Cruel intentions

Haneke's lesson on cinematic violence is nasty to the point of self-parody

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The critic Pauline Kael once asked: "If art isn't entertainment, then what is it? Punishment?" The films of the Austrian director Michael Haneke answer resoundingly in the affirmative. His motto seems to be "Spare the rod and spoil the audience". Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Funny Games, his 1997 critique of cinematic violence disguised as a thriller. Haneke gets the best of both worlds: he piles on the suspense as ruthlessly as any slasher film, then uses Brechtian distantiation devices to berate us for succumbing to excitement.

Funny Games began Haneke's reign as an art-house darling, peaking with the success in 2006 of Hidden, which Hollywood is now remaking. In the meantime Haneke himself has gone remake-crazy with an English-language version of Funny Games (released on 4 April). The picture is meticulously faithful to the original, which is bad news for anyone hoping for a musical number or a little slapstick this time around.

Anna (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) arrive at their summer home with their young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart). As they're settling in, they are visited by Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), two deferential, cherubic young men in tennis whites. Within 20 minutes of this meeting, Georgie is nursing a broken leg and Anna is being forced to strip at knifepoint, which must make their vacation worthy of one of those Holidays From Hell programmes on ITV, or at least a letter to the consumer page of a national newspaper.

We never learn why Paul and Peter are being so beastly - could it be revenge for Naomi Watts's English accent (as yet another Anna) in Eastern Promises? But, in the midst of the ordeal, Paul makes a wager. "You bet you'll be alive tomorrow," he tells the family, "and we bet you'll be dead." Then he turns to the camera and politely asks who we are betting on. "You're on their side, right?" he grins.

With the exception of these asides, and an even more disruptive moment when Paul grabs the remote control and rewinds the scene we've just been watching, Funny Games is remorselessly realistic. If it takes ten minutes for an injured person to crawl across the room, you can be sure Haneke will show that in real time. The film is cruel to the point of self-parody. When George painstakingly dries out a wet mobile phone with a hairdryer, only for the battery to wane before he can call the police, you wonder what else can go wrong. Will Anna step on a discarded rake and be thwacked in the face? Will George fall through an open manhole?

If you've seen the 1997 Funny Games, I can think of no good reason to watch the new one. You could applaud Watts's convincingly distressed performance, or regret the loss of the frisson that came from having Paul played originally by Arno Frisch, who had portrayed the teenage murderer in Haneke's 1992 film Benny's Video, and was doubly chilling when he turned up again as this older, wiser killer. Yet neither picture, whatever their respective pros and cons, gets any more revealing than in the opening scene, in which George and Anna challenge each other to identify various concertos playing on the car stereo. Thrash-metal music, audible to us but unheard by the smiling couple, suddenly overrides the classical soundtrack, and you realise you are at the mercy of a sinister force: the director.

The whole point of this remake is that it will play at multiplexes alongside the sort of trash it is attacking. In the decade since the first Funny Games, the depressing phenomenon of "torture porn" (Saw, Hostel) has added credence to the film's argument that the viewer is complicit in any on-screen brutality. But Haneke is mistaken if he thinks the new picture will reach the audience that he believes should most heed its warnings.

Few things in cinema are more off-putting than being told you have a lesson to learn. And while it's preferable that our film-makers be responsible people, perhaps we should not turn for moral improvement to an industry that hinges on aggressive verbs like "shoot" and "cut", and describes its successes as hits.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?