Photograph by Nicole Rivelli, Celluloid Dreams
THEY LOOKED LIKE SUCH NICE BOYS: Michael Pitt (left) and Brady Corbet make very bad house guests in 'Funny Games.'
The Gruesome Twosome
'Funny Games' is here to teach you something or other.
By Richard von Busack
When obsequious, cruel and motiveless serial killers come to your door, do not agree to loan them eggs. That life lesson may be all Funny Games has to offer. Michael Haneke's shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 Austrian home-invasion shocker follows the night-long ordeal of a couple and their son. Their tormentors consider explanation of their malice just too boring for words. They're polite maniacs. They never raise their voices. Apparently, Funny Games follows the exact blueprint of the original 1997 film, even unto the blueprints of the sets. This version does go slightly further; a woman left in her slip in the original is now peeled down to her underwear, for instance, and the hostages might be a little richer this time around.
The setting is a lakeside vacation home; the victims are George (Tim Roth), Anna (co-producer Naomi Watts) and their young son. They have the kind of taste that means no taste. Haneke drinks in the cottage-cheese-colored surroundings. I've seen business hotel conference rooms decorated with more pizazz.
Even before the villains arrive, Haneke sets up a series of ideological contrasts. As the family drive to their doom in a luxury car, they flaunt their culture by playing guess-the-classical-composer. To rattle you, the music (Vivaldi or something) goes from diegetic to nondiegetic in one big cacophonous burst of John Zorn.
Anna and George and their son prepare for a weekend of sailing on the lake near their gated compound. That's when they're visited by a pair of death angels: pretty boys with white gloves and immaculate tennis clothes and lips so rosy that they seem to be Revloned. The first is Paul (Michael Pitt), who dispatches the family dog off-camera and then uses a golf club to cripple George. Paul's pal Peter (Brady Corbet) helps him immobilize the family. We learn little about the vanilla fiends, though there's mild, familiar squabbling between them. There's no excitement. This isn't the first time they've struck. And as the night goes on, they get bored and have to raise the stakes.
Haneke has more pity for the victims than Peter and Paul do. He notes that a victim can, pathetically, even fall asleep during the course of a night-long ordeal. And he hides some of the worst of the violence by putting it off-camera. Haneke makes sure his own gloves are spotless.
I don't want to watch films as if through a monocle, but it's hard to get past the default reaction when you see anything disgusting and you know that you are being urged to succumb. I'm not certain if Funny Games is anything beside a particularly nasty machine, some theater-of-cruelty device that only says, "No," "You can't" and "You must die."
Naturally, some of the Internet chatter suggests we deserve this movie because of Abu Ghraib. There might be class struggle afoot, too. George and Anna are being put through it for owning that vacation house that everyone in the audience hopes they'll get to own at some point but probably won't. The doomed ones are rich, perhaps as affluent as a director, or a film producer even.
Maybe the two soft-skinned killers are meant to represent incomprehensible fascism. Paul has a Hitler-style comma of hair flopping over his snow-white brow. Both talk in indeterminable accents (German? Dutch? Maybe they're from Alpha Centauri). Perhaps the boys are supposed to be pre-moral as a baby, something suggested when Paul peers at the camera with his empty blue eyes.And here's an important clue: the two devils have been imprinted by nihilist American cartoons. ("At least Nazism is an ethos, Dude.") Peter and Paul's gloves are probably meant to keep off fingerprints, but the boys look like old-time cartoon characters. They call each other Beavis and Butthead, more than once, and Tom and Jerry as well. Really, they're mostly like albino versions of Heckle and Jeckle, two obscure and vicious animated magpies of the 1950s, especially with the after-you-my-dear-Alfonse shtick they keep up. Can it be that the ancient enemy, television, made them depraved? Haneke goes there: it's never hard to find a backdrop for barbarism if you have a working television set showing NASCAR races.
I responded as I was supposed to, shocked into yelping for the death of these two suave nihilists, right before Haneke plays his own funny game with the audience. Like his twin psychos, the director cheats. With monotonous persistence, like a physician pressing a gland, a clever director can get what he's after. Film theorists and shock-cinema fans can come together in enjoying Funny Games, but I had the sense Haneke directed this film wearing a lab coat.
FUNNY GAMES (R; 112 min.), directed and written by Michael Haneke, photographed by Darius Khondji and starring Naomi Watts, opens Friday at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz. (Talk back at www.metroactive/moviesandtvblog/.)
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