Funny Games (1997)

D: Michael Haneke
S: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Muhe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering

Interesting filmic thesis on cinematic violence by Austrian director Michael Haneke which owes something to The Desperate Hours and Reservoir Dogs, but is aimed very much at an art house audience. This is perhaps a strange thing to do given that the people most likely to benefit from the lecture are those least likely to hear it. It is still worthwhile, and provides plenty of food for thought, although the likelihood of members of the audience changing their lifestyle as a result of the film is pretty slim.

It follows the events which transpire when an ordinary middle class family are terrorised by a pair of sadistic youths whose coolness and amorality includes constant direct address to the audience. Though largely concerned with torture, the film deliberately portrays the effects and consequences of actions rather than the actions themselves. It concentrates on images of the faces of the victims and their tormentors, with a minimum of camera movement and an emphasis on bland physical details such as furniture and interior decoration. This gives maximum reign to the actors, who rise to the challenge well.

The tone of the film is generally realistic, though Haneke's ironic humour is also important to the message he attempts to convey. It is an aggressive attack on the values of a society which revels in scenes of violence on film, and on the bourgeois search for meaning in them. At one point smooth psycho Arno Frisch comments that he can't kill the family quickly because 'we are not up to feature film length yet' and at several other points he asks the audience for their input. One extraordinary scene features a 'rewind' where the events are reversed in order to change the outcome. These and other moments are constant reminders of the process of viewing and the complicity of the audience in viewing extremely violent films, thereby tolerating a culture of cruelty in the first place.

Funny Games is interesting, and it is both well crafted and involving. But it is obvious to say the least, and one wonders if it is really accomplishing anything. It assumes an audience predisposed to watching scenes where the camera sits still for minutes on end while a man cries in physical and emotional pain and who will not find the portrayal of cruelty (even when it's not on screen) so unbearable that they will leave the theatre. The howling masses of uneducated gore-o-philes the film seems eager to address will not be likely to even attend a screening, and the majority of the people who do will probably not harbour secret desires to emulate the behaviour or attitudes of the villains. So exactly whom the film is supposed to serve is something of a mystery. There is a danger of self-serving bourgeois self-absorption here, which is ironic given that it also critiques the well-to-do characters upon whom these tortures are lavished (they get themselves into trouble by 'provoking' their captors through hypocrisy).

It is well done and has the merit of being thoughtful and thought-provoking. It has a worthwhile point to make and it makes it with style and skill. These alone are recommendations, and it is certainly worth seeing; but it is not a film that everyone will find watchable and it should be approached with caution.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.