Saturday, March 15, 2008

Funny Games U.S. (2007, Michael Haneke)

If nothing else, Funny Games U.S. constitutes a bold experiment in form even Gus Van Sant couldn't have managed, with Haneke leveraging his Caché, uh, cachet to make a movie that's pretty much a carbon copy of his 1997 succes de scandale, aside from the cast. But while others will question the viability of this experiment, I think it works in the same way Van Sant's remake of Psycho couldn't quite manage, by replicating an already-existing template, and in doing so to emphasize what made that film (and by extension this one) work so well. It's clear now that Haneke made Funny Games as an anti-thriller, by shoving the familiar, comforting tropes of the genre through the proverbial wood chipper. The reason why thrillers (good and bad) are so popular with audiences is that, while they provide vicarious excitement and shocks in the moment, they do so in a tried-and-true framework that allows audiences to relax in the idea that nothing truly disturbing will happen. Some characters may die, others will certainly suffer, but the bad guys will get theirs in the end at the hands of someone we like. In short, the thriller genre has an established set of rules that the films almost always adhere to. Time and again, Haneke subverts our genre-driven expectations, which decades of clichéd offerings have ingrained in our minds. For example, the film begins with us in Naomi Watts' corner, so we expect her to be the film's protagonist, but that's not the case. What I think has most audiences up in arms about Funny Games is, like No Country for Old Men, the baddie isn't on a level playing field with the rest of the story. But whereas Chigurh differed from his surroundings by being a spectral, possibly supernatural presence, Paul (Michael Pitt in the remake) lords over the story in Funny Games and dictates where it goes. Not content to play by the rules that have been set down for him, he makes rules of his own, sometimes revealing new ones or changing the existing ones as necessary. What's more, Haneke pulls a bait-and-switch in the film's point of view, moving the audience from Watts' perspective to Pitt's once he arrives on the scene for real. In doing so, he turns the audience into co-conspirators with Paul and his partner in crime Peter (the chillingly earnest Brady Corbet), at several points making this explicit by having Pitt turn to the camera and ask questions like "do you think that's enough?" It's these provocations that keep Funny Games (both this version and its Austrian predecessor) from being classics- such intellectual, audience-baiting gamesmanship feels cheap and sort of tacky, compared to the sly deconstruction of the thriller mechanism that Haneke pulls off for most of the film. Funny Games is at its most potent when Haneke seems to promise the usual thrills, only to withhold them from us- not just the famous "rewind" scene, but also the film's lack of explicit violence. In addition, for all the humiliations vested upon Naomi Watts' character, there really isn't much that happens to her for most of the film that doesn't also happen to the more traditional "action heroine" in Doomsday, who is tortured twice, both times while wearing a form-fitting tank top that prominently shows off her cleavage. By contrast, Watts' character is forced to strip by her captors, but Haneke withholds even that from the audience, as if to ask us why we would want to see T&A from a character who's so clearly traumatized. In addition, there's a 10-minutes stationary shot of a stripped-to-her-underwear, trussed-up Watts struggling to free herself from her constraints that might have come off as shameless if not for the courage with which she embues the character. We really feel for her and hope for the best for her in spite of what we fear the film has in store, which makes her pitiable (yet almost offhandedly casual) fate hit like a sudden blow to the head. Rating: 7 out of 10.

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