Upon my first viewing of Funny Games, I was certain this was a film made by a clever provocateur. My suspicions were quite wrong, as Funny Games is very clearly the work of an auteur, if a somewhat pessimistic one. Internationally acclaimed Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke challenges established benchmarks of cinema, in Caché he showed the camera as the objective observer, in a medium that is notorious for its subjectivity, but Funny Games does something a little different. It doesn’t challenge film so much as it criticizes it. It’s a film, but also a critique on film. It’s no surprise that opinions on it are split, Funny Games is shock horror, but also experimentalist arthouse cinema. And if you find it shallow or sadistic, Haneke more than likely thinks the same of you. It’s nothing personal, of course.
You see, Haneke studied psychology and philosophy, along with drama, while in university. When he makes certain critiques, they are mostly told on a sociological scale. In the case of Funny Games, he is critiquing mainstream cinema, and the people who digest it. Beneath the shock horror elements, torture porn mentality and horror movie clichés, Funny Games, a film about a couple and their young son held hostage by two sadistic and deceptively passive young men, is a dramatic rendition on the bloodthirsty, violence obsessed film audience. Unfortunately for Haneke, this cinematic critique doesn’t make a compelling case; in many ways the film contradicts itself, and makes bold assumptions about mainstream cinema that aren’t nearly as reproachable as he presumes.
There’s actually a lot to like about Funny Games looking at it from a critical standpoint. From the opening title, the film effuses two tones effectively, a scenic car trip underscored by classical music, inexplicably interrupted by a thrashing metal roar. This will go on to be the film’s main theme. Funny Games, in typical Haneke fashion, approaches its themes unexpectedly, this time it’s embodied by two characters, the film’s designated villains. It’s an intriguing, non-literal approach to a common horror film trope. However, there’s an inherent ugliness to the film. I’m not referring to the film’s violence or cynicism, but rather by Haneke himself. His mocking, defeatist attitude toward popular entertainment is more than just a little alienating.
It’s difficult to resonate with a film who has a built in contempt for its audience and the medium in general. Funny Games wasn’t entirely an unnecessary venture, there are real problems to be addressed in the field of mainstream cinema. Often films are made to coddle its viewers, to stray from the truth, to feed into a formula we have become accustomed to. Funny Games sets out to interrogate such a mentality, and rightfully so. But it presents a questionable alternative, Funny Games for all of its quirks and sneers as a self-aware “art” film is what we would refer today as torture porn. A horror subgenre that came into prominence after the sleeper hit known as Saw, emphasizing (or exploiting) the emotional and physical agony of its characters through various means of bodily and psychological torture (Spoilers to follow!).
The plot of the film is relatively straightforward, and doesn’t need much explained in terms of how to watch it, unlike most of Haneke’s films. It presents a scenario where the family are trapped and tormented by two young men inside their house. Throughout the film, the two characters break the fourth wall, as a way for Haneke to shoehorn in some meta-critiques on the genre. There are shocking moments, the dog is killed, the pre-teen son is shot (off-screen) and the mother stripped (though not completely). There are moments meant to trigger responses, such as the infamous “remote” scene or the lesser known, but equally infuriating boat scene at the film’s conclusion. It tests audience’s patience, but also challenges their own precepts on how they view films. In other words, this is Haneke at his most condescending.
No doubt the man is an intelligent and thoughtful film director, but Funny Games just comes across as shallow. The fact that he remade the film shot-for-shot in English for an American audience speaks for itself. Michael Haneke takes a topic that is certainly relevant but narrows it, he condenses it to fit his shallow narrative of mainstream mediocrity. He does speak a lot of truth and with good intent, but Haneke expects us to watch it through his misanthropic lenses. Funny Games is a rare failure for Haneke, it’s still an utterly intriguing and at times absorbing watch, but it’s flagrantly nihilistic and patronizing. It tests audiences, but never questions its own means of doing so. It’s a film so fixed on the thoughts of Haneke that it seems to exist inside his mind. Whether that makes the film better or worse is completely subjective.