27 March 2008
Funny Games (US)
After three viewings of the film I’ve decided one thing for certain: I will never play “Name that Tune” with Opera—clearly it is just tempting fate. Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) play the game and even their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) seems to enjoy it. In the ten years between the Austrian and American versions of Funny Games it seems Range Rover interiors have become even more deluxe. So the handsome threesome arrive at their summer place with (the good) Gigli playing in the background.
Much has been made of the central figure in the American version being much better looking and much more scantily-clad than the actor in the Austrian version. Here I must strenuously object. Arno Frisch is definitely hotter than Dreamers moon-face/Tommy Gnossis Michael Pitt, whose “Paul” wears long sleeves for the length of the film.
Another key difference is Haneke’s choice to kill off a golden retriever instead of a German shepherd in the U.S. edition—I assume this is just so the most iconic respective national canine can bite it in each version. Naomi Watts does have a little more tan booty and a little more mucus than I remember from Susanne Lothar too.
But in the end we are dealing with the same terrible conflict: two torturers killing off your family one by one over the course of a night. While Peter and Paul (the non-Dawson’s Creek alum is played by the jellyrolled Brady Corbett) maintain a constant and empty “The Killers”-style banter, the family tries to survive. It is fascinating to watch Ann and George try to communicate silently some plan of action. I believe they largely fail at this. While most discussion of the film has focused on the brutal second and third acts I go back to the first and see a couple relationship that has its problems. As Peter’s request for eggs begins its slow boil, we see Ann getting first testy, then angry, with him before there is any real cause—she is extremely egg-protective. And George, when told confront the men, freely admits that Ann might be overreacting (as she has in the past, we presume). So in the crucial moments where George might have imposed his will on the two interlopers, he is temporarily held back by politeness, the need to make up for his wife’s probable overreaction. As Peter and Paul (or Beavis and Butthead) say repeatedly in the film, it was all Ann’s fault for being bitchy about the eggs.
The gloved ones, who say they suffer from eczema (among other things), also point to George’s initial slap as another “reason” for all the funny games. Haneke makes a clear choice to present the violent acts of Ann and George onscreen: we his slap and her shotgun blast. We don’t see George (or Lucky the golden retriever) get hit by the golf club, nor do we see George or Georgie get shot (during the latter I was concerned that the sandwich Peter was making did not use any of the lovely romaine lettuce Ann washes early in the film). My two favorite film critics, A.O. Scott and Anthony Lane, both had knickers a-twist about this Funny Games, largely because they felt Haneke was somehow rubbing the audience’s collective nose in our voyeuristic love of violence. I think this ignores what is a well-acted, surprisingly nuanced film. After the initial leg-whacking, we see in each shot of Ann, George and Georgie a pure malevolence, the perfectly legitimate desire to kill Peter and Paul for what they’re doing. I’ve seen one version or another of Funny Games repeatedly and I still am moved by the pain and anger of the family. It is not just a dry exercise. As The Wire has taught us, even a rigged game is still worth watching.
This is not to say there aren’t certain moments when Haneke isn’t grinning at us, laughing his Santa Claus laugh (his DVD interviews are all must-watches). When Ann is forced to play the hot-cold game in search of (un)Lucky, Peter turns to directly address the camera but, crucially, still knows where Ann is, telling her “colder” even when his back is to her. He is established as omnipotent. Similarly, as he chases after the escaped Georgie, he lopes up ghost-like on the lawn, certain as Death in white shorts and Chuck Taylors around his trim ankles. He is, perhaps, even God himself as he forces Ann to say the short prayer (“with feeling!”) “I pray to God with all my might / that I may live all through the night.” She her fervent, sobbing, uncontrolled recitation is the most powerful thing I’ve seen from her since the career-making audition scene in Mulholland Dr. So, even if Haneke is grinning, he captains a series of great performances.
What I also find beautifully accurate about this film is the physical toll the events take on Ann and George. Each time his broken leg is touched, I see and hear the pain George is in. Even more so with Ann I feel how tired her legs get over the course of the night. The effort of standing and hopping while bound hand and foot is immense. So it makes sense when we see her later in the street, hardly able to stand any longer, her legs like jelly, picking the wrong rescue vehicle. When she arrives back at the house, bound again, we see he scrapes on her knuckles where she has fought. Even on the sailboat in the lake the morning she will die (the prayer come cruelly true), she tries to cut her bonds with a knife left on the boat. Paul calls her performance “Olympian,” then tosses her off the side.
He says, for all of us voyeurs, “fiction is just as real as reality.”