18 juin 2008

Three times 4 eggs - Funny Games (2)

First part of the review of Haneke's Funny Games here (sorry for the delay)


Haneke illustrates almost literally here a typical principle of manipulation known in psychology. The idea is to ask little at first to secure chances to obtain more later. Once the foot is in the door it becomes impossible to leave the intruder out, both physically and metaphorically.
When the perverse manipulator knows that what he actually wants will be refused systematically, he sets up a pre-conditioning behaviour, trivial and costless, that will commit the victim into accepting something that would have been easy to turn down otherwise. This experiment was described by Freedman and Fraser, and by Kiesler.

This is my favourite sequence in the film. Watch this precise treatise of manipulation at work:

1) the knife in the water

The father and the boy prepare the sail boat at the deck. Paul proposed his help when they asked a hand to the neighbours at the gate. The family is embarrassed that the dog barks at Paul, which puts them in a situation to apologize for the inconvenience of the dog misbehaviour (which will play a role later). The dog has been barking on and offscreen ever since they arrived at the house. This is a security system signal they didn't pay attention to.
The mother is on the phone in the kitchen and the father sent the boy for a knife. This scene plants two key elements : the functioning phone left on the sink and the knife brought by the boy into the boat. In a patronizing and maternal tone, she says "I want to see this knife again" (she will see it again at the end of the film indeed, on the boat!), implying they might lose it or damage it on the boat.

2) 4 eggs

Peter, the clumsy idiot, comes at the door (behind the mosquito net), on behalf of the neighbour, to ask for 4 eggs.
- "How did you get in?" (Paul, the other guy, was invited in through the automatic gate).
Peter pretends the neighbour told him about a secret hole in the fence between the two properties. The mother never met him before. Under normal circumstances she could easily refuse this odd request and go on with her life, thus escaping a tragic massacre. Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to reject this meaningless preparatory "participation" (in the manipulative scheme), and thus engages in an escalation of greater sacrifices, always more inescapable!
If Peter had asked for all 12 eggs right from the start, she would have had an easy excuse to refuse without being rude or earning a bad reputation. Moreover she's offered an opportunity to be serviceable, at low cost, to her friend who happened to be inexplicably distant earlier in the opening scene. We realise Haneke (and his killers) had set up the trap much earlier than we thought.
Actually every single word of the dialogue is highly interesting. She offers a cardbox to carry the eggs, he overpolitely declines to cause her the least hassle, leaves it to her judgement. At this point she makes the choice to become helpful to her neighbour, and he doesn't even force her to accept anything. She's empowered by an impression of free will.

3) 4 more eggs

Peter didn't even walk out the frontdoor that the eggs are already dropped on the floor. Peter is so embarrassed that it's touching. As a good housewife, the mother pretends it's no big deal, says these things happen and that the mess is quickly fixed. His immaculate gloves might get soiled so Peter doesn't even try to help her (there is a medium shot of him holding his hands in the air like a surgeon trying to keep them from touching anything). This little (planned) incident puts the mother, once again, in a gratifying position where she could be helpful and merciful, at low cost. She feels good about herself now, and gradually convinces herself Peter is useless and most importantly harmless.
Peter still waits for his eggs. Though she's a little more reluctant to comply and has more reasons to refuse now. The original good deed now costs her 8 eggs and leaves her only 4. The numbers are important here. The first time, it only cost her 1/3 and left her 2/3, so the exchange was acceptable. The second time, the situation is reversed, and the split is unfavourably imbalanced. So the act of giving definitely means something different symbolically.
Remember Peter doesn't actually want eggs (because the neighbours are already dead!), all he wants is to get her to surrender more and more of her free will to him, unknowingly.

The other aspect of the foot-in-the-door technique is the process of commitment. The small inductive act, opens up a favourable inclination to continue to accept similar acts. And it's also expected to be consistent in our actions. If she accepted to give 4 eggs once (and even went on saying how happy she was to be serviceable!), she's most likely expected to accept again. This begins the escalation of commitment, in order to justify the initial act that she was persuaded to do.

Just as she's convinced by his smooth talking, Peter "inadvertently" drops her phone into the sink water. She's really getting annoyed by now, while maintaining a polite face. She's dying to get rid of him as quickly as possible. This time she puts the eggs in a box, despite him politely declining again (sticking to his original easygoing pattern), and sends him home.
Once he's gone, her face is relieved, she even smiles at the way she got all stressed up from nothing. She doesn't even look much bothered by the broken phone. This whole thing cost her more than she first expected when she accepted, but she's happy her good deed will put her neighbour in a better mood for the golf game they arranged the next day.

4) the last 4 eggs

The dog makes more noise. And the mother sees the two intruders rush in to escape the dog attack. The housewife feels sorry of course and is put in a guilt-inducing situation where she has to apologize and make up for it as they blame this misbehaviour on her poor training of the dog. Peter dropped the eggs yet again, because of the dog this time, and asks for the last 4 eggs. The stake raised, now she has to give up all 12 eggs, with nothing left for her. All or nothing.
But the process of commitment carefully set up makes it more difficult to get out of her responsibilities. She has to justify her refusal to hand out the 4 eggs. In fact she finds less credible arguments to excuse herself out. They repeat what she said earlier in a polite conversation, to use it against her false excuses now :
Peter : "You said you will go shopping on Monday anyway"

These 4 eggs, or more exactly the decision to give them for free, represent so much more emotional frustration than their face value. She only withhold the eggs by principle to express her anger and punish them for becoming insistently rude. Step by step, the original 4 eggs cost the price of twelve. Even twelve eggs isn't a big deal for this wealthy bourgeoise, but she doesn't want to be fooled a third time in a row. This trivial demand has been invested with a symbolic stand off. Even if she keeps the eggs to teach them manners, she would have lost 8 eggs and a phone, without the initial expectation to make up with her "upset" neighbour. Not to mention the bad reputation.
She didn't ask anything to begin with... and in 10 minutes she risks to get cross with her neighbours because this clumsy stranger asked for eggs that are useless to her! All this is rather silly.

5) a golf club

Notice that the two strangers entered the hallway, backs to the door (Trojan Horse-like intrusion of the private space in harmless clothes), the foot-in-the-door worked, literally. Suddenly Paul admires with emphasis her husband's golf clubs. These little words both remind her about the game they want to enjoy with the neighbours later on (Paul : "We [intruders+neighbours] don't stand a chance against such perfect clubs"), and flatter her ego (she humbly declares "a club doesn't make the player").
OK, last chance to start the vacations on the right foot. She's persuaded to let him try a swing in the garden, in the hope to put all this petty misunderstanding behind them. She would probably not have let a stranger use the precious clubs under normal circumstances, but this new foot-in-the-door, a step deeper, pushes her to accept this little concession. This will drag her into more trouble of course... She just gave her killer the weapon that will cause her demise!

6) good cop, bad cop

She grew a certain mistrust and dislike for Peter, but she still has to be grateful and polite to Paul because he helped for the boat. The situation now evolved in a good cop/bad cop manipulative relation. Paul plays the good cop, trying to conciliate the clashing parties with compromising solutions. This way it's easier for the mother to concede something to Paul that she would deny to Peter.
When the dog stops barking in a scream, the father arrives to see what's going on. He wants to sort out the conflict, but it's too late. The trap is loaded, the killers planted a firm foothold in the house, the family is hooked.
Paul welcomes the new participant because the dialogue with the mother was at a stalemate. He now can manipulate the father to press his wife into submission. The father doesn't know what happened, and his wife can't explain anything because the whole thing is so silly and she's too humiliated to have to justify herself in public. The father even has to apologize for the aggressiveness of his wife, but still wants to obey her so asks them to leave without the eggs even though he doesn't understand why.

7) a kneecap for a slap

Until now, the conversation is annoying at worse but remains very polite and restrained. In total control of the situation, Paul may taunt his upset victims, push them to the edge and let them make the incriminating step across the decency line. Paul makes a bad remark and gets a slap in the face. Peter instantly grabs a club and demolishes the father's knee cap! An eye for an eye. The father just gave them the opportunity (and the justification) to raise the stake, to go from verbal annoyance to physical violence.

This is really a cat-and-mouse game, the cat enjoys watching the captive mouse suffer, prisoner, struggling to get away. They could use the hyperbolic amount of violence usual in killer movies and end this tragedy before we begin to question our sense of morality. But Haneke wants us to endure the reality of what we asked for when we bought a thriller ticket. Violence isn't just spectacular effects, surprise jumps, adrenaline rushes... Paul and Peter only find it entertaining when the victims are fighting back.

to be continued... (eventually)

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