Found in Translation

Attention all masochists. Funny Games is not what it sounds like. Not fun and games, not funny ha-ha, not charades and Mad Libs. It is Michael Haneke’s English-language remake of his own Austrian film of a decade ago, an unusual but not unprecedented course of action.

We would be straying well into irrelevance if we dredged up precedents like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much of 1934 and 1956, William Wyler’s These Three and The Children’s Hour, Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day and Pocketful of Miracles, Leo McCarey’s Love Affair and An Affair to Remember, John Ford’s Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright, Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire and A Song Is Born, Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde and One Sunday Afternoon or his High Sierra and its Western resetting, Colorado Territory. Closer to the point, though, the Dutch director George Sluizer did much the same thing as Haneke, in much the same genre, with The Vanishing, except that in the same-named remake he did something a bit different with it to adapt it to the American market, as well as to surprise, confound, or disgust (according to taste) the admirers of the foreign version. In Haneke’s case, we San Diegans never had the chance to see the Austrian original on a big screen (at least insofar as I have any record or recollection), so I must take the word of others that it has been reproduced precisely, and I must leave it to them to question the filmmaker’s use of his time and energy. For the rest of us, it’s brand-new.

We of course have had, over the years, the chance to see Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and Caché, and with them the chance to take his temperature: chilly in the extreme. The new film, if anything lowering the temperature several degrees further, has a good deal in common with Caché, the clean tidy uncluttered images, the spooky absence of mood-punctuating background music (the Coens in No Country for Old Men, not to take anything away from their daring, did not originate the strategy), and, as a basic plot premise, a civilized family unit of husband, wife, and prepubescent son, suddenly unsettled in their contentment, shaken in their stability. We encounter them (Tim Roth, Naomi Watts, and, well able to simulate terror when required, Devon Gearhart) on the road in their SUV, towing their sailboat, the parents playing a game of Name That Tune with their opera CDs, en route to their gated vacation home on the lake. The good life. While it lasted. The abrupt interruption of Handel on the car stereo with the shrieking cacophony of John Zorn, as the blazing title fills screen, is a forecast and a fair summary of what’s ahead.

Aside from that musical cue, the first sign of something amiss, when the wife rolls down the car window outside the gate next door, is the peculiar constraint of their neighbors, photographed only in unrevealing long shot, slow and tentative in their responses, seeming not to remember their previous plans together, unforthcoming with any introduction to the unknown young man in their company. The young man or his duplicate soon turns up on the doorstep of our central family, ostensibly on an egg-borrowing mission, but in actuality getting a foot in the door for the Home Invasion of every property owner’s nightmares. He and his look-alike confederate (Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt, identically coiffed with unruly over-the-eye locks of hair) do not come on strong, in Clockwork Orange-style or even Desperate Hours-style; they come on sneaky, oddly dressed in co-ordinated white gloves and white-knit tops, but well-mannered and soft-spoken, like members of the Stanford tennis team.

The tension is probably most unbearable, and most “effective” in the way of a conventional thriller, before the good manners give way to violence, before the cards are laid on the table. Once they have tipped their hand, the situation becomes somewhat static and monotonous, an extended exercise in discomfort, as the twin sadists put their victims through hoops; and the tension, in consequence, moves more into areas of style and treatment: the tension between the invaders’ increasing cruelty and their continuing mild manner; the tension between the victims’ unreal and melodramatic predicament and their natural and lifelike reaction to it; the tension between the crude thriller plot and the refinement of the presentation, the discreetly off-screen violence, the detached and clinical viewpoint, the fastidious visuals.

All of that unconventionality around the core of convention eats away at your confidence in the outcome. You perhaps get your first real sinking feeling when one of the sadists turns his head to the camera and addresses you directly: “You’re on their side, right?” Much later, nearing the end, when he “rewinds” the film, via TV remote, to undo a turn of events he doesn’t like, you can feel you’re really sunk. (Just exactly whose side is Haneke on?) And sure enough, the filmmaker’s disclosed interest is not at all in simply plugging some novel variables into a tried-and-true formula, but instead, while toying with your expectations and hopes, forcing you to think about your “enjoyment” of such a formula, secure in your belief that everything will come out all right in the end. (Will that forgotten knife in the sailboat ever come into play? Did the 911 operator get the message over the water-damaged cellphone? “You want a real ending, right?” the same sadist addresses the camera a second time. “With plausible plot development?”) This provocative, confrontational, and, yes, sadistic thriller has, as it proceeds, a lecturing quality about it, a hectoring quality, a scolding quality. Either way — as a generic suspense film or as a lecture on the genre — it is a punishing experience. A no-fun game. And it is difficult to shake off afterwards.

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My scorecard for the first weekend of the San Diego Latino Film Festival: El Viaje de la Nonna... sí. (Spanish for thumbs up.) El Camino de San Diego... sí. Llamando a un Ángel... no. (Spanish for thumbs down.) La Zona... sí y no. (Hand flat, palm downward, fingers spread, slight tremor.) Mariposa Negra... sí. El Violín... sí sí. (Thumbs way up.) Six films, six sí’s. Next weekend will be the last.

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