Okay, I've now seen Cache and this, Michael Haneke's original Austrian version with the American remake coming out soon. I'll give him one more movie to prove that he's not completely heartless and smug, and then I'm done with him. Spoilers follow.
The plot of Funny Games is straight-forward. A middle-class family (including the late Ulrich Muhe, from The Lives of Others) is going for a weekend trip to their lake house, which is disrupted by two violent, psychopathic home invaders, a pair of charming young men. Torture and suspense ensues.
Now I'm firmly on record as being a fan of horror movies and movies that feature torture and violence and gore, when used the right way. And indeed, when Funny Games is operating as a suspense thriller, it's very effective: excellent performances from the leads, finely observed details, unfliching direction and camerawork. The third act of the film (out of four) is particularly strong, showing (SPOILERS) the husband and wife recovering after their son has been murdered and the killers have fled, trying to figure out what to do next, how to survive when the killers might come back. It works because the audience is allowed to firmly feel sympathy and compassion for these heartbreaking characters.
The problem is, Haneke repeatedly uses poor-man's Brechtian techniques - a character who self-consciously winks to the camera and talks to the audience, a gimmick that at one point allows the film to be 'rewound' to redo a crucial plot twist - for the purposes of drawing the viewer's attention to the cinematic artifice. Once again, I don't have a problem with cinematic self-reflexivity - when used the right way (see DePalma, Brian). Haneke's intention appears to be to indict the audience (that most tedious of film-school concepts) into analyzing their attraction to violence, and to refresh our sense of outrage, to prevent us from enjoying the spectacle in traditional ways.
That's not how the film actually works, though, if you ask me. By breaking the cinematic illusion, Haneke's effect is not to undermine our relationship with the violent spectacle of the film, but rather to undermine and mock our emotional connection with the characters and their victimhood. When Haneke shows a killer torturing a wife by forcing her to choose whether she or her husband will be murdered by shooting or stabbing, and then looks at the camera to ask, "What do you think?" The effect is to spit in the face of anyone who would have a normal, human reaction to a another's dehumanization.
Let me put it this way: if you kick me in the balls, and then say "just kidding!", you still kicked me in the balls.
It's as if Haneke is trying to undermine the entire narrative tradition, not just in film but in any medium, in which characters are developed, go through emotional rises and falls, and through their journey the author conveys meaning to the audience. The only meaning I get out of Haneke's smug manipulations are that audiences are fools for processing and enjoying conventional narratives, and while I'm all in favor of shaking up the audience, or confronting people with unpleasant stories to shake them up, I can't get behind Haneke's nihilistic, anti-cinematic agenda. As far as I'm concerned, the best way to make horrifying images impactful to an audience that's grown numb by Hollywood violence is to play it straight and honest, in films from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre to United 93. I don't need these post-modern head games to teach me how to feel when I go to the movies.
Anyone else? The guy keeps getting called a genius, so somebody must like his stuff.
PS: At least I also know that, if the remake is shot-for-shot faithful to the original, that at some point I can see Naomi Watts draping the world's worst sweater over a transparent bra.