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Review: Funny Games (1997/2008)

Funny Games (1997 / 2008)

Directed by: Michael Haneke

Premise: A family is held hostage by a pair of psychopathic teenage boys. The film was originally released in 1997 as an Austrian production. An American remake by the same director was issued in 2008.

What Works: The Funny Games movies are a unique cinematic experiment. Similar to Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho or the American version of Let the Right One In, the original Funny Games and the remake are quite literally the same movie. The settings of the original are recreated faithfully for the remake and all the creative decisions, from lighting and focus to camera placement and editing to the screenplay and the performances, are virtually identical. Usually this is cause for contempt but because both versions of Funny Games were made by the same director it isn’t so easy to dismiss the remake and at the very least this allows for the praise and criticism of one version to be applied to the other. Funny Games is a home invasion movie, as two apparently well-to-do young men terrorize a married couple and their son. The opening of the movie is a slow burn but once it transitions into a hostage situation the film becomes a very uncomfortable experience. There are two things working in Funny Games’ favor. The first is the cast, which is superb in both versions. The cast of the 1997 version includes Ulrich Mühe and Susanne Lothar as the married couple, Stefan Clapczynski  as their son, and Arno Frisch and Frank Giering as the teenage brothers. The 2008 version includes Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as the couple, Devon Gearhart as their son, and Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet as the teenage intruders. In both versions the family has a believable rapport and as the film gets increasingly bizarre it’s the efforts by the actors in the victim roles that keep the movie engaging. The actors playing the teenage boys are especially good in Funny Games although Arno Frisch and Frank Giering of the 1997 version have a slight edge because they are more distinct characters and the interplay between them is stronger. The second element working in Funny Games’ favor is its audacity. This is a metafiction, meaning that it is a movie that draws attention to the fact that it is a movie in order to comment on the conventions and pleasures of a story like this. In that respect Funny Games is similar to the recent movies of Quentin Tarantino like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, although director Michael Haneke is operating in a different way here. Funny Games questions the kind of pleasure people take in violent or degrading stories. It’s notable that nearly all the violence of Funny Games occurs off screen with the camera focused on the reactions of the bystanders. What Haneke has produced in the Funny Games pictures is really provocative and a little didactic but it’s also thoughtful.

What Doesn’t: As interesting as they are, the Funny Games movies are also problematic. The remake has a lot of problems as a work of cinematic art. Because nothing is substantially different from the 1997 version it is unclear why the remake exists at all. The newer version was made with contemporary technology and it has a cleaner and more polished look but it comes across as an attempt to access the American market by recreating the film without a need for English subtitles. Neither version of Funny Games is going to be a hit with mainstream audiences. This is a movie whose makers were out to defy the pleasure of mainstream action and horror cinema and so what they have made is an interesting film but not necessarily an entertaining one. Funny Games is intended for academics, other filmmakers, and otherwise serious filmgoers and so viewers who go in expecting a movie like Panic Room or Saw are going to be alienated.

DVD extras: The home video release of the 1997 version of Funny Games includes an interview with Michael Haneke and a trailer. The 2008 version includes no extras features.

Bottom Line: Funny Games is not a movie for everyone. In some ways it is a movie for no one, since it is apparent that the filmmakers were out to make viewers think about the enjoyment that they get from watching violence and then deny them that pleasure. But the Funny Games pictures are thoughtful movies that serious viewers ought to seek out.

Episode: #443 (June 16, 2013)