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Funny Games (Michael Haneke) 1998   

    Alternately infuriating and harrowing, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is a potent piece of shock cinema that thrives on making the audience uncomfortable. Outwardly a Hitchcockian slow boil this genre piece, which deftly evades falling into the traps of its generic trappings, is infused with a sense of self-awareness that underscores the inherent bloodlust that the audience feels when watching a sadistic thriller. Surely, most audience members will be aware before they watch this film of the moral implications of getting enjoyment, or rather excitement, out of feigned human suffering, but there’s something that’s terribly persuasive in Haneke’s visceral and formalistic presentation. 

    Funny Games works far better when you look at its technique than when you examine its somewhat obvious message, though it’s hardly a film without ideas. Certainly its willingness to provide easy, but wholly unsatisfying, answers and motivations for its antagonists makes apparent to the audience our need to justify to ourselves the horrors that are presented on screen in most exploitation films. The way that this sermonizing is presented though is what makes it bearable. Eschewing didactic moralizing, Haneke puts his reprimands in the mouths of an attractive pair of flip troublemakers. They casually go about their nasty business, quite boldly telling the audience that they do what they do for us. The suffering doesn’t stop because we’re willing to keep watching.

    Surely, the description of the film makes it sound horribly sadistic, and I suppose that it is to a degree. Still, the film allows a rare chance for the audience to actively examine their own reactions to the film, and could prompt plenty of discussion about why we feel what we feel in spite of ourselves. Perhaps, the argument could be made that Haneke is trying to be reductionist here. Both his distillations of the scope of human experience into the most extreme actions and emotions and his compression of cinematic technique to the point where anyone who watches will feel pretty much the same feelings at the same time could easily rankle. Those might be misguided complaints, however, because this sort of scolding requires a strong hand. Since films as easy to read as Trainspotting are wildly misinterpreted by masses of people, you can barely fault the director for writing his thesis in bold letters. Admittedly, there are a few films that provoke the same sort of self-reflection about the film-watching process, by such directors as Kiarostami and Godard, that don’t trudge so much in the gory details as Haneke’s movie, but he earns the comparison to those masters here.

    All of Haneke’s games would be pointless if the film that he used to toss around his ideas in wasn’t as gripping as the best of Hitchcock. This is required so that we can understand the appeal to this sort of moviemaking in the first place. Luckily, Haneke’s film keeps you completely involved emotionally from moment to excruciating moment. The difference between Funny Games and less “responsible” filmmaking is that when the play escalates beyond breaking social mores and becomes dead serious, the director stops the film to allow a legitimate, traumatic period of mourning, making us powerfully aware of the stakes of his games and our part in them. 



Jeremy Heilman