Screen Tests

Quickly, decisively, and with persistently good manners, Peter and Paul (saintly names, mind you), both wearing white gloves, take over, immobilizing Georg with a well-placed whang to the knee with one of his own golf clubs. (This act was prompted by Georg slapping Paul, who had first provoked Georg verbally.) Again, like the eggs accident, we don't see the golf club attack, although we hear it and then are thrust visually into its aftermath. "Why are you doing this?" we hear Georg plead. "Why not?" Paul replies matter-of-factly off-screen. And with the family virtual prisoners in their own home, slowly, deliberately, Haneke turns up the violence knob, as the two young men invent a series of seemingly innocuous "games" that degenerate into wrenching, escalating misery for the family. It all climaxes with a bet: whether or not Georg, Anna, and Georgie will still be alive in twelve hours, at 9 a.m. Peter and Paul wager they won't.

"I try to find ways of representing violence as that which it always is: as inconsumable," Haneke is quoted as saying in the film's press materials. "I give back to violence that which it is: pain, a violation of others." Well, yeah. To accomplish this the filmmaker gradually pries us away from our usual expectations of screen violence -- the cartoon explosions and ridiculous bullet ballets orchestrated by Hollywood and its countless overseas imitators. Not only does he rigorously imply rather than depict physical violence, he painstakingly portrays the considerably more unnerving psychological violence that Peter and Paul visit upon the family without motive, without reason. (The pair comes across like highly twisted, contempo versions of '20s American "thrill killers" Leopold and Loeb.) Funny Games subverts our conditioned response to filmic violence, not allowing us to march numbly -- detachedly -- out of the theater, as is our custom, after ingesting a two-hour dose of shoot-'em-up mayhem. The film sticks with you, a creepy wart on the psyche.

Haneke toys with our expectations of movies in other ways, too, teasing viewers with a fleeting, fake Hollywood-style thriller resolution; and twice he has Paul turn directly to the camera -- a la George Burns on the old '50s Burns and Allen TV show -- to address the audience, consciously blurring cinematic "reality" and fiction. He wants you to remember that you're watching a film unspool. By doing this, I think, Haneke perhaps overstates his case. The narrative alone -- and a brief discussion Peter and Paul conduct at the end about matter/antimatter and reality/fiction (based on what seems to be a comic book Peter has read) -- would have sufficed.

Other filmmakers have previously addressed the subject of unalloyed psychological violence -- notably Peter Weir in his 1980 made-for-Australian-TV movie The Plumber, which also featured a disturbingly plausible home invasion -- but seldom, if ever, has it been done with such cerebral audacity as Haneke does with Funny Games. (Saturday, January 31, 4:30 p.m.)

-- Michael Yockel

Twenty-seven years ago I sat in a packed Baltimore movie house watching the just-out Summer of '42, an empty-headed coming-of-age piece of fluff wherein a well-scrubbed teenage Everyguy (Gary Grimes) loses his virginity, after much hemming and hawing, to a well-scrubbed Older Woman (Jennifer O'Neill) whose hubby has gone off to fight in World War II. At the breathless moment when it becomes apparent that they're going to "do it," with the audience hushed and dewy-eyed, one moviegoer, unable to contain himself, burst into gales of laughter. He couldn't stop. It all struck him, I guess, as absolutely absurd. At the time I was annoyed; now I know the guy was light-years ahead of the rest of us saps who were sopping up this cinematic glop.

That moment came back to me more than once as I squirmed through En Brazos de la Mujer Madura (In Praise of Older Women), Spanish director Manuel Lombardero's half-inch-deep romantic drama, adapted from Stephen Vizinczey's novel that first showed up on-screen in 1978 courtesy of Canadian filmmaker George Kaczender (who has since gone on to carve out a career for himself doing disease-of-the-week, made-for-TV movies). Kaczender's film stuck with the novel's setting (Hungary -- World War II and beyond) and premise (Hungarian dude recounts twenty years' worth of sexual exploits). First-time director Lombardero and screenwriter Rafael Azcona shift the action to Spain during that nation's late '30s civil war.

In 1937 handsome fifteen-year-old Andres (Miguel A. Garcia) takes off for the front in search of his fascist-sympathizing mom when the nearby war -- which we hear about only over the radio -- prompts his school to close. En route to who-knows-where he meets up with a scruffy band of Republican soldiers from the socialist government who've commandeered a rural inn; Andres joins them and peels potatoes for the forces of good. According to Lombardero and Azcona, war is swell: happy-go-lucky soldiers, beaming peasants delivering fresh produce, a nifty inn as barracks, picture-postcard landscape, fine weather, meals-on-wheels for the grunts in the trenches who never fire their guns. But Andres broods anyway. No babes. But wait! Straight out of nowhere, in waltzes a stuffy English duke and his take-charge American wife (a completely over-the-top Faye Dunaway), captured while motoring through the Spanish countryside on holiday. (Like many other people, the duke and duchess enjoy vacationing in a foreign nation in the midst of civil war.) Well anyway, through a series of ridiculous circumstances too dumb to recount, the duchess "breaks in" the horny Andres to the strains of tinkly, mushy music. (Cue man tittering in audience.)

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