Collected Works: Film
directed by Michael Haneke
We see a model family taking a scenic car drive to their lakeside holiday home. As their young son sits quietly in the backseat, husband and wife play a travel game of their own invention, identifying classical recordings in gentle competition. Then, as the film’s title fills the screen, John Zorn’s ‘Bonehead’ roars unexpectedly and distressingly into life, its cacophonic screams forming a brutal contrast to the refinement of Mozart and Handel. The track does not just disturb the blissful bourgeois idyll; it gleefully pummels it into submission. The family continue to roll along, happy, carefree, and oblivious.
The disruption of this opening scene leaves us acutely aware of the family’s vulnerability, presaging the film’s simple, sadistic premise. While settling into their vacation, they are visited by a pair of young Austrians, Peter and Paul, who make a polite request to borrow some eggs. The seemingly unfortunate accidents that follow – the eggs are broken, a telephone is knocked into the sink – soon give way to something far more sinister. Holding the family hostage in their own home, the men subject them to a series of increasingly nasty games, their motive unclear.
But this is not your standard home invasion film. Paul proves a self-professed, self-aware ringleader throughout. In one early scene, he invites the mother to participate in a round of Hot or Cold, turning to wink at the camera as he malevolently directs her. Paul is attentive to the genre’s rules and eager to exploit them; he is as quick to goad us as he is to implicate us in his twisted mischief. He delights in the vicious pleasure that his heightened knowledge can bring, relishing the opportunity to break the fourth wall and his audience’s spirits in one fell, and foul, swoop.
Unfortunately for viewers, Haneke is just as ruthless. The director’s red herrings and mean tricks mark him out as a third assailant. In one pivotal scene, he encourages us to applaud an act of violence before ripping this warped sense of satisfaction out from underneath us. In another, a climactic, shocking event is followed by several agonising minutes without onscreen movement. With Funny Games, Haneke intrudes the safe space of cinematic convention, manipulating his findings to show just how cruel such expectations can be.
Words by John Wadsworth
Question of the day
Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. (→)
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Life is Beautiful, directed by Roberto Benigni. Under Benigni's delicate direction, the extremes of comedy and tragedy are blended with consummate ease. (→)
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