A recently published but old essay on Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001).
Carlos Reygadas explores both the ordinary and extraordinary in contemporary Mexico. He stages scenes of graphic violence, sex, dying, and death; his non-professional actors convey sadness, contempt, distrust, and experience great loss.
In this video essay I tried to bring together these elements of Reygadas’s oeuvre. We see these themes in the deaths of animals and humans, the consistent depiction of guns, and the ties between religiosity and sex and death. In my reading of the director’s work, seemingly incongruous scenes can be connected to help us understand more about Reygadas’s place within contemporary film-making and his view of life in contemporary Mexico and, if we’re lucky, we may also come to understand ourselves a bit better too.
Video from Reygadas’s Japón (2002), Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005), Silent Light (Stellet Licht, 2007), and Post Tenebras Lux (2012).
The text that follows is a short essay on animals, non-human animals, and death, very loosely tied to the video essay.
In each of Reygadas’s films, the director attempts to maintain the integrity of locations, persons, and objects without transforming them into narrative devices. The director’s aesthetics are often about presenting persons and things as they function in space and time. In contemporary fictional films, death cannot be part of the profilmic event: humans nor animals are killed in the service of drama, on the one hand, and on the other, even if this was permitted, it is difficult if not impossible to capture the precise moment of passing from existence to non-existence even in a non-fictional context. Unlike hard core pornography, which attempts to “‘fix’ the exact moment of the sexual act’s involuntary convulsion of pleasure” by explicitly documenting the male orgasm (Williams  1999: 113), death has no such visible instant. Given the limits and challenges of bringing realistic death to narrative cinema, Reygadas has demonstrated a complex and varied relationship to cinematic dying, corpses, and the repercussions of death for the characters in his films. He has experimented with representations of the death of animals, shown the aftermath of a person’s death, tried to replicate murder with a high degree of verisimilitude and, in his latest feature, briefly turned to computer-generated imagery to symbolically illustrate a suicide. Each attempt to bring dying to the screen further exemplifies the director’s aim to elicit sensuous responses in spectators, quite apart from emotional empathy (Laine  2013) or spontaneous eruptions of screams or tears (Williams  2009).
Human Animals, Non-Human Animals
The death of an animal or animals in fictional cinema stands as a substitute for the impossible to represent human death. Sergei Eisenstein knew this better than any filmmaker of his time. In Strike (Стачка, 1924) he cut the execution of workers with the execution of cattle. Of this scene he wrote,
I did this [finale of Strike], on the one hand, to avoid overacting among the extras from the labour exchange ‘in the business of dying’ but mainly to excise from such a serious scene the falseness that the screen will not tolerate but that is unavoidable in even the most brilliant death scene and, on the other hand, to extract to maximum effect of bloody horror. The shooting is shown only in ‘establishing’ long and medium shots of 1,800 workers falling over a precipice, the crowd fleeing, gunfire, etc., and all the close-ups are provided by a demonstration of the real horrors of the slaughterhouse where cattle are slaughtered and skinned. ( 1988: 43)
On the one hand, we have “the business of dying,” a dramatization that is often too unreal to generate the kind of cognitive engagement Eisenstein aimed to elicit in his spectators. On the other, the slaughter of the cattle served as a bloody replacement of what could not then be shown with verisimilitude in the cinema. This substitution of real death for fictional death posits differing ethical spaces. While the narrative momentum of Strike calls for the execution of the laborers, the indexical inscription of the murdered cattle carries no such narrative motivation. In an early essay, Sobchack discusses Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (Le regle de jeu, 1939) and observes that killing an animal onscreen, and contrasting that real death with the fictional death of a character, “violently, abruptly, punctuates fictional space with documentary space” (2004: 246-247). This intrusion of the real results in a greater sense of shock at the death of a rabbit than the fictionalized death of the human character later in the film. Her consciousness, which had theretofore been situated or accustomed to the irreal and fictional events, was abruptly transformed “into a documentary consciousness charged with a sense of the world, existence, bodily mortification, and mortality, and all the rest of the real that is in excess of the fiction” (2004: 269).
In a later essay, from which the second quotation was taken, Sobchack addresses the fiction/documentary blur in more detail. Here, with reference to animal death, Sobchack claims that an animal is not of the same fictional order as a human character. Upon the event of the rabbit’s death, its status as a “quasi character” quickly transitions to that of a real “once-living creature;” the animal dies in the fictional world while also dying for the production of fiction, “in excess and outside of the irreal fictional world, in the space of the real, where death counts because it is irreversible” (Sobchack 2004: 269-270). Animal death thus serves as an interruption of the fiction by the profilmic real. Given the inability to “fix” the moment of human dying, Catherine Wheatley writes (2011: 97), “the blow that strikes down the living [non-human] animal is the violent equivalent of the penetration shot, offering ‘proof’ of an act which shocks by its very reality.” However, this functions on different registers for the classical film than the contemporary. Wheatley finds many examples of animal death in contemporary art cinema (2011: 97) and Reygadas’s films fall in with this trend.
In Eisenstein’s and Renoir’s films, the purpose of this factual interruption is to grant the irreal an index which could then elicit similar bodily and cognitive responses from the spectator when they later witness the fictional death of a human character. Reygadas’s most recent feature touches upon something different, i.e., a documentary quality whereby the animals appear to exist for themselves. To make this point, it is helpful to contrast Post Tenebras Lux’s animals with those of Reygadas’s debut feature. In Japón, the unnamed protagonist, on his journey towards a remote village to contemplate and commit suicide, encounters a child with a wounded bird. The child states that he is not strong enough himself to pull the head from the bird’s body to end its suffering. The man takes the animal and without hesitation accomplishes the task himself. A close-up of the head tossed to ground, the bird gasping for breath, concludes the scene. The significance of this act is clear.
Two more instances of animal death punctuate the film but function less powerfully as intrusions of the real. Prior to his final descent to the village, the man wakes one morning to the agonizing screeches of a pig, the animal on its way to becoming human food. He then enters a butcher shop and we see close-ups of various parts of animals. Again, both the slaughter of the pig and the remains symbolically illustrate the man’s desired death. Further, in the middle of the film, in perhaps the most emotionally-driven sequence, on the threshold of committing suicide the man encounters the corpse of a horse. He raises his gun towards his own head but cannot pull the trigger. He collapses beside the horse while the viewer takes in a helicopter shot of the scene, and the sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Passion of St. Matthew fill the non-diegetic air. It is important to note the use of rain in this scene, as pathetic fallacy, which sets the mood for the long shots and baroque music.
We should be reminded of Eisenstein’s October (Октябрь, 1928) and the dead horse displayed therein, again as a stand-in for the human body, as well as the beating of the horse in Raskolnikov’s dream in Crime and Punishment (Преступлéние и наказáние, 1866), symbolically illustrating his madness. For de Luca (2014: 40), the animal deaths in Japón “underscore the film’s central themes: life, death and rebirth,” and poignantly exhibit the “fragility and finitude of physical life as captured by the film medium.” Thus we have two possible but not exclusive ways of receiving these scenes: we can interpret the animal deaths symbolically or, more productively, as an expression of film’s capacity not simply to represent but to present something real. Reygadas runs conflicting modes of spectatorial response up against one another, either in the mode of fiction or documentary, and thereby blurs such rigid divides. For Sobchack, and this is what I also claim to be Reygadas’s aim, the shock of the conflict between one consciousness and the other registers at the level of the body. “My goal [in Japón] was to make people feel,” Reygadas provocatively stated in an interview from shortly after the film’s release (Gordon 2002). “Maybe not feel well, but not bad particularly either. I wanted to make them just feel something. Being numb is bad. Feeling something is good…. Animals die. We die. But we just don’t think about it. [The film] was for making people think about it for a while.”
Although there are no animals killed nor any animal carcasses in Post Tenebras Lux, horses, cattle, and Reygadas’s dogs gallop, meander, and dart onscreen in a number of sequences. Rut introduces us to all three species in the opening episode, and here we should note that Reygadas devotes as much attention to the non-human animals as he does his daughter. Rut’s sense of wonder and spontaneity at these creatures translates into what the camera sees as well. Of all the animals, the dogs are given the most screen time, and we might want to say Martita is even given a minor role. Earlier in the film Martita was severely beaten by Juan for some undescribed transgression. Reygadas makes no attempt to shoot for verisimilitude here – a medium close-up of Juan frames only his punches and not the dog herself receiving the blows. We do hear the painful yelps and whimpers of a dog as Juan inflicts his punishment. Thus while certainly not granting us real death, the scene attempts to convey a sense of the real through Juan’s overwhelming brutality and the sounds of the dog being beaten. Sound artists therefore figure into this sense of the real. I link this extended scene of brutality and its audio track to those images and sounds of the slaughtered pig in Japón. In both scenes we are physically overwhelmed by the punishment or dying of animals.
Juan’s punishment of Martita is significant for two sequences later in the film. After Juan and Natalia have concluded their argument about their deteriorating marriage, Juan goes to feed the dogs. He rests on the ground with them as they eat, a gesture of intimacy, and a close-up of one of the dogs ripping apart its meal may be Juan’s POV (or perhaps not). Proceeding Juan’s deathbed speech, this gesture of intimacy repeats. The protagonist’s last words are a request to bring him the dogs. Reygadas then spends some long seconds with several of the animals, a clear expression of the profilmic real; the dogs look at something out of frame, likely Reygadas himself, instructing them to keep still. Each animal is given a ghostly doubling by the camera lens.
In both Japón and Post Tenebras Lux, then, the animals do not merely serve as substitutes for an impossible to film (ethically and aesthetically) human death. Their status as quasi-characters begs the question of what constitutes the fiction/documentary divide, and in the case of the latter film, the intimacies possible between human and non-animal humans. As if Martita was a human member of the family, Juan stresses after her beating, “I always hurt… the one I love most.” For Bazin, writes Jennifer Fay (2008), there is a strong relationship between realist aesthetics and the depiction of animals. One of the things Bazin loved most about cinema was precisely its capacity to place human and non-human animals together in unique, if not dangerous, framings. The tradition of Bazinian realism echoes in yet another way in Reygadas’s work; both critic and director have warm places in their hearts for animals.
In Reygadas’s four features, human death is represented in several forms. Ascen’s death at the end of Japón shows her nephew’s tractor overturned, scattering the pieces of her former house across a long stretch of road. The scene is six minutes in length, as the camera tracks forward on a railway line and rotates 360 degrees to the music of Avro Pärt, eventually coming to rest on Ascen’s corpse. The impossibility of such an accident is exaggerated by the unconventional camerawork.
Silent Light shows us the moments prior to Esther’s death and her funeral. In the former, during a torrential downpour, Esther leaps from her husband’s slowly moving-vehicle and rushes into the woods. She props herself against a tree and weeps uncontrollably as rain splashes against the camera lens, yet another indication of Reygadas’s investment in the profilmic event. Johan soon goes in search of his wife; he carries her back to the side of the road and two Mexicans arrive to help. Rather than seeing the death itself, a doctor later informs Johan that his wife has passed away. In a nod to Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), Esther is resurrected by a kiss from Marianne, her husband’s mistress.
Battle in Heaven depicts death with a heightened display of verisimilitude. I claim this likeness to reality was used because of the gravity of the depicted act. Marcos visits Ana as a last gesture before his willing arrest. She passionately kisses his lips, he does not respond similarly, and she tells him to leave. She then appears satisfied by his departure. The next scene has Marcos in the hall urinating in his pants. This is a revelatory moment for he returns to the apartment, fetches a knife, and makes a preliminary jab at Ana, gashing her arm badly. Shocked by the action, she struggles briefly as Marcos plunges the weapon into her. His left arm wraps around her and there is less a stabbing motion than a forced entry. She collapses and blood pools all around the floor. Marcos retrieves his hanging coat, left behind after his first exit, and steps out the door.
The violence displayed in extreme cinema has an intensity that registers viscerally, totally unlike the spectacle of horror films. The gash on Ana’s arm at first left me motionless and the attempted struggle to save her own life was an instant of anxiety for me. The tension of the scene, exhibited initially by Marcos’s indifference to her kiss and subsequent urination, erupted into an intensely affective moment as the knife entered Ana’s body. I received a similar sensation during the final shot of Breillat’s Perfect Love (Parfait Amour, 1996), in which the lead male, in close-up, excessively stabs his lover who repeatedly humiliated him. This excessiveness, and the murder we had anticipated since the beginning of Perfect Love (it begins in grainy documentary style with police asking the man to re-enact the crime), comes out from the screen to haunt us as we enter it to feel the images viscerally.
Marcos, psychologically unstable after the murder of Ana, joins the procession of individuals to church to celebrate the Lady of Guadalupe. He dons a head cover and attempts to trek the sidewalks and steps of the church on his knees. At one point he missteps and smacks his skull on the concrete ground. He does eventually reach the church and finds himself a seat in a pew. Bertha, Marcos’s wife, soon finds him kneeling and inert (his head still covered and bloody). She nudges Marcos and he falls over, dead. Thus we again miss the precise moment of a character’s passing from existence to non-existence.
 I follow Sobchack (2004: 258n1) in the use of irreal, as a contrary to the real and not its direct contradiction, as in the “not real” of an impossible or fantastic fiction. In an irreal fiction “the real is ‘bracketed’ and put off to the side as a noncriterion of the work’s meaning, coherence, or plausibility.”
In this article, I argue that actors’ and actresses’ performances are key objects of analysis in addressing the affective and ethical challenges of extreme films. Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001) and its fictionalized making-of, Sex is Comedy (2002), incites an ethical engagement not merely in the sense of textual analysis, but requires a deeper investigation of the star, Roxane Mesquida. The reflexivity of the paired films – the latter as a staged re-enactment of the sex scene of the former, re-performed by lead actress Mesquida – results in an experience of an affective bleed: once we see the performative challenges Mesquida faces in the latter film, we return to the earlier and are doubly affected by both the horror of fictional rape, and the trauma the actress underwent to convincingly perform that violation. These two films pose the question of whether onscreen acts of physical and emotional violence manifest in the bodies of actors and actresses off-screen, and further, to what affective and ethical end. In agreement with Kath Dooley (2014, ‘“When You Have Your Back to the Wall, Everything Becomes Easy”: Performance and Direction in the Films of Catherine Breillat.’ Studies in French Cinema, 14: 2, 108–118), I claim that Breillat must place these demands on her performers in order for her critiques of patriarchy to gain their strength.
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 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 ( 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. 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. 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. 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)
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  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.
* 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.
 Bordwell  2009; Neale 1980.
 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.”
 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.
 Sobchack 2014: 50, for a quick summation of the types of “difficult” films.
 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.
 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.”
The accompanying link to “Hard to Watch Films” barely scratches the surface of what we mean by the terms “challenging” and “difficult” or the coinage “hard to watch films”. The link seems to think “hard to watch” most often means graphic and disturbing content. It also categorizes some of the films as hard to watch because of their verisimilitude (Funny Games ) and true accounts (Elephant Man ), but both these categories of difficult film are still part of the overarching graphic or disturbing content films.
I appreciate Vivian Sobchack’s attempt (Film Comment, Jan/Feb 2014: 50) to categorize the varieties of difficult film:
There are those that are difficult to watch because of their explicit violence or graphic sex (Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible), or their extremely disturbing visceral effects (Kirby Dick’s documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist). There are also those that are pleasurable in their difficulty: cerebral “puzzle” films with intricate plots and/or structures that require some effort to figure out (Christopher Nolan’s Memento, or Carruth’s debut feature Primer). Then there are films that are difficult because they push the limits of representation as far as it will go (Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and its mise en abyme of infinite representational regress). There are others that go even further and push the very limits of cinema itself (Derek Jarman’s monochromatic Blue, or Michael Snow’s La Région centrale). Most commonplace, however, are those films that are difficult to watch because they push nothing: they’re unchallenging spectacles devoid of thought, affect, and any reason, other than mercenary, for being at all (certain kinds of mainstream trash like… Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters).
The most difficult films, for Sobchack, are those that refuse even these conventional difficulties. These works transgress narrative logic or cinematic specificity and “make sense” to us, “sensuously, experientially, in the phenomenological ‘now’ of seeing, hearing, and touching (if always also at a distance)” (51). It is inappropriate to decipher one of these films, nor be simply shocked by their displays of bodies. Sobchack argues for the importance of “meaningfulness” in the sense of “being present to” an object, thing, person, or for our purposes here, a screen and its images.
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012) are Sobchack’s recent examples. In my current work I’m thinking through Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux (2012) as a similar kind of difficult film.
 I nearly typed irritating plots, a clear indication of my film preferences.
Published in Trent University’s Arthur Newspaper, March 11th, print and online.
Kenya. A 50-year-old Austrian woman. Beach Boys and sex tourism. Racism, sexism, exploitation. Hakuna Matata, no problem.
Ulrich Seidl has a very particular filmmaking method. He and Veronika Franz pen a descriptive script, entirely without dialogue.
Professional actors and non-professional actors are thrown into a moment and in their adoption of a particular role, improvise dialogue on the spot. This adds a spontaneous and documentary feel to the scenes.
But Seidl’s films attain another degree of intensity in that the non-professional actors are not exactly playing a role in the same way the professionals are – the roles given to the non-professional actors are ones in which they find themselves in on a regular day.
This is the case with Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe, 2012), the first film of the Paradise Trilogy which, altogether, took four years to make. Seidl and his casting director Eva Roth interviewed numerous Beach Boys to play the part of the fictional Beach Boys of the film.
What is a Beach Boy?
“Young Africans who work on the beach generally selling key rings, boat excursions or safaris and who seek out white women as sexual partners. Many speak fluent German, English and French. In exchange for their services they receive money or large gifts such as a motorcycle, car or house.”
The degradation, exploitation, and façade of love put on by an individual Beach Boy is, in a way, stripped right from their personal past. What is essential for Seidl, in casting actors and non-actors, is an authenticity of personality and appearance.
In Love, Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) takes a vacation in Kenya. There she meets a fellow Austrian and this new friend convinces her that she should find an African boyfriend, become a Sugar Mama. This ritual is common in Kenya, the Beach Boys pretending to love and pretending to want sex from older white tourists so they can afford to live.
The most debated question of the film then becomes who is exploiting who? Teresa desires love and does not mind paying for it, and the Beach Boys she encounters need to use all of their charm and cunning to exploit meagre sums from their tourist girlfriends.
Seidl has a tendency to present both satirical and disturbing content. We cannot help but laugh at Teresa and co.’s racism and exploitation of the young African men’s bodies, and then quickly feel bad about our complicity in this racism by finding it amusing. Also, in that same moment, we take stock of our privileged economic positions.
NY Times critic A.O. Scott observed the same, calling Love “A tour de force of meticulous cruelty, a comic melodrama that elicits laughter and empathy and then replaces those responses with squirming discomfort.”
Seidl does not shy away from controversy. His films raise a number of ethical concerns, most importantly, as Michael Goddard argued in an essay on Seild’s Import/Export (2007), the exploitation depicted onscreen extends to the exploitation of the actors/actresses by the filmmakers in their production of a feature film that garners them a sustainable income.
Worthwhile aesthetic considerations bubble to the surface as well. Catherine Wheatley suggests ways in which Seidl’s documentary form pushes the limits of what can be seen in a fictional film; the director tests our limits as witnesses to human suffering.
Hopefully, in a small way, this pushing hard against our typical film experience forces us to think more critically about others’ suffering.
For those who attended our screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) on Feb. 19, I see these two films as having much in common.
Please join us for Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love (2012), Wednesday, March 12, 8pm at Artspace (378 Aylmer St. N.). As always, the screening is free.