Call Michael Haneke what you will, but it's almost impossible not to feel passionately about his movies. There are those who revere this Austrian-born, French-based director as one of the few original voices in contemporary cinema. Others revile him as the worst sort of huckster, an ersatz artist, maybe even a deeply disturbed misanthrope.
Anyway you look at it, Haneke makes movies that are meant to provoke. From Benny's Video to The Piano Teacher to the recent, award-winning Caché, these are not films designed for comfort, and it's precisely because they are so difficult to watch that they demand to be seen and thought about. Haneke's films are the exact opposite of conventional, passively received entertainment; they involve us actively in their processes, lending themselves to multiple interpretations even as they burrow into the heart of darkness and throw our worst fears back into our faces.
Many Haneke-watchers consider the director's signature film to be 1996's Funny Games, an almost unbearably brutal film that distills the themes and methods of earlier work to devastating effect. Playing like a stripped-down Straw Dogs meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Harold Pinter's basement, Funny Games is like the home invasion scene in A Clockwork Orange distilled to its nasty essence, stretched out to feature-length and intensified to the breaking point. It may not be the ultimate horror show, but it might just be the final word on our need to keep making and watching increasingly horrific movies.
Haneke has always claimed that the nightmare posited by his European Funny Games is a specifically "American" one, which goes a long way toward explaining the Hollywood remake we now have before us. The new, English-language Funny Games (sometimes referred to by the studio, in order to minimize confusion, as Funny Games U.S.) is very nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the original — but, unlike Gus Van Sant's similarly conceived Psycho, there's something significant going on here beyond the cloning of source material. There's clearly a method to Haneke's madness, and although his two films are essentially identical, Funny Games in its second incarnation is a movie whose time has come.
Naomi Watts and Tim Roth star as a vacationing couple who, along with their perfect blonde child (Devon Gearhart) and handsome golden retriever, find themselves terrorized by a pair of uninvited guests (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet). Haneke's twists begin with the fact that the family's tormenters are two unflappably polite young men who might be Mormon missionaries out for a stroll or an afternoon game of tennis. Dressed in spotless white shirts and sporty shorts, their smiles cherubic and their blue eyes wide and blameless, these angelic-looking demons are the true face of terror. Not Osama or some bearded, bug-eyed freak screaming "Allah Akbar!" but the boy next door, apologizing profusely as he slits your throat.
Funny Games doesn't even offer us the small comfort of motives. The movie's intruders certainly aren't in it for the money, nor sex, nor do they remotely appear to be your typical movie sadists or psycho killers. They're blank slates giving nothing away, not even their names (alternately referring to themselves as Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead, even Peter and Paul — a typically Haneke-ian swipe at dogma), and their backstories keep changing as well. And then, as if we weren't already thoroughly bewildered and brutalized, the filmmaker completely pulls the rug out from underneath us by pumping up the meta in his metafiction and having his characters periodically break the fourth wall. "You're on their side, right?" winks one of the killers, looking up from his captive and directly into the camera (and at us). "You're betting on them to survive."
The funniest game of all here is that by getting us to wonder why these sickos are doing these terrible things to these nice people, the movie inevitably prods us into questioning our complicity in what we're watching. Is Haneke testing to see at what point we finally turn our heads away or get up out of our seats and leave the theater? In the 10 years since the original Funny Games was made, the rise of torture-porn franchises like Saw and Hostel have made the question timelier than ever, while the shadow of 9/11 has framed it in ways both unavoidable and sickeningly quotidian. "Why don't you just kill us?" screams Watts at one particularly hairy point in Funny Games, to which her tormentor calmly reminds her that the film's running time hasn't quite yet reached feature length, and the audience would feel cheated. "You shouldn't forget the value of entertainment," he smiles.
Haneke constantly reminds us of the contradictions implicit in this sort of "entertainment," and, as intense as it all feels, it's worth noting that almost all of the movie's violence occurs off screen, just out of frame, with the most terrible bits taking place in our imaginations. (The most horrific moment of all is only heard in muffled snatches, as we watch a character standing in the next room making a sandwich.) Haneke might just be the P.T. Barnum of the arthouse circuit, but he knows what modern audiences want, and Funny Games delights in simultaneously repulsing and attracting us as it perversely illuminates our most unsavory, self-destructive impulses. The movie makes us squirm and then utilizes all manner of Brechtian distancing devices to pull us back out of the action, showing us ourselves watching ourselves watching the horrors. The show must go on, after all, and it couldn't go on without us.