The Film Canon: Funny Games (1997)

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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.

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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 formula we have become accustomed to. Funny Games sets out to interrogate such a mentality, and it has every right to be. But it presents a questionable alternative, Funny Games for all of its quirks and sneers as a self-aware “art” film is essentially what we a spatter film, with a stronger attitude. Maybe “torture porn” is a better way to describe it, 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.

The plot of the film is relatively straightforward, and doesn’t need much explained in terms of what to expect, unlike most of Haneke’s films. It presents a simple scenario, an upper middle-class 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 family 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 revulsion, such as the infamous “remote” scene or the lesser known, but equally infuriating, boat scene at the film’s conclusion. It tests audience’s mental thresholds through one-dimensional provocation. Perhaps on a more auspicious note, Funny Games also challenges the audience’s own precepts on how they watch films in general.

No doubt the Haneke is intelligent, thoughtful and a truly skillful film director, but Funny Games comes across as emotionally and interrogatively shallow. Michael Haneke takes a relevant topic but narrows it, condenses it to fit his shallow narrative of mainstream mediocrity, which for all its bluster is comes across as equally superficial. Funny Games is a rare, timeless, reactionary failure (or unqualified masterpiece) for Haneke. For all its interpretive ineptitude, it’s still utterly fascinating and absorbingly crafted, but it’s flagrantly nihilistic and patronizing approach do begin to strain in its conviction. Funny Games tests audiences, much like the two psychopaths in the film tests the family, without a one word of compromise or slightest shred of sympathy.

Gary is a twenty-two year old Canadian who partakes in all sorts of sedentary past times (reading, video games, etc.), his favourite of these is watching movies. His love for the cinema runs deep and he is constantly trying to find new ways to engage and approach films (because films are constantly trying to find new ways to engage and approach people). He does this mainly through film criticism, which he sees as both a hobby and a crucial link between movies and those who want to understand them a little more.