When does art go too far?
We all know that the debate regarding when works of art become “inappropriate” or “unacceptable” is not new. Most of us jump up to fight censorship and the right of the artist to express his or her “self” in any manner their vision requires. And most of us would equally agree that each individual is free to critique or express their disgust with anything the artist creates. These are two key rights of the audience and the artist.
When we see an organization pull its resources in an attempt to block an artist’s work many of us pull together in protest. I proudly remember skipping school so I could drive to Houston and cross through the mob of protestors to pay and see The Last Temptation of Christ. For the two of us, it was essential to protect that core belief of free speech. The level of Baptist and Pentecostal anger was more than a little scary, but me and my pal were very proud to support the movie. We went on opening day. Good thing we did. Nearly all the cinemas located in Southeast Texas pulled the movie with the first 4 days of screenings. Those angry Christians (very few of whom I think ever bothered to read the book or see the movie) succeeded in shutting the movie down in The Bible Belt.
To protest a work of art is very different than prevent it from being displayed or shown. It is a never ending conflict that artists will always face. The rights of artists and the audience must be protected.
But it is the rare individual who can honestly state that she/he has never felt the need to scream out from the highest mountain, “This is wrong! This must be stopped! This is inappropriate!” For me, any work that is created to or even unintentionally stirs up hate against marginalized people compels me to draw the line. Unless the artists’ hatred is aimed at Hitler or The Manson Family or any segment of society that I feel intrudes on the rights of another. Then, I’ll support that hate full tilt. Another area which I refuse to accept is art that sexually exploits children.
Or work that misuses violence. For me, there is a difference in using violence as method for exploring human psychology, history, realism or even as way to access horror. It is when violence is utilized in a manner of titillation instead of provocation that it goes too far for me. And nothing angers me more when I see a work of art that uses violence against children or women for no other reason but to shock us.
Ultimately the basic guidelines for unacceptable art is art in which anyone is actually harmed, any inappropriate exposure of people under the age of 18 or anytime that an individual is pushed into any level of cruel depiction without consent.
Now a true ethical dilemma for me is when I fail to apply my own guidelines. Because whether I like to admit it or not — there have been more than a few films that slip into some very murky ethical waters. And, I must confess that some of them I found myself not only supporting, but enjoyed. The two films represented by their major studio poster campaigns above are films that I like — both crossed my personal ethical lines or standards.
But often I do fuel my ethical concern into logical critiques or I simply refuse to give money to offensive work. What pushes us to create that sort of critique or hide our wallets varies. Such was my reaction by the time Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q reaches about the ten minute mark. I demand a full refund of my ticket and left the cinema.
Yet it is hard not to catch some smart film references in this twisted chapter of the Japan banned series of Direct to Video series called “Love Cinema” — This movie enjoyed some praise in the US while on the festival circuit. Visitor Q remains a cult classic for many. Just for the record, I’m not one of them. In 1999 Miike created Audition. There were more than a few times I found myself feeling I should leave, but the interesting twists in tone, artistry and sheer audacity were far too interesting for me to dismiss. My guidelines shifted for this movie.
Takashi Miike’s Audition utilizes torture and gore as not only as an “attraction” to horror film fans but a clever metaphorical tool to explore his lead character’s inner-most fears of women, grief and sexuality. It took me several years before I was comfortable in recommending it to friends and discussing the idea of securing Takashi Miike as a festival guest. The festival’s board admitted to the artistry involved in much of Miike’s work, but they were equally offended by it as well. To be honest, I never found a way to defend my opinions of many of his films.
But very few films have ever made me as uncomfortable and repulsed as Gaspar Noé’s experimental film, Irréversible.
The film’s narrative deconstruction, cinematography and acting were so polished and unique. I have never worked out how I feel about Gaspar Noé’s depiction of his lead female character’s suffering at the hands of a rapist. The line between valid depiction and grotesque exploitation is not just blurry — it appears to have been erased. Did Noé go too far or did he go just far enough to capture the all-too-real horror that seems to be ever lurking for women? I do not have an answer.
Irréversible was one of many French Films which began to emerge as we entered the 21st Century. Prior to Irréversible, Gaspar Noé shot I Stand Alone. This was another deeply disturbing film which follows an emotionally damaged horse butcher as he contemplates the misery of his life, his threatening visceral cultural rage, suicide and his uncontrollable sexual desire for his daughter. …who happens to be living in a sort of insane asylum. Aside from being grimly nihilistic, I Stand Alone also approaches every aspect from a visually graphic perspective. The film was widely praised and Gaspar Noé received The Mercedes-Benz Award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Despite my repulsive reaction I also consider it an important film.
It was these films that also included Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Leos Carax’s Pola X, Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi, Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day and Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension that led then Artforum Critic, James Quandt, to coin the intentionally derogatory term, The New French Extreme. Quandt defined the The New French Extreme in Artforum with a nod to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975’s highly polarizing Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom serving as a turning point in Film Art that is only growing more perversely articulated by French film artists who are suddenly “…determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.”
Interestingly, rather than create an aversion toward these filmmakers and their work — he actually ended up drawing more attention to it. And, only a few of the French filmmakers were even vaguely offended by the label. Catherine Breillat was the only film artist I can remember being at all perplexed with Quandt’s label. Catherine Breillat has built a distinguished film career around her obsession with the ways in which sexuality impact an individual’s life. Most often, she pursues psychological and physical sexual themes that are nearly always graphic, perversely cerebral and unsentimental. Her career in the arts started at 17 when she secured a publishing deal for her first novel, Early Man, in 1965. The French Government quickly banned the novel from any readers under the age of 18. Almost immediately as the novel was published it was optioned by two film producers. It would not be until 1976 that the producers had the funds, but Breillat was allowed to adapt her book and to direct it. It is interesting to note that the producers went bankrupt as the movie, A Real Young Girl, was too controversial to secure a distributor in the late 1970’s. In fact, the French Government banned the film. It would not be until 1999 that the film would be released. The history of this novel and subsequent movie is an early and accurate summation of her entire career. Breillat’s interests and the manner in which she portrays them are often received with interest, but almost consistently create such controversy that success is somewhat limited. Despite the challenges of making profits, her skill as a filmmaker are indisputable. Catherine Breillat has always followed her vision and made it very clear that the audience will either reject her films or not. So, I remember being surprised that she even bothered to address the appointed label of being a part of The French Extreme. She felt that her work was more aligned to that of David Cronenberg and she suggested that she felt they both made films that fell into the realm of Cinema of the Body.
Of the following three French films only one of them was not considered a part of The French Extreme.
Catherine Breillat’s À ma sœur! was released in 2001. It remains my favorite example of The French Extreme. The title of the movie actually translates as “To My Sister!” but for some inane marketing reason Canal+ assigned it a new title for non-European release. And, so I once again find myself ignoring my guidelines as I enter the world of Fat Girl.
In 2001 I wrote that Fat Girl was a controversial, provocative and potent examination of female adolescence. Without even the slightest hint of empathy or sentiment for her lead character — or any others in the movie — the movie is unflinching in its commitment to perversely turn the film against the audience rather than to provoke the audience against the movie. Breillat seems to be lensing the entire film with a driven by the same adolescently stunted emotional confusion, rage, jealousy and loneliness of the main character, Anaïs Pingot. Adolescence is never easy, but is proving to be even more so for Anaïs. The US/UK/Canadian releases for this film have been changed from To My Sister! to Fat Girl. As inappropriate as this new title is, it is a great example at the way our society views females. Even at the hands of the movie’s distributor poor Anaïs is reduced to being nothing more than a fat girl. She is already judged.
Far more graphic than it needs to be, Canal+ has made it clear that this time out Breillat did not require her actors to have sex. But give the fact that the movie utilizes prosthetic penis hard-on’s and full frontal nudity and graphic simulated sex scenes, it feels real. Breillat films her lead character played by a 13 year old non-actress partially nude and places her in not only sexual situations but in truly disturbing scene of sexual violence. While it is on many levels inappropriate, it never feels like Breillat is trying to exploit this little girl. It often simply feels tragically real as this young girl is only beginning to seriously contemplate her sexuality and the way her body is actually perceived.
Her sister is her best friend one minute and her enemy the next. Her parents do not seem to really pay much attention or care about her. One gets the feeling she is evolving into an angry misfit. The movie takes a very blunt and shocking turn in the last few minutes. The audience at the screening I attended sat in silence as the credits began to roll. Some were offended. Some thought the experience was amazing. Several of the people gathered together in the cinema lobby. I attended the film alone. I listened as each person gave their perspective. Everyone seemed a bit disoriented and upset.
When it came to my turn to express my thoughts I could only say that I was certain we had just seen a brilliant bit of cinematic art that is both unforgettable and unforgivable. 14 years later, I still feel the same.
Whenever someone asks me about this film, I always warn, “It is not for all tastes.” — I should probably add that this is one of the points of every film Catherine Breillat has ever made. Fat Girl takes no prisoners. She refuses your judgement. She will not break.
Christophe Honoré’s 2004 film, Ma Mere, has also been labeled as an entry into The French Extreme.
It is actually rather surprising that it took so long for Isabelle Huppert to take a role in one of these films. If ever there were a fearless female actor is it Isabelle Huppert. This actor is an essential part of this controversial movie. In many ways, it seems as much her film as it’s director, Christophe Honoré. Unlike Fat Girl, this film never really puts me at odds my guidelines. It does something far worse. It actually fascinates me. Christophe Honoré simplistic aesthetic is often curiously mismatched to Huppert’s nuanced but harsh performance. It is this simplistic and minimalist mode of storytelling merged with a deeply layered performance by Huppert that seems to provide the fuel to both the plot and to the characters. Huppert’s Hélène is a puzzle of a character that is never fully put together to answer questions. But Huppert is somehow able to play this perversely cruel woman with not only a lingering sort of sadness. It is also much to Huppert’s credit that she is able to interpret Honoré’s almost “camp” level dialogue in unsettlingly believable ways.
Her son is played by Louis Garrel who manages to keep up with both his director and the iconic actress with whom he shares the screen. We learn that Hélène and her much older husband lost custody of their son and were essentially banished to the Canary Islands because her husband’s wealthy family wanted to keep there lifestyles as far from the family as possible. Though never clearly stated, we quickly learn that subversive and the kink of BDSM is far less about pleasure as it is about punishment. The son is desperate to connect with his mother. Hélène is not so interested in that. Instead, she is hellbent on manipulating his innocence to push him through a constant bombardment of challenges to his mannered way of life. And she does so in an almost ritualistic planned events. So eager to please his mother and also worn down from his grandmother’s Catholic influence he pushes through each challenge until his humanity is completely debased. While Christophe Honoré’s film earned an NC-17, it is actually visually reserved for a film considered as French Extreme.
Not that Honoré doesn’t push the envelope on graphic nudity and graphic moments involving domination. But he never really takes the visual to the level of extreme I was expecting. The truly offensive and controversial aspects of this film come from the tone and the manner in which the actors, particularly Huppert, are so genuine in their convictions to hedonism. By the time Honoré actually brings us the mother and son to the final challenge of incest, Hélène chooses to deliver her cruelest to her son. We don’t actually see what the son is doing as he looks at a corpse, it is all the more shocking that we don’t. And as he runs away from the morgue in a state of total panic it almost feels like it is his mother has somehow taken control of the film’s soundtrack.
Suddenly, as this broken son runs all we can hear is “Happy Together” by The Turtles. Much like Leos Carax’s controversial “epic” reworking of Herman Melville’s Pierre, or, the Ambiguities in Pola X, Christophe Honoré has used Georges Bataille’s controversial cultural critique novel, My Mother, as the source for his film — he is far less concerned with providing a cultural / societal commentary as he is in exploring the depravity of a parent and the way it can eventually can pull the child to an even darker level of perversity. And, just as The Turtles hit the last chorus — “...so happy toge-” Honoré cuts them off mid word and his screen immediately switches to white. Ma Mere ends with a thudding silence that lingers long after it has been viewed.
Over the course of the last decade, The French Extreme had de-evoloved to mostly disgusting torture porn. The goal of these films seems to shock the audience with an assault of savage gore. The original French artists who are most associated with The French Extreme have pretty much all changed gears. Even Catherine Breillat has started to look at other aspects of human life. Her greatest challenge is the fact that she suffered a stroke. But this only seemed to push herself harder to craft a film loosely based on her experiences during and after her stroke.
Certainly powerful stuff, but not so extreme.
The last film of the genre I saw that displayed incredible skill and intelligence was simultaneously the most unpleasant torture porn I have ever seen. Particularly appalling was the fact that it simply was too well made for me to question it. It was Pascal Laugier’s 2008 Martyrs. Which Hollywood has been trying to re-make in a “less dark way”?!?
But, that would be a whole other sort of post.