Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" is a scene-by-scene, almost shot-by-shot, remake, in English, of his 1997 Austrian film of the same title. Both versions are impossible to forget—and, for many viewers, both will be impossible to forgive. All Haneke movies are meant to disturb, as anyone who saw the unnerving, enigmatic "Caché," or dared to watch Isabelle Huppert mutilate herself in "The Piano Teacher," can readily attest. The prodigiously unpleasant "Funny Games" is clearly the work of a technical master, a filmmaker capable of manipulating our fears with expert, Teutonic precision. But I'm hard pressed to think of another movie by a director I admired that pissed me off the way "Funny Games" did when I first saw it at the Cannes Film Festival 11 years ago. I wanted to wring Haneke's neck—a reaction he no doubt would have taken as a sign of his movie's success.
"Funny Games" is a postmodern variation on William Wyler's once famous 1955 movie "The Desperate Hours," in which a middle-class suburban family is held hostage and brutalized by a gang of escaped convicts led by Humphrey Bogart (Michael Cimino remade it in 1990 with Mickey Rourke). In Haneke's excruciatingly intense new Hollywood version, Naomi Watts and TimRoth play a cultured, tasteful bourgeois couple who arrive at their lakeside vacation home with their adorable son (Devon Gearhart) and frisky golden retriever in tow—the latter an ill-fated canine dangerously named Lucky. The family's terrorizers are two blond, boyish young men (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) dressed in tennis whites and sinister white gloves; they'd make fine poster boys for a Nazi Youth rally in 1938.
The horror starts quietly with a request to borrow some eggs. The eggs get broken, followed by Tim Roth's leg, as he is walloped with his own Calloway golf club. Soon after, Watts is bound, gagged and forced to strip to her undies. (One of the few changes from the original is that the Hollywood star is required to expose more skin than her Austrian counterpart.) The motives of the villains are, pointedly, never explained. The postmodern twist is that Pitt's angelic-looking demon periodically breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, asking us to bet on whether the family will end up dead or alive. Haneke, you see, means this exercise in cinematic sadism as a critique of the typical way Hollywood movies exploit violence on screen and turn the viewer into a bloodthirsty consumer of cheap thrills. It's this moralistic finger-wagging—scolding us for lapping up what he's serving—that makes "Funny Games' so infuriating. That this relentless barrage of psychological and physical torture is extremely well made and powerfully performed—Watts hurls herself into her physically demanding role with heroic conviction—somehow makes it worse.
Why would a director of Haneke's stature want to make a carbon copy—even the couches are the same color—of his own (most dubious) film? His explanation is that the project was always intended to be seen by an American audience, for it was first made as "a reaction to a certain American Cinema, its violence, itsnaiveté, the way American Cinema toys with human beings." Because the original never reached its intended audience, he felt compelled to redo it in English. So as you're squirming in your seat, gagging on Haneke's cinematic castor oil, try to remember: this movie is good for you!