14 July, 2008

What do you think? Think they stand a chance?

So here's the thing.

I sat down a couple of weeks ago to watch Funny Games, the original German-language film by Austrian director Michael Haneke. My reason for watching it was quite simple - Haneke himself has recently made a shot-by-shot remake of the film, this time in English, with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. I quite liked the trailer - a nicely effective trailer that in its last half reminds me of the trailer for A Clockwork Orange (which is itself possibly the best trailer I've ever seen). And there is something appealing about a director trying to absolutely replicate his own film - obviously there have been directors who have remade their own films (Hitchcock made two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example), and there have been shot-by-shot remakes before (Gus Van Sant's remake of Hitchcock's Psycho, which was really awful, and which changed just enough in the film to even render its shot-by-shot status questionable). But the idea of someone returning to a 10-year-old work and trying to absolutely replicate every detail (probably in order to try and reach an audience that wouldn't watch a subtitled film) was interesting to me. Would different casting, different languages, even just an older director, cause the film to feel different to the original? It will be interesting to find out.

So, when the Film Festival programme came out, and the remake was in the listings, I knew I had to see the original film first. Especially since I'd started hearing comments that made me uncomfortable about seeing the film. I'd heard it compared to torture porn films like Saw or Hostel (a genre I find terribly offensive), comments about people feeling sick watching it, unable to watch it. On the other hand, I had heard reports about the violence in the film being largely off-screen or very fast, over before you even see it. Which made me curious as to how a film can be that disturbing if you don't even see it. Besides, I wasn't sure whether I would actually be able to watch this film once, let alone twice, and if I was to watch the original before the remake (which I wanted to), I had to watch the original film before festival tickets went on sale, because I didn't want to buy tickets for the remake and then discover I didn't want to sit through it again.

So I watched it.

And I thought it was ... interesting. It is a very challenging and disturbing film, and has stayed with me over the last few weeks. I don't really know whether I want to sit through the film (or at least a close facsimile of it) again, but I know I can make it through the film, so I did buy tickets for the remake. But the thing I found really interesting about the film wasn't actually in the film - it was actually an interview with Michael Haneke that was included on the DVD. And some of the things he said really bothered me.

The film is about this really nice family - a wife, husband, and young son. They're very happy together, live a good life, evidently fairly wealthy, and just generally have pretty much that any of us would want. Then one afternoon, they drive up to their holiday home looking forward to a week away. Not long after they arrive, a couple of polite, clean looking youths come around, initially asking to borrow some eggs. But it very quickly becomes evident that these people are planning to torrorise the family, betting that within twelve hours, all three family members will be dead. Let the games begin.

(Just a note - from this point, I'll be discussing the film's content. While I'm going to try and be as vague as possible about the details, there will be general spoilers how the film develops.)

Haneke starts to play his hand very early, working to make the audience complicit in the events of the film. At first you're not quite sure whether it is actually happening - the youths break the fourth wall for a split-second, seem to look at the camera (a big no-no in filmmaking) but it's so fast that you're not quite sure if you really saw that. Then, after the youths make their bet with the family, the lead youth actually addresses the audience, asking whether we think the family have a chance, noting that we're probably on their side. It's an unsettling moment, an indicator that the fourth wall will be broken fairly frequently throughout the film, constantly reminding us that this is a film.

But one of the problems the film has is that, because it is so well established within the film itself that it is a film, it stops working as a piece of drama. This really becomes evident takes place as we start the final third of the film. The youths vanish, actually leave the property, allowing one of the family members to try and escape. It's not much of a surprise that they recapture that person - what is surprising is how close they actually allow that person to get to being rescued. That person actually would have been rescued had they made one decision differently. There is no way that the youths would ever have done what they do - they basically surrender all control of the situation. It literally only works because it is scripted to work. And that really undercuts the film a lot. (Even moreso a later event, but I don't want to spoil that development for anyone that sees the film.)

But the other problem is that I'm not entirely certain that Haneke actually knows quite what he's done here. The film would be a lot worse, more harrowing, more disturbing, might actually achieve what he wants it to achieve, if he didn't have his characters making their aside comments to the camera. Because film to a large part is about forgetting that you're watching a film - you get drawn in, the people become real people, you empathise with their sufferings, you're happy when they're joyful. But with Funny Games, although Haneke is constantly trying to make us complicit in the torture - these events are only happening because we the viewers are watching them and are entertained by them - in fact what happens is that they stop being real people who are suffering, and instead become fictional people, and why should I be bothered by the suffering of people who don't exist? Haneke's efforts to make us complicit actually undercuts his whole message.

Haneke's attitude is basically that the film is almost a test. If you turn the film off then you pass the test. If you make it to the end of the film, then you need to hear what he's trying to say. And what he is trying to do is get us to question why we get so much enjoyment out of watching people suffer. Which is all very fine, but he's actually trying to criticise and condemn the viewer for watching the film that he made. In fact the film that he made was intended to cause us to suffer - Haneke has admitted trying to brutalise the viewer into realising how terrible it is that we watch this stuff. He has made a film to torture the viewer to tell us off for wanting the characters to suffer.

But what I'm not sure Haneke quite seems to get is that the violence, the parts of the film that he's criticising us for are not the parts that we enjoy. Now, I'm not talking about horror films here, largely because Haneke's film doesn't really feel like a horror film. Funny Games feels a lot more like a thriller, albeit a more extreme thriller. And in your typical thriller, there may very well be scenes where people are scared, people are hurt, people are even killed. But that's not really the point of the film. That's all just scene-setting, establishing the situation, confirming the threat. Instead the point of the film is the suspense around the person trying to fight back. They have their life taken over by some intruding force, but there will be some moment where they decide to take it back. And that is the moment when your typical thriller becomes interesting, because suddenly its not about one person inflicting pain on another, its about a battle of wits between two equally matched people, and the suspense around who will win. That's what this film constantly feels like it's about to become, but it never does. Instead, the family suffer through the torture and the killing, trying occasionally to take the initiative, actually succeeding (or almost) once or twice, but it never develops.

Now, what I'm just said is relevant in terms of a thriller, because to my mind that is the type of film that Haneke has made. I suspect he was actually thinking about horror films, in which the evil is never really vanquished, and if you do happen to survive the first film, you'll probably be killed off in the sequel, clearing the way for new flesh. And I think there he's got some legitimate criticsm of those films, but this film does not feel like those films, partly I suspect because the violence is all offscreen. A horror film would show you the killings, the deaths, would go to great lengths to invent new means of killing that we haven't seen. This film doesn't do that.

And having seen the original film, I think that's the really big failing with the idea of making a shot-by-shot remake. As an experiment, it's a fascinating idea - in fact, it was the thing that first caused me to be interested in the film. And I know Haneke actually wanted to make the original in America - he was speaking about American filmmaking - but he couldn't get the financing, so had to make it in German. Since he had some success in the US with Cache [Hidden], this has allowed him to try and make the film he originally want to make. But American filmmaking has moved on in the last ten years into ever more dark and scary areas. The rise of the torture-porn genre that really deal in the depths of human suffering and depravity, films in which the characters have no hope for anything but, if they're lucky, a quick death. To the degree that Haneke has a point in what he is trying to say, he's saying it to the people that watch this type of movie. The problem is that if you're trying to make a film to speak to the Saw audience, you need to be a lot more graphic, first to attract them, then to actually shock them enough to make your point. But since he's trying in effect to present an exact copy of the first film, that's a big constraint that limits his ability to do what needs to be done in order to achieve what he's trying to achieve.

Now, what the film does do, and do very well, is show you the true cost of what happens on the family. There is a scene immediately after one of the family is killed (off-screen). The blood is splattered all over the TV screen. The camera cuts to a wide shot, we can see about half the lounge, and in the far end over by the wall, we see one of the family members (I won't say who). That person sits still for a moment, afraid to move, then gets up and moves to the TV, rubs against it until they cut through their bonds. They then stand up and cross the room, the camera pans to follow them, still at a wide shot. They stop at the door, go back to the middle of the room, help the other surviving family member to stand up, and then walk back to the door and out of the room. That's all that happens in the shot. The shot takes just over ten minutes. Ten minutes. That is a long time for such a small amount of action to play out. But it's very realistic - they've just seen someone from their immediate family killed, they're traumatised by that, they're afraid that the killers might attack them at any moment, they're physically exhausted (it's been a long night), they're tired and sore, every step they take is agony, they feel on the verge of collapse. It's realistic that people in a situation like that would take that length of time. So what the film does do, and does really well, is present the emotional toll that these events would have on the people.

But I think the thing that really made me angry was a comment Haneke made about the audience's reaction to one scene. There's an incident late in the film where, for a moment, it seems like the family are going to get the upper hand. In fact, one of the youths is actually killed, on-screen. For real. Dead. And then ... something happens. I'm not going to tell you what, and you'd never guess what it is, but it's an astonishingly audacious thing for Haneke to do. David Lynch would reject the idea for being too out there. But here's the problem. Haneke talks about being in the movie audience when that death takes place. People cheered at that death, and then when this subsequent event takes place, they realised what had just happened. They had just cheered a murder. And the way Haneke talks about it, it's this whole attitude of how terrible that is. And that, I'll be honest, really made me mad. Because I don't like the idea of some European telling me how bad it is when someone kills someone else in self-defence. This was not an unprovoked murder. These people had already killed one person, they had openly stated their intention to kill the other two family members. And perhaps it's just me, but I can't conceive of how anyone could have any moral problem with that killing - it is the clearest situation of a justified killing that could be concieved. Kill or be killed. And if (as I would argue) there is no moral problem with that killing, then I don't see why there should be any problem with an audience being happy and relieved, even glad about the fact that it had taken place. Because we like these people, we're not actually enjoying watching them being tortured, we want them to make it out of the movie. And if them surviving requires that they kill the people who chose to inflict such treatment on them (which it does), then so be it. I see no problem with that.

But then, that's just me. And I'm generally pretty vindictive.

Haneke is a brilliant director, no doubt about it. He managed to make a phenomenally disturbing, harrowing, sickening film with barely any onscreen violence. Hell, the film had an R18 rating for "graphic violence", yet there was only one incident of actual violence I can think of in the entire film, it's over in a flash, and I've seen worse violence in lower rated films. The film feels a lot more violent than it is. I know I'll be able to make it through the festival screening of the remake, but I'm really not looking forward to it. A lot of it is the film itself, which really is an intense and unpleasant experience. But a lot of what I hated about the film came from Haneke and his whole attitude of judging the audience watching his film. I was talking to a friend at work who I knew had seen the original film, and he said he found Funny Games to be rather an immature work. He suggested that Cache was a more reasoned and honest exploration of many of the same issues, which sounds good - I must try to see that.

But Funny Games? It's a well-made film, but certainly one of the most difficult films I've ever seen. I'm just glad I'll have had four weeks to recover from the experience before seeing the remake.

I had a lot of other things I wanted to say about the film, but it's taken a few weeks for me to get this far into the post, and I honestly can't be bothered working any more on it. I might talk a bit more after seeing the remake, then again, I might not. We'll see.

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