Release Date: March 14
Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Cinematographer: Darius Khondji
Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet
Studio/Run Time: Warner Independent Pictures, 107 mins.
A friend of mine once compared filmmaker Michael Haneke to a scientist: in his movies, Haneke locates a functioning system, introduces an external stimulus, and observes the results. In Caché, his brilliant 2005 film, a bourgeois French family receives anonymous video tapes that show the exterior of their house, and they take them, as many of us might, to be some kind of threat. Haneke's task is to observe their telling response.
But often the subject of his experiment isn't the family on the screen but the people in the theater, and there may be no clearer example than his latest, Funny Games (an English-language remake of his own 1997 film). The story is thin: a bourgeois family drives to their large vacation home in the country, but when they arrive, a couple of clean-cut young men work their way into the house and eventually, shockingly, torture the family, both psychologically and physically.
Haneke's minimal plot explains almost nothing about the family that we can't glean from their possessions and nothing about the sadists who toy with them except that this is neither the first time they've done this nor will it be the last. But as the situation escalates, the torturers occasionally address us, the audience, chastising us for any pleasure we might derive from the proceedings and provoking the question of why we remain in the theater.
Of course, one reason to remain is Haneke himself. It's clear from the get-go that we're in the hands of a master, and when he calls on Naomi Watts to deliver a harrowing, athletic performance, we have more than one reason to stay put.
The concept, while pleasingly simple, is also much less satisfying than Caché, where Haneke explored some of the same themes—the family under stress, the question of who's watching whom and why—while setting them within a social, political and personal framework that allowed them to ricochet off of each other remarkably. In Funny Games, Haneke seems content to ram his thumbs into our eyes and then ask us why we were foolish enough to get within arm's length of his gray, grizzled visage.