While weighing whether I would make a trip to the theater to see Lars Von Trier’s latest (The House that Jack Built), I came across a review the mentioned Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. After reading a short summary of what Funny Games was about and watching its excellent trailer, I decided to skip Von Trier in favor of something a little different. It was my first Haneke film, and it definitely won’t be my last!
Funny Games was originally released in 1997 and set in Austria for practical reasons despite Haneke’s desire to set it in the United States. The film received generally good reviews, and after ten years, Haneke was finally able to remake an American version starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, and Brady Corbet (director of Vox Lux). The 2007 film is a shot-by-shot remake of the original, with the same script, props, and set. Given the option, I would have preferred to watch the original. However, I’m not too bothered that I had to opt for the remake given the fact that both films are virtually the same. I would suggest watching it without reading too much beforehand (including this review, which will include mild spoilers).
The film focuses on the Farbers–Ann (Watts), George (Roth), and their son Georgie. The family travels to their lake house and is terrorized soon after by two preppy-looking intruders, Paul (Pitt) and Peter (Corbet). Conceived as a response to what Haneke viewed as an excessive amount of violence in media (particularly American films), Funny Games eschews traditional narrative forms in favor of a sort of meta-filmmaking experiment. Though, as in other home-invasion films, things quickly become violent, virtually none of the violence is ever shown on screen. Viewers are left to imagine exactly what befalls the family, as the camera doesn’t show the most violent of Paul and Peter’s attacks. In this way, it’s the perfect scary movie for people who don’t enjoy scary movies. Funny Games is not, however, a film for bechdel test purists, though it is worth noting that a scene where Ann is forced to undress does not show anything below her collarbones, avoiding the sexualization typically associated with its genre.
Though Watts unsurprisingly does a great job with the role (she was also an executive producer), the film’s true stars are Pitt and Corbet. Dressed in white polos and gloves, Peter and Paul initially appear to be privileged prep school boys (it’s definitely why they have such an easy time getting into peoples’ homes). An early scene where Peter asks Ann for some eggs is probably the film’s most unsettling and striking, as the latter has only an inkling of what will happen during the rest of the film’s nearly two-hour run time. Pitt’s performance as Paul is excellent, as the character shifts back and forth from a well-mannered boy to the duo’s menacing and ruthless leader.
This film most definitely won’t be for everyone. There are certain parts where it gets considerably slower, as Haneke forces viewers to grapple with their own desire for action, knowing that that action would entail violence against our protagonists. The Farbers’ fates are sealed as soon as Paul and Peter force them into a bet for their lives, and Haneke never truly leads us to believe otherwise. Rather, it’s our own preconceptions as viewers that leave us hoping that at least one Farber will survive and wreak revenge on the family’s attackers. When we see a knife left behind on the family boat early on, our minds immediately mark it as the tool through which someone will escape. When Ann picks up the shot gun and uses it against Peter, we believe that this is the moment the tables will turn and the predators will become the prey. Funny Games exploits our tendency to believe that it will follow in the footsteps of other films with similar premises and by doing so underscores its own originality.
What makes the film most unique is also what makes it controversial. Haneke allows Paul to break the fourth wall and address the viewer directly several times throughout the film. It was in these moments that Funny Games was most breathtaking for me, as Paul comments on things like the pacing of the murders and the viewer’s predisposition to root for the Farbers over him and his partner. Peter, meanwhile, never directly addresses the viewer but makes offhanded remarks that are also intended to highlight Haneke’s point. The result is a dynamic, interactive film that pushes viewers to reexamine our expectations and reevaluate our taste.
While I can certainly appreciate why several reviewers found Funny Games to be condescending (especially as its main target was American audiences) and lacking self-awareness, I found it to be an interesting exercise in filmmaking. Though Funny Games wasn’t convincing enough to make me commit to never watching another violent film again, it challenged me in a way that few films before it have. Haneke’s fearless and confident approach to taking down violent films doesn’t completely avoid falling into the tropes it critiques, but it does convey a strong message–even if that message doesn’t resonate with everyone.
Gender Representation: ★☆☆☆☆
Overall Quality: ★★★☆☆