Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Funny Games (2008, UK/USA/France, Michael Haneke)

Given it's world premiere at the London Film Festival, Haneke's remake of his own 1997 masterpiece is bound to be divisive on release next year. Several critics have alresdy expressed bewilderment at Haneke's decision to embark on a remake of one of his early films, though he (and his producers) have justified it due to the fact that the original has barely been seen by an American audience (the box office receipts for the original amount to approximately $6000) and that Haneke always envisioned 'Funny Games' as an American film. Given the success of 2005's 'Hidden' (nearly £1m at the UK box office and just over $3.5 million at the US box office), Haneke now has the clout to remake his film and dictate his terms. Given the failures of compromised remakes like 'The Vanishing', perhaps it's best to allow directors to remake their films as they wish.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this version is the fact that it is a shot for shot remake; even the locations are to the same specifications as before, and only a couple of technical updates have been made (swapping a cordless landline telephone for a mobile). Some might question the purpose of this, but it's natural for Haneke, a director always content to challenge his audience to do this. Now what's the most famous shot for shot remake of recent times? Gus van Sant's 'Psycho' (1998) perhaps? Considered a total failure by most, I actually see plenty of merit in this as an artistic experiment, and I would consider Haneke's second version of 'Funny Games' in this respect. Surely this has loftier and more artistic ambitions than most of the remakes routinely churned out?

Those who have seen the original will know the narrative, but to summarise - a bourgeois family are visited by two ultra-polite men who then hold the family captive, subjecting them to a series of sadistic games, but what separates it from schlock horror is the fact that us, the audience, are implicated in the narrative. The two men give regular asides to camera, nods and winks, asking us what fate should befall the family, and that their convoluted torture is all in the name of entertainment. Some have accused Haneke of holding his audience in contempt, though I think he makes many relevant points that still make sense to a contemporary audience - how we consume violent images, how we have become desensitised to it (a theme explored ever since 1992's 'Benny's Video').

The casting is improved in places but not in others. The outstanding Naomi Watts (Haneke's first choice apparently) gives a more powerful performance than Susanne Lothar did, but Tim Roth with a wildly fluctuating American accent isn't as effective as displaying sheer helplessness as the late Ulrich Muhe did. Michael Pitt is fine as Paul, the more proactive of the two men, though he doesn't quite have Arno Frisch's charming malevolence. Perhaps he might have been better in the Peter role, who he more closely resembles, though Brady Corbet does a decent job himself.

It's probable that one would engage more with this film had one viewed the original, though it seemed the case that most of the audience at this screening probably hadn't. If that's the case, then surely the objective of the film has been met; to reach a wider audience. Not that it's going to be much a viable commercial proposition anyway. Although the violence occurs mostly off-screen, it's sufficiently intense and shocking to ensure it will achieve a restrictive rating. I don't think you can really compare and contrast the two versions to definitively argue which is better. They're companion pieces, and this remake certainly doesn't feel intrinsically undermined by the fact it's a copy of a masterpiece (and it certainly isn't obviously worse). There are also rumours of a remake of 'Hidden' could be in production, though Haneke has no intention of being involved.

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