Funny Games, 18

Instrument of torture
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The Independent Culture

I was dreading the prospect of Funny Games. I watched Michael Haneke's original German-language film when it came out 10 years ago, and it has taken about that long to get over it. The story of a family tortured by a pair of psychotic intruders, it provoked its audience first by questioning the idea of violence as an entertainment, then by mocking our expectations of catharsis. Instead of escape and revenge – the usual anaesthetics – there would be more horror, more torment. This was a film to leave you winded, like a punch to the gut, and only a masochist (or a sadist) would care for the experience a second time.

I'm afraid that second time has just arrived, because Haneke has decided to remake the film, shot for shot, in English, and shifted the setting to the US. Why now? You could say that the current political climate has piqued our fascination with torture – there's even a scene here with a hood on a head.

More cynically, you could say that it's catching the wave of "torture porn" created by the likes of Hostel and Saw, even though Haneke, the high-European auteur, would disdain the association. There is an appetite, somewhere out there, for the unspeakable, if not the unwatchable, and one can imagine Funny Games gaining a reputation formerly denied to it as an art-house ordeal.

It begins, like a proper horror movie, in humdrum tranquillity. A family arrives at their gated holiday home one fine summer's day, with a boat in tow and a dog called Lucky (which proves anything but). George (Tim Roth) returns from sailing on the lake with his young son (Devon Gearheart) to find his wife Anna (Naomi Watts) in heated dispute with two young men in tennis whites. Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet) seem to be a scrupulously well-mannered pair, and claim they only want to borrow half a dozen eggs – Peter smashed the others earlier. But things turn nasty when Paul smashes George's leg with a golf club, and the slow descent into terror begins.

Watch the Funny Games trailer here

We have seen Hollywood movies that spook their audience with the violation of a family home – Jody Foster defending the fort in Panic Room, Harrison Ford outwitting computer hackers in Firewall – but the criminal motivation was greed, as it nearly always is. Here, there's no rhyme or reason to the torment. "Why are you doing this?" George asks them. "Why not?" Paul replies. Haneke offers us no clue at all; their behaviour is as incomprehensible and brutish as the blast of screeching death-metal that bookends the film.

What's more, he plays with the audience for even bothering to wonder. At one point, Paul turns to address the camera directly. "What do you think?" he smirks, nodding at his victims. "Think they stand a chance?" Later, the film dangles the possibility of a fightback, only to snatch it away by a cruel (and rather crude) alienation device, rewinding the film as if it were a DVD and restoring control to the torturers' hands.

At this point, one has to ask just who's the sadist here. Haneke is so busy confounding expectations and rebuking his audience for their voyeurism that he loses sight of his own pitiless manipulation. He makes a point of directing his camera just beyond the scene of horror, so that we can hear it rather than see it, as if that raises him above the brutish level of an Eli Roth. But to have Watts, bound and gagged, hopping across a room in her bra and undies, is not very far from the gloating titillation he's berating everybody else for.

Watts at least maintains a sort of dignity under this savage pressure. Meanwhile, Roth gives such a snivelling performance as the husband – his voice is as ratty as his face – that you half-wonder if Haneke wants us to despise him. There is nothing more pathetic than the shot of George distractedly taking a bite of a baguette as he tries to put his mobile phone back together.

Haneke has made interesting films about the way violence can suddenly burst through the thin crust of middle-class politesse – see The Piano Teacher, Code Unknown and the much-debated Hidden – and the neutral movements of his camera add up to a very distinctive directorial signature. In Funny Games, however, he has misjudged that sense of detachment. Ten years ago the film felt like an exercise in self-consciousness, a way of investigating our responses to atrocity. Now it feels more like an exercise in self-righteousness, luring us into its sinister scenario, subjecting the characters to harrowing abuse and then berating us for complicity in watching. Haneke is determined to boobytrap the whole movie, making it unapproachable as an entertainment and insufferable as a moral homily.

Through latticed fingers you may be able to discern good work by Watts – the domestic martyr nonpareil – and by Pitt, his cherubic face suddenly alight with the possibilities of his own depravity. Throughout the film he and Corbet wear white gloves, like waiters, or fencers, though you quickly realise that they mean to keep their fingerprints off anything they touch. The same could be said for Haneke, right in the heart of his own little torture chamber yet sheathing himself from implication in its devilry.

I think this is called having it both ways. There is something monstrously patronising in his procedure here; it's almost as if he imagines we don't know that inexplicable, gratuitous barbarity is going on out there, and has taken it upon himself to rub our noses in it. Well, thanks for that. But give us a movie, not a lecture about a movie.