Watching Michael Haneke's Funny Games is like driving down a dark highway punctuated by billboards posting advertisements for provocative local landmarks. You bite, follow the directions, and get lost, only to learn those landmarks are really dead-ends. Yet behind those dead-end signs you see a flickering, which is the muted light of a unique auteur struggling to manifest a complex cinematic vision. Funny Games provokes a tantalising cauldron of conflicting emotions in its audience including confusion, empathy, disgust, respect and disappointment. And we've all seen the brew before: a dash of Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972); a sprinkle of Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991) and Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971); and a final splash of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994). Throw in a smidgeon of the popular Belgian film Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, 1992), mix slowly, and you basically have Haneke's Funny Games. Well, sort of. If this film had emerged 20 years earlier, its reception would have been prodigious. As Maximilian Le Cain writes, the film “puts a naive faith in the confrontational power of the spectacle of sadistic violence, which Tarantino had already definitively tamed and thus undermined in his first two films. By the time Haneke adopted it, it was a redundant gimmick”. There is no doubt Haneke was late with this instalment, but he does provide layers of contradictions and perversions that disorient the viewer's traditional genre-based conceptions of the relationship forged between spectator, director and character. And in a sick, “funny game” way, this disorientation is worth experiencing. As Kierkegaard once said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. Haneke freely dishes out plenty of anxiety; some of it works, and some of it doesn't, leaving Funny Games as an engaging, noble failure that awkwardly raises important questions all film viewers should regularly ask.
While Haneke's plot is profoundly simple, making sense of its meaning is not, and this is one of the first contradictions he establishes. A middle-aged American family consisting of mum (Anna), dad (George), son, and dog begin their vacation at a posh lakeside summerhouse. While dad and son prepare the sailboat, a young, neighbourly male seeking to borrow a few eggs approaches mom in the kitchen. She gladly provides the eggs, but he refuses to leave. When dad and son return, another young male joins his partner, and after some posturing, he verbally confronts the father, who in turn smacks the young brute. The two males proceed to ruthlessly terrorise the family and torture them in various ways. The final carnage is as unrelenting as it is sadistic.
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