Thursday, September 16, 2004

Battering the senses 

Michael Brooke links to an Independent piece about the increasingly hardcore nature of French cinema. Whether, as he argues, it's a recent phenomenon or not, the openmindedness towards portraying great and often sexual violence is something I've noticed too. Yet the audiences for these films are usually pretty self-selective, anyway. The only place you can see pieces like A Ma Soeur, Seul Contre Tous or Dans Ma Peau is in an independent cinema, where if you go regularly you go almost expecting to see large amounts of violence and films that no one but the most pretentious could pretend to understand anyway.

I once went to a film at the Edinburgh festival where two of the reels had got swapped by mistake, so we saw it in the order '1, 4, 3, 2' . Yet not a single person walked out and we all happily clapped the (admittedly very boring) film at the end before the Festival's director came onstage to apologise. Independent film audiences can't be going to the cinema to get a story, since as often as not the films are non-linear flashes of blurred memories and waking dreams, so something else has to go in its place, and increasingly directors seem to be opting for 'violence = message/psyche exploration' tactics, which frequently don't work, when the only point to the violence is to test whether the audience can handle it.

A Ma Soeur, for example, has been advertised as a study in child sexuality, but is in reality mostly an exercise in boredom until the final baseball-bat murder and rape scene, where a stranger comes from out of the blue to put a gruesome end to their mundanely awful holiday. But who cares? Pointless violence may often enter unexpectedly into our private lives, but in a film I'd still (perhaps naively) expect it to be related in some way to some sort of purpose.

The Independent article quotes NoƩ, the director of Seul Contre Tous (genuinely worthwhile, and reviewed at more length by Michael here) saying: "I'm happy some people walk out during my film. It makes the ones who stay feel strong." Well, not so much strong as completely desensitised. I was more amused than anything else when half the audience progressively walked out of the Film Festival showing of Dans Ma Peau, since the film happily advertises itself as a graphic study in self-harm, so really you get what you came in for. There's nothing big or moral in leaving something like that, yet these people held their heads up as if they were trying to make a statement by their exit. The only statement I could make about this film, though, is that it's unrealistic and sensationalist, something which you have to sit out the whole film to understand, since the woman involved goes from an accidental gash on her leg to eating slices of her own skin within the space of three days. The speed of this tests any idea that the film is investigating the mentality of the self-harmer, as sensationalism overtakes everything else.

Eventually these violent films just become another notch under the belt. "You're not a proper indie film goer if you haven't added incestual rape, flesh mutilation and increasingly bizarre methods of murder to your list of ones to watch!" Sometimes I wonder if it's really worth sitting through all the rubbish just for a few good moments where you find something truly worthwhile. But then, what else would I do with a Sunday afternoon in the rain?

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