In Austrian director Michael Haneke’s motion picture essay on violence in the media, Funny Games, a pair of polite psychopaths, Peter and Paul, force their way into a bourgeois lake house and take its residents’ carefully crafted civility to task through a series of morbid games.
The stakes of these games start relatively low, just simple tests of patience, really. But as Peter and Paul linger around the house and make a bet with the family that none of them would make it to the next morning alive, it’s clear that these guys aren’t fucking around.
Though occurring almost entirely off-screen, the violence in the film is brutal. There are beatings with golf clubs; a woman gets forced to strip, and, geez, the screaming and the sobbing that goes on in this thing.
Maybe the most twisted touch of it all, though, is how Haneke lingers on the aftermath of the violence, a detail that most horror spectacles gloss over.
There’s one long shot about two-thirds of the way through the film where Haneke brings the story to a complete halt. Peter and Paul leave, seemingly for good, and we’re left to watch this family, put through hell, try to come to terms with what’s happened to them. Stunned silence gives way to helpless blubbering, which fades into resolve, then into grief, confusion, and doubt.
The scene itself is masterful. It’s Haneke’s thesis for the whole film left naked and shivering on the screen—that you, the viewer, are responsible for all of this. This is how you decided to spend 90 minutes entertaining yourself, by watching an innocent family get utterly obliterated by the machinations of sociopaths.
Where my appreciation of Funny Games starts to falter, though, is in its meta sub-narrative. What I haven’t really mentioned yet is that Paul, the apparent ring-leader between the two home invaders, also acts as the film’s kind of… fourth wall breaking narrator. Several times throughout the film, Paul turns to the camera with a smirk and addresses the audience about what’s going on, guessing who we’re rooting for and talks about pacing their crime for maximum entertainment value. There’s an audience to please, after all.
Haneke and Paul both know what we expect out of this film, and they constantly play with the our expectations throughout the movie.
It’s crafty, but irritating. I’m not against filmmakers toying with structure or sending barbs at the audience, but the tone Haneke strikes through Paul feels like sneering resentment towards his own audience. This is anti-horror disguised with generic horror movie tropes.
In a few ways, the movie reminds me of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s recent horror masterpiece Cabin in the Woods, a film that hurls similar accusations of sadism at the audience. The difference between the two is that Goddard and Whedon do so with a sense of self-guilt. In Cabin, a pair of directors manipulate an unwitting group of teenagers to their deaths to appease some ancient, blood-thirsty gods. The message is roughly the same—the structure is sick, and those that enjoy watching are twisted—but in the end the filmmakers are just as guilty as the audience for creating such violent spectacles.
But while Goddard and Whedon play this revelation for laughs, Haneke, at times, comes across as cynical and mean-spirited, making a film that doubles as punishment for its audience. To Haneke, it seems, if you’re the type of person that watches Funny Games, you’re part of the problem. He could have easily gotten the same point across without the meta sub-narrative, and I definitely could have done without the layers of dismissive snorting.
After all, Haneke is the one who made the movie happen–Twice.
Still, Funny Games is a remarkable piece of film. It’s brutal and difficult to watch, and I’m still struggling with whether or not I even agree with it. It’s a film that lingers in your mind, forcing you to answer questions about yourself and actually consider the violence that’s going on on-screen. How many horror movies can you say that about?