Funny Games

Rating ** Worth seeing

Written and directed by Michael Haneke

With Susanne Lothar, Ulrich MŸhe, Frank Giering, Arno Frisch, and Stefan Clapczynski.

The Beyond

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Lucio Fulci

Written by Fulci, Dardano Sacchetti, and Giorgio Mariuzzo

With Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, and Maria Pia Marsala.

By Lisa Alspector

Among the movies showing in town that can be broadly categorized as thrillers, two represent murder and mayhem with particular enthusiasm: the neatly constructed Funny Games, a home-invasion fable playing at Facets Multimedia Center for one week, and the erratic effects vehicle The Beyond, a supernatural horror rerelease screening midnight Friday and Saturday at the Music Box. Both movies–one perhaps more intentionally than the other–encourage viewers to examine their responses to, as well as to enjoy, the essential elements of exploitation filmmaking.

In Funny Games a family of three arrive at their vacation home and are rudely, then violently accosted by two young men who have so terrorized the resort community that the neighbors don’t dare warn the new arrivals. When I saw the movie at the Chicago International Film Festival last year, the audience was small and some people walked out. Maybe they were anticipating another kind of movie, maybe they’d seen enough movies in which cruel people torture innocent but stupid ones. But the thing about this double-edged killer thriller is that it can alienate not only viewers with more delicate tastes but habitual consumers of spectacles of fictional violence. Funny Games accuses its audience of complicity in the crimes it depicts simply because we’re watching it–an accusation that’s implicit in almost every violent narrative, though many try to discourage viewers from remembering this. But this movie goes even further–insisting that our very expectations make us culpable. Because we think we know how the crimes depicted in the story will go down–we’ve seen it all before–we become a part of the machinery that victimizes the characters. It’s as if we’re helping to orchestrate their suffering instead of just anticipating it.

Writer-director Michael Haneke (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) communicates this thesis very clearly, mostly through one of the two killers, Paul (who refers to himself and the other killer as Paul and Peter, or Tom and Jerry, or Beavis and Butt-head). Paul addresses the camera on several occasions, making reference to the structure of the story and to the expectations of the audience. Haneke also builds other antinarrative elements into the narrative without noticeably interrupting its flow.

But for this movie to simultaneously fulfill genre conventions and analyze them, the filmmaker must be a willing opportunist as well as a social critic–and Haneke’s movie is certainly sadistic as well as self-reflexive. Though Haneke parodies many of the conventions of psychodrama (including the psychoanalyzing of killers, when Paul facetiously tells several tales about Peter’s childhood), the victims are well-rounded characters fighting for their lives and dignity. Georg, the father, is the first to be seriously injured, and after that he does very little to protest the treatment of his wife, Anna, and son, Georgie. Whether Georg will be able to live with himself should he survive this ordeal is a prospect perhaps as daunting as any of the monstrous challenges the killers contrive during a night’s worth of events guaranteed to end in one grim way or another.

Yet because each scene is so conscientiously constructed to make plain the family’s dynamics–Georg’s frustration and fear, Anna’s fortitude, Georgie’s confusion and determination–it becomes almost impossible for the movie to do what it so clearly wants to: undercut its own compelling realist fiction. In one scene Paul insists that Georg decide whether Anna will strip–and possibly be raped–or Georgie will be beaten. Like every other demand Paul makes, this one seems to contain the element of choice. But the knowledge that Paul and Peter might do anything to any member of the family at any time makes the idea that Georg could exercise control by making a decision an ironic, sadistic joke. Yet if the point is that as viewers we are like Georg–passively choosing to view one sort of suffering over another as we consume our fiction seemingly free of consequences–the psychodrama remains poignant. The emotions of the victims are clear and complex–their conflicts dominate our experience of the narrative as powerfully as all the devices telling us to look elsewhere for the movie’s themes.

In an interview in Sight and Sound it was suggested to Haneke that a viewer who wouldn’t want to watch or participate in a real act of violence would just walk out of this movie. He agreed, adding, “Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film, and anybody who stays does.” In a statement included in the movie’s publicity materials he describes the complicated relationship between representations of violence in both documentaries and fiction and our perceptions of the reality of violence, then spells out his intentions for Funny Games: “How can I restore to my representation the value of reality which it has lost?…How do I show the viewer his own position in relation to violence and its portrayal?” Funny Games does function, at least in part, as he seems to have intended. Yet I’m not sure this isn’t the result of context as much as content. If the movie were programmed at multiplexes, would viewers react any differently than they might to the Scream movies? These movies seem to insist that they’re doing something other than simply representing a highly codified genre–the old-hat self-reflexive terror movie–when in fact that’s all they do.

The Beyond, a 1981 potboiler known then as Seven Doors of Death, was cowritten and directed by Lucio Fulci, one of several living-dead vehicles he made hot on the heels of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). The last chunk of its largely incoherent story is a long, repetitive zombie attack on a freaked-out heiress and a take-charge doctor, who wastes tons of ammunition on the advancing horde without noticing that only those zombies who take one to the head go down and stay down. This part of the movie seems intended only for the hardest-core zombie crunchers–who might find the redundancy as satisfying as the slight variations in the extras’ sutures, decaying limbs, and rotting eye sockets–though this numbing scene isn’t a bad lead-up to the moody finale.

The heiress and the doctor had joined forces earlier in the movie, set mainly in 1981, after some workmen were fatally injured during the restoration of the heiress’s Louisiana hotel and reanimated by something in the basement. The story begins 54 years before when a mob of frightened townspeople murder a painter who located an entrance to hell in the hotel, where he did his last painting, foreshadowing doom for humankind. Determined to close the portal to disaster, the mob subject the dying painter to a series of horrible mutilations in a scene that becomes increasingly abstract, with tight shots depicting the violation of dummy body parts and melodramatic music setting the tone. In another scene the same virulent blend of realism and stylization is used when an architect has his face torn apart by ravenous tarantulas. Moisture on a realistic tongue figures in a close-up, but the attack is so stagy it’s nearly impossible to view the victim as even a representation of a human being–he’s mainly canvas for the gore artists on the production team. With disturbing ingenuity, these and other artful yet cheesy set pieces interrupt the movie’s perfunctory, disorganized plot. In one of the best, a foamy tide of blood creeps across the floor of an autopsy room, and a red-haired schoolgirl adds to the striking color scheme and abstract beauty of the compositions as she tries to keep her Mary Janes out of the mess after the door mysteriously locks behind her.

In violating representations of the human body with this kind of vivid, kaleidoscopic variety, the filmmakers allude only vaguely to the vulnerability of real human bodies. The clumsy stock characters immediately give up most of their claim to representing real people. Yet the movie prompted me to consider the difference between representation and reality more deeply than Funny Games, whose realism may have done as much to undercut the filmmaker’s point as to make it.

The streamlined story of Funny Games contains powerful reflective pauses, little repetition, and no uncertainty. The Beyond is so loosely constructed that the placement of several shots and scenes seems accidental if not random. Yet this chaos allows an awareness of the movie’s contrivedness to dominate the experience of viewing it. Because The Beyond is such a transparent excuse for the depiction of gore, it caused me to think hard about the act of watching cinematic bloodletting, about what it might mean for viewers to perceive terrorized characters as only the faintest representations of human beings in misery.

Other people who saw The Beyond when I did laughed a lot. One stimulus was a sign outside the door of the autopsy room that read Do Not Entry, courtesy of the Italians who made this movie for English-speaking audiences. I don’t think the people who laughed at this–and at the other errors and the camp–instead of reacting to the horrific elements were unconsciously deflecting an unmanageable emotion (unless it was boredom). But I didn’t find the ungrammatical sign funny–it was much too earnest, like the rest of The Beyond, a labor-intensive simulation of things that would traumatize us if we actually saw or experienced them. However stylized gore or violence in movies may be, part of its power is that it’s difficult not to consider the vulnerability of real human bodies when we watch representations of them made hopelessly vulnerable. It doesn’t matter how phony they look or how many devices remind us of the distance between what’s represented (people, violence) and what’s shown (fake bodies, fake actions); part of our response stems from our inability to distinguish completely between mere representation and what it represents. People who cheer during actioners when characters get blown away may be callous, but they wouldn’t even be excited if they weren’t feeling that someone was in some sense being hurt.

Haneke’s perfect little thriller can ‘t transcend this issue much better than any other attempt to show the problems inherent in representing violence–because the burden is always going to be on the viewer to appreciate the difference between an act of violence and a portrayal of an act of violence. As Haneke points out in his director’s statement, technology and other forces may have made this increasingly difficult to do–but it always was difficult and it always will be.

When I first saw Funny Games it fascinated me because it seemed to demonstrate a devotee’s appreciation of genre conventions even as it put forth a subversive agenda. Haneke seemed to be acknowledging forthrightly the sensibility that’s at the heart of all filmmaking (and perhaps the heart of all violence): a person saying, I can make you feel how I want you to feel whenever I want–unless you can walk away. He literally underscores the allegorical basis of Paul and Peter’s funny games by linking some potent, pleasurably raucous music to the killers’ mind-sets (when Paul puts on a CD) and to his own as the filmmaker (by using the same music as ambience).

But I’d seen the movie before reading the interview Haneke gave Sight and Sound or his director’s statement (a variety of documents I’ve yet to see distributed at a public screening, where viewers have only the movie from which to divine the filmmakers’ intentions). Because I’m much more sure that hypocrisy is dangerous than that violence in movies is, his printed exegesis describing his movie as an act of social responsibility–in effect, a program of viewer rehabilitation–read like an apology for the fact that he’s made not only a functional allegory but an excellent thriller.

The publicity materials for the rerelease of The Beyond contain a director’s statement too, a 1993 quote that may be as sincerely spiritual as it is spinnable by publicists: “What I wanted to get across with this film,” Fulci said, “was the idea that all of life is often really a terrible nightmare and that our only refuge is to remain in this world, but outside time.” (Maybe this explains the movie’s chronology glitches.)

But the idea that any movie can be illuminated by its makers’ lofty justifications seems wishful if not reckless. However people may respond to Funny Games, it might have better served the goal of getting viewers to think about consuming screen violence if Haneke had stood mute, resisting interviews or explanatory publicity, and let the movie–a representation of the reality of violent movies–speak for itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Funny Games film still; The Beyond film still.