A violent film without any onscreen violence. A film where leg wounds mean you can’t walk, where daring escapes fail, where victims wet themselves in fear. Just like his crossover stunners The Piano Teacher and Hidden, Michael Haneke’s 1997 chiller Funny Games was never what it appeared to be. And for his first English language film, Haneke gives it to us all over again: a shot-for-shot remake of his original, meticulously reconstructed right down to the last snot-streaked drip of terror.
There are some minor updates (most notably as one character ponders his online existence), but the soundtrack, the dialogue, the sets... all the same. A pair of polite sociopaths (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) invade the holiday home of George (Tim Roth), Anna (Naomi Watts) and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) and then subject them to a series of sadistic “games”.
But the real funny games aren’t between the family and their cherubic torturers. They’re between us and Haneke – this is the Austrian auteur’s provocative, hideously manipulative attempt to autopsy our relationship with screen violence. As a home-invasion thriller, it ranks up there with anything that Sam Peckinpah or Wes Craven ever came close to. But as he crafts one of modern cinema’s most harrowing ordeals, Haneke dodges explicit violence and unloads the meta-tricks. The invaders’ names change throughout the film and every so often they stop to shoot a glance at the camera. They point out that it’s way too early in the film to kill their victims. And that’s all before Haneke delivers the coup de grâce, in a stunning moment of medium (and audience) manipulation.
By this point, to Haneke’s reptilian delight, Funny Games becomes nearly unbearable. “Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film,” he said in 1997. “And anyone who stays, does.” But these games are rigged from the start. Just as exploitative as any grindhouse shocker or Hollywood blockbuster, Haneke’s film invites us to feel one state of florid emotion then punishes us for it minutes later. We’re the lab rats in a horrifying, brilliantly assured experiment in human cruelty.
So what is Haneke’s remake playing at? Going back to the crime scene 10 years later for a forensically accurate recreation suggests a pathological self-belief rather than an attempt to hone his vision (see Hitchcock and Michael Mann) or a fascinating self-assessment (see Von Trier and Jorgen Leth). The director has always aimed his gut-punch at American culture and now gets a second, dead-on swing at the target.
Co-producer Naomi Watts is exceptional as the suffering wife, as is Michael Pitt as Paul. But Haneke cares not one jot for her wrenching performance, while Peter and Paul aren’t characters – they’re walking thriller conventions, jolting us to the fact that it’s only a movie. They’re polite and calculating pseudo-intellectuals, rationalising their role in the carnage. Sound familiar? Question is, do they represent us or Haneke? Predictably, the answer is still probably both.