George, Anna, and their son, Georgie, travel to their lakeside holiday cabin looking forward to a relaxing time away from the city. As they drive into the area, they call out to friends on a golf course with whom they plan to spend some time. But something is not quite right. There are other visitors playing golf with their friends and, when they meet them, there is an unusual tension. But their friends seem to know them so they put the uncomfortable feeling out of their minds.
They drive on to their cabin and begin to unhook their boat, unpack the car, and settle in. While George and Georgie go off to set up the boat and take a ride, Anna begins to prepare dinner. Then there is a knock at the door and Peter, one of the strangers, asks to borrow some eggs. The tension between Anna and Peter is palpable. He is soon joined by his friend Paul (who call themselves by a variety of names throughout the film) and it becomes obvious that they have no intention of leaving. Instead, they begin to play psychological "games" with the family — terrorising, brutalising, torturing, and killing. Their holiday turns into a hellish nightmare. And they soon discover that they are very much alone with no way out.
The narrative of Funny Games is not the most important element of the movie. It is the violence. As the story unfolds, we are riveted to the screen. The perpetrators are completely sadistic. There is no emotion except the apparent pleasure they are gaining from making others suffer. They do not care for their captors — all they care about is their own enjoyment. As we watch the movie, we wonder why they are doing what they are doing? But no reason is given. Despite the horror of what is happening, we are drawn into the story mostly by our imagination. All of the violence actually happens off the screen. But our imaginations fill in what we do not see to such an extent that we think we have seen it.
Then one of the perpetrators suddenly turns to the camera and looks at me. Nothing is said. But that knowing look confronts me with the fact that I, too, am sitting watching the violence — actually constructing it in my imagination for my own entertainment pleasure. What am I watching? And why? This is the most disturbing moment in the whole movie. In essence, the message is that I am no different to the characters enacting the violence. I am watching it and constructing it in my imagination. What makes me any different to to those on the screen.
Funny Games is a very powerful commentary on violence in the media and the way that we, as audience, participate in it. We may feel offended by the violence, but as we watch we actually become part of its perpetration. We are voyeurs of violence.
The acting is powerfully emotional in Funny Games and the two torturers convey a disinterested immorality with an intensive calm. This is a movie that is hard to watch but impossible to resist.
Funny Games has been criticised for what is alleged to be an underestimation of the intelligence of the audience. Surely most viewers can tell the difference between what they see on the screen and what is reality? But is Haneke right? Have we become so inured by what we see in the media that we can't tell the difference?
Funny Games may not be a film we want to see. But maybe it is one we need to see. Even if Haneke is wrong in his assessment of our relationship to the media, it most certainly bears thinking about.
My Rating: **** (out of 5)
'This elegant and provocative film succeeds in disturbing the peace, as all serious art does; we emerge from it guilty voyeurs, shaken by what we've just witnessed and by our own helplessness to intervene.' Daphne Merkin/The New Yorker
'Posing as a morally challenging work of art, the movie is a really a sophisticated act of cinematic sadism. You go to it at your own risk.' Stephen Holden/The New York Times