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The joke’s on the audience in ‘Funny Games’

Writer-director Michael Haneke wants to torture you for loving violent movies

Attention, moviegoers: Watching too many violent American movies has inured you to the pain and suffering of real life.

There, I’ve just spared you having to sit through nearly two hours of Michael Haneke’s hectoring “Funny Games,” where he wants to teach the audience that very lesson. One would think he would have gotten his sermonizing out of his system with his black-hearted and manipulative 1997 screed of the same title. But he wants to take his message directly to the American people, and since not enough of that demographic sits through subtitled Austrian movies, he’s made a nearly exact remake with an English-speaking cast.

And when I say “nearly exact,” I mean down to the exteriors, props and set decoration. Even though Haneke had the services of outstanding cinematographer Darius Khondji (“Se7en”) at his disposal, one imagines that the only bit of direction given to him by Haneke was “make it look like the other one.”

If you’ve seen the other one, then you’ve pretty much seen this movie, too. But for those fortunate enough to have dodged that preachy bullet, it goes like this: Upper-class couple Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) take their son off to their posh lake house. They stop by the neighbors’ house, only to find them somewhat subdued and hosting two blandly attractive young men decked out in tennis whites and golf gloves.

The young men, played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, come over to Ann and George’s place and soon begin a series of twisted and manipulative mind games on them, maiming George with his golf club, subjecting Ann to a series of humiliations, and then casually betting their hostages that the family won’t be alive in 12 hours.

The real antagonist here is Haneke, however, and the real torture victims are the audience, whom Haneke wishes to punish for their love of violent cinema. The director shrewdly keeps most of the physical violence off-screen — which makes “Funny Games” just a jot less hypocritical than the recent “Untraceable” — but he’s still putting the screws to his viewers. What’s terrible and irritating about the film is that Haneke isn’t doing it to tell a story. He just wants to punish us for wanting to see this movie in the first place.

Spoiler alertTo further explain, I have to give away a twist, so stop reading here if you don’t want to know it. Toward the end of the film, after the young men have murdered the little boy (and the neighbors), injured George, and beaten and shamed Ann, she manages to grab a gun and shoot Corbet. This leads Pitt to pick up a remote control and rewind the actual movie, preventing her from doing it. Haneke notes in the interview on the 1997 version’s DVD that he did this to make the audience cheer for Ann, and that the rewinding reminds viewers that they have been “complicit” in a murder.

OK, so a woman whose child and friends have been killed and who faces certain death herself picks up a rifle in self-defense and blows away a sadist? And I’m supposed to feel guilty for applauding that? Sorry, Michael Haneke, you’re preening and didactic. And I refuse to play your games.