(Funny Games opens in theaters this weekend; below is Cinematical's Review from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.)
Michael Haneke's remake of his own Funny Games is a great movie. It's also a great film. It's also a great piece of commentary on film. It's hard to say which Funny Games stirs up more -- your guts, or your brain. There's a line about how the film criticism of Manny Farber "played both brows against the middle." Funny Games smashes lowbrow violent entertainment and highbrow thoughts about violent entertainment into each other, hard, over and over again until the resulting wreck of bone and flesh and blood glistens like a sharp-edged gem. It gives you what you want and asks why you want it in the first place, and it does both those things superbly. It is cruel, cold and darkly thrilling.
The Farber family (played by Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Devon Gearhart) are getting away from it all to their lakeside vacation home. They're going to relax, meet friends, play golf and enjoy good food and good music. But they're not going to get to do any of those things. Two polite young men (played by Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt) drop by; they're guests of the neighbors, and the neighbors sent them over to borrow four eggs. Watts is glad to help. But the eggs break, and they'd like to borrow another four. Watts is less glad to help, but still polite. And then second set of four eggs are broken, and then it's not about the eggs at all, and politeness becomes irrelevant. Which, really, it is in the first place. Soon the Farber family is bound and frightened and hurt, and the two young men stay cool and courteous and curious, proposing games and posing probing questions. Roth chokes out a simple question: "Why are you doing this?" Pitt's answer is simpler: "Why not?" Pitt spools off a long series of complex and contradictory rationalizations for his associate's part in events that are rapidly going out-of-control for the Farbers, closing by noting that " ... he's jaded and disgusted by the emptiness of existence. It's hard." None of it is true, and what would it matter if it were?
Funny Games breaks through the fourth wall -- characters cast ominous glances or pleading looks right out to the audience, gently at first -- but then the film crashes through it and slashes at you with the shards. In a brilliant, perverse sequence, one of the characters takes advantage of a God-like power over space and time -- or a power that is less God-like than it is just one of the many powers possessed by the viewer of a movie. Fellow critic S. T. VanAirsdale despises this sequence in the 1997 original, and at a recent Q&A screening of the original with Haneke present, called it "a cheat." But all art is a cheat -- sixteen thousand years ago, I'm sure some proto-critic looked at the Lacaux cave paintings and said "That doesn't really look like an oxen. ..." And often, witnessing someone cheat is the best possible hard lesson in what you really know and truly believe about the rules of the game, a rough lesson about the stakes on the table. And VanAirsdale's also right, or perhaps he is not, and this merely demonstrates the wonder and power of Funny Games, how it's a movie not just worth seeing and not just worth thinking about but also worth fighting about. Funny Games is a piece of superbly-made violent entertainment, and it is all the more disturbing because it politely asks and then roughly forces you (treating the audience the same way the smiling sociopaths do the Farbers, and this is not, this cannot be, coincidence) to actively think about why, and how, you watch violent entertainments lesser than the one you're watching, and even the one you're watching right then.
At one point, Corbet idly channel-surfs as he stands guard over the Farbers, and seeing the room from his point-of-view the constantly-changing screen of the TV is to the left, and a bound, gagged, half-naked Naomi Watts is on the couch to the right. As the channels change, we ask ourselves how sick and cruel and callow Corbet's character must be to pay no attention to a humiliated, terrified woman facing death. But then we realize we're certainly paying attention; is that better, or worse?
Film snobs will sneer at the idea of Haneke remaking his own film as a crass money grab or bid for a bigger American audience. But Haneke has always seemed more interested in making movies than making money, and he could make any film he wanted anywhere he wanted; he has his reasons for wanting to remake his own film, and they're in every frame. I remember people joking that Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho was less a movie than an elaborate, expensive, exquisitely pointless modern art project. Haneke's new iteration of Funny Games is a movie that may also be an elaborate art project -- but the fact is that it also superbly delivers the very thing it calls into question. I first saw the original years ago, but this new iteration is exquisitely, carefully crafted to match it, starting with how the shape, size and color of the roadway we see the Farbers driving along in this new version matches the roadway traveled in the original so well I felt the dislocated shock of déjà vu from the first scene. Interestingly enough, this new iteration isn't merely intellectually faithful to the original but also, in some ways, even more emotionally fearsome. You don't get to, as you did with the original, blunt the fear and terror of the movie by filtering the dialogue through your rational mind as you read the subtitles; instead, with every whimpered plea for mercy and sobbed demand to know why, the panic and fear leaps right into your reptile brain. Funny Games is handsomely shot and gorgeously designed, as the Farber's upper-class lifestyle is invaded by unthinkable cruelty, as their home goes from Pottery Barn to chamber of horrors. We're confronted with long takes and careful camera work and an all-enveloping sense of carefully considered construction that evokes the cold and stately mastery of Hitchcock, or Kubrick. The worse things get, the more erratic and random events become, the more steadily and slowly the camera moves, the rhythm of the film lying like a heavy weight against your racing heart.
All the actors in Funny Games serve Haneke's vision with dedication and craft; Pitt and Corbet succeed in playing people playing a role without falling into the theatrical, and Roth, Watts and Gearhart convey the love and warmth between the Farbers in swift sure strokes in the brief preamble before their guests arrive. And Funny Games isn't about character; it's about terror. Funny Games is made with brilliance, but it's also made with brute force; it's an intellectually and morally challenging film that'll still have you shouting at the screen and lurching in your seat with every jolt. Funny Games would be merely impressive if it was just a movie that knows you're watching it; what makes Funny Games astonishing is how it's a movie that seems to be watching you back.