What is (Art) Cinema? Notes towards a study…

Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days (2001)

Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days (2001)

Contemporary art cinema can be studied as a genre with identifiable characteristics. This is not to suggest that the work on art cinema as mode, style, and institution[1] is without merit. My interest is in spectatorship and reception, which inevitably leads to distilling and organizing diverse films into critical and experiential categories (a genre). The contemporary art film is not defined or limited by either commonplace semantic or syntactic elements, certain key elements which constitute a definitive genre; such an analysis would lead to national, political, ideological, religious, and aesthetic reductions (although, my focus on art cinema locates it within and part of dominant ideology, 21st century capitalism). While the definition of the art film genre resonates with an account of it as a mode, includes the notion of it as institution, and necessarily requires an account of directors’ styles, I find the framework of genre studies helpful insofar as it includes audience expectation and familiarity, and advertising and promotional components that will, in turn, comprise its definition.

In an effort not to replicate the mistakes of David Bordwell’s overgeneralizations in his definition art cinema ([1979] 2009), I would limit an account of contemporary art cinema to three core types, each type overlapping with the others to varying degrees: directors who employ a transcendental style, sexually explicit melodramas, and social and political satires, often shot in a documentary mode.

In my viewings of recent art cinema I have found that most participate in the following:

The contemporary art film is defined by, first, its programming and exhibition. Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Rotterdam and Toronto are but a few of the cities a film can receive laurels, which would then be added to the respective film’s promotional materials, such as its trailer, posters, and DVD/blu-ray covers.[2] It is perhaps tautological to say that the definition of the “festival film” is a film that is exhibited at a festival; but its success at a given festival, or more correctly, its success at multiple festivals, function as markers of its status as art film. Inclusion within the festival circuit entails significant attention and promotion from film journals and magazines – Film Comment, Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinema, Cineaste, New York Times, Screen, all shares a focus on the festival film. It should come as no surprise that the festival winners are also those applauded, and ranked well, by these journals and magazines. Critics and theorists therefore work parallel to the festival circuit by promoting, championing, and categorizing the best and worst in the contemporary art cinema genre.

Second, the art cinema genre can be said to produce particular effects on the mind and body of the spectator. I follow Torben Grodal who suggests this body of films impacts the spectator with a certain quality of deep or existential meaning. The contemporary festival-circuit film, similar to the art films of decades prior, develops, comments upon, or problematizes notions of human nature, religiosity, sexuality, and oftentimes, in its most successful outputs, interweaves all three. In recent art cinema, distinct from the body of work comprising art cinema pre-1997, eroticism and a level of explicitness function alongside a narrative to give the events or characters a deep meaning.[3] The displays of nude bodies and of simulated and unsimulated acts of sex challenge viewers to find the meaning of the scene or feature since, programmed at a festival deemed fit for art, a work cannot, under such exhibition circumstances, be a work of porn. Porn has been defined and accepted as a genre intended to produce arousal or laughter in its viewers. There is a conflict then between the low-status of porn and the high-intellectualism of the art cinema. But more recent directors have attempted to contradict this bodily distanced spectatorship by gratuitousness, a gratuitousness paired with a story that requires explicit sex so as to appall spectators, or less frequently, warm their hearts.

Consider Leos Carax’s Pola X (1999) in which a brother and sister fall in love – their sex is then graphically detailed, much to an outraged public. On the other hand, Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) shoots same-sex sex to better understand the couple’s deep emotional bond and counter the bullying felt by the one character about her homosexuality. The scenes which cause sexual arousal are often paired with an illogical or complicated temporality, spatiality, and narrativity, about which I will say more below. Body and mind are therefore worked over by the art film in a generically challenging manner, generating an implicit demand on the part of the spectator to uncover a given film’s deep meaning.

On this last point, the simpler and less precise term frequently adopted by critics and theorists to describe deep meaning is narrative “ambiguity” coupled with irresolution. This third feature of the art film genre, ambiguity, is heightened by sparse dialogue, or dialogue which does not seem to advance the plot, a plot already difficult to pin down and identify because of the deeper meaning hidden within its recesses. A display of ambiguity also operates according to a lack of psychological depth given to the characters. The art film downplays intentionality and motivation, and in some films, depicts characters with atypical (sexual) desires. These characters are unreasonable and illogical in their acts and encounters. The plots do not thicken, but are organized more like tableaus.

The art film is therefore a “difficult” film.[5] Vivian Sobchack writes (2014: 50-51) that the challenge of some films – here she is referring to Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013) and To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2013), two of the most recognized art films of the year – is their refusal of narrative conventionality, namely, most other films can safely answer the question, “What was it all about?” while these two cannot. On the other hand, and this is the fourth trait of the art cinema,

[i]nstead of cognitive, reflective, and after-the-fact sense-making, [art films] make sense – if we let them – sensuously, experientially, in the phenomenological “now” of seeing, hearing, and touching (if always also at a distance). This is sense understood not as determinate meaning us the quite different “meaningfulness” of “being present to.” (Sobchack 2014: 51, italics mine)[6]

Given the ambiguity and opposition to classical narratives, the contemporary art film – and contemporary film theorists additionally – is concerned with producing sensations in the spectator, bodily responses that are the cause of a kind of thinking about the film after the experience. Thus the art cinema is a body genre but of an entirely different kind than pornography, horror, melodrama, or comedy. These genre films are said to cause arousal, fear, tears, and laughter in the spectator, but not for the purpose of engaging them in thinking about the content therein. Sobchack mentions (2014: 53): Upstream Color and To the Wonder’s “thematic vagueness and grandiose reach are sophomoric – I think of staying up in a dorm room until three in the morning futilely arguing over abstract universals and the true nature of existence.” She thus indicates a type of audience most suited for the art cinema, i.e., young intellectuals at university.

The fifth key component of the contemporary art cinema is the most contentious: style.* I recognize the plethora of art films and the breadth of style and the difficulties in listing general characteristics. Style does require some attention despite its vast differences amongst directors because the deep meaning embedded in the film is attributed to the director him/herself, or more accurately, the director as an auteur. One film functions as part of an oeuvre; a director’s body of work can viewed as a whole and analyzed in terms of its themes, messages, and style.

Finally, the art cinema films pinch from a variety of genres or cannot be pinned down and limited to a conventional genre with recognized semantic and syntactic elements – although the films can be viewed and evaluated along genre lines as this proposal suggests. In the art cinema one can locate various genres, from the western, to the religious film, to pornography, to horror, to documentary, but most seem to fall under the category of melodrama. What we do not see much of in the recent art cinema is comedy (Carax’s Holy Motors [2012] is an exception in some of its episodes, but it would be incorrect to call the film as a whole a comedy);  to contribute to the founding of a deeper meaning, a serious tone and approach must be consistently applied.

To put this last point in different words, the filmmakers in this genre make it difficult for critics and theorists to clearly define their work, epistemologically and in terms of its engagement with spectators’ sensations. However, this difficultly is part of its definition. Therefore art cinema, as a genre, may be best labelled as a hybrid – to discover which genres make up this hybrid quality would be the focus of study outlined here.[7]

But perhaps the contemporary art cinema is now changing.


* The stylistic devices most frequently used, including those previously mentioned, are:

  • Long takes and long scenes, shot with a static camera, creating and overall effect of slowness and contemplation;
  • Open spaces, long shots of landscapes, which impress upon spectators a feeling or demand of careful attention or contemplation as to the meaning of the image;
  • Tableaus are used rather than a cause and effect plot, heightening this sense of slowness;
  • For the most part non-diegetic music is excluded and often when non-diegetic music does find itself in a particular scene, the film is then cut to reveal that music as part of the diegesis; “natural sounds” are preferred and given a strong emphasis;
  • Non-professional actors who often resemble Bressonian models (a clear move away from the sentimentality and identification one is said to experience with a Hollywood feature);
  • An emphasis on the look/personage of the performer, recalling Sergei Eisenstein’s use of individuals for faces appropriate to the part;
  • Sparse or unmotivated dialogue and limited psychological depth of characters;
  • Extreme close-ups of faces are frequent, demanding spectators to find some interiority in a character when there is likely none to be found; extreme close-ups are also a challenge to Hollywood stars, the non-professional actors in art cinema not physically resembling actors in California;
  • Nudity, realistic sex, either simulated or unsimulated; oftentimes gratuitous and without direct relevance to the story (if a strong story can be identified), but a key part of the plot;
  • An unclear temporal frame or temporal confusion produce an ambiguous quality to the narrative, meaning, or message of the film; there is often no resolution at the end of the film, however, there is often a symmetry between the beginning and end of the film, linked by similar shots, locations, or motifs.
  • The deep meaning embedded in the film is attributed to the director, or more accurately, the director as an auteur (one film functions in larger body of the director’s work).

Thus the common stylistic components to an art film contribute to the common purpose or reception of it, i.e., its capacity for revealing some truth about human nature, social relations, or spirituality.


[1] Bordwell [1979] 2009; Neale 1980.

[2] Elsaesser 2006[?]: 97: “With every prize it confers, a festival also confirms its own importance, which in turn increases the symbolic value of the prize. Cannes, for instance, is not only aware of the seal of excellent that its Palme d’Or bestows on a film thus distinguished. It also carefully controls the use of its logo in image and print, down to typeface, angle, color coding and the number of leaves in its palm branch oval.”

[3] There are exceptions to my generalization, but these films were rare. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), , and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman (1982) are remembered as originators of an acceptable, if not contested, quantity and quality of explicitness unseen on the festival circuit of their time.

[5] Sobchack 2014: 50, for a quick summation of the types of “difficult” films.

[6] Sobchack continues on in this article to discuss Upstream Color and To the Wonder, more or less in the terms of the art cinema genre I present here. Where she falters is in marking differences between art films, particularly the one she liked better. For Sobchack, Upstream Color was enjoyed more because Malick’s film used imagery that is now stale. In different words, the poetry of the former was enjoyed to a greater degree than the latter. Given the ephemeral and contingent quality of such a claim, the opposite conclusion may well have been true.

[7] On French extreme cinema, a production trend which is largely part of what I have called contemporary art cinema, Martine Beugnet claims (2007: 9) that this “hybrid cinema” is “the most exciting forms of filmmaking… currently offered.”


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