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Games Without Rules

Filmmaker Michael Haneke goes 0 for 2 with his Funny Games remake.

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Michael Haneke's decision to recreate his film Funny Games and release it as his English-language debut is one of the strangest gambits in recent commercial American cinema.

Haneke's latest arrangement of the film — which so slavishly replicates the writer/director's 1997 Austrian original in story, editing, sound, and camera placement that it does not resemble a "remake" so much as it does a traveling theater production with different actors occupying the same bleak stage — stars Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. They play an upper-class married couple who, along with their young son (Devon Gearhart), are terrorized by a pair of white-glove-wearing psychopaths (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett). This cloned version of Funny Games reveals its source's considerable shortcomings as either provocation or argument.

When it was originally released a decade ago, the talking/selling points of Funny Games were its disregard for typical horror-film catharsis and resolution and its sophomoric attempts to "implicate" the viewer in the violent proceedings through audience asides delivered by one of the teenage killers. But, after its unnerving home-invasion setup is put in motion, the film ceases to surprise. Haneke's nearly immobile camera blankly records one long night of blood, sweat, and tears. That the "final girl" goes out without so much as a gurgle is unexpected but hardly unprecedented.

In fact, hardcore horror-film buffs will not be impressed. The idea of unrelenting violence as consumer punishment is not new to them; they seek out such gauntlets with glee. Thus, any horror-film fans attending Funny Games will find it hard to sit through mainly because it deprives them of what they want. This may be Haneke's point.

But, if the film isn't for horror fans, who exactly is it for? If it's a jeremiad aimed at the more "sophisticated" independent cinema crowd, then the director's discreet, off-screen offings of a golden retriever and a child are the tiresome and cowardly acts of a moral freewheeler and a visual prude.

At least the carnage in Sylvester Stallone's Rambo tried to prove some kind of weird, nihilistic-populist geopolitical point to everyday moviegoers instead of the art-house throng. Plus, the bohos already confronted the connection between violence and exploitation when Eminem got in their faces and ears a few years ago. For them, the discussion about violence and the media is over — or, at least, its parameters have changed.

Who is this film's audience? Americans? Republicans? Democrats? Soldiers? Pacifists? Everyone? No one?

In an interview on the DVD for the Austrian Funny Games, Haneke repeatedly referred to this particular film as a "system." His word choice explains why both versions of Funny Games are the least interesting of his films: His other movies (including Caché), for all their suffocating sheen and controlled surfaces, work as open-ended, mysterious challenges to conventional narratives. More of those would be nice.

Funny Games

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