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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cruel Games

Cinema of masochism

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NaomiWatts is radiant as Ann Farber and Tim Roth is soft-spoken to the verge of inaudibility as her husband, George. They are an affluent couple on the way to their weekend home in the Hamptons, a gated getaway lodge that Martha Stewart would love. They’re listening to opera on their car CD player.

Abruptly, the soundtrack switches to an outburst of shrieking death metal by John Zorn. It’s a tip-off: Something wicked coming their way will disrupt their cultivated holiday. And so it goes with Funny Games, Austrian director Michael Haneke’s Americanized remake of his own 1997 film.

The scenario is something like the house invasion scene from A Clockwork Orange dragged out for nearly two hours. A youthful pair of upper-class oddballs in tennis togs and white gloves seizes the Farbers’ house, torturing the couple and their boy psychologically and physically. With Teutonic ponderousness, Haneke claims the movie is a statement about violence, specifically the voyeurism and complicity of audiences in movies and media. In this case no one is more complicit than Haneke, the author of this less-than-entirely spellbinding narrative.

At least the premise of Funny Games is intriguing. Two apparent scions of privilege worm their way into the expensive homes ringing an exclusive lake. Like a pair of murderous Eddie Haskells, Peter and Paul (BradyCorbett and Michael Pitt) politely call on the Farbers to borrow eggs; their unanticipated visit escalates step by slippery step into a takeover fueled by their glib sophistries and propensity for violence.

They break the leg of the rather ineffectual George with one of his own expensive golf clubs. They bind and gag Ann and play cat in the sack with the boy, George Jr. “Why are you doing this?” George asks, reasonably enough. “Why not?” is the only answer. There is no pretext of a political or social agenda.

Peter and Paul would snicker wickedly at the suggestion of comprehensible motives. Unlike the young patrician thrill-killers and errant Nietzscheans of AlfredHitchcock’s Rope, they never bother to articulate a philosophical or aesthetic justification for cruelty and murder.

Funny Games begins well enough with a quick buildup of unsettling clues that the weekend is about to go wrong for the Farbers. It also has two great cinematic moments relating to the suspenseful use of sound and visuals (when the family dog goes silent and George’s golf ball rolls into view, trouble is coming) and one odd tangent that should have been at the heart of the film. Near the end, after Ann manages to shoot Peter, Paul literally rewinds the scene and erases the shooting. Peter and Paul live to kill again.

It’s an interesting idea but veers in from nowhere like a sucker punch and disappears without any apparent consequence to the narrative. Like much of the film, it comes across as half complete, an ellipsis signifying nothing much. Seemingly, Haneke wanted to construct a challenging work of theater for the screen (Harold Pinter writing under the influence of a migraine?) but succeeded in erecting a sadistic playhouse for a select audience of masochists.

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