The so-called "American remake" of Austrian director Michael Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games—which Haneke directed and filmed in the United States—is a mere shot-for-shot reproduction of its predecessor, stars two English-born actors, and comes off like an elaborate swipe at reconfiguring original works to make them palatable for American ingestion.
However, there is little palatable about watching two young sociopaths hold a bourgeois family hostage inside their upstate New York vacation home and torture them with sadistic glee. And that is just how Haneke intends it. Funny Games is a singularly disquieting experience, as cold and calculating in its execution as the two antagonists.
It is gripping from the moment white-clad/bred Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet) first appear on the doorstep of Ann (Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth) and their young moppet, Georgie (Devon Gearhart), asking to borrow eggs. After disabling George, the two tormentors engage in a prolonged spectacle of physical and psychological cruelty, all of it glazed with an irksome, spurious patina of courteousness.
The young men's backgrounds are purposefully camouflaged: They refer to each other by alternating names (Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butthead, etc.) and concoct false backstories, including sexual abuse by their parents, that sound well-rehearsed for a future jury. In truth, they emanate from the same carefully insulated redoubt that Ann, George and their well-heeled neighbors have erected for themselves: an isolated micro-community shielded behind iron gates, chain-link fencing and elaborate surveillance systems.
Haneke transforms these security accoutrements into a kind of prison in which the barbarians are free to pillage, similar to the techno-terror seen in Haneke's last film, Caché. Those girded gates become a cage, and so dependent are Ann and George—as are we, posits Haneke—on the salve of technology that, in one excruciatingly extended sequence, they squander precious minutes of potential escape time trying to revive a dead cell phone to call 911, instead of promptly dispatching Ann to run for help.
Meanwhile, Haneke's primary intent is to craft a Brechtian mind-game that defies, even mocks genre rules for the sake of convention. All the brutal bloodshed, and in one scene, forced nudity, takes place off-camera, accompanied only by sound effects, their aftermath and our imagination. The lone instance of visible violence—when Ann guns down one of the attackers—is literally rewound by Paul via remote control in order to alter the outcome, positioning the audience to cheer the sole onscreen slaughter and then revile its erasure.
More significant, on several occasions Paul breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience, at one point scoffing at whose side we are undoubtedly taking. He later justifies his prolonged acts of agony for the sake of offering us "a real ending with plausible plot development." And when Ann asks the intruders why they don't just kill her family, Peter reminds her that she "shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment."
Haneke has referred to Funny Games as a parody of the thriller genre—echoes of A Clockwork Orange, Hitchcock's Rope and countless other films abound. The film also keeps with the director's stated desire to offer "polemical statements against the American 'barrel down' cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator." Haneke reduces the role of the audience to that of voyeur, then sticks his thumb through the peephole. In the end, it becomes clear that we, not necessarily this fictional family, are being toyed with and tormented. At once both brilliant and nihilistic, the real paradox is that while Funny Games demands a second viewing, you might not want to give it one. —Neil Morris
Funny Games is now playing in select theaters.
A buzzing beauty salon in Beirut, Lebanon, is the hub of the lives of women who groom, dye, wax, file, shampoo, trim, highlight, moisturize and primp themselves and their clientele. Caramel, a delicious, sugary treat, is also—who knew?—a depilatory. The syrup is cooked on a burner, poured onto a flat surface and kneaded. Fingers and lips are licked, and then delicate feminine moustaches are coated and briskly removed. Such intimate services cannot help but prompt the bonds and confidences of sisterhood.
One young woman (Yasmine Al Masri) cannot tell her traditional Muslim fiancé that she isn't a virgin; another (played by first-time director and screenwriter Nadine Labaki) is having an illicit affair and becomes obsessed with knowing the look, habits and even the scent of her married lover's wife. A middle-aged divorcée (Gisèle Aouad) continues to audition, with increasing panic, for acting roles in commercials whose casting offices seek fresher faces. The shampoo girl (Joanna Moukarzel) sighs for one of the chic customers, and a neighbor, Aunt Rose (Siham Haddad), a melancholy elderly dressmaker, has a sister (Aziza Semaan) falling into dementia.
Yet, Rose anxiously contemplates a last chance for love with a gentleman client. Essentially a valentine to Beirut, a secular Arab society still dressed in the tatters of French colonialism, Caramel is bathed in a sensual golden light. The lovely musical score by Khaled Mouzannar enfolds the characters in a warm embrace. The beauty shop is called Si Belle (So Beautiful) but the top of the "B" has become loose and hangs upside down. So, the appealingly shopworn characters gather their pride and make their choices. Salons are all about transformations, some more successful than others, and rebirth is painful, like having your legs waxed. Happiness exists, and the endearing women of Si Belle realize it can be yours if you choose.—Laura Boyes
Caramel is now playing in select theaters.