Reviewed by Jason Rotstein
Funny Games, the American remake of the same film by the same Austrian director Michael Haneke, is a film that questions the value we put on entertainment. The American film, considerably bolstered by the financial backing of Naomi Watts, who also stars in the film, benefits from the shifts in tension and perspective that the film’s grandiose production values embrace. In one image we have the ideal picturesque retreat of Long Island, a second home in a gated community furnished with all the latest amenities, focused in remarkably clear and vibrant hues. The camera favours the long view or aerial shot, so we are made aware of the extendable boundaries of wealth and influence. Another other image, which deals with equal if not greater scale and grandeur, is that of the gratuitous violence and killings that the film takes as sport.
Haneke compels comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, not only in the film's depiction of the exploits of illegitimate young miscreants wreaking havoc, but also, more importantly, in the film’s use of an eccentric soundtrack. The band Naked City’s punk rock provides the accompaniment and inspiration to the anti-heros in the film, not Mozart’s Fifth—with classical music presented here as the order amidst the chaos. Part of the film’s apparent blasé attitude towards torture and violence is the indulgence in extremity and scale: in the perfect world, in the company of the perfect family, there is a blond-haired-blue-eyed wife, an older patriarchal husband and one single blond-haired-blue-eyed child and they play “guess the composer and guess the sonata” for brownie points on their way to their Island (Egg) and everyone so damn happy!
Interestingly, Haneke does not use music or other elements for theme setting. Naked City, used for two short bursts in the middle and at the end, is both the exception and the norm. It would not be the soundtrack that we would expect from killers cut of the Clockwork cloth—I should say the subjects are two young men dressed all in white. Still their soundtrack is unique, it is their individual signature. And if there is any way to understand the motivation of these two violent young men—sometimes called Tom and Jerry, sometimes called Peter and Paul or Beavis and Butthead—it is as an expression of repressed or stifled individuality. Their horrific actions, significantly, do not carry the kind of social class commentary that accompanies Alex and his brood in A Clockwork Orange. Their actions are expressly beyond the pale. “Tom and Jerry” may be rich or they may be poor; the point is obscured in the film, but what is clear is that Tom and Jerry are not embarrassed in the company of rich—they know how to operate a boat— actually they know it all too well. The film is about “East or West Egg” and here they are dropping all the eggs that they solicit from rich families. When they enter a house they take their time to look around and observe its content not as future booty but as objects of defence against their disturbing psychological game of warfare. Conspicuously, the residents of this Long Island gated pond do not fight back. They fall quite feebly to these two lithe boarding school patriots.
As you can already see, the film is deeply polemical. And the actor Michael Pitts has shown himself previously in the film The Dreamers as not being the best with rhetoric or polemic. His preferred tone is mock-irony. Here he is somewhat better because his voice irritates the ear or the mind less. This has largely to do with the script that is sharp, conversational and witty. Naomi Watts is probably the best casting choice. Watts, who has demonstrated predilection for assuming a guise of self-parody, is made to be a twisted parody of her parodic self. Haneke undresses her, quite literally, and forces the viewer to objectify what it is that we find of such star quality in Miss Watts' physique. He has Watts hop around the film for half an hour—how many more hours was she forced to do on set?—in only her underwear, her hands and feed bound with duct-tape.
The ultimately undesirable effect is the question of who is playing the games and whether these games, in the end, have any real entertainment value. There are a number of times where Michael Pitts “Tom” stops his performance and speaks directly to the camera. Then there is the instance where “Tom” actually “rewinds the tape” to alter the better outcome of future events. We recognize in this, “the choose your own adventure story” and a possible berth for “viewer-response theory” to complement the already considerable discussion around “reader-response theory.” But we must also recognize how little the film actually approximates reality or the games that children like to play. If I am not mistaken, the point of the games kids play is that they mimic or approximate the “games” that they will play out as adults. Forbidden Games, a phenomenal French film by the skilled Rene Clement, is the story about the child games that tend to encompass or influence our worlds in weird and interesting ways. I am not doing justice to the mastery of Clement’s wondrous film, but the point is that the “games” and the goal of these games are not well articulated in Funny Games. Is the premise of the game not defeated when it has no function for the viewer? Funny Games is more an interesting exercise than a complete film.