Austria 1997, dir. Michael Haneke, 103-108m
Funny Games is a paradox – an almost unwatchable film which only makes sense the second or third time you force yourself to sit through it. By then, you may well find yourself hating director Michael Haneke, while also appreciating his astonishingly audacious and well-crafted approach to his extremely disturbing subject matter.
His film has the remorselessness of nightmare: a comfortably middle-class father, mother and son arrive at their lakeside cottage for a holiday. Two well-spoken young men arrive at the door, ostensibly guests of the family’s friends at the next door cottage, ostensibly sent on an errand to borrow some eggs. But when the eggs are broken, events rapidly darken into much more sinister territory.
The two boys basically put the family through hell – they hold them prisoner in the cottage, and subject them to the far-from-funny games of the film’s title. But there’s something odd about their attitude – why do they keep winking and nodding at the camera, making sly comments to the audience? The film is full of clues to Haneke’s intentions, but you’d be forgiven for not picking them all up, such is the height of tension he maintains as the boys’ reign of terror escalates.
It’s only right at the very end that Haneke reveals what’s been going on, as the boys discuss Tarkosvky’s Solaris: unlike the terrorised family, the boys are aware they’re characters in a movie, and that their ‘actions’ have no real consequences. Funny Games really is, then, a nightmare – it’s like a dream in which the dreamer suddenly realises that he isn’t awake, and that he’s free to act exactly as he wishes.
If this reading of the film is correct – and, to me, none other makes much narrative sense – then critics who describe Haneke’s agenda as being an exploration of the effects of cinema violence have missed his point entirely. I don’t think Haneke is saying one thing or another about violence in cinema or society – he’s engaged in much wider philosophical and psychological discussions, playing ‘funny games’ with our expectations of movies and the characters within them.
Haneke’s coldly intellectual approach runs bracingly contrary to the blazing emotions of his film – the performance by Susanne Lothar as the mother is unbearably convincing, and you may find yourself fearing for her health and sanity as she’s put through the wringer by her tormentors – the boys, and the director.
Funny Games is too much for many viewers, and while I can understand their repulsion I don’t share it. I find this a fascinating, remarkably well-made film that executes its intentions with an admirably hardcore ferocity. Although I suspect Haneke intended it to be the blackest of black comedies – I’m sure Hitchcock would have wholeheartedly approved – it’s equally valid to describe it as the most horrific of all horror movies. It’s both at once – which is why it’s a great piece of work.
by Neil Young
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