Who’s Laughing Now?

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures

A couple of years ago, I was the butt of Michael Haneke’s joke. The good folks at Kino Video sent me a package of the Austrian director’s pre-Caché features, from his first, The Seventh Continent, through his U.S. art-house breakthrough, The Piano Teacher. Among them was Funny Games, which Haneke has now remade with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. The original is the tale of a well-to-do family—mom, dad, little son—whose vacation home is invaded by two courteous young men in white preppy duds who, for no apparent reason, go on to taunt them, torture them, and … I won’t say more, although I’d love to bury you under a mound of spilled beans. I watched to the end, removed the DVD from the player, and snapped it over my knee. Then, with a pair of scissors, I cut the halves into quarters, walked the pieces to the kitchen garbage can, and shoved them under the debris of the previous night’s dinner. It only hit me later that my melodramatic response would have delighted the director. It takes a special kind of talent to drive a critic who enjoys zombie cannibal pictures to cry, “Unclean!”

Naomi Watts produced this remake, apparently concluding that she hadn’t yet been sufficiently violated onscreen. King Kong, after all, turned out to be a softy—now she’s in the hairy paw of a giant ape artiste. (What is it with actors and their masochism?) I can’t say whether the American Funny Games is a frame-by-frame remake of the original (see above re my DVD), but the changes are certainly minimal. Here are the same elegant tableaux (the house is a study in off-white country chic, with touches of Laura Ashley), the same impassive camera, the same creepy-crawly flatness of tone. Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet now play “Paul” and “Peter,” who move from gated compound to gated compound, introducing themselves with a polite request on behalf of a neighbor for eggs, dropping them “by accident,” asking for more, breaking them again (oops), then resisting the owners’ increasingly hysterical pleas to leave. (“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing.” “What game? Did I do something wrong?”) They are savage one moment and righteously indignant the next, as if all this unpleasantness were a consequence of their hosts’ discourtesy.

Haneke’s postmodern twist is that Paul occasionally turns to the camera and either winks at or addresses the audience—a bit of camp that, surprisingly, doesn’t take the edge off what we’re watching. The suffering of the mother, father, and child is hideously realistic, and our thoughts turn not to the picture’s artifice but to the line of cinematic killers who videotape their atrocities, among them the protagonists of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Haneke’s own Benny’s Video—in which a media-deadened 14-year-old boy (played by Arno Frisch, who grew up to be one of the home invaders in the original Funny Games) repeatedly watches a tape of a pig being slaughtered, then tries out the pig-killing gun on an adolescent girl in a scene that would appall even No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh.

In contrast to the punkish, microbudget American “Cinema of Transgression” of the eighties, Haneke’s work is lovingly polished, juxtaposing (as Kubrick did) acts of brutality with classical music and opera. (In The Piano Teacher, the title character sabotages a prize pupil’s fingers by dumping shards of glass in her coat pocket.) Peter and Paul are more effete (and arch) than the Leopold-and-Loeb-like killers of Hitchcock’s Rope: They tearfully recount childhoods of neglect and abuse, and then break up over their fictions. They might be the final products of Haneke’s “glaciation trilogy” (Benny’s Video was in there), in which the director indicted the people of Austria for their callousness toward the carnage in Bosnia. (In Caché, the director went on to punish the French—via videos that seemed to bubble up from their collective unconscious—for repressing their crimes against Algerian immigrants.) The sociopaths of Funny Games are monstrous, but Haneke also seems to be mocking the American family they ravage for its privileged obliviousness.

I say “seems to be” because it’s difficult to grapple with serious themes when what comes through most vividly is the director’s sadism. In the end, the film is little more than high-toned torture porn with an edge of righteousness not unlike Peter and Paul’s. The home-invasion genre (Panic Room, etc.) is an especially nightmarish one: Audiences flock to these thrillers because of an implicit compact with the filmmaker that the invaders will be vanquished and the family unit saved. You could make the case that Haneke deserves a measure of respect for showing us how pathetically dependent we are on that compact and its cathartic endings. You could, but I won’t, because Haneke’s assault on our fantasy lives is shallow, unimaginative, and glacially unengaged—a sucker punch without the redeeming passion of punk.

And now that I’ve metaphorically cut the remake of Funny Games into little pieces, I picture Haneke laughing, having once again succeeded in shocking the bourgeoisie. That’s the thing about vapid provocateurs. No matter how wretched their work, they think the joke is always on us.

Next to Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas is a harmless little fetishist: He takes very attractive women, thrusts them into situations of peril (physical and psychological), and gets off (implicitly) on their efforts to wriggle their way out. He doesn’t eroticize the violence the way Brian De Palma sometimes does, but he doesn’t cut as deeply as De Palma, either. (It’s fitting that his best-known film in this country, Irma Vep, is a study of a director struggling to make a fetishistic femme-fatale movie.) Assayas’s newest thriller, Boarding Gate, stars Asia Argento at her most Asia Argento–esque—both aggressively carnal and progressively violated. (She’s the daughter of Italian splatter-maestro Dario Argento, but I can’t help thinking there was a mix-up at the hospital and her dad was Klaus Kinski.) The film is largely set in Paris and has two distinct sections. The first is a messy psychodrama in which ex-prostitute Argento does the attraction-repulsion two-step with Michael Madsen as a debt-ridden mogul. Assayas is out of his element here, and the encounters have no snap: It’s like one of those two-character plays in which the frequent pauses are filled with the audience’s coughing spasms. Then there’s a bloody murder, and Argento lams it to Hong Kong, where she finds herself knocked around by Chinese assassins, shadowy high-finance companies, and a jilted wife who drugs her and plops her down in a limo to be whisked away. (At one point, she is nearly shanghaied—to Shanghai!) Boarding Gate was evidently made quickly and cheaply, and parts of it are fun. It’s too bad there’s no real viewer equivalent—that you can’t watch a film quickly and cheaply.

Early on, Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs makes good on its title. After a realistic opening in which some attractive young people mope about their unsatisfactory ménage à trois (it’s two dishy girls getting it on, one Jewish guy unexpectedly left out), the guy (Louis Garrel) and his girlfriend (Ludivine Sagnier) begin to sing to (really, at) each other in an alley. Alex Beaupain’s pop melodies are tuneful, his lyrics pithy, Honoré’s staging and editing perfect—not too choppy, not too static. The walls of realism just float away, then come back with a soft landing. Love Songs loses some fizz when a major character drops dead: The central dilemma disappears, and the bathos doesn’t mesh as well with the movie’s lightness. But the ease with which the songs—and the inner worlds they invoke—arise out of the characters’ emotions is exhilarating. Sagnier’s sister is played by Chiara Mastroianni, whose mother, Catherine Deneuve, was the ravishing center of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Love Songs is more modest, not such a color-coordinated objet d’art. Honoré has proven you can make a movie musical in which style doesn’t upstage content—a movie musical that blossoms from the inside out.

The Christopher Guest improvisational “mockumentary” form is precarious: In a heartbeat the actors can go from too realistic (not funny) to too broad (bye-bye illusion). Zak Penn’s The Grand is a seesaw, but the setting—the high-stakes poker subculture—is remarkably fertile and the actors are a treat. Cheryl Hines has mastered the technique of remaining unaffectedly chirpy in moments of extreme farce, and Ray Romano is a groggy wonder as her husband, who was once struck by lightning and is now a beat behind. Best of all is Chris Parnell, who meets no one’s eyes and holds forth in a singsong monotone—an Asperger’s poster boy even those with the syndrome will find gut-busting.

Why laboriously remake a German art-house film shot by shot, and in English with a Hollywood cast? To reach the American audience who ignored it as a foreign film ten years ago. Producers Hamish McAlpine and Chris Coen approached Haneke to see if he would allow them to use his 1997 film, never expecting that he would be interested in participating in the project. Haneke said he’d direct it himself if Naomi Watts would play the lead, explaining to the Times that “Funny Games was always made with American audiences in mind, since its subject is Hollywood’s attitude toward violence … I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence.”

Funny Games
Directed by Michael Haneke.
Warner Independent. R.

Boarding Gate
Directed by Olivier Assayas.
Magnet. R.

Love Songs
Directed by Christophe Honoré.
IFC Films. NR.

The Grand
Directed by Zak Penn.
Anchor Bay Entertainment. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Who’s Laughing Now?