Part of the "fun" of watching Michael Haneke's movies is wondering exactly what he's up to. I just wrote about him a few weeks ago when the UW Cinematheque began a series called "Michael Haneke: A Cinema of Provocation." I called him "the thinking person's Hitchcock," by which I meant that he likes to take the kind of stories that Hitchcock used to tell - thrillers, basically - and deconstruct them a bit. Hitchcock delighted in the control he had over us. Haneke does too, but he also wants us to notice the control he has over us, even object to it. And don't ask me how, but noticing the control he has, even objecting to it, makes his movies all the more disturbing.
Case in point: Funny Games, which stars Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as a couple who receive unexpected guests at their vacation home in the country. This is practically a shot-by-shot remake of a 1997 Haneke film, also called Funny Games. Why remake it in English? To reach a wider audience, obviously, but it's hard to believe that's all Haneke has on his mind. He's too much of a game-player. When Dutch director George Sluizer remade his own chiller-diller, The Vanishing, for an American studio, he gave it the ol' Hollywood treatment, even stuck on a happy ending. Haneke barely changes a thing.
The script's the same. The camerawork's the same. The setting's the same. Only the actors have changed. And, I don't know, it's creepy somehow, as if someone hit the reset button after selecting a different language. Nothing has been lost in translation, if you ask me. And something has been gained, this sense that the game, whatever the game is, goes on and on. What's the game about? I'd say it's about control. And it's being played on at least two levels, between the characters and between us and the director. Call it sadistic if you want, but Haneke likes to string us along, keep us guessing, rub our noses in it, "it" being our lust for violence.
And so do Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet).
That may or may not be their real names, for these two like to stay a step or two ahead of their opponents. When they first show up at the couple's home, they're polite to the point of obsequiousness, but it doesn't take a psychologist to detect the hints of malice. And before long, they've neutralized the husband, bound and gagged the wife and...well, I'm not going to tell you what they do with the couple's young son. "Why are you doing this?" they're asked. "Why not?" they reply. And that's pretty much all we get in the way of an explanation. To them, it's all just a game, and the point of the game is to stretch things out as long as they can, keep 'em guessing.
The scenes themselves stretch out to unendurable lengths, as if time were standing still. And you start to get impatient, like when you're waiting for someone to come up with a word in Scrabble. Games permeate the movie - Hot or Cold to find the family dog, Eenie Meenie Meinie Moe to see who gets it next, Cat in the Bag to protect the son from having to watch what's happening (and to compound his terror). And we feel implicated in these games, since we've basically signed up for the one that Haneke's playing with us, by purchasing a ticket. But we might as well give up now, because Haneke has as much power over us as Peter and Paul do over the family.
There are moments when it seems otherwise, just as there are moments for the family when it seems otherwise. Then Haneke takes his turn and wallops us all over again. He even cheats when he wants to, rewinding the movie - who knew it was on tape? - to a place where we started to get our hopes up, then dashing them. Another thing he does, lording his power over us, is have the intruders wink at and address the camera on occasion, snapping us out of our voyeuristic trance. You'd think that would pull us out of the story. On the contrary, it draws us farther in, forces us to acknowledge that the whole thing has been done for our benefit.
If not our delectation. Speaking of which, Watts spends at least half the movie in her underwear, a cause for celebration under ordinary circumstances, but these aren't ordinary circumstances. Given that she's the film's executive producer, though, it's not like she's being exploited, exactly. Plus, she does some powerful work as a woman who's forced to play the victim. The real stars of the show, however, are Pitt and Corbet as the Loeb and Leopold of Postmodern Gamesmanship. With faces at once angelic and demonic, these two know just where to pitch their performances - at the exact midpoint between utter reality and complete put-on. All I can say is, well played.