Funny Games

The purpose of “Funny Games” is to provoke and disturb the audience. It does this so well that you may not be able to watch it — a curious thing for a filmmaker to shoot for, but hey, that’s the Austrians for you.

Michael Haneke already made this film in 1997 before going on to make other challenging films like “The Piano Teacher” and “Cache.” Now he has remade it, almost shot-for-shot (see my note at the end), in English. His reason is apparently just that he’d like the film to be seen by a wider audience.

The hilarious part there is that no matter what language it’s in, this film is not very marketable. It’s not only a violent movie but a movie ABOUT violence. It toys with the audience’s expectations about how movies are supposed to work. It allows brutal things to happen, then indicts us for wanting to see brutal things happen.

It’s set in a lovely vacation home on a lake somewhere, the refuge of an affluent, upper-crust family whose members amuse themselves on long car trips by playing “Name That Tune” with opera CDs. We know little else about them other than their names: George (Tim Roth) the father, Anna (Naomi Watts) the mother, and Georgie (Devon Gearhart) the young son.

Just after they arrive for an extended stay, a young man in a tennis outfit stops by. He says his name is Peter (Brady Corbet). He’s staying with the neighbors for a couple days, and the wife of that family asked him to come over and borrow four eggs from Anna. Anna gladly hands them over. Peter drops them on his way out, apologizes profusely in his soft, whimpery voice, and Anna gets some new eggs for him.

While this is going on, Peter’s buddy Paul (Michael Pitt) shows up. Like Peter, he’s dressed in tennis whites and is unfailingly polite. Also like Peter, he is slightly odd in his behavior. The boys’ language is grammatically correct and unprovocative, yet at the same time slightly “off.” Some of their answers are non sequiturs. They ask questions that don’t seem to mean anything. They refer to each other by names other than Peter and Paul.

Haneke presents this sequence in a way that’s almost unbearably tense. No one is doing anything blatantly wrong from a moral standpoint; even from a purely social standpoint the boys are more awkward than anything else, only gradually growing intrusive and presumptuous over time. Part of the reason the scene is so unsettling is that you can’t quite put your finger on what’s unsettling about it.

Finally the dam breaks and the incident turns into a full-blown home invasion. George is incapacitated — unmanned, really, as he is forced to see his family suffer, powerless to help. Peter and Paul play mind games with the family and with the audience. Peter is the younger and less confident of the two, while Paul — played with chilling menace by the soft-spoken Michael Pitt — runs the show.

Haneke’s goal is to unnerve us by subverting our expectations. He sets it up as a violent film, and yet almost every act of violence takes place off-camera. Instead of the frantic editing one normally sees in movies about killers and victims, Haneke shoots in long, unbroken takes. He keeps us distanced from the action by minimizing close-ups and by frequently composing shots that avoid the actors’ faces, or that focus on someone other than the person speaking. And then, once we feel safely distanced from the horror, Haneke yanks us into it by having one of the characters look right into the camera and address us.

The film is not fun in the usual way that movies are fun. It deliberately avoids giving the payoffs we expect. Yet I don’t find it frustrating or aggressive. Some provocative filmmakers seem intent on irritating or turning off the audience. With Haneke, I get the feeling that once you understand what he’s up to, he’s glad to have you in on the joke. He certainly goes about executing it in a masterful way.

(Finally, a note on how the film was remade. Only a few minor things prevent it from being literally a shot-for-shot remake. The dialogue, apart from being in English instead of German, is likewise almost identical. The sets are virtual twins of those in the original. Haneke has basically made it so that native English speakers have their own version of his film. He has not watered it down or altered it in the translation.)

A- (1 hr., 47 min.; R, a little harsh profanity, a fair amount of violence and disturbing content.)