Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Review - Funny Games US

American remakes of successful foreign films are nothing new, but I doubt many people would have picked Michael Haneke's Funny Games as a candidate for a US makeover. Haneke's 1997 film is notorious for delivering one of the most painful viewing experiences in contemporary cinema; setting up a standard thriller scenario before breaking the rules, and twisting the emotional knife at every opportunity. Funny Games is the story of a middle-class family who arrive at their lakeside holiday home, only to be confronted with two ultra-polite psychopaths calling themselves Peter and Paul. These two strangers, dressed all in white, tell the family that they will all be dead by morning, and they then proceed to play "games" with them, subjecting them to both physical and psychological torture. Haneke is unsparing in his handling of this vicious scenario; he offers us no hope, no possibility of escape, and he forces us to question our own appetite for onscreen violence.

Haneke always envisaged Funny Games as an American story – after all, it was inspired by the casual violence he saw in that country's cinema – but could a film of this nature be successfully adapted for the American market without watering down its strongest elements, and thus diluting the story's potency? Surprisingly, Funny Games US (as the opening titles label it) has now arrived in an English-language version, and Haneke himself is back in the director's chair to oversee this second version of his film. Of course, having the original director on board is no guarantee of retaining the first film's quality – remember George Sluizer, who castrated his brilliant thriller The Vanishing with a miserable 1993 remake – but Haneke has managed to bring his film to US screens without any compromises whatsoever, making a new version of Funny Games which matches the original shot-for-shot.

For those of us who have seen the original film, this new take on Funny Games will certainly rank as one of the strangest viewing experiences of the year. This time Naomi Watts and Tim Roth take the roles of Anna and George, while their son Georgie is played (very well) by a young actor named Devon Gearhart; and the two killers, Peter and Paul, are portrayed respectively by Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt. But from the film's opening shot – the unsuspecting victims in their car, with the classical soundtrack suddenly replaced by loud death metal screeching – Funny Games US slavishly follows the same path Haneke already mapped out a decade ago. As far as I could tell, Haneke uses exactly the same angles and setups, the costume and production design looks identical, and the film's dialogue appears to be the same (allowing for minor changes inherent in the translation from one language to another). As a result, your reaction to Funny Games US will depend on your familiarity with it. This new version is every bit as clinical and deliberately manipulative as the original, but for those of us who have seen the 1997 film, the narrative's most startling developments have inevitably lost much of the shock value which made them so effective first time around. Perhaps that's a moot point, though, as Haneke's intention with this film is not to appeal to those who have seen the original, but to reach a wider audience in America, and for those adventurous filmgoers who are viewing Funny Games for the first time it should provide an experience every bit as disturbing and provocative.

In any case, whether you think the film is successful in its aims or not, it's hard not to admire Haneke's rigorous filmmaking style, and it's hard not to be awestruck by the conviction in the lead performances. The knife-edge acting from Ulrich Mühe and Susanne Lothar in the first film is a tough act to follow, but Watts and Roth are both outstanding here, with Watts in particular throwing herself completely into the part. It's a brilliant, no-safety-net display from this extraordinarily versatile actress, and it again proves that she's willing to traverse the emotional depths like few others in Hollywood. As the two villains of the piece, however, Pitt and Corbet don't quite measure up to their predecessors. A miscast Brady Corbet gives a limp and strangely mannered turn which seems out of place in this company, and while Pitt does bring an insidious creepiness to his performance, it's nowhere near as memorable as Arno Frisch's supremely chilling turn in the first film.

That's another problem that won't be apparent to those approaching Funny Games US through fresh eyes, though. It's hard for anyone familiar with Haneke's first film to avoid playing a mental game of compare-and-contrast while this remake is unfolding in front of us, and it has to be said that Funny Games US holds up pretty well. While the picture's biggest shocks fell a little flat for me at the second time of asking, I still found myself getting caught up in the claustrophobic and fear-drenched atmosphere of the whole thing, and it does remain a fascinating piece of work. At the very least, we can take heart from the fact that a director as singular as Haneke has been allowed the freedom to bring his own vision to America, and if this remake introduces a wider audience to his work and opens up opportunities for him in the future, then that can only be a good thing. For Haneke aficionados, Funny Games US will feel like something of a sideways move rather than a progressive one; but for anyone approaching his work for the first time, it still has the ability to cut to the bone.