Retro Review: Funny Games (1997) & Funny Games U.S. (2008)
There has been endless debate about the merits and failures of both of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games films; reviews of the original praised its striking originality in its critique of cinematic violence yet the American remake seems to have flown over the heads of most American reviewers. Since the narrative of both films is basically the same, critiques of the films have been along the same lines: the motiveless nature of the two intruders actions, the lack of character development of the main protagonists and the ultimately alienating effects of Haneke’s direct address techniques. While these are valid comments, I feel they miss the point to a certain extent, and that a more overarching theme of both films is a contemporary crisis of masculinity.
The original film (and many of Haneke’s other films) has contextually been assigned as part of the European trend of the “New Extremism”; films that portray graphic images of a sexual and violent natures in an often startlingly objective way, leading to calls that they portray violence for the sake of violence. But what happens if we remove Funny Games from this context and place it with films that examine the workings of the contemporary family unit, for example, American Beauty (2000)? Then we can see the film as a similar analysis of the crisis of masculinity and trappings of a moderately well off existence which breeds nothing but empty and emotionless consumerism leading to a complete re-evaluation of the fathers role in the family unit. This is the angle I wish to examine here in this review, sidestepping the more obvious choices of the desensitisation to violence and the films self-aware direct address moments (which I still think are interesting and still entirely valid).
What I think initially needs pointing out is the fact that the two intruders are not supposed to be fully fleshed out characters with regular cinematic motivations and drives: they are merely anomalous entities that intrude on the perfect world of the perfect family and force them to act and react instinctively. These reactions are what fuels the further games that are played, and in this light, the family have no-one to blame for their situation but themselves, or more importantly, the father has no-one to blame but himself.
The focus of the film is the classic family unit: father, mother, son (and dog); affluent enough to afford a lakeside retreat and a small yacht and have enough free time to enjoy it. This places the family in a social bracket that allows them the freedom to do however they please, and this is implicit in the first part of the film. What I think is key in these initial scenes is the complacent attitude of the father: he loses at the classical music guessing game, remains quiet during the talk to the neighbours, and most importantly, the fact that the film chooses to concentrate its attention predominantly on the wife. The father’s (and by extension, man’s) power over his property and surroundings has been sidelined and he has retreated into simple self-fulfilment (setting up his yacht before he even steps into the house) rather than protecting his family.
Soon after the two intruders come into the house (arbitrarily) in search of a handful of eggs, the wife exasperatingly trying to get them to leave the house, before the father turns up and passively tries to understand what is going on. He fails to understand what his wife is trying to explain and ends up slapping one of the intruders, therefore initiating the “funny games” that last for the rest of the film. This is actually the first moment of violence that occurs, and it is one of the only times when it is depicted on screen (there are exceptions but they are obscured by editing and framing). The intruder question the father as to why he was slapped, but the father is still unable to take charge and get them out of his house. The violence is then returned (off-screen) with a golf club to the knee, crippling his ability to physically stand (and by extension protect), ironically with an object that can be identified with a mainly solitary and leisurely activity, again identifying the father as being outside of the family unit.
Through most of the proceeding scenes, the father lies immobile on the floor or the sofa, allowing his wife to be the object of humiliation for the two intruders. They begin by questioning her attractiveness, and end up making her strip so that they can examine her body, but not before they have forced the father to instruct her to do it. Through his own actions he has become the one instigating the humiliation of his own wife for these strangers, while his son is held at ransom and he is unable to move. After the son is killed and the intruders leave, the camera passively observes the scene in the living room for a very long time: the wife manages to get up and free herself, but the camera chooses to still observe the unmoving form of the father lying helplessly on the floor. He has to wait for his wife to return before he can even stand. This scene again highlights the fact that he could not protect his family, and that he himself did not make the intruders leave, and he has to be assisted to even stand.
In the previously mentioned American Beauty, the main character decides to slowly take matters into his own hands to try and turn his life around from the dead-end he has reached by being a complacent husband and father for so many years. Conversely, in Funny Games, the father is initially given a chance to assert himself and rescue his family from their situation, but he reacts so impulsively and violently, he leads himself and his whole family down a road from which there is no return. This is a relatively nihilistic outlook of the modern father figure, but one that I think benefits from a remake. Criticism of the original foreign language version has mainly centred on the nature of cinematic violence, and the breaking of the fourth wall which made a huge impact at the time. This time around, the American version gives us the chance to look more deeply at the characters and what they represent. Since we are familiar with the film’s formal “gimmicks”, we can sidestep them to look at the wider implications that the film suggests is taking place for contemporary masculinity.
It is relatively futile to search for explanations or causes to the events that occur, the family are divorced from the rest of society by their self-imposed retreat to their lake-side house, and the only glimpse of the outside world is where one of the intruders briefly channel surfs on the television while taking a break from his games. Interestingly, he chooses to leave the television tuned to a sports car race: the endless repetition of the vehicles and the droning noise of the race, which could be seen as trying to convey the fact that the family have themselves tuned out of the workings of the real world and retreated into a world where they are the only ones worth paying attention to. The only explanation the film does offer is that of the “unknown”, which is represented by the intruders: it is this unknown, shaped by the very actions of those around it, that reactively forces the family to reveal to themselves their true self, whatever that may end up being.