This is a brief consideration of the film Funny Games. It contains the essential plot lines and is intended for those who have already watched the film.
It is true to say that I did not want to watch Funny Games. Like the film, my recent work* concerns anxieties around the invasion of the home, a project which has generated unsettling images, ideas and prospects in my own life. I knew the film was about a family who seem to be randomly selected by two young men who appear without notice, initially polite, the dialogue moves to a position in which social conventions are stretched before it is realised that something is deeply amiss. The householder’s prerogative to expel intruders is dismissed by the intruders and the viewer’s stomach knots at the realisation of the frailty of the family’s situation. Haneke sets-up the affluence of the gated home, the perfect family trio and their comfortable lives against a random moment. All are ready for a great fall into terror that will puncture the assumptions that they (and we) might have about the relative safety and sanctity of domestic life. As the ‘plot’ of the pair is revealed the mask of shared manners and expectations is pulled aside to reveal a calmly executed experiment both by the director and the protagonists themselves; the ‘game’ of mentally torturing and physically destroying the household step by step.
Funny Games probes a number of contemporary issues, the story of an invasion into the home life of an affluent family might itself be taken as a story of our times, probing deep anxieties and primal fears of social intrusion (the home as a place of escape from life outside the front door) and violence (home as the key but potentially vulnerable place of refuge from danger). In fact this is only one of the levels on which the film operates, the lengthy build-up of fear and abject terror appear as an enormously cruel and surgically presented exercise (the feeling that we are being ‘wound-up’ by the director is palpable). This feature of the film pushes the viewer into a deeply uneasy position, are we not complicit with a project that offers nothing more than spite against vulnerability? What makes the film more than another project in torment of the kind increasingly on offer (Saw, Hostel, Audition) is that the direct violence of the film is clearly not an intrinsic aim. The most brutal moments occur off-screen and the sound designers are used to convey the horror of these moments. Is it possible then that the kind of visual extremity on offer in our popular culture might itself be the target of the film?
The most startling points in the film reveal the deeper project of the film through the deployment of straight ‘to-camera’ asides by one of the protagonists who asks whose side we are on, what might happen next and so on. Haneke is asking us to interrogate our motives for watching such films, to consider the banalisation of violence in our filmic culture and to initiate a searching query into the emergence of torture as an on-screen phenomenon (the archetypal terrorised female, the threat or use of extreme violence, the humiliation and power exerted over the fearful). Even a moment of potential catharsis (the use of a shotgun to kill her husband, lying off-screen in agony after being stabbed to put him out of his misery, is used to kill one of the assailants) is literally rewound by the other attacker by using a remote control. This moment of fantasy highlights the insubstantiality of images and events more generally – we are unclear as to what is real, what has or is happening, what apparent truth might be unwound in favour of another’s reading of the situation. Yet these moments come as a kind of relief, revealing the apparent objectives of the film and rendering an unbearable and persistent assault as an instance that raises wider questions about the nature of entertainment in our culture.
Images of suburban life run through the film, undermining images of idyllic lifestyles by alluding to a threat that has been placed in its midst. The presence of the two attackers is ominously foretold as we remember a socially stilted encounter with neighbours where two additional figures stand in a group on a lawn. Their faces unseen from a distance and lacklustre responses to shouted greetings are later realised to signify that they were unable to reveal their entanglement with the same impostors. So danger comes to the impregnable comes of the rich with smiling faces and plausible social connections. Violence quickly appears from behind a veneer of respectability and assumed safety. Other points are made about our urban and residential life by Haneke. The (briefly) escaped wife is unable to get help from neighbours (we may speculate that they have also been killed) or whose gates and insulated homes make it impossible for her to get assistance. These events point an accusing finger at expanding suburban and gated residential lifestyles and its apparent links to diminished social contact and neighbourliness.
Who are the pair themselves? They play at revealing broken and ‘red neck’ personal histories. Yet both appear in preppy dress, foppish haircuts and college-boy grins; all intended perhaps to make all but untraceable the social roots of their violent dispositions. Haneke himself has spoken of being unsettled at the reported violence of middle-class children who commit violent acts out of a desire for thrills, rather than for revenge or material gain. In this respect the film’s soundtrack (to the extent that there is any music at all) is provided through three punctuations of a deeply atavistic, shattering metal track in which roaring guitar riffs, screams and wails allude perhaps to the unformed emotions and anxieties that might lie behind the passive faces of the two invaders. At the film’s end the closing glance into the camera by one of them is frozen as the same music kicks-in for the last time. The suggestion in this accusing stare appears to be our complicity in seeing entertainment through suffering; an anti-Hollywood vision in which the objects of our natural sympathies are destroyed is completed. All that is left is the indication of an ongoing (unending?) cycle of yet more ‘games’ and entertainment as a new house is invaded, initiated by unthreatening smiles and requests for help. Such an ending points again to Haneke’s critique of the moral emptiness of cultural industries which provide us only with new victims and shocks as the primary means of its sustenance, with little empathy for the real daily terrors and insecurities of the world outside.
Funny Games, directed by Michael Haneke, 2007, original Austrian version 1997
* Domestic Fortress: Fear and the New Home Front, with Sarah Blandy, in preparation.