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Funny Games (2008)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Haneke Family Vacation"
4 stars

The idea of a Hollywood studio taking an acclaimed foreign film and producing an English-language remake that would allow it to be exposed, at least in some form, to the kind of wide audience that doesn’t cotton to subtitles or art houses is, of course, nothing new. The idea of a director remaking his own film, while somewhat rarer, is not as uncommon as one might think–auteurs ranging from Cecil B. DeMille (with his 1923 and 1956 versions of “The Ten Commandments”) and Alfred Hitchcock (who did “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in England in 1934 and in America in 1956) to the likes of Robert Rodriguez (whose 1995 American debut “Desperado” was essentially a more expensive version of his 1992 debut “El Mariachi”) and George Sluzier (who did the critically acclaimed 1988 Dutch version of “The Vanishing” and the critically assailed 1992 American remake) have chosen to reexamine their early efforts for one reason or another. In recent years, there has even been a trend towards doing virtual shot-for-shot remakes of famous films, either as an elaborate formal exercise (such as Gus van Sant’s take on “Psycho”) or as a simple act of tribute (like that elaborate redo of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that was made several years ago by a couple of kids with a lot of nerve and a camcorder). What makes Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” a remake of his 1997 Austrian art-house favorite, so unusual is that it utilizes all three of these various approaches at the same time–not only has Haneke, best known in these parts for his 2005 commercial breakthrough “Cache,” remade his own film in English, he has given us a recreation of his earlier work that so closely approximates the original that it is virtually indistinguishable from the original outside of the new actors inhabiting the roles and the new languages that they are speaking

For those of you who have never seen the original “Funny Games,” all of this is fairly meaningless and you will be able to experience the film as its own entity. You will be able to respond directly to the fiendish metaphysical head-spinner that Haneke has conjured up both on an intellectual level as a commentary about the concept of violence as entertainment and the active part that the seemingly passive audience plays in the proceedings by the simple act of watching and as a stunningly visceral horror film about a blandly pleasant family whose idyllic existence is shattered when their home is invaded by a pair of outwardly charming and inwardly brutal sadists who proceed to physically and psychologically torture them over the course of one long night. If you are a critic, you will be able to write a fascinating piece in which you either commend Haneke for his audaciousness in offering up a complete subversion of audience expectations within the confines of a seemingly ordinary genre exercise or condemn him for being just as sadistic and manipulative as the filmmakers he is implicitly critiquing through this particular film.

My problem, both as an ordinary audience member and as a critic, is that I saw the original “Funny Games” way back when it was making the festival rounds in 1997 (where it played in the main competition at Cannes and won Haneke the Best Director prize at the Chicago International Film Festival). I have already responded to it on those intellectual and visceral levels, I have already written about it at length several times in the past (both when it played in theaters and when it emerged on DVD) and in those earlier pieces, I have examined the method behind Haneke’s madness and have praised the results as being both a fascinating exploration/subversion of generic conventions and one of the most terrifying films that I have ever seen. Therefore, I am somewhat at a loss as to how to approach Haneke’s do-over of his earlier masterwork–while it is certainly well-made and well-acted for the most part, it sticks so completely to the original, right down to the camera angles and shot lengths, that there is virtually nothing that I could say about the film (outside of the unusual circumstances surrounding its existence) that I haven’t already said in those previous articles. I admire “Funny Games” on many levels and the idea of a filmmaker slavishly tracing his own artistic footsteps is intriguing on an intellectual level but outside of noting those specific achievements (which I will get to before too long), there isn’t really much left to say about the film that hasn’t already been said many times before.

As the film opens, we see the pleasantly bourgeois Farber family–George (Tim Roth), Anna (Naomi Watts) and young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart)–driving up to their summer home in Long Island for a short vacation with a yacht in tow and classical music playing on their SUV’s sound system. As they arrive at their gated home, they spot their next-door neighbors Robert and Eva out on their lawn with a couple of young men that they have never seen before and while the Farbers agree that their friends appear to be acting a little strangely, it doesn’t keep George from accepting the help of Paul (Michael Pitt), who is introduced as the son of a business associate of Robert’s, in launching the boat or prevent Anna from lending a hand when Peter (Brady Corbett) shows up at the door asking for a few eggs on Eva’s behalf. Slowly and quietly, however, the situation begins to get a little strange–Peter drops the eggs on the floor and accidentally knocks Anna’s cell phone in the sink while Paul arrives and insists on giving on of George’s prized golf clubs a test drive–and before long, Anna loses her patience and orders them to leave. They refuse and when George arrives, the interlopers pour on the excessive politeness in order to unravel what appears to be a misunderstanding between them and Anna. At first, George is willing to the peacemaker but he too finally loses his temper and when they still refuse to simply leave, he slaps Peter across the face for his impertinence. In response, Paul grabs one of the golf clubs and shatters his knee with one quick, brutal shot. If you have seen the original, you know how things proceed from this point (and no, Haneke hasn’t altered what happens at all) and if you haven’t, all I will say is that if you are not in a mood for unrelenting physical and psychological torture (leaning more towards the latter), you should probably flee the theater as quickly as possible at this point because it is about to get supremely nasty.

At this point, those unfamiliar with the story may suspect that “Funny Games” is yet another brutal home-invasion melodrama in which an innocent family is forced to fight violent fire in kind in order to survive. This is a scenario that you have seen dozens of times in the past in films ranging from top-shelf items as “Straw Dogs” and the various versions of “Cape Fear” to the grindhouse classic “Fight For Your Life” and Haneke knows that you have and that, we slowly begin to discover, is the real subject of the film. In Haneke’s mind, someone who views a film of this kind, which revels in watching people suffer at the hands of cruel individuals before the requisite happy ending, is essentially on the same plane as the characters who are inflicting the suffering in the first place. Therefore, he has chosen to turn what might have been a run-of-the-mill bit of red-meat cinema in the hands of an ordinary filmmaker into a sort of meta-movie meditation on screen violence that cleverly begins to implicate the viewer in direct and unexpected ways–characters begin to speak to those of us in the audience and there are discussions about the need for a “plausible explanation.” He also begins to sadistically toy with us in the same way as his torturers by consistently dangling the possibility of salvation, only to cruelly snatch it away (once in a manner so audacious that even the most open-minded viewer is liable to be stunned by the sheer perverse nerve of it). Most crucially, he more or less refuses to show viewers what they have presumably come to see–scenes of gory carnage. Instead, nearly all of the violent acts on display are seen only in their grisly aftermath and we are forced to piece together what happened though the splatters of blood and the anguished reactions of the survivors (which go on for an agonizingly long time). To Haneke, “Funny Games” is the kind of horror film where you can’t simply say “It’s Only A Movie!” and walk away feel clean.

When Haneke made his original version back in 1997, he claimed that he was doing it as a response to American films like “Reservoir Dogs” that utilized scenes of brutal torture as tools for the purposes of entertainment and to American audiences who enthusiastically responded to such savagery because of their own bloodlust and because they knew that American cinematic conventions required that the tables be turned in the last reel and our put-upon heroes would finally exact brutal revenge on their oppressors, often served up with a sly quip or two–in fact, he was so committed to this idea that he initially conceived of the film as an American production and only did it in Austria when he was unable to raise the funding to do it in English in the States.. Whether you agree or disagree with this particular conceit (which conveniently ignores the fact that Haneke’s various narrative tricks are just as manipulative as the ones utilized by American filmmakers and asks us to believe that European cinema never stooped to such grisly levels), it was a provocative notion to discuss and it helped elevate the film from being just another exercise in sadism into something more profound and intriguing. However, a lot has changed in the years since the original “Funny Games” has come out–“torture porn” has gone from something hidden in the shadows to big business both in the worlds of entertainment (via the “Saw” films and “Hostel”) and politics (with George W. Bush proudly boasting of how much safer we are thanks to the application of torture techniques) while at the same time, a number of other filmmakers has offered up cinematic deconstructions of screen violence and how viewers respond to such images, the most notable being David Cronenberg’s brilliant “A History of Violence”–and I had hoped that Haneke would figure out some way of addressing these developments into the framework of his basic story. For example, when George wants to know why Peter and Paul are doing this to them–as if there was some kind of explanation that would inspire him to think “Hey, I guess I see your point–carry on!”–and they respond with a litany of cliched responses about being junkies or products of abusive homes, maybe they could have claimed to have gotten their inspiration from a DVD of this freaky foreign film that they came across one day.

As the film progressed, however, it quickly became clear that outside of a couple of minor cosmetic changes (the chief one being that Anna is now stripped to her underwear for the duration of the grueling middle section), the two films were virtually the same and instead of once again getting caught up in either the story proper or its more intellectual concepts, I found myself almost completely removed from the proceedings and merely comparing the surface details with the previous version in much the same way that one might do upon seeing a gimmicky play like “Deathtrap” for a second time with a different cast. For example, while the opposing characters in the original seemed more like evenly balanced teams, the two pairs featured here are both thoroughly dominated by one member. In the case of the Farbers, the George character (who was played in the original by the late Ulrich Muhe, who achieved stardom last year with his lead performance in “The Lives of Others”) largely melts into the background as Anna takes a more dominant role in the proceedings, a move that works reasonably well thanks to the brave and forceful performance by Naomi Watts in the role. On the other hand, while the original interlopers were virtually interchangeable the first time around (their fluidity was one of their scarier elements), the balance has shifted here so that Paul is the alpha psycho while Peter comes off more like his flunky. This might have worked if Pitt had been as dazzling as Watts but he comes off as too mannered for his own good at times–instead of playing the part of someone playing the part of an erudite lunatic, he seems to be playing the part of someone playing the part of someone playing the part of an erudite lunatic. (Then again, it may just be the simple fact that erudite lunacy sounds better in the original German than in English.)

So now I come to the end of this review, the point where I am supposed to sum up my thoughts and tell you whether it is worth seeing or not, and I am just as confused as ever. On the one hand, the Naomi Watts performance is quite spectacular and even though he is simply redoing something that he has already done before, Haneke knows how to suffuse even the most seemingly ordinary scenes with a quietly mounting sense of dread to the point where we almost want to scream even though there is no obvious reason to do so. (The opening half-hour is a little masterpiece of ratcheting tension that will unnerve even those who know what is coming.) On the other hand, its utter refusal to vary in even the slightest way from the original (even the cinematography from ace lenser Darius Khondji has been calibrated to exactly replicate the look originally supplied by Jurgen Jurges) may wind up frustrating those who have already seen the first film. Okay, I think I’ve figured it out. If you have seen the original, you should probably try to check this one out simply as a curiosity while understanding that it won’t have nearly the same impact on you that it did the first time around. If you haven’t seen the original, you should add an extra star onto this review and check it out as soon as possible as a fascinating meditation on the commercialization of violence in popular culture that will shock even the most jaded moviegoers into contemplating what they look for in mass entertainment. If you are among the latter and walk away from it with admiration for what Haneke has achieved (and it should be noted that this is one of those films that viewers will either passionately love or loathe), you should then rent a copy of the original and experience in reverse the same kind of alienation that I felt with this new version.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16153&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/14/08 00:00:00
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Horror Remakes: For more in the Horror Remakes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/13/18 Louise Gonsalves you are a genius! Even though this film didn't need to be remade/ 4 stars
10/30/16 morris campbell authentic but morbid no thrills just unpleasantness 1 stars
6/16/12 Jeffrey Dahmer Disturbing and REPULSIVE. 1 stars
5/18/12 Man Out Six Bucks Typical creepy catholic psycho spawn straight out of "Martyrs" 4 stars
5/12/12 Flipsider A History of Violence accomplishes the same thing in a much smarter way. 3 stars
8/24/11 chris What's wrong with you people? This is just cruelty the movie nothing more. 1 stars
10/15/09 Anonymous This was disturbing and thought provoking... 4 stars
3/02/09 mr.mike A formulaic ending would have rendered it more routine...and more satisfying. 3 stars
1/28/09 Andrew Interesting story, yet unsatisfying. 2 stars
1/06/09 Tatiana for a film discouraging violence, this does a good job. for a likable film, this is a -100. 4 stars
12/01/08 Shaun Wallner Kept me on the edge of the seat! 5 stars
10/12/08 jcjs33 wow, doesn't get any better and no 'graphic gore'..art, fantasmo..real..this stuff happens 5 stars
8/09/08 Bart Great look into the most interesting human psyche, your own! 5 stars
7/04/08 Louise Disturbing and well-made 4 stars
6/15/08 rachel fabulous review, this one sucked. 1 stars
4/27/08 Jayme Isaacs Good Movie Highly Recommended 5 stars
4/08/08 Brett Closest Thing to a horror masterpeice since well the original Funny Games 5 stars
3/31/08 will i am graet indie thriller 4 stars
3/21/08 Sarko sick, liked it 4 stars
3/16/08 damalc the meanest movie ever 4 stars
3/14/08 stacy berg WE liked it 3 stars
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  14-Mar-2008 (R)
  DVD: 10-Jun-2008



Directed by
  Michael Haneke

Written by
  Michael Haneke

  Naomi Watts
  Tim Roth
  Michael Pitt
  Brady Corbet
  Siobhan Fallon

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