Upon first viewing of Funny Games I was certain this was a film made by a clever provocateur of sorts. My suspicions were wrong, as Funny Games is very clearly the work of a deterministic auteur, if a virulently pessimistic one. Internationally-acclaimed Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has famously challenged the 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 in general (as his best films do) so much as it criticizes it with a dim-witted, punchable smirk. 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.
Haneke studied psychology and philosophy, along with drama, while in university. When he makes certain critiques, they are mostly told on a sociological scale (they can range from multifaceted and studious examinations on common histories, The White Ribbon, to contemporary critiques on modern day, Caché). 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 screech. 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 relatively 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 comes across as 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 definitely 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 virile formula we’ve become desensitized to. Funny Games sets out to interrogate that mentality, and it has every right to be cynical. But, in favor of his usual flair for innovation, Haneke presents a questionable alternative. Funny Games, for all of its quirks and sneers as a self-aware “art” film, essentially resigns itself to generic spatter horror. “Torture porn” may be the better description, a horror subgenre that came into prominence after the sleeper hit known as Saw, which emphasized (and exploited) both the emotional and physical agony of its characters to manipulate audience reaction.
The straightforward plot of Funny Games doesn’t need too much explained in terms of what happens (unlike most of Haneke’s films, which are abstruse). It presents an inescapable scenario in which an upper middle-class family are tormented by two blood-thirsty young men (who are supposed to represent “us”). Throughout the film, the two characters break the fourth wall, responding to the audience like acquaintances, as if we’re in on the joke. Moments, including the infamous “remote” scene (which broke all sorts of rules) seem purposely intent on achieving reactionary frustration, an underhanded guise which seems clever on immediate reflection, but superficial and spurious upon deeper introspection. Haneke tests audience’s mental thresholds through one-dimensional provocation, never allowing his vague sociological implications to even get a word in. On a more auspicious note, Funny Games will likely challenge the audience’s own precepts on how to watch films in general.
No doubt Haneke is an intelligent, thoughtful and a truly talented filmmaker, but Funny Games comes across as emotionally and interrogatively shallow (especially compared to his remarkably empathetic and innovative Code Unknown). No doubt Haneke invokes a relevant, deeply important topic, but he compresses it to fit his artificial narrative of mainstream mediocrity. For all its bluster Funny Games, an unsightly, timeless, reactionary parable, is still utterly fascinating to watch. Haneke crafts it with absorbing vision. Even it’s flagrant nihilism and patronizing, which strain and wear after the first nonsensical hour, play as delightfully macabre.