Saturday, March 15, 2008

Agent Provocateur

In terms of directing style, Michael Haneke is a brother to Polanski, his clinical approach a foil to all the psychological terrors lurking beneath the surface of a frame. His camera is enamored of body language – hands, fingers and feet – as much as by what the face betrays. This is a man able to translate esoteric, “looks great on paper,” concepts flawlessly to the screen. He does what lesser “idea” artists like Catherine Breillat cannot – push beyond his own comfort level, not just ours.

Yet still Haneke is one of the most divisive filmmakers working today – a man both derided and admired, often in the very same breath. What most of the director’s detractors dislike is his desire in films like “Funny Games,” recently remade shot for shot in English from its German original, to implicate the viewer in the senseless violence taking place onscreen. What critics assume is that if Haneke ends up titillating – rather than holding the audience accountable – he is no better than a snuff filmmaker. Alternately, many feel that as director he both births the violence onscreen while placing his intellectual elite self above the fray. Both these arguments are reductive and quite miss the point. The first, “violence is bad – shame on us for watching” assumes a moral preaching too simplistic for this philosophical director. Even if we do in fact become titillated rather than horrified our minds are always engaged. Haneke is a coldly cerebral filmmaker, not visceral. He’d make a terrible mess of slasher flicks. And it is precisely this cerebral quality that often paints him a snobbish academic. He’s “above the fray” like Hitchcock and Kubrick placed themselves “above the fray” – out of a working necessity, not elitism. If Haneke were a down-in-the-dirt, visceral director his films would indeed devolve into “Hostel” for college professors.

For first and foremost Haneke is a provocateur. He wants his audience to think – for themselves. This is his number one goal. And by virtue of the fact that he hits such a strong nerve in those who can’t quite figure him out he’s done what he’s set out to do, got them actively wondering, not passively witnessing. At heart his films are just a series of questions to be endlessly pondered by each individual viewer. There are no right or wrong answers. And this, above all the blood and gore in the world, is what truly makes audiences squirm in their seats.

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