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USA/United Kingdom/France 2008
Directed by
Michael Haneke
108 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

Funny Games (2008)

Synopsis: Anna (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth), and their son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart), are a well-to-do family on their way to their Long Island summer vacation home. Shortly after their arrival, Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt), supposedly visitors at a neighbour's house turn up on their doorstep and some not-at-all funny games begin.

The premise of a decent middle-class family under threat is a staple of American cinema so it makes sense that Warners would remake Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, the writer/director’s 1997 German language film about such a family in such a situation. But this 2008 edition is no Cape Fear or  Panic Room (2002) and anyone who goes to it on the basis of Naomi Watts’ and Tim Roth’s names on the marquee expecting a serving of vicarious thrills will be sorely disappointed. Unlike George Sluizer’s dreadful 1993 Hollywood remake of his stunning 1988 French-Dutch co-production, The Vanishing, Haneke has remade his own film virtually shot-for-shot and with no concession to mainstream expectations.

Full credit to Warners Independent, under whose banner this has been made, for giving Haneke creative freedom but, ethical issues aside, its recontextualisation does not work. At least from a comparative point of view, there is an oversized quality to the film that leaves a bitter aftertaste. Whereas the original film was unsettlingly credible and its meta-level address to the audience effective, here, both aspects seem forced. Probably this stems from Haneke’s lack of experience with the conventions of American film or perhaps, more deeply, of American codes of behaviour.

This is most apparent in the establishing scenes of the film in which the supposedly nice young men appear more like extra-terrestrial aliens than boys-next-door and the transition from normality to horror story is not as convincingly handled as in the original film. Tim Roth’s character is also far more supine than his forebear and this turns out to be a real annoyance. Convention would require him to come up with some kind of ruse to effect the family’s salvation, not necessarily successful, but at least to demonstrate his manliness and inject a bit of action into the stand-off proceedings. All that Roth is allowed to do however is whimper – the entire length of the film. Watts, who has an executive producer credit, is the centre of attention but even she is a surprisingly unempathetic character, who, in one of the few departures from the first version, spends a good deal of time in her underwear. Why this is we can only speculate. That this 2nd edition family is also wealthier than the original tends to skew out sympathies as if there is some kind of karmic justification implied, although the lean and hungry physiques of Watts and Roth, both well known for playing troubled characters, are not suited to suggest bourgeois complacency.

This leads us to the second main flaw in the film and that concerns Haneke's supposedly provocative challenge to us the audience as consumers of violence as entertainment. At one stage Paul turns to the camera and conspiratorially suggests that his actions are governed by the need to entertain us, as the director gives us a conventional plot device with Watt’s character grabbing a gun and shooting Peter point blank, then rewinding the scene and showing us that it didn’t really happen. But the flaw is that no-one has been “entertained” by what has gone before, which, if anything, is like a prolonged exercise in aversion therapy. For Haneke’s device to have much effect (aside from the question of whether we need to be preached to by him or that it makes the slightest bit of difference if he does) we needed to be drawn into the film and its characters (the skill of Hollywood illusionism) before being pulled out of it (the non-Hollywood director’s meta-level critique). Haneke achieved this in his original version but does not here. Of course, if you have not seen the original film this will not be quite as disappointing although I can’t imagine it seeming anywhere near as effective. If you have, there is need to endure this superfluous remake.




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