With Funny Games, an update of his 1997 German film of the same name, Michael Haneke joins the shortlist of foreign directors who have remade their own movies for Hollywood, a group that includes George Sluizer (The Vanishing), Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge) and Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch). That he proves more successful at the remake game than those filmmakers is due to the fact that he's been allowed to remain completely faithful to his original vision—no studio-imposed happy endings, movie-star concessions or editing-room tinkering for this bad-boy European auteur! In fact, the only major difference between the German and American Funny Games is the language the actors speak. Always one to follow the beat of his own perverse drummer, Haneke has recreated the original film line for line and shot for shot. Depending on how you felt about the ’97 Funny Games, this is either great news or one more reason to avoid what is an undeniably unpleasant night at the movies.
Filmed on sun-dappled Long Island, Funny Games opens with a lyrical overhead shot of a car cruising along the increasingly smaller roads leading to the land of New York's grandest summer homes. Inside the vehicle, an ordinary American family—doting parents Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) and their towheaded offspring Georgie (Devon Gearhart)—listen to classical music, while smiling serenely at the thought of the long, relaxing days ahead. Arriving at their beautifully decorated retreat, they go through their usual pre-vacation routine: Father and son get the boat ready for sailing, while Mom puts the kitchen in order. But then two strangers turn up at the front door, a pair of young men dressed in tennis whites who claim to be friends of the family's next-door neighbors. They've only stopped by for some eggs and some friendly conversation, but Ann quite rightly suspects that something's off about Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt). Sure enough, the real purpose behind their visit is to play a game with Ann, George and Georgie—a game that involves torture, humiliation and, finally, murder.
So why would anyone in their right minds want to put themselves through the grueling experience of watching Funny Games once, let alone a second time just to hear the dialogue in English? It's a fair question, and Haneke himself might caution viewers against seeing both versions. After all, his primary motivations behind remaking the film in the first place were commercial rather than artistic. As the story goes, he had originally wanted to make the movie in English so it would receive wider distribution in America, but when he was unable to secure stateside financing, he went ahead and shot it at home. (The irony, of course, is that the American version won't reach a wide audience either, at least during its theatrical run, where it'll be largely exiled to the art-house circuit.) That's why the remake follows the original film so slavishly; it was the movie he always intended to make, just with an American cast.
That said, if you do take the risk and watch both movies back-to-back, you'll be able to spot a few subtle changes that slipped through the director's iron grip. Most of these involve the background scenery or lighting in a particular shot, but the actors also bring a different energy to each film. Watts' Ann, for example, seems frailer than Susanne Lothar's Anna, and baby-faced Corbet is a far more childlike Peter than Frank Giering. But the real revelation here is Pitt, who delivers a chilling performance as Paul that stands distinctly apart from his predecessor, Arno Frisch. With his chiseled features and athletic build, Frisch resembled a European model and he used his good looks to lull his character's victims into a false sense of security. In contrast, there's something vaguely sinister about Pitt from the get-go, which means his Paul has to be more blunt when forcing himself into other people's lives. I know that if someone with Pitt's dead eyes and off-kilter smile turned up on my front porch, I'd sneak out the back door before he had a chance to open his mouth.
Haneke has said that Funny Games is the one movie he made to provoke and he's not joking; in both of its incarnations, the movie triggers intense reactions in even the most jaded moviegoers. A substantial portion of the audience will no doubt find themselves cursing the filmmaker's name and that's not necessarily an inappropriate reaction. Like the movies Haneke claims he's critiquing—gory serial-killer pictures like Se7en and torture-porn bloodbaths like Saw—Funny Games often takes far too much pleasure in rubbing the viewer's face in pain and suffering. The fact that he insists he's doing this as some kind of academic exercise doesn't excuse his obvious glee at upsetting the audience. At the same time, if the definition of a good horror movie is one that creates a sustained mood of high tension and abject fear, Funny Games fits the bill. Under Haneke's taut direction, a simple shot of a golf ball rolling across the floor is more frightening than any scene of Freddy Krueger slashing his victims to bloody bits. And here's a final bit of food for thought: Although Funny Games inspires a lot of conflicting emotions in viewers—fascination and frustration, anger and admiration—isn't it always better to leave the theatre feeling something than nothing at all?