The Cinema of Discomfort: Two Filmmakers Who Want to Get Under Your Skin
Most people go to the movies for one of three reasons: to escape and be entertained, to discover new worlds or ideas, or to be immersed in an imaginative experience (space travel; the future; John Malkovich’s brain) that is wholly unique to film. But what happens when a director shuns popular taste and instead confronts an audience with their own desires, actively refusing the spectatorial need for safety, comfort, titillation, illusion, or satisfaction?
Two daring new independent films, one by an established foreign director and one by a maverick newcomer, challenge us to reflect on our least examined (and hence, most dangerous) viewing habits as well as our investment in familiar character traits and story arcs, such as closure and catharsis, that date back at least as far as Aristotle’s Poetics.
Michael Haneke, an Austrian filmmaker who often works in France, specializes in modes of audience discomfort. His best-known film, The Piano Teacher, starred Isabelle Huppert as a frigid and domineering classical-music professor with puzzlingly lurid desires and a taste for masochistic sex. Other films, like The Seventh Continent , Benny’s Video, and last year’s acclaimed Caché, explore the disquieting emptiness at the heart of bourgeois life and our complacent inability to comprehend real suffering, as well as the seductiveness of violence.
The theme of violence-as-sport is integral to Funny Games (U.S), Haneke’s new shot-for-shot remake of his own 1997 film Funny Games, which Warner Independent opens wide today. The set-up is simple: Two exceedingly polite young men (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) dressed in tidy golf-caddy attire and white cotton gloves show up at the Long Island vacation home of Anna and George (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) asking for eggs, and then proceed to physically and psychologically terrorize the couple and their preteen son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart). Their motives, like their identities, remain obscure. And their witty mockery of bourgeois manners only heightens the creepy and nerve-wracking ruse they use to enter and occupy the home.
Anyone familiar with Haneke’s work knows that he’s fascinated with how “consumable” images of violence have become, especially on American television screens. But those new to his films and methods—the absence of music; unsettlingly long, static takes; and the almost unbearable terror and tension he injects into everyday situations—will not take long to figure out he has more in store for his audience in Funny Games than he does for his characters.
What happens to this family as the invaders take over their home is routine to horror thrillers. And when the bloodletting first erupts, with the sharp crack of a wedge iron, it is likely to provoke a visceral reaction we have all experienced watching the nightly news: disgust, perhaps, or a sickening sense of dread. On the other hand, if you are a regular patron of the Saw and Hostel sado-horror franchises, you might have a different reaction. Numb to the sight of human agony, you might feel slightly exhilarated; the fun has begun. In any case, there we remain, pinned to our seats. This is a genre film, after all—an entertainment. Right? This is what we paid to see. But in coming to a movie we know is about “a family being terrorized in their home,” what is it we are there to see and experience? The ecstasy of violence? The reality of evil? The use of violence as a means of vanquishing it? Shock value?
Haneke confronts us with this line of questioning throughout Funny Games, perhaps most dramatically when Pitt’s character looks directly into the camera and addresses the audience. Announcing the commencement of a particularly cruel “game,” he turns to us and slyly asks, “You’re on their side, aren’t you?” In drawing attention to the film as a film, a la Brecht or Godard, Haneke implicates us in the violence, and in our desire for particular outcomes. You may want to identify with the victimized family, but he leaves you no choice but to endure Peter and Paul—dark projections of our own mediated desires and revenge fantasies. In the larger, higher-stakes game of spectatorship, Haneke is holding all the face cards.
Or is he? Funny Games is Haneke’s least subtle film, and in many ways his least disturbing. The reasons for that are worth elucidating. The original film, which starred Ulrich Muhe (The Lives of Others) and Susanne Lothar, was intended for an American audience, but the subtitle factor and lack of bankable talent guaranteed its isolation at the arthouse. Now, ten years later, its themes still relevant, Haneke has recruited Mulholland Drive siren Naomi Watts as executive producer and star, planting her opposite Roth and pretty boy Pitt, known for his dark, moody turns in off-kilter indie films. If Haneke is out to satirize American visual culture and critique our tolerance for torture—on-screen and off—this is not a bad way to begin.
The problem arrives when audiences do, though. In fact, Funny Games may prove to be too seductive for its own good, as Peter and Paul could become the arch analogues of Jason and Freddy: serial killers with a sense of humor. The poster art for the film—a head shot of Watts’s Ann under duress, with a tear slipping down her cheek—directly quotes the marketing campaign for last year’s Captivity, one of the higher-profile torture-porn films. I suspect it is meant both as bait for unwitting consumers of these films and as satire, a double-edged strategy that works for both studio marketers and the heady Austrian auteur, known to be a control freak. Without question, Games is a horror film with serious aims and a subversive agenda. But will it translate?
Ronald Bronstein’s brilliant, darkly hysterical feature-film debut, Frownland (playing at the IFC Center), is an altogether different kind of horror movie that nevertheless traffics in a similar type of audience-alienating effect. In this case, the mechanism of discomfort is not a conceptual framework, as in Funny Games, but a character—an insolent, spluttering, aggressively maladjusted, and deeply irritating human being named Keith, whose perplexing social phobias and anxieties are dramatized with relentlessly grim verisimilitude by newcomer Dore Mann.
A self-described “troll from under the bridge,” Keith is the type of disastrously needy and abrasive personality whose company people actively seek to avoid. In the first scene, he attempts to console his (we assume) recently jilted girlfriend, Laura (Mary Bronstein, the director’s wife), a frail sliver of a girl with grimy long hair who curls up in a corner of Keith’s fleabag flat and rubs herself raw with his down pillows (which she’s allergic to), whimpering like an injured animal. For nearly ten minutes of screen time, Keith tries—and maddeningly fails—to utter a single word of comfort, opting instead for puppet theater and a clumsy pass.
Keith is no better off in the bleak, workaday world, where he sells coupons door to door for a multiple-sclerosis charity, to no avail. His roommate Charles (Paul Grimstad), an obnoxious wanna-be DJ and musician, has such contempt for Keith that he’s refused to pay the ConEd bill for months and blasts music at all hours; when Keith finally draws up the courage to confront him (awkwardly, of course, with hesitant half-utterances), Charles unleashes a punishing fusillade of pent-up hostility and belittling sarcasm. Even restaurant waiter Sandy (David Sandholm), the one person Keith would like to believe is his friend, and whose perfectly understandable actions set in motion the film’s hyperventilating denouement, can’t stand to spend a single moment in Keith’s presence; his patience has clearly been exhausted.
Shot in grainy 16mm by Bronstein and cinematographer Sean Williams, who favor drab, depressing interiors and light their actors in the most unflattering manner possible, often in tight boil- and snot-revealing closeup, Frownland is a low-budget super-indie whose most endearing quality may be the fact that it exists at all. Not to take anything away from Bronstein’s accomplishment, which has earned him a Spirit Award nod and a Gotham Award for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, but Frownland is something of an endurance test for an audience: How long can we watch this agitated antihero grimace and stutter and force himself on people who want nothing more than to be left alone? Then again, isn’t this the point, to make us question what it is we expect from a screen character’s depiction? As with our political candidates, is “likeability” the only requirement?
By leading us from one bleak, often painfully funny encounter to another in his sweaty, foot-shuffling schlub’s dour milieu, Bronstein bravely risks exhausting our tolerance for his monstrous creation. (More than one critic has noted Keith’s resemblance to the B-movie creature he’s seen cackling at on late-night TV in the film’s first shot.) Whether or not he deserves our sympathy is something the film leaves open to question, as it pays closer attention to framing Keith’s real-life aggravations in wrenching emotional detail. But it’s impossible to come away from Frownland without a visceral sense of Bronstein’s iron will—his refusal to make us comfortable—and Mann’s equally impressive talent at channeling such a gruesome, misunderstood freak. The film is brilliant, weird, twisted, haunting, and will burn itself into your brain without once resorting to a familiar narrative device.
Ultimately, the catharsis of Funny Games and Frownland belongs to us, not Keith or Ann and George, because the discomfiting act of watching these movies is intended to force thought and reflection, not deliver the goods. Neither Haneke nor Bronstein is interested in accommodating our needs as an audience: their goal is to upset them, with an unwavering and uncompromising dedication to personal vision. And isn’t that the true mark of independent filmmaking?