Friday, December 28, 2007

[DVD] Funny Games (1997)

We're Cool Like That

The only Michael Haneke movie I watched so far on the big screen is the fairly recent Cache (Hidden), which I somewhat disliked, more so for the sense that I was peeved with the opening with that really still camera, coupled with the fact that the subject matter contained issues with regards to voyeurism. I was totally put off. At times I joke with friends that movies where nothing really happens, somehow spurs you on to make your own (since they can get away with it, why can’t you?), but after watching Funny Games, I have to give credit where it is due, and say Michael Haneke has surprised me with the quality that is this film.

Part of the official selection in the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, what intrigued me to pick this DVD up for viewing is that Haneke himself has launched into a shot by shot remake of his masterpiece. I understand that with Hollywood’s dearth of original ideas that it just had to send its feelers out to suck on innovation found in cinemas around the world, and going by the countless of remakes in recent years, what happens are usually mediocre results, save for the rare few which were decent, like Martin Scorsese’s remake of Hong Kong cinema’s Infernal Affairs. But while remakes often throw in a director for hire, Funny Games U.S. (that’s what it’s called to differentiate itself from the original) has Haneke himself at the helm, and I still don’t understand the need for replicating exactly the same movie, down to the dimensions of the set, and of course replacing the leads with more recognizable stars like Naomi Watts. The auteur revisits his material, and the only refreshing thing about it is how the new cast will be able to engage the audience in the same manner that the original Austrian movie did.

Funny Games opens with an aerial shot of a car driving through the idyllic countryside, to the tune of classical music. Inside the car are middle/upper-class folks Anna and Georg (Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Muhe), and their son Georg Jr. It’s a scenic drive to their holiday home as they look forward to some sailing and BBQ, before the opening credits suddenly plunge us into some really heavy metal music, interrupting our senses with forewarning that this isn’t going to be some happy holiday movie.

They stop by the neighbours, but realize that they have guests and seem unnaturally aloof, so off they go about with their own holiday plans, only to be interrupted by two youths, Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering), who visit them on the pretext of borrowing some eggs. Here’s where things start becoming uncomfortable – for some strange reason they’re wearing white gloves. And their behaviour is a bit unsettling as they don’t conform to the usual societal norms and courtesy accorded to hosts and guests, and not before long, a simple slap in the face inflicted on Paul by Georg, start to bring the whole family into a descent to hell.

Between the two psychopaths, Paul seemed the more menacing one, despite his cool exterior. Apparently the mastermind, we, like the family, just cannot grasp what his intents and motivations are, as we try and probe and make sense of the hostage situation. His sidekick Peter is the loyal servant, carrying out orders to a T, despite his burly exterior giving you some hope that he can be manipulated by talking some sense into him.

Manipulation seemed to be the aim of the game, besides the point that this movie contained loads of violence, most of which is seen off screen. Haneke admits that this is one movie that he deliberately manipulates the audience as he addresses on the issue of senseless violence in today’s society, and for the most parts, I find myself being led hook line and sinker by his wicked script and plot development. I too was baying for blood, an eye for an eye, as a “violence begets violence” solution, and this makes me no different from the crazed duo who wants to see blood spilled, for the sole probable reason that they can. However, Haneke directs this piece masterfully, and doesn’t see the need to show things explicitly. Perhaps if the remake was made by someone else, we’ll be watching blood spilled at every available instance. But that’s what made this movie bone chilling, as you ponder about what you would do when faced with a similarly hopeless situation centered on yourself, and your family. And really, some of the more shocking scenes are shown off-screen, before coming back to show you what the result was. There’s a key scene that led to a 10 minute single take, which left me speechless for once at the outcome.

If Cronenberg’s A History of Violence has an anti-violence message, then this one too takes the cake in that it directly engages you the viewer. It might seem strange at some points that Peter talks and interacts with the audience direct as if we’re at his side watching the proceedings, and the sick games they play. He does that at least on 3 occasions in the movie, and in a sleight of hand moment, had a similar plot device which made me hopping mad about the movie Bewitched. But here Haneke has a point, and sends a message directly through to you – “you want that don’t you, but I have the power within me to deny you that pleasure”. Damn it! It provoked a response, directly into the director’s hands in making a point. It was a weird development that brought you out of the film, but somehow it worked wonders.

So does watching the original negate the need to watch the remake? Not necessarily. For starters, it’ll be interesting to see, with all things being equal, how the new cast will be able to flesh out their respective characters. It’ll be something like a play – take the same Shakespearean material, and see how the new cast and crew present it, the difference being with everything else, including sets, left unchanged. The other draw is of course Naomi Watts, if she can surpass Susanne Lothar’s Anna in being the very complex mother and wife who has to juggle between being obedient to the demands of the psychopaths, and finding windows of opportunity to escape their ordeal.

Code 1 DVD by Kino Video comes in anamorphic widescreen transfer which is somewhat soft in its presentation, and didn’t score well when the scene is set in the dark. Audio comes in the original German track with subtitles available only in English. Scene selection is available over 20 chapters.

The DVD is rather barebones, with the Theatrical Trailer (1:11) included, and writer-director Michael Haneke’s filmography, but what is of value here is the Interview with the director himself (18:27), which touches upon the inspiration for the movie, discussion on the characters Peter and Paul, and his intent of engaging the audience into self reflection on violence in today’s society. Needless to say, almost every key scene got shown here and the discussion launches into spoiler territory, so do yourself a favour and watch the movie first.

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