06 mai 2008

Twin games about unfunny stuff (1)

Funny Games (1997-2007/Michael Haneke/Austria-USA), dual versions.
Opening Sequence :
Opera music opens the film. From a God's point of view, we see a car trucking a sail boat drive down the speedway. Classic exposition scene: the summer vacations atmosphere is set, upper class family, high-brow cultural taste, quiet moment away from the daily life. Aerial views of the car moving in traffic, in gradually closer shots to isolate it. The car plays hide and seek under the trees sheltering the sinuous road. The voices are heard before we see their faces. First we see close ups of the hand using the on-board CD player. Then the family trio through the wind shield. The model nuclear family, one single son (the spoiled child-king), is symbolized by this confined environment on wheels. A car like an armoured bubble protected from the rest of the world, culturally, socially. This individualistic society is emphasized by their high-security lake-shore property within a wealthy neighbourhood, similar to gated communities.
First game, a guessing game

The father and the mother play to each other a blind track from their collection of opera CDs. The child plays the arbiter to make sure neither cheats. In fact they are enacting an ironic drama: "I have a secret, can you guess what it is?" It's funny to hold a certain information and mock the silly guesses, the struggle with memory to find out this familiar name from a shared culture. Even the child who doesn't play, seems to find this situation entertaining. His parents are tested for their knowledge, their brains, their alertness, and alternatively look ridiculous and impressive.
Suddenly non-diegetic loud punk music covers the mundane dialogue behind the wind shield as we see the lips continue to move unaware of this aggressive blast of noise. The initial innocent game will set the rules of the horror to come.

This shot of a couple talking silently seen through the wind shield of their car reminds me of the opening sequence of Polanski's Knife in the water (1962), which, incidentally, also features a wealthy family driving to a sailing resort and picks up a foreign intruder along the way who will excite underlying tension within the couple and break apart their relationship. Also, between the original Funny Games (1997) and its remake, we have this german film, Summer '04 (2006) by Stefan Krohmer, where a family on sailing vacations will meet a stranger who dissolves the apparent happiness of this model family.

Though Haneke cuts short before any of these family drama consequences. And this couple sticks together against all evil till the end. But nothing says whether this traumatised couple would have survived much longer after this tragedy.

A (non)judgemental milieu

The arrival of the family at their spacious vacation villa caricatures the insular traits of the upper-class milieu. A trivial conversation about a golf game with the neighbors degrades into speculative gossips just because their polite salutations were not as enthusiastic as they expected. But in this hypocritical society they don't ask what's wrong, they just move on as if everything was normal. And that's the affected correctness excuse the intruders will use to infiltrate this very selective community, just like a Trojan horse.
There is no reason to suspect the intentions of the two young men in white since their income-equals next door invited them... or so they assumed. Since nobody asks embarrassing questions, they sneak in this house and will use the unspoken mutual trust of informal acquaintance to move to the next victims. Don't forget good manners get you anywhere.
An automatic gate with remote control, a barking dog, a shotgun and a knife prove to be ineffective against an insider using back doors, allegedly recommended by their peers. The major incentive to tolerate party crashers overstay their welcome is of course the risk to tarnish their good reputation because of a silly misunderstanding. We already noticed how the esteem for their neighbors started to lower just because the wife didn't return a "hello". Remember the scene from Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE (2006) where the neighbour lady comes out of the blue and gently forces her way into Nikki Grace's fancy villa.

This idea to turn the serial killer genre typical procedure into a viral disease is thought-provoking. They spread like plague, door to door, by means of human contact. The smart salesmen of an invisible crime virus.
It's because these bourgeois are highly judgemental and attached to superficial behaviour in private, and because they are hypocritically non-judgemental in public that reputation makes them to do things they would normally don't. Intentionally or not, the incognito-killer's current hostages not only covers them by lying to the visitors who come around, but they help them make new friends, soon-to-become victims. We see this at work from three sides.
First from the viewpoint of the unaware victim, when the protagonists meet the "choir boys" on their neighbour's front lawn, introduced as "relatives". Secondly (a countershot of this initial scene) from the viewpoint of the hostage, when the mother is obliged to lie to her friends who happen to sail by and, despite herself, introduces Paul to his next unaware victims. And finally, the closing scene, now knowing all about their standard procedure, we see the similar scene from the viewpoint of the aggressor, when he first knocks at the door of a potential victim. Like Peter did when he first asked the eggs.
In retrospect, we can reconstruct the context of the three "assaults" by interpolating what is not seen in the other scenes. By the end of the film we have a better idea of what happened to the neighbors (with hindsight their daughter was probably already dead when they were seen playing golf unenthusiastically), and in the final scene we realise the demons-in-angel-clothes will never bring back eggs supposedly required by the couple across the lake (since they are already dead).

Haneke plays around with what is said by a character and what is heard and assumed by another, with the space between what shall never be asked and what doesn't want to be known. That's how evil cleverly sneaks in the cracks, the language gap and the overcompensated polite correctness.

Ironically, Ozu plays the same game in Ohayo (1959), although never as revoltingly, when the two kids decide to call for a silent treatment and cause an escalation of misunderstandings within a convivial middle-class neighbourhood where the fear to earn bad reputation turns every little details, such as "good morning", suspicious.

Immaculate criminals

At the antipode of traditional serial-killer movies (which usually judge a book from its cover), Haneke chooses not to demonize his villains. They aren't crazy-looking, ugly, repulsive, scary, impressive or even threatening. They are regular guys, younger, well-mannered, educated, helping, smiling, cute faced, seemingly harmless and dressed in virginal white.
Like a caddie or a butler, they wear white gloves (which doesn't seem to surprise anyone in this conservative milieu). Paul says the gloves protect others from his eczema, but maybe they protect him from direct contact with his victims. Above all they are fingerprint-proof!
This immaculate purity goes against the basic rules of empathy in conventional genre movies, and makes the audience all the more disappointed when they realize they have been manipulated into rooting for the poor guys who are unjustly kicked out by the moody family mother. The cool attitude of youth versus the uptight superior bourgeoisie. Until we realise how far the "game" goes... when they finally confess their intention to kill them.

In fact the gentlemen-killers are the main protagonists and the narration assumes the evil viewpoint, with their procedure in plain view for a change. The tension relies on a huis-clos setting (single location drama). The suspense doesn't play out on a parallel montage showing the police investigation on one side and the criminals whereabouts (or only their shadow/traces) on the other side to build up the traditional converging, climactic chase.
The movie doesn't even seem to leave hope for any help from the outside (the phone doesn't work, the cars don't stop, no neighbors around within walking distance). Actually, these criminals seem overconfident and omniscient like a Devil incarnation. They know everyone and every house layout in the area, the short cuts, the security systems. They never seem to bother for their safety, to be careful not to alert the neighbors, to worry about the police or an armed stranger popping out... They are in control of everything, never surprised, always adapting, cold-bloodedly improvising, always ready to counter any reactions of the victims without taking precautions. As if they rehearsed this routine all their life. They walk in with empty pockets, then conveniently pick up a blunt object (a golf club) from their victims on site, and as the situation gets more unstable, a shotgun and duct tape become handy. But words are their main deterrent throughout.
There is no real expectation of them being caught. The film relies entirely on the cat and mouse game between the intruders and the victims.

to be continued... next part here

3 commentaires:

davis a dit…

Harry, lots of interesting thoughts here, but let me build on just a few of them:

- Ohayo. Man, that's a great idea! One of the things I love about the way Funny Games escalates is that does so by poking at mores. Little social rules are broken -- or come very close to being broken -- which gives the characters (and audience) a sense that something is wrong without really knowing what. When they first see the neighbors, "polite salutations were not as enthusiastic as they expected". You're right about that being the kernel of Ozu's film, too. (It's even in the title.) Even before the kids in Ohayo cause trouble, they seem amused by the ritual of announcing their arrivals and departures, and the repetitions always elicit chuckles in screenings.

- "The tension relies on a huis-clos setting (single location drama)." Yes, but I also like how Haneke can evoke the offscreen locations that exist within this self-contained world. For example, when the gentlemen tormenters disappear without much fanfare, we have a strong feeling that they will return, and I imagined where they might be. Upstairs? Crossing the lawn? In the boat? Going beneath the fence? By refusing to cut away from the long scene in the living room -- and by letting time pass and pass -- Haneke evokes mental images of all of these locations and scenarios. But everything outside of what we've seen is blank. The situation is stripped of context. Even the cars in the finale, coming down the road, seem at first like outside help but end up being a tease, of course. Haneke closes the road the same way he closes the communication lines, locks the gate, bolts the door, etc.

- Knife in the Water is another great comparison. In my podcast discussion and subsequent comments I was mostly thinking of situating the film within Haneke's oeuvre or within its genre, so your references have opened things up a little more. (Although Knife in the Water probably shares a few genre conventions.)

- ... So: one of my favorite Chantal Akerman films is The Man with the Suitcase in which a writer (Akerman herself) is forced to share an apartment with a man when she intends to be working alone. It bears a superficial resemblance to Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool, but it's far more thought provoking. Like most of Akerman's films, the physical space inhabited by her characters is closely associated with identity, and the fact that the woman has no space of her own makes the situation seem increasingly oppressive. Meanwhile, the man goes about his business and seems blissfully unaffected by her presence. He's unwittingly an aggressor.

HarryTuttle a dit…

You're right that the offscreen evocation plays a role, and precisely during the time the killers are away, Haneke is able to bring back into his film more traditional suspense-drive. Like the classic shot of the fridge door blocking a space from the viewer (which you mention in your podcast), or the anticipation of them interrupting any scene at any moment (which surprise effect isn't used in the rest of the film otherwise).
But it doesn't matter how far the mother walks outside the garden, looking for help, since this huis-clos never opens up to other characters or other meaningful places. It's like she's in a long dark corridor leading nowhere. Haneke doesn't need to use and outside world to emphasise the suspense within his predefined walls.

I haven't seen this Akerman film, so thanks for the hint and your connection comment, that's interesting indeed.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Comparative Examination: Funny Games and Funny Games U.S. (Left Gield Cinema Podcast) MP3 10'35"
This weeks episode compares Michael Haneke's breakthrough feature Funny Games with its now notorious shot for shot english language remake Funny Games U.S.