Contains spoilers for Funny Games
Despite feeling as if I’ve been harangued by a bionic liberal, Funny Games is actually pretty enjoyable. That said, perhaps enjoyable is the wrong word to use. Just what is it that makes us want to watch violence on the big screen? Just exactly what is wrong with us?
Paul – one of a pair of white gloved psychopaths responsible for terrorising a wealthy young family – constantly breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly; we are in absolutely no doubt that what we’re watching is a fiction (at one point, when the narrative veers into less choppy Hollywood waters, Paul grabs a video remote and rewinds the film so he can pre-empt the action). Reflexively post-modern it may be, but there’s more to it than Mark Kermode thinks (bearing in mind his interview with Neil Young on the Culture Show back in October 2007, I find it difficult to read anything by Mark Kermode: I’ve come here to New York to interview Neil Young. Now this is something of a surprise for me, because for years I’ve been telling people that I didn’t like Neil Young).
Not pandering to your audience’s baser instincts is a brave thing for any filmmaker to do – instead, Michael Haneke rubs our collective noses in the aftermath of violence without showing us any gore whatsoever. Ann (Naomi Watts) stumbles around in her underwear trying desperately to free herself from the parcel tape that binds her arms and legs; the body of her ten year old son lies on the floor behind her. ‘Entertaining’ is not a word that comes instantly to mind, and that’s the whole point.
Ann: Why don't you just kill us?
Peter: You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment.
From a screenwriting perspective, I don’t think you’re going to find many aspects of Funny Games that conform to what we are all told a ‘good’ script should comprise of. If Haneke is guilty of lecturing his audience and making them feel lousy, then surely his off-handed dismissal of established screenwriting tropes is just as cynical (which is what made the film massively enjoyable for me). Character motivation as far as the two tennis-white wearing psychos are concerned is non-existent: there is no reasoning for what these people are up to here - no explanation, no complex back story, nothing. Paul and Peter even joke about the issue at one point. There is an extended riff on a non-functioning mobile phone: Peter accidentally (on purpose) knocks Ann’s mobile phone into a sink full of water. Later in the movie, Ann and her severely injured husband, George (Tim Roth) attempt to get the phone working – they try and try, but the thing simply refuses to function, a detail that only increases the sense of utter helplessness. Of course, in ‘normal’ screenwriting parlance the phone would work; the fact that it doesn’t is a real kick in the teeth, not only for George and Ann, but for the audience as well.
The knife on the boat is another case in point: George forgets about the knife that he has left on board his little sailing boat, only for Ann to come across it later when Peter and Paul proceed to sail off to find their next victims. She uses it to try and cut the ropes from her hands, but as her hands are tied in front of her, the two white gloved psychos notice immediately – Peter grabs the knife and throws it overboard: Ann soon follows. Funny Games really is an exquisitely cruel film to watch, not least because screenwriting itself gets a good kicking.