Monday, August 17, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 6: Guilt By Association

The 90s were a dormant period for major French talent. Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda and their peers from the Nouvelle Vague movement slacked off a bit and so it was up to a new generation of French filmmakers to step up and make their mark with audacious takes on modern life. Claire Denis, Luc Besson, Olivier Assayas and Mathieu Kassovitz picked up the punk filmmaking slack and kept their country on the artistic map. Some of these new guys proved once again that genres cannot contain directors. Our next films were made by Belgians and Germans but one of them's in French and they're very much in the vein of French movies (neither could exist without Godard's Breathless). So forgive me for veering off course but these films are important so here we go.

Man Bites Dog
by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel & Benoît Poelvoorde

Filmmakers Rémy and André have found the perfect subject for a documentary, a serial killer named Ben. Ben loves his family, dates a charming girl who plays the flute, and is a charismatic amiable fellow in his everyday life. He blows off steam by raping women and killing people with a gun. Every so often (like the drummers in Spinal Tap) the sound guy accidentally gets shot and Rémy says, over whiskey, that they're making the film in his memory. As the film progresses, the filmmakers get more and more involved with his crimes and instead of just filming Ben's murders they actually help him kill people. When the police catch Ben and he breaks out, he comes to Rémy and André for help, cementing their participation in his crimes.

Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde are all as good at acting as they are at filmmaking. Man Bites Dog is a mixture of truly horrific imagery and some of the funniest cinematic in-jokes I've ever heard. It features some truly harrowing killings. The sound design, jump-cuts and grainy black and white film stock add to the real-life terror that the filmmakers induce. Ben likes killing children and women most of all, so if you're in the mood to laugh, I'd suggest another dark comedy. There's one scene in particular, where the whole crew participates in a rape at gunpoint that is just ghastly. Perhaps it's their willingness to go to the absolute darkest recesses of the human mind that also makes them capable of some pretty excellent genre gags.

Between innocent people being raped and murdered we get to see the ins and outs of serial killing, which is where the humour comes in. Ben throws his bodies in a quarry for the majority of the film until one day he realizes that the bodies have started piling up; he sends Rémy, André and the current sound guy into the quarry to cover up the bodies, shouting at them like they're cleaning up the living room before mom gets home. At a birthday party Ben accidentally shoots an uncle while everyone's drunk, which is funnier than it sounds and then there's the sound guy monologues. Ok, so I realize that none of these are quite as funny in the telling as they are when you watch them, but take my word for it, these guys know how to tell a film-specific joke. My only problem is that it's so dark even with the comic asides but everyone does such a good job playing their part that I let it slide. A little respite from the darkness is all you need, because when you don't get a little rest, the result is too harrowing for words...

Funny Games
by Michael Haneke

Again, not French, but really really like French. They're the founders of post-modern cinema as we know it and Michael Haneke is a European master who has worked in French so I'm bending my rules and reviewing the film. Georg, his wife Anna and son Schorschi arrive at their vacation home and watch their neighbors talk to two well-dressed young men. A little later those two men show up and brow beat their way into the kitchen and then with little more than one of Georg's golf clubs they take the family and the audience hostage. It becomes clear that though this is a harrowing home-invasion film it also knows it's one. There's a moment just before Anna finds her dead dog where the leader of the two young men turns to the camera and winks at you the viewer. Haneke then proceeds to mess with you by having his two handsome young professionals mess with the family to the point that people get killed but makes it seem like you asked for all this violence. He pulls a rather nice trick by basically saying that by the end of the film whatever emotions you have are the ones you're supposed to have. Because the film isn't about poor Ulrich Mühe, who you'll recognize from The Lives of Others, and his family getting tortured it's about media violence and the way so many directors are content to let people die for your 'entertainment'. We know this because the television is on constantly, and because the two young professionals talk to the audience and at one point actually rewind the film to change the course of events. So, yes, if you're watching this because you heard it was a thriller and you don't get it, you're going to be bummed because people die and John Zorn's Naked City is played frequently; it's all supposed to make you suffer. If you get that this is not a narrative film but punishment for accepting violence in films as the norm, then you just might learn something.....but you'll still be pretty unhappy.

The first thing you'll learn is that Michael Haneke is a genius but he's a cruel genius. Like Pasolini and Nagisa Oshima, he was on the outside of genre films because he was smarter than all his peers who were making genre films or dramatic pieces which at best hinted at the material in his films and at worst making the violent dross he was condemning in Funny Games. And Michael Haneke has always had an advantage; his first movie is about a boy who watches violent movies and then murders a girl while he films it. You see what I mean? But just imagine how unpopular that makes him among other filmmakers. Imagine someone like Kazuo Kamizu or Uwe Boll coming into contact with this film. If they didn't think the violence was awesome and miss the point, they'd get furious because Michael Haneke was at once calling them out and being just as violent as the thing he's pissing at. And what's best is that his actual films, his proper dramatic pieces that don't wink at the audience, are all brilliantly understated. Starting with The Piano Teacher he made and continues to make a string of quiet movies about the human spirit that do not by any means rub their moral in your face. Funny Games was a statement, an essay, whereas something like Time of the Wolf was a film. Michael Haneke is capable of making both things superbly and making most other directors seem like fools; whether or not he means to is irrelevant but he does. So no, you won't like Funny Games but you're not supposed to. If you like it as a straight-up film, get out more often you're too dark for you're own good; if you like its message but the thought of seeing it again makes you curl up in a fetal position, well I can't say you're really any better off but at least there's nothing wrong with you. I love what Haneke has to say but I never want to see this knife wound of a movie ever again.

Haneke actually remade Funny Games a few years ago with Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as Georg and Anna and Michael Pitt as the lead creep. Don't worry about comparing them, they're the same film. The only reason he made it was so that those of us who fear subtitles might stumble upon it and soak up the message, that's it. It doesn't matter if one's better, it matters that you get his point: that media violence is pointless and people like Eli Roth and James Wan ought to maybe not treat women like cattle that are there to be slaughtered. That's why people who say they hated the remake just confuse me. It's the same film with the same message. It's an essay reprinted in a different language, how was there room for you to hate it? If Michael Haneke had filmed himself telling you the moral of the story in German and English and then had you watch them both, could you say which was better or worse? It's the message that matters, not the language you say it in. So while I hated watching Funny Games I give it an a decent grade because of what it has to say and how well it says it, not because I liked hearing it.

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