Why did I watch Funny Games, Michael Haneke's 1997 psychological, meta, 'horror' film'? The answer is simple; the director's shot-by-shot remake arrives on Irish shores soon (it opened this weekend in the States) and I wanted to watch the original before I saw the new version, because I'm nerdy like that. After watching it, I'm excited about seeing the new one. The draw of seeing how Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, two fine actors whom I like very much, react to the awful events that they are subjected to, is substantial. Naomi Watts, incidentally, is one of my Actress picks (see below) and while I very much doubt this will win favour with the Academy, I have a feeling there'll be a rigorous campaign and critical buzz attached to it. From the trailer and a few screengrabs which are floating around the net, the remake looks very clean and bright, unlike the original (a stupid point, perhaps, but I dig the white, crisp streamlined look that's such at odds with the dim graininess of the original). Plus, it's in English, which will add an extra dimension of unease to my viewing. While the original's German created an extra welcome barrier between me and the characters, I have a feeling the harsh starkness of hearing their pleas in English will have the adverse affect. Before last night, I had never even heard of Susanne Lothar and was only marginally familiar with Ulrich Muhe, but I've seen Naomi Watts and Tim Roth countless times. I don't know if this'll will add to or detract from the terror, but we'll see.
The premise of Funny Games is simple. Two eerie, polite men in their 20s terrorise an affluent family of three in their summer house. That's it, really. By that description alone, you'd be forgiven for assuming it was your run o' the mill genre flick, a "torture porn" film created for and by those with the adolescent boy mentality. Well, you'd be forgiven until you saw the name Haneke was involved. If you're at all familiar with the Austrian director, you realise that what you're getting into is something much more intellectual, more challenging, more infuriating. More disturbing. And let me warn you, although nearly every instance of violence occurs off-screen, this film is disturbing. Muttering feverently under your breath disturbing. Nails digging into palms disturbing. Clutching a soft, cuddly toy like you haven't clutched so hard since you were a toddler, disturbing. At one point, I found myself singing softly under my breath as a means of half distracting myself! It's not just because of the "your imagination is scarier than anything a director could construct" old chestnut that is regularly trotted out. This clichéd maxim readily applies to FG, but the feeling of unease that this film generates is not because of that alone. The creeping dread that descends over you has to do with the way in which the film implicates you in the violence. You're the voyeur, you're the one causing these awful events by the very fact that you choose to watch this film. That's another point, you never forget that what you're watching is a film. It's unrealistic and uber-stylized. There's a scene (I won't say what it is, but if you've seen it you know what I'm talking about) where Haneke pretty much gives his audience the finger, messing with your head and your preconceptions of what a film should be. Apparently, this scene is the reason why people have such negative reactions to the film. I can understand this stance, but it didn't make me hate it. In fact, the scene made me appreciate the film more; by not allowing the narrative to function as a straight-forward film, it made it clearer that this was something to be appreciated as an intellectual exercise, rather than a thriller in which good prevails, the bad guys get their come-uppance and all is right with the world.
By the film's end, I felt hollow, but not unhappy. I wasn't trembling and I didn't require a viewing of Clueless or The Incredibles, both of which I had lined up in case I needed a post-viewing boost. It was difficult to fall asleep afterwards, but because I was thinking about my reaction to the film, about what it all meant, about how people would react when it's released here. I wasn't terrified of two men breaking into the house (although I do admit that the shot of the golf-ball rolling in a slow circle on the wooden floor will stay with me for a good while). I do get the feeling that I'm not exactly the target audience. If the film is intended as a polemic against those who queue in their droves to watch teenagers be slaughtered, the "gore hounds", the people who really appreciate a good finger-slicing scene, I'm not included in this category of film-lovers. Running quickly through a mental list of my favourite films, violence only lurks at their peripherary and gore is almost non-existant. I've never responded well to acts of onscreen violence, ever since I watched Scream at a sleepover when I was 11. The scene where Drew Barrymore is being dragged across her lawn with a hook in her neck, whimpering scratchily to her parents, stayed with me for a long time....I've still never gone back and watched that film because it upset me so much the first time. Undoubtedly, it's probably a lot tamer than what I've imagined, but I still have no desire to revisit that scene. That's the same reason why I've never seen a "Saw" film, why I don't ever plan to see "Cannibal Holocaust" or "I Spit On Your Grave", why horror (with a few notable exceptions) isn't usually my cup of cinematic tea. If I were somebody who enjoyed this, I daresay I would have been even more disturbed and uncomfortable with this film, but I'm not and I wasn't.
I wouldn't recommend Funny Games to everyone, not by a long shot. I wouldn't even say I enjoyed it, per se, but it does provoke a reaction. By holding the camera still for interminably long sequences, for sustaining a fine balance between horror and ridicule, for treating the viewer as an accomplice (and not a very bright one at that), Haneke's film forces you to question the reason for your viewing of it, bullies you into thinking long and hard about the art of film and violence and the way in which the two intertwine. For me, it dredged up that memory of Scream, which I hadn't really given any thought to for years. I don't regret watching it for a second, although it was sometimes unpleasant.
The trailer for the remake is weird. Seriously, "In The Hall of the Mountain King"? Cheesy as all hell, that piece of music is. I'm guessing that's just something they've added in for the trailer, because if Haneke has included it in the film, he's probably lost his marbles. The overwhelming silence is such an integral part of the original and its inclusion in the trailer is completely overblown and hilarious. That said, the much-admired poster is truly something.