20 April 2008

Very Queer Games Indeed

I first came across Michael Haneke a couple of years ago, when, as prez of the modern languages society at my college, selecting which arty, foreign films we went to see at the Arts cinema was my prerogative, and so there was a certain bias towards the Francophone end of the spectrum and Caché sounded interesting enough, so along we went. Interesting it was and provocative too as a perfect little Parisian couple find themselves stalked and terrorised as someone leaves a series of CCTV tapes containing footage of their lives and which could possibly expose a secret from the past that would blow open their whole perfect existence. It was definitely a film about which one had to think extensively and indeed, my fellow linguists and I spent a good few hours afterwards debating whether or not there was a point to the film or whether it was just too clever by half.

Oh, also, Haneke likes the names of the perfect-couple protagonists of his films to be variants of Ann and George: in Caché, they are Anne and Georges, in the Austrian, 1997 original Funny Games, they are Anna and Georg, and now in this shot-by-shot, U.S. remake of Funny Games, their names are Ann and George. Perhaps, then, the moral of these cautionary tales is that if you are called Anne/Ann/Anna, you shouldn't marry someone named Georges/Georg/George, or it definitely won't end well. If only it were that simple!

Funny Games U.S. opens with Ann and George playing a game - fancy that! They are driving off on vacation in their Range Rover, complete with boat trailing behind and cute, blonde son (Georgie) and dog in the back. Their favourite game is for one of them to play a random piece of classical music
and for the other to name the composer and the title. Ann and George are real exciting. It all gets a bit sinister, though, because suddenly, the not quite so sublime sounds of Slipknot (or equivalent) blasts out over the speakers; from the incongruently placid, contented smiles on the faces of the family, it's unlikely they are hearing the same choons as the audience, and this is the first clue that the director might be playing some more funny games with the audience as the movie progresses. The movie's title and credits are then plastered over the screen in (blood) red as the death-metal continues to blare. It isn't the last time music or noise is used to clever effect, either.

Eventually, the family arrives at their perfect, lakeside cabin, having first greeted their friends at the next door house, from the bottom of the driveway. The neighbours are acting rather strangely and seem bizarrely unenthusiastic about the game of golf they have agreed to play with AnnandGeorge the following day. Most odd. Odder still is when male neighbour comes over shortly to help AnnandGeorge get their boat onto the lake. With him he brings Paul (a very, creepy Michael Pitt), who is dressed like a tennis boy from the Hamptons and is, curiously, wearing white gloves. He is staying with neighbour-people for a few days - his dad is an associate of neighbour-man's, Paul claims. There is also some confusion as to when Paul arrived as he and neighbour-man don't seem to be able to get their stories straight. Yes, Paul is very creepy indeed (I think it may actually just be Michael Pitt, given that he made me feel uncomfortable as Henry in Dawson's Creek and as Matthew in The Dreamers).

While George and Georgie are setting up the boat, Ann gets to work in the kitchen. She chats to her friend on her cell and is just about to put the steaks on when the doorbell rings. It is Peter, kitted out in the same tennis whites and white gloves as Paul. He wants some eggs for neighbour lady. He is very polite but, as with Paul, something about him is very off. Ann gives him the eggs and gets back to dinner but - oh noes! - he drops the eggs in the hallway. He is very - overly - apologetic and Ann, less enthusiastically this time, gets him some new eggs. Not before he knocks her cell into the sink, which is full of water. Ann is starting to get irritated now and tries to usher him out but suddenly, he is making an awful lot of fuss about those eggs. She sends him packing and off he goes. But then he's back! With Paul. Ann's dog attacked him, apparently, so he's going to need some more eggs. At this point, Ann is starting to get really freaked out but Paul changes the subject and asks if he can try out the great golf clubs he sees in the hall. Eventually, she agrees, warily, hoping they'll just leave once Paul has finished.

Nope. As Paul and Peter (whom Paul sometimes calls Tom) become even more demanding over the eggs, they get all defensive when Ann finally loses her temper and tries to usher them out. In comes hubby to save the day - except he assumes Ann's being silly too and apologises to Paul and Peter. Ann stomps off to sulk and we're almost at the point of unreliable-narrator-marital-breakdown but it's only then that Paul starts to say some things that make George realise that maybe his wife wasn't being so silly after all. When the boys won't leave, George slaps Paul round the face. Error. Paul pounds George to the floor with the golf club, thus beginning the bizarre hostage situation.

Paul and Peter are, as The Guardian (I think) said, pleasantly psychotic. Or is that psychotically pleasant? Like AnnandGeorge, they like to play games. Real funny games. Games like "If you can recite this prayer backwards, you get to choose whether you or your husband is killed first and also whether it is by gun or by knife?" Yeah, these guys are a barrel of laughs. And yet, the worse their torture of the family becomes, the politer it seems Paul and Peter are. They never forget their pleases and their thank yous and they are always so terribly nice as they inflict massive pain onto their captives.

I tried not to read anything about this film as I know that I spent all of Caché (and hours afterwards) trying to work out why. What was the point to the terrorising of this seemingly nice family? What did they ever do? If only there was some reason for this harassment, it wouldn't be so bad - we could rationalise it, process it, move on from it and get over it. The same thing happened in Funny Games. Paul and Peter certainly aren't your stereotypical psychos and if only there were some explanation - if George had slept with Paul's mom, thus breaking up his parents' marriage, for example - it wouldn't be quite so frustrating.

This is precisely the point, however, and Haneke plays with the audience almost as much as Paul and Peter play with their captives. Ann wants to know why, at one stage, and Paul duly obliges, insisting that Peter tell them why. He then makes up a series of fake "explanations" as to why they were doing this (messed up childhood, drug abuse, bored little rich kids), which are then dismissed almost as soon as they are told. For the audience, it almost doesn't matter whether or not AnnandGeorge live or die - either outcome can still provide a satisfying ending - so much as why it all happened. Why them. Why then.

Haneke is almost irritatingly self-aware, here, and practically chides the audience for this desire for rationalisation, as he has Paul talk to the camera, from time to time, commenting on the unfolding of events and on the audience's own desires here. Despairing, Ann asks Paul why he doesn't just kill them. "You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment," Paul replies smoothly, with a big grin on his face. Indeed - why didn't the director/writer just decide to have Paul and Peter kill their captives within minutes of meeting them? That's hardly good cinema, is it? Where's the entertainment in that?

Of course, the only thing more frustrating than not being able to piece together the puzzle is the fact that the pieces one has might not fit together at all - there might not even be a puzzle. And of course, it is the very desire for increasing violence in films and for this violence to be explained away to us that Haneke is criticising here and looking for a more satisfying explanation for the behaviour of Paul and Peter might not be any use here.

The tension is well-constructed, Pitt is, as I said, a bloody good psychopath and Naomi Watts put in a good performance as Ann (Tim Robbins didn't have much to do other than squirm in pain and hobble around, as George) and I didn't embarrass myself by jumping too many times. I'm just not massively convinced that Haneke's justification for leaving so many loose ends is enough to justify the lack of viewer satisfaction; it was still a good film, though.

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