Funny Games (aka Funny Games US) first published by Film4
Summary: Michael Haneke rewinds and replays his games of cinematic violence in this doubly uncompromising English-language remake of his 1997 film.
Review: When directors remake their own films for an English-speaking audience, there tends to be an element of cultural reduction, or ‘dumbing down’ – after all, these are films targeted at viewers averse to reading subtitles. In their different ways, George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1993) and Ole Bornedal’s Nightwatch (1997) sanitised and conventionalised the more horrifying elements of the original films, while Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge (2004) dramatised a very Western response to his Eastern horror while also importing unnecessary expositional material – and for The Ring Two (2005), Hideo Nakata all but abandoned the uncanny weirdness of his original, much more bizarre Japanese sequel. Michael Haneke‘s US remake of his own Funny Games (1997) is, however, a notable exception.
In the Austrian original, a rock-solid rule of film narrative is notoriously and shockingly breached when one character rewinds and replays an entire sequence to produce an outcome that better suits his own dark designs. Haneke’s remake is itself an expanded exercise in rewind-and-replay, but rather than change the course of his earlier film, the director merely changes its cast and language. Otherwise, this is an almost frame-by-frame reconstruction, still uncompromising in the confronting nature of its themes, but now equally uncompromising in its dogged fidelity to the original. This may be a film expressly designed for the American market, and aimed at exploring a very American outlook on mediated violence, but you will have to look elsewhere for the bland reassurances of the redemptive ending typically crowbarred into Hollywood remakes.
Anna (Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth) and their young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) like games. On the drive to their holiday lakehouse in the Hamptons, they challenge each other to identify arias played on the car’s CD system – and they are all set to play golf with their neighbours the following morning. Before they can even unpack, however, they get a visit from Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet) – two softly spoken young men in tennis-white clothes (with white gloves to match) who have been staying next door, and who now want to borrow some eggs. Paul and Peter, it turns out, also like games, and over one long night they will play fast and loose with their unwilling hosts, with us, and with the comfort zone of genre.
Haneke has taken quite a gamble on this project, with his own arthouse credibility as the stake. For this Funny Games remake is as thrilling, as provocative, and as harrowing as the original – but only because it is a near carbon copy. The family dog is a different, less aggressive breed, the names of the marginal characters have changed, and a few lines have been minimally rejigged in self-conscious acknowledgement of the film’s status as remake (“are you happy now, or do you want another version?”, “Player one, level two”, etc.), but otherwise this is an astonishingly literal translation of the Austrian original, right down to the design of the lakehouse, the positioning of the camera, and the selection of music on the soundtrack (serene classical occasionally disrupted by John Zorn’s death metal). No-one could accuse Haneke of selling out on his ideas, although some may suspect him of cashing in on them once more than is necessary – and, even worse, of being arrogant enough to suppose that there can be no improving on his first version. It is like watching Gus van Sant’s Psycho (1998), except that in this case the director is paying homage only to himself.
Of course, even if there is little significant difference between the 1997 and 2007 versions of Funny Games, there has certainly been a change in the times. The type of casually violent cinema that Haneke was addressing – also deconstructed with rather less earnestness in Scream (1996) – has since moved on to a post-9/11 subgenre conveniently (if somewhat inaccurately) labelled ‘torture porn’. Films like Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and Captivity (2007), in which torment and degradation are packaged as entertainment of sorts, are all, it might be argued, screaming for some kind of serious-minded critical response. Whether Funny Games provides that response, though, is all in the eye of the beholder.
Of course, films are often only as simplistic as the viewers who watch them. On the one hand ‘torture porn’ can be regarded as exposing the all too real horrors of Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition in a form with which the average filmgoer can more easily identify, while on the other hand, it is easy to imagine certain viewers who will be both entertained and utterly unchallenged by Funny Games itself. What it assails, after all, it also embodies. In the end, cinematic sadism is cinematic sadism is cinematic sadism, whether it is seen or heard, whether it is glorified or (to use a term familiar from Guantánamo Bay) interrogated – and in order to make this particular omelet, Haneke too has had to break a few eggs.
Yet for all that, this Funny Games redux is an unsettling experience that might just rekindle the long-standing debate about the nature and effect of on-screen violence – while perhaps introducing a few new ideas to its English-speaking demographic.
Verdict: If you missed Haneke’s film in 1997, this 2007 remix delivers literally everything the first version had to offer – apart, of course, from the originality.
© Anton Bitel