(04/08/08) – Remaking Funny Games in America, which was director Michael Haneke’s idealised setting for the film about violence he ended up shooting in Austria in 1997, must have been a dream come true. Haneke is a diabolically smart artist, the director of debated films such as Benny’s Video (1992), The Time of the wolf) (2003) and Caché (2005). He’s got an uncanny talent for confounding critics and audience expectations; while his strategies may appear to be perverted to some, they can also be lauded as great virtues.

So ten years later Haneke managed to unleash Funny Games on his intended playing field, America, a country where violence is an integral part of the culture (on real terms) and its cinematic output (on representational terms). Whether Americans can ‘get’ the Austrian director’s seemingly nihilistic view favoured in his films is another story. It’s understandable why some critics become so irate with Haneke’s unflinching metanarrative games. But isn’t that what we are always asking from directors, that they don’t spoon-feed the audience answers and solutions to complex issues such as violence, the director’s trademark, contentious theme?

What’s thes story here? Ann (Naomi Watts, competent and fluid as always, one of the best English-language contemporary actresses) and Georgie (Tim Roth, good as usual) play an affluent couple spending a weekend at their country home in Long Island with their young son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart). The trio forms a picture of bourgeois satisfaction, straight out of a Gap catalogue. Heineke’s favours a crystalline, minimalist photography, creating a kind of ‘aesthetic purity’ that is eerie and claustrophobic. Still, so far so good. But when a couple of aristocratic-looking young men (Michal Pitt and Braby Corbett) knock on their door asking to borrow eggs, things start to crack up, literally.

What follows is a night of hell for the family as they are submitted by the two intruders to the most horrendously sadistic games. There is no apparent motivation for their violence, except their own entertainment. Pitt is the star of the film with his spooky boyish looks and great acting skills. At moments, he addresses the camera directly, a tried and tested Brechtian device for sure – but so are most cinematic devices – which Haneke employs to disrupt narrative transparency.

Regardless of the opinion critics and audiences may hold of Haneke as a provocateur, no one can accuse Heineke him of lack of intelligence and gutsiness. How many directors depict violence for what it is on the screen these days? The debate around the effects of screen violence, be it on television or cinema, may have become passe since we have come to accept it as a sine qua non element of our visual culture. Haneke questions the assumption that violence is natural by exarcerbating it and ramming it down the audience’s throat so that they realise how nasty and nauseating it really is. Funny Games is not about entertainment, although there is an element of pastiche comedy in it. It’s a wake-up call.

The DVD of Funny Games is out now on Halcyon Pictures. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.