Continuing his examination of violence and the media, Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” is a chilling psychological thriller about an innocent family on a holiday in hell. But like the college-boy killers who shatter their lakeside idyll, the film outstays its welcome and is more than a little too knowing in its manipulation of standard audience expectations for the genre. This first Austrian entry to compete at Cannes in 35 years appears likely to divide critics, and may be too unrelentingly harrowing to play far beyond the festival circuit.
A pre-titles sequence shows the unsuspecting family unit of Georg (Ulrich Muhe), his wife, Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their young son, Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski), quizzing one another on opera tracks as they drive through the lush countryside to their vacation house. Haneke wastes no time in giving a forewarning of the violence to come, by breaking in on a lilting aria with high-decibel, demonic heavy metal.
Arriving at the lake, they find the neighbors acting apprehensively as they meet their guest, Paul (Arno Frisch), who is introduced as the son of a business colleague. A second guest, Peter (Frank Giering), drops by to borrow eggs while Anna is alone in the house. He quickly unnerves her, first with his clumsiness and then with his quietly demanding attitude. Next comes Paul, whose arrogance makes the situation worse.
Returning to the house to find Anna greatly upset, Georg attempts to throw them out. But he strikes Paul, triggering the violence that director Haneke has kept simmering throughout the disquieting scene. Paul demonstrates his skill with a golf club by breaking Georg’s leg, and then takes Anna outside to show how his stroke has been put to work on the family dog. The first real hint of Haneke’s game is delivered here when self-satisfied Paul winks at the audience.
As the violence and psychological torture begin to escalate, those clues become more frequent. Making a bet with the family that their lives will end within 12 hours, Paul also invites the audience to participate. References are made to the entertainment value of a vocal victim as opposed to the more sober pleasures of a gagged one, and entreaties for a swift death are rejected as being too early in the running time.
Haneke is clearly more interested in the implications of violence than the acts themselves, and the psychological wallop they pack is strengthened by having most of the physical and emotional carnage played off-camera. When Anna is forced to strip, the camera stays tightly on her face throughout the humiliating ordeal; the first killing occurs out of sight as Paul fixes himself a sandwich downstairs in the kitchen. Much more banal is the choice to follow this with the rather obvious image of a blood-spattered television.
Perhaps Haneke’s most interesting angle is his treatment of the reprieve, the calm after the initial storm that precedes an overkill of climactic violence. Left alone briefly, Anna goes for help while Georg, who is unable to move, stays behind. But their attempts to prevent further suffering are awkward and unfocused, and the characters are far too stunned to be capable of the kind of quick thinking and rational behavior usually operating at this point in the formula.
The film’s most ostentatious conceit follows a brief moment during which Anna gets the upper hand. Momentarily panicked, Paul grabs the TV remote control and simply rewinds to rectify the damage. Possibly because of the constant asides to the audience and the almost academic slant of its take on violence, the film is shocking and upsetting, but never truly gets under the skin the way this kind of material often can.
Whatever reservations are prompted by Haneke’s approach, his direction is controlled and edgy, and the film’s coldness is mirrored in d.p. Jurgen Jurges’ lensing, which gets in uncomfortably close during the tough stuff. Of the uniformly strong cast, Lothar stands out in a raw, pained performance, and young Clapczynski’s vulnerability will doubtless be difficult to watch for many people. Playing contrasting types — one lean, mean and in control, the other overweight and insecure — Frisch and Giering are icy.