On Michael Haneke’s Funny Games US

Enes Erbay*


As a masterpiece in Haneke’s filmography, Funny Games US (2007) is a remake of the Funny Games (1997). This anti-thriller, like the others that precede it, is a critical enquiry of brutality and spectatorship, and undoubtedly it takes a sui generis place among other examples of the aesthetics of violence. The plot of the film is irritatingly simple: A rich American family of father, mother and son (with their dog) go on vacation to their lakeside villa. A well-groomed young man arrive clad in golf gear and asks to borrow some eggs. Then a second young man unexpectedly appears and the two proceed, without any purpose, to terrorise and then kill dog, son, father, and mother. It should absolutely be defined,

as an anti-thriller because there is neither a rescue sequence, nor a revenge scenario; there is even no happy ending to the story. The violence, on the other hand, is never really disclosed in the film, except the bloody death of Peter, but rather indicated in the soundtrack or recorded in the faces of the killers or of family members. Only the effects of violence on the victims are shown through close-ups and long shots, and with a slow tempo in montage and camera, which allows audience a distanced ‘thinking space’. The question that seems to be posed most often to Michael Haneke in many interviews is: “Do you enjoy disturbing the audience?” But how should we approach this terrifying style of the director? According to Wheatley, ‘An unpleasure calls attention to itself in a way that pleasure does not, it prompts the viewer to question what it is in the film that causes this feeling, and hence forces them to engage rationally with the image on screen. The film thereby employs spectatorial “unpleasure” as a device for mobilizing a tension be- tween reason and emotion, creating a moment of “impact” for the viewer.’(1)

The physical environment of the scene that I have selected from Funny Games US to discuss in this article(2) even the atmosphere of the whole film and the elements in it are overly structured by an emphasis on ‘whiteness’: The living room, with its white walls, is furnished by various items in different tones of white doors, cupboard, arm chairs, coffee table, frameworks of the windows, curtains, carpet, lampshade, tableaus hanged on the walls, (silver-coloured) television, eggs, and so forth. The purity of the atmosphere is also supported by some distinctive features of the characters: privileged race (white Western), upper class (classical Western music, an expensive jeep, a white elegant villa, a white yacht, white golf clothes, gloves, shoes), gender (queer- like couple). This emphasis on ‘whiteness’ is a parody that renders questionable the conventional approaches of the psychology of colour and problematizes the notion of ‘signification’ in a deconstructive way: the psychopathological attitudes of the queer like couple Paul and Peter definitely seem incompatible with the purity of white and its historical references to ethical and religious dimensions divine, angelic, spiritual, good-hearted, and so forth. Moreover, their speaking English with a good accent in addition to their smooth appearance, gentility, baby -face attractiveness and slightly effeminate behaviors absolutely seem at variance with the classical rhetoric of male domination, or with macho/masculine manners: In Ritzenhoff’s words, it would not be a bold claim that Paul and Peter ‘simply like to exert violence. Out of boredom. Out of lack of humanness. Maybe also out of lack of masculinity because they are no longer driven in their crime by their libido .’(3) This parody opens up a space to criticise the aestheticized, sentimental, mundane, sterile life form of bourgeoisie and its isolatedness from the mud of everyday life and from the crowds of ordinary people, with strong expressive forces: the extreme whiteness of the room brings the ‘white

cube’ model of contemporary art museums into mind, and increases the devastating power of squirting blood effect in an exhibitionist way (4). Briefly speaking, the threat to family happiness and bourgeois consumerism does not come from a rogue element at the edge of society, but from within the upper class. Moreover, the scene also shows us that the ‘white’ dreams of the secular life of the family are disturbed by the ‘white’ demons’ unspiritual call for prayer: ‘“I love you God with all my might. Keep me safe all through the night.” If you can say this little, unfortunately, much too short of a prayer backwards with no mis- takes, not only will you be able to decide which one of you bites it first but also  and I’m sure this is gonna interest you more with which device: whether it’s the fast and almost painless big gun or the slow, drawn – out…’

***

Film is an event which is multiple in itself in the sense that cinematic time is constituted by a cluster of temporalities. Mary Ann Doane formulates these ‘multiple temporalities’ in the following way: the temporality of the apparatus (which she describes as ‘l inear, ir reversible, “ mechanical”’), the temporality of diegesis (‘the way in which time is represented by the image, the varying invocations of present, past, future, historicity’) and finally the temporality of reception (5). According to this formulation, cinematic time, as a continuum that is ‘infinitely divisible’, is an illusion of a nonselective record of real time; in other words, there are always ir repressible gaps, lacks, losses and divisions between frames (6). At this juncture, it should be enunciated that continuity – as- continuous-break in the duration of cinematic time is neither bound by linearity or teleology, nor is it irreversible. Haneke ironically stresses this ‘reversibility’ of cinematic time, when the mother man ages to grab a gun and shoot Paul’s accomplice. Just after the violent and sanguineous death of Peter, Paul grabs a remote control and rewinds the scene, securing control over the film’s outcome: ‘Okay, that was the test run!’ Finally, I should also point out that Funny Games has many inter textual references to not only Haneke’s other films but also Stanley Ku-brick’s Clockwork Orange (1971) and Shining(1980): aesthetization of violence, strange men in white clothes, coming balls as precursors of the horror, psychoanalytic triangle of family father, mother, son.

“continuity-as- continuous-break in the duration of cinematic time is neither bound by linearity or teleology, nor is it irreversible.”

As for the performance and self-referentiality, the film plays with us, the spectators, just as Paul and Peter play their ‘funny games’ with the family: Paul winks into the camera and asks the viewer, ‘you want a real ending with plausible plot development, don’t you?

Note:

* Enes Erbay is an M.A. Student in Directing: Film and Television at the University of Westminster

References: 

1) Catherine Wheatley, Michael Haneke’s Cinema:The Ethic of the Image (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), p. 78.
2) The scene takes place between the time codes 01:29:25 and 01:40:30 in DVD.
3) Karen A. Ritzenhoff, ‘The Frozen Family: Emotional Dysfunction and Consumer Society in MichaelHaneke’s Films,’ in Sex and Sexuality in a Feminist World, eds. Karen A. Ritzenhoff and Katherine A. Hermesp (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), p. 75 [emphasis added].
4) Cf. Another squirting blood effect on the white wall in Haneke’s Caché (2005): the scene in which Majid commits a shocking suicide.
5) Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contin- gency, The Archive (London: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 30
6) Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time, pp. 33-68.

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