Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Funny Games (Haneke, 1997)

Funny Games is a film that is both profoundly disturbing and utterly ridiculous; the audience is caught in the middle of the psychological reality of the violence portrayed and the highly visible construct of the film and its manipulating mechanics of viewer expectation and desire. The title refers to the morbid, sadistic games played by the two men in the film that would be psychopaths if they were people, but they're more like jesters bred from the film itself, commenting upon it, looking out of it, utterly aware of it, and at one point controlling it (as a vicarious means of directorial manipulation and entrance into the narrative). The title also refers to the director's relationship with the audience and the audience's relationship with the film.

The film functions as a provocation, but one with a very definite purpose: Haneke wants the viewer to examine his relationship with media violence that is portrayed as "acceptable," to acknowledge his implicit advocation of that violence, and to experience a different kind of violence, one that he very much should feel terrible about. I don't know if any one could enjoy Funny Games on a visceral level, but if you do, you damn sure better feel guilty about it.

This is a triumph of structure; every piece compliments every other, but there are deft strokes scattered throughout that highlight and define the over all theme. When told they "can't do this," the only response offered by one of the perpetrators of violence is "Why not?" These are two beings that don't abide by the very basic restrictions of society, those immutable assurances that we take for granted in reality. In most fiction, these lines can be crossed without batting an eye, but Haneke's psychological realism doesn't let the audience of the hook here. Later, when asked why they are doing what they're doing, the family (and, of course, the audience) are told various lies, such as that they're drug addicts and need to rob for their fix, that they come from broken homes, and that their lives were too easy and they're struggling under the "weight of existence." These would make three nice plots for other films, and three nice artistic alibies for any filmmaker who wanted to get his rocks off with bloodshed. Of course, there is no justification for Funny Games' violence: the family is being tortured because they happen to be in a film, and the director decided they should be tortured. This is the case with any film, and Haneke's argument is against any artist or audience that wants to wipe their hands clean of the violence they create and enjoy.

At one point, a killer gets food from the refrigerator and we hear a gunshot. At this point, the viewer must make a choice: which family member does he hope has died? Chances are, we hope it isn't the child, so naturally it is. If a parent had been killed, there would be a sense that there is still a chance to move on; after all, parents generally don't outlast a child. But, most devoted parents would probably tell you, the worst thing that can happen is to lose a child, and Haneke manages to make the viewer feel the plethora of emotions consisting of outrage, despair, hopelessness, helplessness, anxiety, and an overall unwillingness to exist. Any one who wants to make an argument for Funny Games being mere violent exploitation with maybe a spattering of voyeuristic "guilty by association" need look no further than here to see there are definite repercussions for the violence, and brilliant examination of media experience aside, these are human beings being confronted with inhumanity, and you'd have to be a jaded individual indeed to be unmoved and unempathetic. Disgust is reasonable, and necessary, but the film is not vulgar in an intellectual sense.

At this point, the film seems as if it can, and should, go no further. But still it goes on. At one point, the mother grabs the rifle and shoots one of the perpetrators. But, Haneke keeps reminding us through the two men, there are rules to abide by. He refers not just to their sadistic ventures, but the rules of the film. In this film, the family loses the bet, and so the killer grabs the remote and rewinds for a do-over. This represents, then, a directorial decision: Haneke thinks "why not let her fight back?," but then realizes he is not being faithful to his concept, and rewinds. But, he lets the audience see this, and its reversal, so there is a glimpse of hope, followed by despair, and laced with sick irony. This is also a direct comment on our media saturated culture, as we all love to rewind, pause, turn off things we don't like. But when someone thoroughly despicable has the same power, and we are powerless, how would we feel? Well, we'd feel like we're watching Funny Games. In the supplemental interview on the DVD, Haneke says that audiences cheered and clapped at the woman's defiance, and then saw the rewind... and realized they had applauded a murder, and that they'd been thoroughly manipulated by the film. Bravo, Haneke.

Haneke has perhaps the most insight into how his audience will react to what happens on screen, on a psychological level, than any other director I've come across. He even bests Antonioni's Blow Up in this regard, or Carpenter's uncanny knack for projecting the camp value in his creations over time. Take, for example, the scene in which the mother is forced to strip: we are only shown from shoulder up. It is unlikely that any one doesn't expect, even secretly want, to see a shot of her body. This is not a sexual impulse, but one born of natural curiosity and our history with the film, as we don't expect any punches to be pulled. Yet we don't get what we expect, and we're left with an unfulfilled impulse that we have to come to terms with: we expected, maybe even wanted, to be spectators to this woman's degradation. We would've been repulsed, surely, but we felt compelled toward the repulsion.

This is a film that, unfortunately, has and will be misunderstood by many. It could probably function on a level as a horror film, for those that like their horror to disgust and frighten and no more. It's a very inappropriate but necessary irony that Funny Games can be used as fodder to feed the same impulses it finds so direly abhorrent. I would love to pull the rug out from under any one who views the film in this way, but I wonder if accepting the film at face value is a sign that it's too late.


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