Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997)

Playing by the funny games' rules.

There are few clearer examples of the Cinema of Cruelty than Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Ostensibly a tense, intricately-designed home invasion thriller, wherein a German nuclear family is terrorized by two young men, the film pokes, prods, and provokes via several choice breakings of the fourth wall. The killers appear, banter, and amorally control the cinematic universe. Mocking the conventions of backstory, hope, and justice, Funny Games entices the viewer with the standard psychological fare but confounds and chides at every turn, making the film an understandably frustrating experience. It’s a definite director’s movie, with the killers existing as direct agents of Haneke as well as commentators on the diegetic space itself, but in any case they are ultimately puppets at the hands of the filmmaker. They wink and ask questions of the camera, goading the viewer into continuing to watch despite knowing full well that no happy ending is on the horizon.

For all of its intensity, it remains remarkably restrained, with Haneke employing long takes and moving the camera away from several scenes of violence to force the viewer to confront what’s off-screen. It’s also telling that the bloodiest moment occurs to one of the killers, who are not human in the least. They can explode in blood, because Haneke has shown them to not be real. The victims, on the other hand, for all intents and purposes, are living things at the mercy of something more powerful and bloodthirsty than themselves, and their deaths are cruel and unjustified. They suffer, and they die, but Haneke is too canny and controlling to allow the viewer to get their rocks off by showing it. The camera even prudishly stays above the wife’s shoulders as the killers force her to strip; but when they leave and she must change in order to escape and find help outside the house’s grounds, her see-through bra reveals what the audience was secretly hoping to see. Only now, terror and exhaustion have sapped any exploitive pleasure that could have been had. Perhaps not every viewer is motivated by a lust or cruelty of their own, but merely a morbid fascination in seeing something through to the end; but Haneke doesn’t care why you stayed until the finale, only the fact that you did. You had the power to turn it off, you had the power, like the killers, to rewind the tape to the beginning and leave it at that. Haneke has planted clues throughout as to the invincibility of the killers. But you stayed.

If all of this sounds like Haneke is the master smacking the collective audience’s canine nose with a newspaper, maybe that’s because that’s kinda like what it is. Haneke’s assured and audacious control, especially in the briefly-mentioned rewinding scene, may alienate as many as it provokes. The fact that we as viewers are always at the mercy of the filmmaker’s godlike status is a not-so-minor corollary to the main thesis of the watcher’s culturally-inculcated insensitivity to violence, so that afterwards we may think twice about handing ourselves over to a movie. Its reflexivity walks a tightrope between asking the viewer to not take media at face value, and to investigate and reassess the effects media may have already made on us. Haneke and the film laugh in our face for playing their own set of “funny games,” but secretly they hope that they’ll never be able to do so again.

IMDb page