Review: Funny Games

Haneke’s admonishments are disturbing only in the sense that they’re never self-critical.

Funny Games
Photo: Attitude Films

When I described Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video on the site’s blog as “a whore dressed up for the society ball—you know she’s going to lift up her skirt and show you her cooch at some point,” I didn’t realize how much this notion also applied to Funny Games, the film Haneke used to mark his territory on the Euro-art film map. In the opening scene, an upper-middle-class family drives to their house in the country, heavy metal music sarcastically blasting on the soundtrack (not the family’s car stereo, which plays bourgeois-appropriate classical), and even before the whore has gotten a chance to flash her jewels, Haneke is already slapping her on the wrist. The filmmaker understands how audiences respond to terror on screen, thwarting our pleasure by toying with and condescending to our expectations—like a Catholic school nun sticking a pin into a voodoo doll of Regina Hall’s loud-mouthed character from the first Scary Movie. When Peter (Frank Giering), one of two preppy psycho killers who invade the family’s home, asks a bleeding Georg (Ulrich Mühe) for food, the man sends his son, Schorschi (Stefan Clapczynski), into the kitchen and Peter tells the kid not to go searching for a knife—or else. Later, when the mother, Anna (Susanne Lothar), makes it onto the road outside her house, she allows her defenses to drop, letting an ostensibly friendly passerby to, well, pass by, before—as implied by the next scene—hailing the car of the returning killers. These sequences are straight out of any rote thriller, but they’re meant to be profound—critical of the conventions of the genre—because Paul (Arno Frisch) breaks the fourth wall a number of times; this is Scream for art-house aficionados, with Haneke at one point curbing the audience’s euphoria by rewinding the film immediately after Anna shoots Peter in the chest. Buñuel died before video killed the radio star but Haneke, a great architect of sustained movie tension, shares with the late master an obsession with disrupting bourgeois complacency. What separates them is that Buñuel’s funny games were actually funny and whenever he pointed his finger, it pointed everywhere, including at himself. Haneke’s admonishments are disturbing only in the sense that they’re never self-critical, and while watching one of his films, there’s always a sense that he thinks he’s above his characters, his audience, and scrutiny.

 Cast: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski, Doris Kunstmann, Christoph Bantzer, Wolfgang Glück, Susanne Meneghel, Monika Zallinger  Director: Michael Haneke  Screenwriter: Michael Haneke  Distributor: Attitude Films  Running Time: 104 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1997  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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