As a devotee of the horror and action genres, and a subscriber to Paul Giamatti’s intractable quotation from Shoot ‘Em Up to the effect that “violence is one of the most fun things to watch,” I appreciate it when the movies get a little self-reflexive. Challenging our assumptions is a good thing, and I don’t mind occasionally being reminded that the staged mayhem I’m enjoying is something I would abhor if I weren’t convinced it was “just a movie.” Nimrod Antal’s Vacancy, for example, did this brilliantly, contrasting its typically glitzed-up, Hollywood-thriller violence with the much more horrifying (though basically identical in content) “home-made” segments embedded in the film.
Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of his own Austrian film of the same name, is a dissertation on that idea. Basically two hours of a family being tortured and killed in real time and for no apparent reason by a pair of young, inscrutable polo shirt-wearing villains, it gives us what it thinks we want — brutal violence — and yells at us for sitting there and watching it. When I say it yells at us, I mean that almost literally, since its characters routinely break the fourth wall and ask us if we’re enjoying ourselves. I defy you to find another movie with this much contempt for its audience.
Haneke’s basic critique, I take it, is this: if action films were set in the real world, with the laws of physics and probability fastidiously obeyed, we’d be disgusted instead of delighted at the result. To make this point, he ensures that Funny Games is as sadistic and mirthless as possible, lingering on the characters’ devastating injuries and rendering them completely helpless in the hands of their captors. To drive it home, he toys with the medium in various pointed ways — in addition to the aforementioned fourth-wall-breaking, for example, Haneke allows for a bit of audience wish-fulfillment: a character scores one against the villains, before the movie literally rewinds to show us how the same scene would go had it played by the rules.
Haneke makes a fair point, but it is nowhere near trenchant enough an insight to justify the sort of sneering indictment that Funny Games represents. To the extent that the people who watch Funny Games are the same people who enjoy the films Haneke deplores, I’d wager they are aware that to watch a violent Hollywood movie is to enter a fantasy world. This is by design; the willing suspension of disbelief is the point. Children master the difference between movie reality and real reality by the time they enter kindergarten. And if Haneke’s trying to say that there’s something wrong with people acknowledging and enjoying this dichotomy, then he’s a crank. Watching fake violence presents no moral issues whatsoever.
Ironically enough, Funny Games kind of works as a horror movie, at least when it’s not hectoring us. It can be intense and unpredictable, and its brutality is sometimes a satisfying reprieve from the anodyne conventions of the Hollywood flicks Haneke detests. Nonetheless, Haneke succeeded in leaving a bad taste in my mouth — but it wasn’t because I was ashamed of watching. It was because I had just spent nearly two hours being lectured by a pretentious jerk.