In certain ways, many ways, Britney Spears, that former (or current?) Princess of Pop is everything you need to know about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. She was once a good girl, but, seemingly bored by that persona, dipped into a little bit of a wild and crazy lifestyle. (Remember Britney and Kevin Chaotic?) That descent, as insane as it was, granted her some media power in a way. She was, maybe unintentionally, controlling every viewer’s eyes. But, she was able to resurrect herself in a way, and that could speak for the careers of the four attractive stars of the film. There seems to be, however, a song to every part of the film. The film itself is, as described by its writer/director, “a violent pop song”. And, sort of like many of the people in this film, you will be hard pressed to find a more intoxicating experience at the movie theater this year. For better or worse.
Tired of the boring community college environment they’re stuck in and begging to get out of what they could easily call a social jail cell, four girls plan to fulfill one of the most American rites of passage ever: head down to Florida for Spring Break. Lacking the necessary funds to plan this getaway, three of them rob a restaurant. And, from there, it’s smooth sailing. Or drinking. And bong hitting. And coke sniffing. (You name it, they probably did it.) This is until they are, inevitably, arrested, only later to be bailed out by a strange benefactor: a narcissistic gangster rapper (in the most literal terms) named Alien.
Many of the sequences are, honestly, not to my taste. They play like a slightly more artful (barely) montage from Girls Gone Wild, but it makes sense. These scenes of women being drenched in beer and twerking (I think?) are the film’s establishing shots. And what a film they establish.
Can a film be both moralistic and yet morally ambiguous? If not, the film is, interestingly enough, a recipe thrown together in the most fascinating way, with elements seemingly contradicting one another and yet working cohesively as a whole nonetheless. (That recipe will, undoubtedly, get you drunk.) For all of the immoral, irresponsible, often terrifying things that the four stars partake in, the film empowers them with agency. Korine, who is previously known for art house experiments like Julien Donkey-Boy, Trash Humpers, and Mister Lonely, judges the generation, but not the individuals, it seems. By giving the characters agency in what they’re doing, sometimes offering them a chance at redemption, albeit in a snarky and sarcastic and heavy handed way, these girls represent an odd look at an ambivalent generation, but one that, if they wanted to, could exploit their power. Korine is intentionally grabbing the audience’s attention by portraying these real acts, but the ambiguity with which the material is sometimes served, or perhaps inconsistency, surprisingly gives a great amount of freedom to the viewer to decide how terrible or how bizarrely admirable these characters are.
I should go back: the four actresses in question are the main show, the main attraction. I mentioned in a previous post how fascinated I was by the film, primarily by its actresses and how they subverted their image for this film, and the subsequent exploitation of this to bring in audiences. Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens are former Disney Princesses and Ashley Benson is on the ABC Family teen soap Pretty Little Liars. The outlier of the group is Rachel Korine, the wife of the director, who is no stranger to subversion of persona; she was in Trash Humpers, though she is the least well known of the four. But, the four actresses are cunning in a way.
Gomez, utilizing her cherubic, good girl nature best, plays Faith, the most moralistic of the group. But her flaw is in her judgment of her friends’ character, and she seems perfectly willing to engage in some of the lewd acts depicted in the film as long as her friends are there. Yet the ideological crisis in the film presents something interesting. It is she who says that seeing the same people, the same campus, etc. is maddening. So, the most moralistic and the most bored is therefore the most likely to rebel, in a way. The bathroom where they contemplate Spring Break has the same color palette as the jail cell they end up in later. This urge and rebellion seems more extreme than the other girls, because they are already prone to such behavior, whereas Faith is not. If there were a Spears song to describe her character, it might be “(You Drive Me) Crazy”. Contextually, it obviously doesn’t make sense alone, but if the song is talking about the allure of being bad and the excitement of being too deep in a situation, then it works. But, Gomez, like the song, knows her limits. Her alternately coquettishness and naïve tendencies heighten some of the films ambiguity. When watching the film, you are, like she is, unsure if she’s really having a good time. Unsure if she should be being chastised for what she should be doing, after the numerous, pseudo-sincere phone messages she leaves on her grandmother’s phone, that repeat over and over like a song.
Vanessa Hudgens sort of subverted her image in Sucker Punch, a film that really shares a lot in common with its feminist spin, but, unlike Spring Breakers, fails miserably. Hudgens is given something to do, which is important. Not being thrown by the wayside, her furious, sexy and powerful character is scary, along with Ashley Benson. The two of them, especially, are easily able to channel their agency and submissiveness whenever they feel it necessary to use one or the other. They are, at once, “Overprotected” and “Toxic”, finally getting their desire in their ability to let loose and make their own choices and also being poisonously powerful. “Toxic” works not only for the two of them, but also Franco’s Alien. Between them (as well as Rachel Korine) is a frightening and electric dynamic, where power continuously shifts again and again. This is especially evident in one particular scene, one I shan’t describe beyond saying that it could give Killer Joe a run for its money.
Speaking of money, much of the strongest statements from the film, however thrown against the wall it may sometimes feel, is about the American Dream. Franco’s Alien is the epitome of how that phrase has evolved over the last several decades and how it has more fittingly become an American Nightmare. With Franco’s brilliantly narcissistic transformation into someone who seems to have everything, he attracts the girls in an obvious way. He runs the “Circus”; however often power may go back and forth between he and his “soul mates”, he’s the de facto ring leader. Franco’s accent may sound sort of goofy in the trailers, but within the context of the film, it works startlingly well. He has “shorts of ever color”, his bed is covered in guns and money, and the girls all want him. They are attracted to his status and the control he has over materialistic goods. The girls’ responses are, in a way, frightening; not only do they want those things (which is unsurprising), it’s shocking to see what lengths they’ll go to in order to retain that status. Then again, these are the girls that robbed money to go on vacation. They need the immediacy of pleasure, the instantaneousness of gratification. And that says a lot about the world we live in, considering people get pissed when Google Chrome is running slowly.
It is beneficial that the film does not have much dialogue, for it would pretty much undermine most of the performances and turning them into something less serious and less believable. But the dialogue that is in the film is used judiciously and sparingly, much of it being repeated over and over again. The comparison has already been made dozens of times, but it does have a connection to Terrence Malick’s dream like narration… that is, if the philosophy he were pushing ended up being kind of half assed and snarky. Here again, the film embodies the generation it depicts. There are lies told in the voice over that masquerade as epiphanies and changes, but we all know that there is barely an ounce of regret in there. And that’s what’s terrifying about it. How real it all seems, all that apathy and ambivalence.
In the narration, though, the faked innocence of the phone calls is eventually paired up with rhymes that Alien recites. These rhymes sound like deadly rewrites of typical nursery poems, corrupting the youthfulness of what was once pure.
Spring Breakers feels throughout like a horror film. It obviously was not going to be the fun, raucous adventure that the campaign is pushing so hard, but I was not expecting how scary it would be. Not only in what the characters were doing, but the attitude that they took with each activity. Seeing the film with an audience full of tweens managed to add a weird new way of looking at the film. It wasn’t what they were expecting, but their reactions are what scared me. I had been interested as to what the audience response would be, but I wasn’t expecting what I got. There was a lot of guffawing and laughing involved, and during some of the most critical and unsettling scenes. Granted, there were a few moments in which Franco’s outlandish portrayal was funny (intentionally so), but other moments where violence was committed or something disturbing was being said or shown on screen, the audience laughed. This is, I guess, the film’s biggest success. It recreates, almost perfectly, how these kinds of people act when shown various scenes of truly questionable and upsetting scenes. The girls themselves think that much of what they do is a joke or a game or something to laugh at. “Pretend it’s a videogame,” is what one girl says before robbing the chicken joint. And not only do that do that with gusto and aplomb, the audience responds to it exactly how the characters do; as if it isn’t serious. It’s just a videogame.
Undoubtedly, my favorite sequence involves a Britney Spears song, a white grand piano, and guns. Not only for the sheer fact that it is deeply disconcerting, but also because it casts a spell over you, as does the entire film. As terrible as the images may be, it’s intoxicating. But, I would disagree with Korine as to his assertion that the film is like a violent pop song. While it has hooks, verses, and a chorus that take the form of repeating images, sounds, and words, it feels more like one solid composition that covers the expansiveness of an album. It’s a symphony of violence, debauchery, morality, immorality, and insanity. And its soundtrack, provided by the likes of dubstep king Skrillex, Drive maestro Cliff Martinez, and co-star rapper Gucci Mane, is the popular sadism in sonic form.
The films insanity is further shown in the gorgeous and dizzying cinematography from Gasper Noe’s DP Benoit Debie, who worked on the celluloid LSD trip that was Enter the Void. The film’s neon and candy colored visuals create a false sense of security, juxtaposing the perceived innocence of the girls (actresses and characters) against their harsh and hyper-real world. It looks gorgeous, easily lulling the viewer.
Korine dissects the American Nightmare, the loss of innocence, the immediacy of pleasure, etc. Aside from that, Spring Breakers is the horror film it never knew it could be, reflecting a society and a demographic that is all too real. And despite the moralistic ambiguities and grey areas, the film is nonetheless a sublimely made tale, almost like a documentary. If there were one song to describe how Korine, a known provocateur, might sing to articulate how successful his film is in portraying these things, it would definitely be “Oops! I Did It Again”.
I played the violin for about seven years when I was younger, probably elementary and middle school ages. I ended up quitting, but nonetheless, I’ve always had an appreciation for music. That, added to my exposure to the show Stomp Out Loud, I think were good preparation for a film called Sound of Noise. Sound of Noise presents an array of ideas about art, music, ideas, and statements all in a fairly light package. That’s probably one of the best things about Sound of Noise: it captures all the beauty and complexity of music without being overbearing. It’s the perfect soundtrack.
Tone deaf police officer, or head of terrorist activities investigations (or something along those lines), Amadeus Warenberg, named for the iconic composer, plays second fiddle to his older brother, Oscar, a famous composer and conductor. During this interesting dynamic between his family, world renowned musicians, there is something very odd going on. A beat. Renegade percussionists are breaking into places (a hospital, a bank, etc.) and performing. And this stuff is illegal. Public disobedience or distraction or something? Regardless, as Amadeus comes closer to cracking the case as to who these Bonnie and Clyde of musicians are (although there are Six Drummers), he comes closer to finding the beauty in the Sound of Noise.
Somewhat ironically, slightly earlier in the week, there was a discussion about Joshua Bell. The famous violinist a few years went busking in a metro station and it took 7 hours and a paltry $32 before anyone recognized him. This led to a discussion of how we appreciate arts and such. Sound of Noise somehow beautifully distills that sort of conversation and asks similar questions as well. As much as our protagonist Amadeus grew up around music, nearly filling his younger life, he has grown to hate it. There’s an interesting subjective quality to certain areas of the film from the perspective of Amadeus. In certain scenes, when you should hear the ding of a metal tray, the knock against a wall, or the bark of a dog, there is nothing. The man is tone deaf, and this rather melancholic way of showing that is incredibly effective, and, thankfully, consistent throughout most of the film.
Through these renegade Six Drummers is written and performed a manifesto. This manifesto, performed on the streets and in very public places is like the immediate confrontation of an artistic statement. Like anything that Marina Abromovic’s The Artist is Present, the music as public statement adds an interesting, very real intrusiveness to it. But, if you are a member of most of the population, let’s face it, you probably think such artistic statements and manifestos are any of the following: silly, frivolous, inessential, ridiculous, overdone, and/or pretentious. One of the small beauties of the film is the ambiguity with which it treats the idea of “art as public forum”. There are moments when you are not quite sure whether or not the directors, Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nisson, are praising the medium and function or satirizing it. It may be very well that they are doing both. It may be that they are saying, quite possibly, “Artistic statements are important, no matter how insane and unpredictable they are… but you don’t have to always go all out.” That being said, satire or praise, they do not seem to be condemning.
The music sequences are one of the best features of the film and, unsurprisingly, the thing that drew me most to the film. Creative, rather avant garde performance is the kind of thing I sort of love. As aforementioned, I love Stomp Out Loud, in which street dancers and musicians play on trash cans and the like. I love Blue Man Group, which, though less percussively based, is visually inventive and enticing nonetheless. So, a bit of a mix between the two (more the former than the latter) is sort of a performance art dream come true. These sequences are, in their, magical, majestic, and, most of all, fun. There is a wicked, warped sense of humor to them all, from “Doctor, Doctor, Gimme Gas in My Ass”, in which they hijack an anesthetized body and, uh, play music on him; “Money 4U Honey”, where the Six Drummers hold up a bank and proceed perform for the customers; and two other performances. And, like any good, piece of performance art, there’s always another layer of meaning. You could assert that “Doctor Doctor” is a criticism of health care and “Money 4U Honey” is about capitalism. You could make a number of assertions about the instruments that are used in each, their individual sounds, etc. But, the most important part is that these performances, as layered as they are, are just plain breathtaking. They are first and foremost the most entertaining scenes in cinema in a long time. These fun, beat-filled sequences made me, someone fairly cynical, feel giddy and kid-like with wonderment. Maybe that is the primary thesis of this film. That music, found anywhere in all locations at any time is wonderful. The whimsy, spontaneity and yet planned nature of it all is just thrilling.
The film sets itself up like a weird crime movie or heist film. The Six Drummers are led by two, Sanna and Magnus, the two leads portrayed by Sanna Persson and Magnus Borjeson. They round up the other four, and there’s an amusing amount of exposition involved. We do not entirely see the planning out of what is going to happen, but there’s a short and sweet montage of what will be the musical sequences. It’s like Ocean’s Eleven, but shorter, less expository, and with music. That’s a funny subversion I noticed in the film, and while the film is reliant on its musical center pieces, it plays itself like a funny heist movie, seemingly turning those tropes on their head. You have your mild character study of the guy who’s chasing after the “criminals”, your charismatic “criminals”, and the plan set into motion. Granted, the feeling is jarring at first, but the tone is light and humorous. It is honestly one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time.
Sound of Noise’s best quality is that it presents all these ideas, assertions, opinions, and commentaries without the pretension that a lot of films privy to these subjects and techniques often have. It’s beautifully composed and constructed, with wonderful visuals. Most of all, its musical center pieces are simply astounding. However, its most winning and charming quality is its effortlessness. Sound of Noise shows that music can come from anywhere, and from anywhere it’s a wonder.
“Money 4U Honey” Clip
A couple years ago, I wrote a scathing review of the American remake of Michael Haneke’s thriller Funny Games (which will henceforth be known as Funny Games US). The brilliant performances from Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as poor rich people being tortured by a couple of lunatics played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet notwithstanding, its smugness and overt message condemning audiences for enjoying sadistic violence was a major turn off. It was a task sitting through it, an absolute nightmare in a way. But, you could say, Haneke achieved his goal. However, after avoiding Haneke’s films for a bit, and not bothering to watch the original 1997 Austrian film, I decided once and for all to delve into the Austrian director’s work. After watching Cache, The Piano Teacher, and The White Ribbon, I decided, because I loved the ambiguity, intensity, and subversiveness of those films, I’d give the original Funny Games a go. I was not, however, expecting much. Haneke’s 2007 Funny Games US was a shot for shot remake of his original film, only in English and with new actors. Having explored Haneke’s work a bit more thoroughly and having grown more mature in my tastes, not only does Haneke rank amongst my new favorite directors (subsection: “provocateur”, next to Lars von Trier), I’ve had a change of heart about both Funny Games. That does not, however mean that I love the film, or even like it more than I did. It’s honestly hard to make up one’s mind about a film that has so much fun and takes so much pleasure in serving up a wretched dish to its audience in such a knowing way. Nevertheless, I do appreciate it more than I did. But why? Well…
All in the Family
Michael Haneke has a lot to say about things. Just things in general. And while his opinion of the upper middle class and the bourgeoisie doesn’t occupy the viewer’s mind for long, due to, um, other events, what he says is just as scathing as his message about violence (which is what I will get to later). Only a certain kind of people would play a music game in the car by quizzing one another on what operatic piece is playing. Is it Mahler? No, Wagner. Or maybe… This version of fun and games certainly occupies the mainstream music listener, but as casual as the family in the film does it (in the Austrian film, the parents are played by Susanne Lothar and Ullrich Muhe), there very act itself reeks of pretension. Haneke gives us a close up of the dozen or so CDs in the car, and while the family enjoys their ride with their expensive boat to their expensive lake house, Haneke cuts short the elegiac bliss and drowns the audiences ears’ in what could be assumed to be screamo. This harsh juxtaposition is like a scale. Opera is considered one of the high arts; screamo, within most circles, is usually written off by “that kind of people” as “noise”. But within the mainstream circle, both would be ignored; thus the scale. They’re both two extremes of the same medium. (I bet if Haneke had waited a few years to remake his film, he might use Skrillex.)
When the family get to their lake house, they enter through a gate, a clear sign that these people are not the ninety-nine percent. But that gate seems to hint at the fact that their lake house not only gates them from, you know, strangers, but gates their lives off from other people. Their lives seem so insular with that gate in place. Their lake house doesn’t look like a nice little cottage by the lake. It looks like a two story house. That you live in. Another spit in the face. While Haneke may be smarmy about the upper class, he has a lot more headed for them than they could ever expect.
The Fabulous Sociopathic Boys
The boys look like clean cut gold caddies in a way, which is a little ironic. They do not look completely out of place in the large, wealthy lake houses they break into, but they also don’t look like they were born there or were there in the first place. These sociopaths, though, are your worst nightmare. Not only because they relish the great violence and torture they cause, but because they look “just like you”, albeit younger and maybe snarkier. A lot of horror films stress the “it could be your neighbor” element, but with very little purpose other than hypothetical paranoia in comparison to these two psychopaths. Haneke seems to be saying, “They are your neighbors. And you know why? Because the media has created them.” I mean, where else would they have gotten the ideas for the sick games they play from other than video games, the news, and, yes, the movies.
Even their dialogue has the bounce and rhythm of other writers, like Hawks and Hecht, the banter resembling kind of a slash version of Bringing Up Baby. They’re fairly young, so they are the target audience. They are, essentially, you. Yes, my friends, Haneke is making the audience the culprit. And how he relishes doing that. I am not sure, however, whether or not he enjoys the game itself or the players more.
As “torturous” of an experience it is to watch Funny Games, most of the violence is suggested. And yet that still doesn’t seem to help. The violence is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the film. Even though most of the violence happens off screen, the audience still squirms even though they aren’t watching Hostel or Saw or even Oldboy. And yet they salivate and yearn, unsatisfied with only hearing the screams from the mother, the groans from the father, and the whimpers from their child. Not only that, but here, the violence is real. Or it seems real, too real. Subverting audience expectation is something I’ve become accustomed to when it comes to Haneke. With the ridiculousness of torture porn, it seems so outrageous that it’s just a gross out cliché. However, these so-called funny games are ones that are probably more emotionally savage than physically. Yes, the father’s knee cap is basically hammered in by a 9-iron, but the mother must play “The Loving Wife”. This game involves poor Anna, where she must recite a prayer forward and backwards (clearly mocking religion) flawlessly or her husband will be killed (either with the gun or the knife; it’s her choice). And another game, where she has to undress herself. And another game, where they put the son’s head in a canvas sack. These aren’t just random, elaborate torture devices Jigsaw would use, but truly terribly, emotionally and spiritually scarring tasks that are so diabolical because they are so incredibly simple. It’s all in the simplicity of the thing, and simplicity serves up the realism in a large portion. Why don’t they just kill them? As one of the boys says, “You can’t forget the importance of entertainment.”
However, the problem I had with the films lies in the violence itself, and it isn’t just the violence that makes the film interesting, but also its presentation. These are horrible things happening to good people. And Haneke, all the while, enjoys this. He enjoys seeing his audience both repulsed and gripped by such acts of terror. And what he’s saying, obviously, is that we are terrible people for loving it so much and for loving violence so much. The games are real, and Haneke is playing a game on the audience, not just with this upper class family. But because he enjoys it so much, doesn’t that make him just as complicit as his audience? Isn’t Haneke just as guilty of the loathsome enjoyment of violence as we are, or as any fan of horror? How does on reconcile smugness with what is clearly a grippingly and fascinatingly terrifying film? In his other films, he explores people under pressure, just as he does here, but in other situations. Someone is watching a family; someone wants to act on sexual fantasies after years of repression; more brutal things are happening but in a small German town. But with those films, as subtle as he may or may not be, depending from film to film, there isn’t as much of the impression that he is plainly slapping you in the face and laughing all the while. He subverts audience expectation, but he does not go out of his way to rub it in the audience’s faces. He makes the audience a culprit in voyeurism, but you don’t realize it until after, unlike Funny Games where you clearly know what’s going on, why, and by whom. I guess the ability to forgive Haneke for this arrogance and, I hate to say it, pretension will vary from person to person. I, for one, am still on the fence.
Smashing Down Fourth Wall
Breaking the fourth wall is an act of intrusiveness. It takes you out of the escapism and makes the experience of whatever is going on very immediate. It sometimes is used as a way to connect to the audience and to familiarize the audience with a character’s voice, like Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, but here, the fourth wall is knocked down partly out of smugness and partly, once again, to show how reckless and tasteless of a society we’ve become. The two sociopaths every so often wink or talk directly to the audience, which seems unorthodox. Generally, you would think that if a character were to break the fourth wall, it would be one we could either connect to or root for. However, because the thesis of Funny Games is mostly “condemn the audience” and because the sociopaths are an extreme incarnation of “us”, Haneke subverts the aforementioned cliché, making us identify, unwillingly, to the torturers. Although villains certainly have broken the fourth wall in the past, it’s not usually in as much of a self-conscious way, and when they do, it’s because they have appeal and they are the villain we kind of love or love to hate. They are our id that we don’t mind acknowledging. The sociopaths, however, reveal a side of human nature that’s more terrible than we want to admit. Haneke’s other films have explored, to some extent, the terrible things humans can do, but Funny Games rings more poisonous because we don’t want to identify that we could do these kinds of things. We barely even want to acknowledge that there’s a preening yuppie in all of us, never mind our ability to rake a gold club and whack someone with it. Generally, it’s Lars von Trier who likes to slap society in the face with his art films, blatantly but in an expert way. Just look at his biting allegory of America in Dogville and Manderlay. Haneke has no trouble, however, doing that as well.
The painful thing is that these boys control this environment. Not only do the break the fourth wall, they also break the laws of reality. In one scene, where the mother takes a lone shotgun by the coffee table and kills one of the sociopaths, the other searches everywhere he can for the remote control. When he finds it, he pushes rewind, and like a videocassette, the events are rewound and then play is hit. This time, he knows what she’s going to grab for. In this way, it’s extremely frustrating to watch this film. If the villains have the control, why bother watching if there’s no hope for these people? And why, as a matter of fact, do we keep watching after that happens? Again, Haneke points out our blood lust as well as our tolerance for violence.
One chilling image is of a lone television screen displaying a NASCAR race or something like it. Pedestrian though it may be, the television screen is covered and dripping in blood. This image stays on the screen for probably thirty seconds or maybe longer. What’s the point? The desensitization of society. We, as a world culture, have gotten so used to seeing violent images in films, games, the news, TV shows, etc. that it is completely commonplace. Blood seems a little out of place for a motor car race, but that’s the point. No matter how out of place the blood would be, we would still be used to it, barely even phased by its presence. This, I feel, is the most chilling, and most accurate, statement that Haneke makes in the film.
The Circle of Life and Death
At the end of the film, it’s revealed that the boys came directly from the neighbors next door, whom they’d been torturing. And after they’re done with this family, they’re going to start right back up with another. As one of the boys approaches, asking for eggs (a sign from before that the games are about to begin), we understand that it’s all just a vicious circle. That point being that violence, both in the natural world as well as the audience’s compliance, is cyclical. While stopping by your neighbors and torturing them is hardly normal, the dark side of human nature, however, is. In a way, the end, signaling the beginning, is almost like Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a novel that expounds upon the cyclical nature of revenge and love. Horror films will be made, audiences will go in droves, the feast will continue, and begin again the next time. It’s an unpleasant thought, but true nonetheless. Atrocities will occur in the real word, people will watch the news in shock and awe, and then something else will happen garnering similar coverage and, of course, similar ratings.
All in the Shot for Shot
One could say that making one Funny Games, the Austrian one, is bad enough. But, eye rolls must commence when a foreign film gets an American remake. From the disgustingly sappy City of Angels remade from Wim Wender’s existential symphony Wings of Desire to the remake of Godard’s Breathless by Jim McBride, American remakes of foreign films usually garner scorn and bad reviews. (Not always though, for every failure there’s a Magnificent Seven or Let Me In or even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) However, Funny Games US is directed by Haneke himself. What’s more, it’s a shot for shot remake, meaning that every shot from his 1997 film is duplicated here. Unnecessary? That may be up to you, but in remaking Funny Games, he took a film that had pretty much world wide appeal and then focused it, aiming it directly at Americans. For, who else than we to come up with something as gruesome as The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, and, of course, Saw? And who other than Americans to make Saw a franchise. One film may have one thing, but seven. What kind of people are we? It’s been noted that our rating system is harsher on sex than violence, while the ratings board in Europe is harsher on violence. Why is that? Why are we so okay with seeing violence? It might be a part of human nature, but what’s with all the reveling and “okay-ness” about it. There are video games, which are an easy target (no pun intended). The thing about the US is that we are slowly losing are ability to truly differentiate between fantasy and reality, especially regarding violence. Violence in film is getting more real, and violence in reality is becoming more prolific and ubiquitous.
But I haven’t addressed the shot for shot thing. In 1998, Gus van Sant remade Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho pretty much shot for shot. He said he did it “so no one would have to”. The point also was that duplicating every scene and every shot would not create a perfect replica of the original. Even if you like van Sant’s Psycho, there is no denying it is a lesser film in comparison to Hitchcock’s. Even though, it’s basically the same thing. When Haneke is remaking his film, not only is he basically articulating the same thing, but he also seems to be making a small statement on American remakes of foreign films. While he may not be ushering Park Chan-wook to take the reigns over from Spike Lee for the new Oldboy remake, he does seem to say that American remakes are, essentially, lazy and generally not exercises of artistry or creativity (again, exceptions notwithstanding, like A Fistful of Dollars). Learn to read subtitles and get over yourselves. But, who knows? Maybe Kurosawa will rise from the grave, destroy all prints of The Outrage and remake Rashomon himself.
To me, it doesn’t really matter. Although the Austrian original has more of a worldwide appeal with its content, I’ve become fond of having America getting told off through art. The performances in both films are outstanding and so painful to watch, they are what give the film the most potency. They are both technically proficient, of course, with long takes and static shots. But because they are shot for shot, they kind of blend together in the mind from time to time. The biggest thing I can say to you is see at least one of them. It doesn’t particularly matter which (thus the main failure on Haneke’s point, for neither are terribly distinctive enough to differentiate a whole hell of a lot). While the films may be smug in their condemnation of a sector of society that kind of enjoys this stuff, the potency of its message, its presentation, and execution are pretty flawless. It’s a horror film that creates real fear that the average slasher can’t. It seduces you in the most despicable way, seemingly to prove its very point. It makes you relinquish control completely from the situation. It makes your identify with terrible people. And, yes, it plays minds games with you. You know, Funny Games.
My mother almost constantly, incessantly voices her dissatisfaction with the state of security in the world. In a world where everyone has a cell phone to track them, there are security cameras on nearly every corner, we are all being watched. Being the young Millennial I am, I shrug it off with apathy, ignoring what I perceive to be over paranoia. But, it’s safe (or unsafe) to say that Big Brother is watching. And what if Big Brother decided to, for one reason or another, send you what he’s seen, as mundane or as revealing as it might be? What if Big Brother were standing just across the street, preying on your life and then taunting you and mocking you in the same breath? Michael Haneke’s slow burning Caché does just that.
Subversion is the best when you do not notice it. Whether it’s Lars von Trier’s criticisms of the United States in Dogville or Steve McQueen putting up who is now the poster boy for fictional sexual addiction on display, subversion is best when the audience is wrapped up in the story and only after realizes that they’ve been undermined as an audience and forced to face the proverbial light of day. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke likes to subvert. Even if you are only distantly familiar with his films, you can tell that he enjoys the socio-political aspect to subverting contemporary audiences expectations from the films they watch. Lars von Trier does it with glee, but Haneke seems far more serious about his agenda. His film Funny Games, which he remade shot for shot for an American audience in 2007, was an exercise in sadism. Shoving the carnage horror audiences love to watch with a terrifying realism in front of our faces was not exactly the most pleasant experience, and nor should it have been. However, the film was so blatant about its agenda, leaving nothing to the imagination and little to read into, it came off as rather pretentious. It seemed less of an examination of why we like these things than just torturing for the fact that we do (Sorry, The Cabin in the Woods did it better). However, later in his career, Haneke, who enjoys experimentation with narrative techniques, decides that sadism doesn’t always have to have the negative connotation. Sometimes, sadism might be a good thing.
A fairly wealthy family is being watched. Videos are being sent to them, and on the tapes is surveillance footage filmed from across the street. They’re coming with violent pictures, almost as if drawn by a child. They don’t know who or why these tapes are being sent to them, never mind why they’re being sent in the first place. But the notion of being watched causes the family’s sense of security to disintegrate. Their lives turn to quiet bedlam.
The film is graced by stellar performances from Daniel Auteuil, as Georges the patriarch and co-host of a popular literary television show, and Juliette Binoche, as Anne a publisher. The two have an interesting dynamic as the film begins. They seem to have a pleasant, trusting relationship when the film begins, or at least what counts for a normal relationship. But even as they receive the first tape, their relationship is tested. Georges begins to think from the logical aspect, and you can almost see his mind buzzing with various theories as to who the mysterious filmmaker could be, where the tape could have been filmed, etc. Anne is less caught up in the very specific details of logistics, and looks at it emotionally, worrying about the state of her family. As the film continues, their relationship continues to strain and be tested, almost as if the two mindsets and ways of thinking must go against one another head to head, both as a way of maintaining an intimate relationship and as a way of problem solving. Binoche does not do “quiet desperation” is a stupid, trite way, nor has she ever. Her desperation has always been evident in her eyes and in her face, and she never second guesses her performance or the audience by pushing it over the edge into a state of fantasy, rather than reality. I am not familiar with Auteuil or his work, but his various acts of honesty, duplicity, and paranoia resonate as true within the film. He is the typical male who has seemingly lost control of his normal life with this new “thing”. The man who has lost control rebounds against bad decisions and pays the price, slowly losing the dignity he is so desperate to keep.
The film’s cinematography is its most important element. Largely composed of static shots, Haneke has fun presenting both the reality of the Laurents family and the surveillance footage, often within the same scene, even in the same shot. Discerning between surveillance and reality is part of the most intriguing elements of the film, if not the most fascinating part. When the camera is not making more obvious pans and movements, one can safely assume it’s surveillance footage… or is it? The point, it seems, between the inability to really tell from shot to shot of what kind of footage is being shown is to accentuate one of the main theses of the films: we are always being watched. I do not think that Haneke is intentionally being overly paranoid about the subject, but instead being realistic about the world that we live in. It has stunning relevance viewing it almost a decade after its initial release, with the changes in technology. Regardless of whether it’s Big Brother watching or your neighbor, the fact that we live in society where some feel the need to be cautious about everything versus those who live by “YOLO” and carry themselves anywhere and anyway they like. It seems to be more about facing the reality of the world we live in than some sort of propaganda scaring the audience into paranoia. My theory, though, is that the entire film is surveillance. Though there are one or two tracking shot, the stillness of the frames, and the lack of pans could lead one to assume that Haneke’s Caché is an Orwellian masterpiece whose dystopian horror of constant surveillance takes place within reality. (At moments, it seems that even characters that wouldn’t seem to “matter” may be in on it; there’s a blah white man in one scene in a restaurant who looks into the camera.)
Maybe an important aspect of the film is that because the narrative force is looking through the eyes of a voyeur, the audience in turn becomes that violator just as much as whoever is responsible for the threats and the tapes. Much like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, we become the perpetrators by staring closely at each frame and yet convincing ourselves that we haven’t looked into these peoples’ lives close enough. Is this Haneke once again showing us the state of what entertainment has become?
Michael Haneke’s subversion of the deliberate pace and the eye of the camera does not fully wash over you until well after the film is over. It becomes a haunting vision that lives with you and makes you consider every step you take. It should be no surprise that, after September 11 and the subsequent Patriot Act, there would be a certain amount of “precaution” taken, but the Austrian director shows us what can really happen and how one thing can then disrupt the entire life of a family. Caché is a film that is realized meticulously, where you pay vigilant attention to every scene, looking around the frame and studying the mise-en-scene for every moment of the film, only trying to understand more. Made, somewhat ironically, twenty years after George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 is supposed to take place, Haneke presents it as Big Brother realized, threatening and fearful. And when the film is over, and the shock of violence, even violation of the senses has been slowly washed out of your mind, you will ask yourself, “Was I watching closely?”
As they say, Beauty is only skin deep. Obsession, on the other hand, is a virus that infects the mind and deteriorates any sense of logic or ethical morality. Such is the case of the stunning, disturbing, eloquent, poetic, horrifying, and melodramatic film The Skin I Live In, written and directed by Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar. Loosely based on the story Mygale by Thierry Jonquet, the film is at once a return to Almodóvar’s familiar themes as well as an exploration into new ideas and a spin on old tropes.
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodóvar for the first time in over two decades) is a brilliant plastic surgeon who has created a new synthetic skin that is the closest to indestructible that we have ever come to knowing. After years of testing and experimentation, the doctor has reached a part of the scientific process that he is satisfied with enough to show it to his medical peers. What his colleagues in the scientific community are unaware of, however, is that not only is the skin made unethically (Banderas has a lengthy explanation on how the new skin has hybrid cells), it has been tested unethically.
Like any good mad man, especially one with a medical degree, he houses his human guinea pig in an enclosed area in his house. Vera (Elena Anaya, Almodóvar’s Talk to Her), a beautiful, frightened young woman is caged in a spacious, sterile environment, a woman who has the striking resemblance to the good doctor’s late wife. Underneath her skin hide many secrets of both her and the doctor’s pasts.
Almodóvar is well known for his domestic melodramas and films about the search for self and identity. Gender identity, sexual identity, etc. are explored here. However, while this is familiar ground for Almodóvar, there is a new element added to his list of themes: horror. Thematically and (somewhat) aesthetically inspired by Georges Franju’s French horror film Eyes without a Face, the plastic surgery aspect of the film is blatantly an homage to Franju. However, while the homage is overt, Almodóvar does not try to update it in a gratuitous way, at least not initially. The medical scenes themselves are fairly classical in their style, with steady camera work and sterile, monochromatic coloring. The allusions made to Franju’s film are one that are of clear admiration for Eyes without a Face, a film that also dealt with a similar kind of identity crisis, but via a B-movie environment.
Part horror film and also part erotic melodrama, the sexuality that is injected into every frame of the film is intoxicating, euphoric, and even sometimes horrific. But sexuality serves as symbolism here, as Almodóvar uses it to explore his favorite ideas of sexual identity and power. (Choice scene: The teenage orgy in the garden outside of the doctor’s house. Almost as if Almodóvar is recreating a dirtier version of the forests in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreams, with the randy nymphs incarnated as horny teens.) The power divide between men and women is juxtaposed here between Vera’s simmering sensuality and the doctor’s initial reserve and respect. The erotica featured, though, is made with a sense of snarkiness as well, as if the director is teasing you with what he already knows. Not quite an example of dramatic irony, though; just the director being clever.
The film’s look is at times majestic and at others sterile and immaculate. There is a harsh juxtaposition of the synthetic and the natural in set design regarding even the spaces of the house that the doctor both lives and tests in. Blending natural stone and marble architecture and decoration, with elements of wood and foliage, the laboratory and the room where Vera is kept are both stark and naked of any real descriptive qualities. The room, despite having housed Vera for several years, is still not home to her. It is the same as a kennel, essentially, devoid of remarkable nuances that the rest of the house has. The laboratory has an artificial and frighteningly immaculate sheen to it. While this perfection may make sense on a realistic and scientific level, the sheer cleanliness and sterility, matched with the color palette that Almodóvar uses, offers something disconcerting about the area to the viewer. It has shades of blue and white around it, its walls not entirely of silver or chrome. It is, essentially, too clean. The cinematography, by José Luis Alcaine, is steady and beautiful. Vivid colors are employed and represent various moods and feelings in the film. The sterile feel to the ugly procedure is complimented by its sterile cinematography, with perfect tracking shots. And because of its roots being from Eyes without a Face, the camera lingers on the face of each actor for the perfect amount of time, capturing reactions and expressions flawlessly. The chiseled features of Banderas are contrasted, quite often, with the silky smooth features of Elena Anaya. To sum it up, the look of the film has been created with, ahem, surgical precision.
The performances are unsurprisingly top notch. Antonio Banderas plays Ledgard with precision and madness, fluctuating back and forth between the façade of sanity and their internal insanity like Dr. Hannibal Lecter, except without the Chianti. After having been exposed to Banderas only by his roles in English language films, it is pleasant to see him back in his environment. Banderas seems like he is more comfortable playing a role in a Spanish language film, one where he can much more easily play with the cadence and intonation of his character to achieve a specific effect. The moral ambiguity of the character constantly is brought to light, and one wonders how obsessed they would be if they were in his situation. His madness and passion for the project, though, is completely believable and riveting throughout the entire film.
Elena Anaya has a soft, sensual beauty that is completely intoxicating and maddening in the film. Artificially created or not, one becomes jealous of how beautiful she is and how fragile she is. Her fragility though, just like everything else in the film, is nothing but a façade. She can fight and survive like any female character, but the layers to her story are as fascinatingly synthetic as the skin she lives in. Her flawless beauty, though, may become oddly problematic by the end.
A note on the ending, sans spoiler: Did not care for it. It seemed to regress in style and tone by then.
By the end of the film, the title is obvious and fitting. The title, The Skin I Live In, seems to encompass all of the tees that Almodóvar has fun playing around with in this film. And what a film it is! Disturbing, complex, and beautiful, Almodóvar combines his favorite variations with new elements of horror and a little sci-fi, and reunites with Banderas. The Skin I Live in is a brilliantly twisted exercise in the horror of self-identity and obsession. As fashion designer Alexander McQueen once said, “There’s blood underneath every layer of skin.”