Dir. Michael Haneke

I rented Funny Games out of curiosity. They say it killed the cat.

I had read the reviews and was fascinated — mostly, fascinated by the scorn with which some critics responded to it, moving beyond a simple objection to its content to a resentment of its maker, Austrian director Michael Haneke (Caché). Said Newsweek’s David Ansen, “So as you’re squirming in your seat, gagging on Haneke’s cinematic castor oil, try to remember: this movie is good for you!” And Mark LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle: “… just because it’s a conscious commentary on other vile, useless, pointless cinematic exercises doesn’t make it any less vile, useless and pointless.” Even some of the film’s defenders are ambivalent, like Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly: “He’s a clever and sophisticated filmmaker; he’s also a self-important highbrow Euro pain freak.”

The review that most made me curious to see it for myself was by A.O. Scott, of The New York Times — ironic, as his review is the most searingly negative of all. He wrote, “Funny Games tries to insulate itself from its own awfulness in the fine cloth of self-consciousness … It actually knows it’s a movie! What a clever, tricky game! What fun! What a fraud.” If you read only one review of Funny Games, it should be his. If you read a second, go ahead and parse mine.

The fourth paragraph. I have cited the opinions of other critics but as yet have not offered my own. Haneke’s film is an intellectual exercise, an example of cruel cinematic violence intended to comment on cruel cinematic violence. So I gathered my thoughts, regained my bearings, and sought out further analyses to better inform my own. My conclusion: I’m with Mr. Scott.

According to Haneke, Funny Games is “a reaction to a certain American Cinema, its violence, its naiveté, the way American Cinema toys with human beings.” He made a German-language version in 1997, and he has remade it, reportedly shot-for-shot, in English, to bring his scorn for us straight to our doorstep. How generous of him.

The story concerns an affluent American family: Ann (Naomi Watts), her husband George (Tim Roth), and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart). Soon upon arriving at their posh, gated cabin, they encounter a pair of polite young men dressed all in white, including their gloves. They are Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), and they are sociopaths. They hold the family hostage in their home and bet that all three will be dead within twelve hours.

That’s the story, but that’s not what the film is about. On occasion, Paul speaks into the camera, addressing the audience directly. He talks to us about our desire for neat resolutions and asks us if enough is enough. How should we answer? In one scene, he presses rewind on a remote control and repeats an event for us differently. The film knows it’s a film and means to consider not the interactions of the characters, but the interaction of the audience with the cinema.

But Haneke, you see, is a moral coward; his camera, in the merciless, indifferent way it observes the family’s plight, identifies with the sociopaths, but he absolves himself of responsibility by asserting that he is only feeding the beast, providing fodder for the bloodlust of us depraved Americans. “You asked for it,” he seems to say through Peter and Paul as he commits unspeakable crimes against the innocent family. It’s the philosophical equivalent of pounding us with our own fists and asking, “Why are you hitting yourself?”

But of course Haneke has a point. Fetishistic violence has been a commodity of American cinema for a long time, and the advent of so-called “torture porn” seems inevitable in hindsight. (Saw V opens October 24 in a theater near you!) So it is not Haneke’s theme I object to, but rather the manner in which he expresses it. He directs with icy, meticulous skill, and he effectively creates an atmosphere of dread, but he inflicts it upon the audience like a cudgel. Smug and sanctimonious, he scolds America for its exploitation of suffering for entertainment, but is it any less contemptible to exploit suffering to make a ham-handed statement about our thirst for it? “How dare you enjoy this!” he chides, while beating, violating, and humiliating his characters. Well, I didn’t enjoy it, Mr. Haneke. Do I pass your test? Is my misery penance enough for the sins you have ascribed to me?

One scene questions whether there is an appreciable difference between reality and fiction, implying that by celebrating violence on the screen we promote violence in the world. Well, let’s imagine a scenario as it might unfold in the real world. A man walks down the street. A philosopher crosses his path and for no reason throws a stone at his head. As the man bleeds to death on the pavement, on-lookers watch the scene in horror, and as the police arrive to arrest the philosopher, he says, “It does not matter that I have thrown the stone or that the man suffers. What matters is that you watched.” “Yeah, yeah,” says the cop, rolling his eyes as he puts the philosopher in cuffs. “Tell it to the judge.”