Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (Austria) / In category: 5 of 10 / Overall: 62 of 100
I’ve always been mildly suspicious of Michael Haneke. It’s that veneer of cerebral, slightly aloof arthouse filmmaking – cinematography that communicates a cold, clinical approach; arbitrary shots lingered on long enough to provoke inertia (but not long enough that they become hypnotically mesmeric as in, say, the work of Andrei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr); the soundtrack dotted with the more austere choices from the Schubert lieder – juxtaposed with content that is often exploitative. There’s something about Isabelle Huppert sniffing a semen-encrusted tissue in a porn booth in ‘The Piano Teacher’ or the non-naturalistic reverse deus ex machina at the end of ‘Funny Games’ that makes me think of Haneke not as an auteur or a provocateur but as a seven-year-old saying “fuck” in a school playground because it’s guaranteed to shock the grown-ups. An intelligent seven-year-old, granted, and from a good family; a seven-year-old who can recite a Shakespearean sonnet from memory and is doing well with his piano lessons. But nonetheless a seven-year-old who’s just gleefully said “fuck” because he knows it’ll get a reaction.
‘Funny Games’ is patterned after that grimmest of sub-genres, the home invasion movie. An upper-middle class family head for their summer house for a weekend of yachting and doing whatever else that people with that kind of money get up to, only for their sojourn to be interrupted by two well-spoken and ineffably polite young men, both dressed in tennis whites, who take them hostage in their own home and subject them to a series of increasingly unpleasant humiliations. The husband’s leg is broken with one of his own golf clubs. The family dog is offed. The son’s life is threatened, a bag over his head. The wife is forced to disrobe.
All of which is pretty standard ‘House on the Edge of the Park’/‘Last House on the Left’ fare. Except whereas those films – and a goodly number of other 70s and 80s low-budget, “video nasty” stylee productions would follow up this last with a protracted rape scene, then document the turning of the tables by the victims against their aggressors, Haneke takes a different route. For starters, he gives the youths no motive: they take none of the family’s material possessions, no ransom is demanded, they seem to bear no grudge, there’s no sexual violence and, given that they seem as well-spoken and well-bred as their victims, there isn’t even a class divide to account for their antagonism. Nor do they seem to take any pleasure in what they do. Nor does the onscreen action (such as there is: much of the film is dialogue) deliver sex, violence, blood or gore. The worst moments – including two of the deaths – occur offscreen.
In essence Haneke takes the template of a grubby and nasty little home invasion movie, strips it of all the guilty pleasures fans of that subgenre would expect and throws it back at the audience’s face to ask its own question: why are you watching this?
Which is fair enough. Only Haneke makes two aesthetic decisions – one (and it happens on several occasions) is to break the fourth wall; the other constitutes a major spoiler but you’ll know it when you see it and, if your reaction is the same as mine, you’ll want to kick the TV out the window – that I find unfathomable. They puncture the claustrophobia of the film; they leech it of tension; they allow the audience to shrug and say “yeah, whatever”, to sidestep the thorny questions of audience complicity and let themselves off the hook. The poster for ‘Last House on the Left’ famously read “to avoid fainting, keeping repeating it’s only a movie”. Haneke never lets us forget that it’s only a movie; and try as I might to rationalise the mindset behind this, I can’t see it as anything other than an artistic own goal.