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Art has always been about eliciting emotions in the consumer, a trend which continues to this day, as shown in cinema adverts which emphasise how mind-blowing seeing the latest blockbusters on the big screen is. But what about filmmakers who go out of their way to elicit a negative emotional reaction from the viewer regardless of whether they like the movie or not? Here we come to the trend of provocateur directors, as in filmmakers who seek to put the audience through a visceral reaction whether it be through excessive violence and sex, difficult subject matters, or disorienting formal techniques.
Perhaps it would be useful to establish the ‘usual suspects’ of controversial film making, which is by no means an exhaustive or ‘correct’ canon, but more a selection of a few contemporary examples for discussion. The three directors being looked at are Gaspar Noé (Climax, Irreversible, Enter the Void), Michael Haneke (Amour, Funny Games, Caché), and Lars von Trier (Melancholia, Dancer in the Dark, The House that Jack Built), which by chance have a common theme of being European Art directors (although provocateurs are not limited to foreign or independent films, as Darren Aronofsky’s Hollywood studio-backed features show). Noé specialises in hypnotic, disorienting explorations of life and death, via much sex, substance abuse, and strobe lights. Haneke uses a cold, clinical style that probes the darker side of human nature as well as topics such as the representation of violence in the media. Von Trier uses a shaky handheld filming style to depict stark acts of sexuality and violence which have explored themes such as depression, grief, and the immigrant experience.
These directors all have well-recorded cases of causing upsets with their films. Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) reportedly caused a third of audience members to walk out at Cannes. ‘Cannes film sickens audience’ reads a BBC headline concerning the 250 people who walked out and the 20 who fainted during the premiere of Noe’s Irreversible (2002). As for von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), 100 walkouts, 4 faints, and an ‘anti-award’ from the ecumenical jury. They also all received standing ovations. So depending on who you ask, these films can be impressive works of art by auteurs, or sick self-indulges of little merit.
In the films, form is also used by the directors as a sensory assault on the viewer, most notably displayed by Gaspar Noé with his hypnotic use of flashing lights, disorienting camera movements, and in the instance of Irreversible low frequency sounds to nauseate the viewer.
Certainly, the audience’s reaction is not an unintended side effect for the directors, with Noé complaining after the premiere of Climax that he didn’t have as many people walk out of the screening as usual. To this extent, the directors have established a recognisable auteurship that lends itself to marketing: a Noé or von Trier film is marketed as such with a specific set of thematic and stylistic expectations much in the same way that a Nolan or Tarantino film may be advertised thus (‘… you hated Irreversible, you loathed Enter the Void, … now try Climax’ entices the poster for Noé’s latest).
This prompts the question: what’s in it for us? Clearly, there is in some viewers and critic’s eyes artistic merit to these films. I suggest there is also something of a visceral experience to watching these films, a thrill from putting oneself through such an occasionally extreme experience. Unlike in exploitation films, I do not think that the enjoyment derives from the depiction of sex or violence, as due to the heaviness of some of the subject matter often these sequences are far more uncomfortable and disturbing, but rather the sensation itself of being exposed to such subjects disturbingly portrayed on screen, a sort of endurance test for the viewer into a world of depravity.
Perhaps the better question is whether such disturbing content is necessary? I think that often the risk of being a provocateur is that one can get caught up too much in trying to shock the audience without reason, and sometimes reining it in a little can lead to a better end product. However, these films do occasionally try to make a case for their extremity. Haneke’s Funny Games seems to turn the mirror on the spectator, showing them violence in a way that responds to, criticises, and plays with their expectations of how violence ought to be portrayed in media.
And yet, what sticks out as most problematic to me in terms of von Trier as an artist, is not the content of his films, but his alleged sexual harassment of singer Björk, who acted in his film Dancer in the Dark. Here, we are no longer confronted with a subjective ethical discussion of art, but a more objective transgression of societal ethics, which deserves to be called out.
Similarly, I would argue that a film such as Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), as inoffensive and schmaltzy as it is, is inherently more problematic than anything Noé or Haneke (two directors with no real-world controversies) have ever made, from the fact that it is directed by a man facing multiple accusations of sexually harassing minors. This is not to undermine the power of art: the content of these films will have a strong effect on many that watch them and that’s completely normal, but rather to suggest that while it has the power to shock and to outrage (and problematic aspects of a piece of art should always be open to scrutiny, especially where it may enforce real-world problems such as racial stereotypes), the real-life transgressions should be far more the subject of condemnation than the works of art themselves. Ultimately, these films are and likely will continue to be divisive, so perhaps instead of discussing the matter any further, the best method to suggest is to view or inform oneself about the films and come to a personal judgement: art or trash? Both are entirely justified.