For the longest time, Michael Haneke's Funny Games is unremittingly disturbing.
It's the story of a home invasion, but even in the car with the family, before they get to their lakeside summer home where it all happens, Haneke stalks their SUV from afar, then focuses solely on their hands and CDs as they play opera guessing games along the way.
We don't see their faces for several minutes, and inside the house, before the terror begins, we watch long moments of banality, and close-ups of food in the refrigerator, as if to re-enforce their materialistic point of view.
Then, two nice young men in tennis outfits and white gloves enter their lives. Paul (Michael Pitt) is the dominant one; Peter (Brady Corbet) plays the sensitive sidekick. Anna (Naomi Watts) suspects them first, but George (Tim Roth) doesn't believe her. George Jr. (Devon Gearhart) wonders why their dog has suddenly stopped barking and disappeared.
Once the terror begins, Paul and Peter play mind and body games with their captives: They dote on niceties and good manners, pretend that absolutely nothing is wrong, and give Anna a chance to find their missing dog ("Colder ... ice cold ... warmer ... warmer ...").
Then, like something you're not sure you just saw, Paul turns to address the camera: He acknowledges that we're probably on the family's side. Is Haneke playing with us? Is he purposefully breaking our concentration? Does the sociopath Paul think it's all a movie? The answer is yours to discern.
The German-born Haneke -- who made a version of this movie 10 years ago, in Austria -- is one of the few people left making serious cinema on this high a scale. His production values are sterling, his intellect punishing, his use of the camera as economical and complex as nature itself. And yet, there's no pretense in Haneke's work: He's an artist who passionately believes in the existence of inexplicable evil.
Why do Paul and Peter do it? They explain, then explain again, and again and again, each time acting out all of the clichés of stories that try to explain aberrant behavior. You have only to read a newspaper to know that people do sick things for "reasons" we'll never "understand." Still, this is not a scenario without answers. It's simply one where we don't know what those answers are.
Funny Games assaults the complacency of the privileged rich at the same time it explores the metaphysics of cinema. In the prologue before the opening credits, the family plays its genial opera game. Suddenly the soundtrack turns acid rock, and the titles burst onto the screen in red letters. Golf clubs soon become offensive weapons, and when Anna tries to escape, the same electronic fence that keeps the hoi-polloi out prevents her from getting away.
Fortunately, Haneke is not without compassion. No artist is (or should be). When people begin to die -- if you've been paying attention, that's not a plot spoiler -- they do so off screen, although in one case with a splatter pattern of blood that might give TV's Dexter some pause (and a thrill).
Only once does bullet hit flesh before your eyes, and that's the moment at which Haneke goes his furthest in turning his otherwise realistic thriller into a postmodern cogitation. I could argue that he over-plots his path to an ending, but that might just be for argument's sake. Haneke is the sort of director whom you simply trust and engage. His last two films, Cache and The Time of the Wolf, were equally unnerving and recondite -- Funny Games and those two might well be called a trilogy -- and the one before that, The Piano Teacher, explored the outer limits of sexual repression and desire.
A story like this demands a lot of its actors, and they all live (and/or die) up to it. Their performances are surprisingly naturalistic and unrehearsed for such precision cinema, and one long painful scene, shot without interruption, particularly tests Watts and Roth. Although their personal lives and career choices are none of my business, I do hope for their sake that Haneke got it in one take.
Haneke is not too good to embrace the visual techniques of suspense cinema, yet he doesn't trade in surprises -- at least, not in the cheap conventional sense. Every single moment and frame of his film suggests and signifies: In this regard, he reminds me of Louis Malle, a master of the loaded narrative frame. Funny Games unfolds as realistically as a drama can short of being improvised, and if it's unrealistic, I hope I never find out by how much.
Starts Fri., March 14.