Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Funny Thing Happened...

Some films benefit from a second viewing; for my own part, among those that I didn't 'get' first time round are classics such as Repulsion, Vertigo and Heaven's Gate, films that I now view as undeniably great. But when I got wind, a couple of years back, of Michael Haneke's intention to remake his horror movie-cum-moral film essay Funny Games in English for an American audience, I was sceptical, not least because I found the film insufferably preachy in its original incarnation. The film, which was an interrogation of an audience's willingness to tolerate its desolate violence, backfired for what I perceived to be Haneke's didactic manipulativeness. Haneke himself said that those that stayed until the end of the film were those that 'needed it most', a presumptuousness worthy of any moral physician. I, for what it's worth, did stay till the end (and I often don't); I don't quite know what that says about me. All I know is that I certainly didn't feel that I needed it, or Haneke's hectoring either.

So I was reluctant to go see Funny Games US despite the fact that I am a big fan of Haneke's other films, particularly his two French films with Juliette Binoche, Code Inconnu and Caché. The fact that the film is a scene-by-scene remake (nay, a frame-for-frame remake) didn't augur well either. THe last time this was done was with Gus Van Sant's technicolour Psycho, which I admired more for the audaciousness of its conception than for its inconsiderable dramatic qualities. Having fallen prey to the exigencies of time however, I was left with only one film I could watch at Bastille yesterday afternoon, and that was Haneke's. And, I'm surprised to say, I found that I liked it.

Perhaps it's because I got my original resentment at the didacticism out of the way, or maybe it was because I was getting an eerie sense of having missed a lot in the original (though, I have to say I probably remembered a good two dozen scenes, at least, perfectly). Instead I was struck by how masterful Haneke is at racheting up the tension (though I knew that from his other films), especially early on when Peter creeps Naomi Watts' Ann out by dropping the eggs. While Michael Pitt (one of my least favourite actors) is no match for the cheerful sadism of Arno Frisch in the original film, Pitt's own perennial absence of personality is no bar to a role which blandly mines from the seam of that most obscure and incomprehensible of human characteristics: cruelty. And the cruelty is believable, as anyone who has ever had to suffer the passive agressiveness of someone desperate to pick a fight will attest. Naomi Watts (who seems to specialise in remakes these days, with the Ring films, King Kong and Martin Campbell's The Birds) and Tim Roth are as effective as the terrorised couple as Susanne Lothar and the late Ulrich Mühe were in the 1997 film.

Not only is the film shot identically, it uses much the same set design, though, as Haneke has said in an interview, the country house in the original was based on American homes, such dwellings being rare in Austria. The exact same music is used too, in all scenes. In a way, Funny Game US is fulfilling the promise of the original. Some films can be enriched by what comes after them; I'm thinking of Denys Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire, which I found dour until watching its sequel The Barbarian Invasions gave it an unexpected grace. Who knows, maybe Haneke's Austrian original is still as insufferable as I originally found it, but I am a bit more willing to give it another go. Not that it has put me off violent films altogether.

Here's the trailer for the 2008 film:

and here is the one from eleven years ago:


UmassSlytherin said...

I have no idea how Michael Pitt can be your least favorite actor. With all due respect, you sound completely misguided.
Michael Pitt is amazing and I would pay a million dollars to make out with him for five minutes.

The Crabling Otter said...

I may not agree with everything you said, but that was a really great post. Fair play!