“Don’t forget the importance of entertainment!” So says Paul (Michael Pitt) about halfway through Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (an American produced remake of his own 1997 original). It’s an important line, chiefly because what Funny Games serves up is something of an antidote for entertainment, rather than two hours of exhilarating horror. Although it is certainly horrifying, and one of the scariest films of the century thus far.
We are introduced to the upper-class family of Ann (Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth), and George Jr. (Devon Gearhart) as they drive out to their lake vacation house for a weekend of golfing and boating. They are instead met by Pitt’s Paul and his quietly creepy sidekick, Peter (Brady Corbet). Their politeness and manners and golf attire are as disarming to Ann as they are unsettling to us in the audience, the first of many situations Haneke places the audience in to highlight the effect and allure of violent cinema. Released at the height of the Saw and Hostel phenomenons (I say phenomenon because, by and large, before this time cinema as overtly gory and torturous was often relegated to direct-to-video) Funny Games acts as a deconstruction of the masochistic pleasure audiences take in seeing a character tortured and killed. Paul often turns to the camera to ask audience opinion, get our input, check and see if we’re still having fun, as if following the film to the end is our own condemnation.
Although I don’t think Haneke hates his audience, nor does he hate horror cinema. He avoids most tropes of the genre. Almost all acts of violence take place off-screen, with the camera instead lingering on the face of a bystander or the perpetrator. Almost all gore is residual rather than seen immediately. We bear witness to the effects of violence, and the aftermath, but almost never the violence itself. There are no sudden bursts of music to punctuate a villain bursting out from a hiding place. In fact, there is no traditional score at all. The production design and costuming are largely stark white, the camera is static and steady and the takes are long. Haneke employs almost nothing to break the illusion of the reality of the film, and then chooses to break the illusion forcefully and absolutely at the exact moments in which we have been lulled back into its illusion.
It all borders on nihilism. The villains, as displayed in a late sequence, are omniscient and omnipotent. They, and the film, deny us catharsis at all times, even snatching it away in one instance. It denies us exoneration. Watts and Roth and Pitt deliver some of the best horror-film performances of the century, particularly Watts. And here is where Haneke avoids the easy pitfall. Cheap sadistic satire is easy. Funny Games is a cosmic joke on the family and on the audience. It is deeply unsettling, but for more reasons than its (masterful) scenes of horror. Funny Games takes time to recognize the human characters trapped within its nihilistic framework. They are viscerally human. Haneke allows them time to cry, to sob, for snot to drip from their nose. He allows them time to mourn. But the game is still on, amidst all of this, and Paul and Peter make it very clear that we‘re playing too, and that’s what makes it truly terrifying. One of the best horror films of the century.