites Dog, which covered this ground more rigorously a few years ago. (Beyond that, you may want to just read a book.) In a weird attempt to shore up his thesis, Haneke even sticks in a quick conversation at the end of the movie in which one character alleges that, if we see something happen in a movie, it’s fundamentally the same as seeing it happen in real life. Now, Haneke might have a point where real exploitation pictures are concerned. It’s pretty obvious that a movie like Last House on the Left put its performers through the wringer in catering to an exploitation audience’s thirst for flesh and blood. But I don’t think that’s what he’s getting at. Rather, he wants to make his audience uncomfortable with its presence at his own picture. The gambit doesn’t work, however, since Funny Games is so obviously art-with-a-capital-A. Despite some effective moments, Funny Games remains an ersatz nightmare, a pedant’s lecture on sadism, and an intellectual’s idea of a shock tactic.
Does it sound like I’m criticizing Funny Games for not being cruel enough? My complaint is that it underestimates the horror film, the slasher picture, and even the upper-tier exploitation movie. Relentlessly reductive, Haneke stacks the deck by stripping the genre of its redemptive qualities and transgressive power and then chastizes the audience for its presence at such an untoward spectacle. The real cinema of sadism is more horrifying — and more rewarding — than this film imagines.