Funny Games (2007): What We Talk About When We Call A Film Pretentious

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The word “pretentious” is often a descriptor used when discussing a non-mainstream film. I propose that it is a word that is less describing the film and more about our relationship to us. It’s rarely used in a positive manner and often used to describe a film that is constructed in a non-traditional way; there is no chronological narrative, the dialogue is inflated, there’s more of an experimental element to the film than simply showing us a story. We believe it to be pretentious because we think the filmmaker is using these bizarre techniques just to be cool and edgy for being cool and edgy’s sake. [This is often the same argument used in anyone doing a take-down of so-called “hipsters”.]

For many of the films we consider pretentious, I’m sure that the filmmaker was just trying to make his vision happen and intended the film to be the way it is, using elements that appealed to her and part of the holistic part of the film. It’s open to interpretation for the viewer, much like any piece of fine art is viewed through the lens of our own ideas, making each piece of art have meaning to us. We have the freedom to take the film at face value or assign a certain meaning to it (the crazies in Rom 237 certainly take this to heart). The film maker may or may not have a specific idea in mind, but is pleased when the audience takes the time for interpretation. [“That movie really made me think..” ] Calling something pretentious is a defense mechanism we use when we can’t make sense of what we see, so it’s the film maker’s fault.

Conversely, 2007’s Funny Games is a movie that is indeed the very definition of pretentious. I claim it as such because the characters literally break the fourth wall to scold us for enjoying the violence and torture we are watching. However, it’s the actual act of watching the film that allows us to hear this scolding, so the point is moot. It’s a Catch 22: we have to watch the film to get the lecture about watching it, so it’s a mobius strip of shaming.

Let us first talk about the actual film and its merits, because there are actually quite a few. Director/writer Michael Hanneke filmed this American version as a shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 Austrian film. The mere fact that he repeated his entire work of art already lends itself well to the opinion that Hanneke really, really, loves himself. The premise is simple and direct: an upper class family is manipulated, tortured and eventually killed at their vacation home by two young men dressed in golf attire. And yes, all members of the family are killed by the end of the film. This, in itself defies the typical expectation of a home invasion film; usually the captured eventually fight back and the perpetrators get what they deserve and although some characters may lose their lives, the main protagonist makes it out alive. Not here. It’s 100 minutes of seeing the last moments of an innocent family’s life. That is unexpected, but still not pretentious.

This film starts out following a familiar trope; the happy family arrives at their home and gets settled when Peter, a seemingly innocent young man comes by to borrow some eggs, repeatedly dropping them and causing annoyance to Anne. When Paul arrives and starts pushing her about the eggs, she knows something is wrong  and these two young men are up to no good. Even though the audience knows these are the villains, the tension still builds in a beautiful, eerie way. Peter and Paul begin to enjoy the fear they impart on their captives, playing nonsensical games with the family about who they want to kill first. Michael Pitt as the alpha is incredibly creepy; he has innate looks that makes him appear to be the spoiled boarding school kid with sadistic tendencies.

Peter leaves to find a knife in the kitchen, and the shot stays on him rummaging in the kitchen even as we hear the gunshot and the scream from the next room. He shows no reaction, maintaining his indifference to the violence he inflicts. It’s a truly great scene and a great artistic choice. However, even me, such the seasoned film critic, was shocked when Peter returns to the living room to reveal that Paul has shot the young son point blank. Peter and Paul then leave the house unexpectedly, and the majority of the film is Anne deal with the fact that her son is dead in front of her, while being stripped of her clothes and being tied up. Her first thought is to shut off the television, and we have an unsettling performance of two parents entirely in shock. They fumble around, trying to figure out how to make the film work, what they should do next, and Anne planning her escape. It’s weirdly ordinary and procedural, as people in shock usually don’t act the way they usually do.

Not surprisingly, Anne finally runs from the house screaming for help, Peter and Paul recapture her and bring her back to the house to the horror of Tim, and he manipulates Anne by playing another game in which she chooses the way Tim is going to die (by knife or gun). Anne lunges for the shotgun and shoots Peter, splaying his insides along the back wall. It’s the moment of the film, had this followed the typical suspense formula, in which Anne would suddenly gain control and get her revenge. Peter suddenly grabs the television remote and rewinds the actual scene we watched, to replay it where Anne is not able to get the gun away from him. It’s a blaring, gimmicky thing to do in a film, and I (and hundreds of other imdb message board users) really took issue with.

Why? Aside from being very out of place, the intention is for Hanneke to say “hey! what you thought was going to happen, what you wanted to happen, is NOT going to happen. This is not that kind of movie.” It’s very heavy-handed, and a pretty dick move, to be honest. It’s telling the audience that they are not intelligent enough to interpret the film themselves and have to be told how to react. Eventually, Peter shoots and kills Tim, leaving Ann practically catatonic. Peter and Paul lead her out to the boat on the dock, and have a convenient conversation about what is real life and what is imaginary, and some nonsense about the gray area between our world and alternate universes. Okay, we get it Hanneke, you are practically screaming at us “hey! I’m not going to tell you if this really happened or not! It’s ambiguous!” The two young men unceremoniously push Anne out of the boat, leaving her to drown (her arms and legs are bound). They arrive on the opposite shore and Peter knocks on the door of the house before them, asking the woman if he can borrow some eggs, implying that the cycle of torture is about the begin.

When you read about horrible crimes about people being murdered (such as The Cheshire Murders) you feel horrible about it, but you rarely think about the actual details and in the moment terror that occurs. Our brains are more likely to feel an overall sense of empathy, but don’t often go to what was it actually like? What actually happened? Funny Games provides you with the terrifying, unsettling moments of a family about to be murdered. Their pain and suffering may be worth it should they rise above and defeat the enemy, but they lost the game from the moment the film began. We are not given any backstory or motives for Peter and Paul, making them represent just pure evil.

When I decide on the subjective value of the film, I am basically asking the question, “why was this film made?” and, more specifically, “why was this a story that needed to be told?” and I had a hard time answering this for Funny Games. As a study, the thesis of the film could read as “a film that shows the inherent nature of evil doings, and the human suffering they inflict” and “it’s a commentary on how, as moviegoers, we view violence as entertainment, which is bad”. As I mentioned above, Hanneke forced this down our throats with nothing left up to interpretation, and that just really rubbed me the wrong way. Judging your audience for watching the film you made as proof that the audience are sick violence-lovers is practically the epitome of pretentious.

Cinematically, there are merits. Firstly, Naomi Watts is a powerhouse. I haven’t seen the movie where her family gets killed in the tsunami, but now I know why she was cast. I can also see how they used her agonized face as the film poster. I can’t even imagine how she got into the mindset while filming this. Michael Pitt oozed both confidence and pure evil, and a good villain is actually hard to play. The set design, and cinematography and camera direction were all superb, providing such great shots as blood dripping off the playing television, and focusing on Anne without leaving her face as she is berated by Peter. The opening shot of the car driving through the woods is akin to the opening of The Shining. Inside the car, the family is listening and enjoying classical music, only to turn it into death metal, still enjoying it in the same way they were the classical music. [Symbolism for how their lives are about to erupt in chaos? Maybe too easy, Hanneke.] Still. I’m a sucker for when the film’s title is suddenly and without warning injected full-screen into the film, which this certainly does (see also: Cabin in the Woods.)

Funny Games is certainly not a must-see for horror fans, but it certainly can be a conversation starter when talking about films. There are dozens of other films who attempt the message that do it way better. Masochistically, I love the frustration that the film brings up for me, because actively hating something about the film is enjoyable as a critic. Sometimes that hate can be transformed into appreciation; hey, it happened for me with Lars Von Trier.

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