Lies 24 Times a Second
Is there a neo-enervation evident in cinema at the moment? One thinks of Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon, but also High-Rise, The Duke of Burgundy and The Berberian Sound Studios. Perhaps all showing the influence of eighties mannerism in French and American cinema, in Diva, Subway and Moon in the Gutter, in Rumblefish, One From the Heart and Streets of Fire, these new films don’t have stories to tell, they have designs to offer. It is a stylistics rather than a style if we differentiate style as an aspect of vision, and stylistics an issue of reception. As Robert Bresson once said: “Dig into your sensation. Look at what there is within. Don’t analyse it with words. Translate it into sister images, into equivalent sounds. The clearer it is, the more your style affirms itself.” (Notes on the Cinematographer). Stylistics however doesn’t go through this inner formulation and immediately transfers itself into and onto an audience’s stylistic demands. The viewer will tell you your film is stylish, because that is what has been offered to them in so undiluted a form that they cannot miss it. An advert is stylish, a music video is stylish, often not because it has style, but that the filmmaker has denied themselves this inner transformation, a reconfiguring of self and the world that Bresson talks about. As Bresson says “Neither beautify nor uglify. Do not denature.”
A couple of years ago, Stephane Delorme wrote in Cahiers du Cinema a harsh attack on what he saw as Cannes films, and last year it was the turn of Mark Peranson at Cinemascope to hit the nail on the head with the heaviest of hammers. Neither article had a point to make so much as a grievance to offload. Yet within their intemperate condemnations of Cannes, we might also share on interest in the polemic, while we hope avoiding the personal that hints at the ad hominem masquerading as the aesthetic argument. Delorme’s purpose is to explore the notion of a Cannes film: “a profound phenomenon was noticeable in that aesthetically the films seemed to generate each other within the Cannes milieu like in an incestuous family.” Delorme sees here a “cinema of nothingness” in Michel Franco’s Chronic, Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, Amat Escalante’s Heli and indeed Michael Haneke’s work: “the boss” as Delorme calls him. Delorme is an important and often interesting critic, but here there are hopeless conflations in Delorme’s piece, as Son of Saul, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Rosetta, The Tribe and The Measure of a Man are all thrown into the mix without regard for clear aesthetic differentiation and quality control. If we think most of the films Delorme dismisses are of far more interest than the Cahiers critic is willing to acknowledge, we might also have a problem with his argument on the basis of the pick ‘n’ mix approach to films with different aesthetic methods. The closest we can get to a common denominator amongst them is the long take parti-pris, but that would demand dismissing so many films that no argument could be made at all. Delorme’s purpose is to say there is a certain kind of Cannes film and that while ten years earlier critic Jean-Michel Frodon noticed this, “it has now reached the state of parthenogenesis. Juries are the first victims of that system. Michel Franco, who wrote the silliest scenario of all the films at Cannes, leaves the festival crowned with a prize because the jury has been fooled.”
Peranson in his 2016 piece on Cannes for Cinemascope makes a similar point. “A shockingly high number of members in this rogues’ gallery have served on Cannes juries after being welcomed into “le club,” and that goes a long way towards explaining what went on this year, combined with the fact that few actors and directors have the capacity to judge anything when it comes to cinema.” Most of the films Peranson and Delorme discuss would fall very loosely into realism, however heightened, while the films we wish to discuss are not at all Cannes films, but what are they instead? When we use the term neo-enervation this isn’t to suggest there was an earlier era of enervated cinema (though some might see Diva, Betty Blue and One from the Heart as exactly that), it is only to say that there are films being made today which appear interested in the formal to the detriment of not so much the content, which is one thing, but the real out of which the image comes. One of the ways in which we can escape, in film, the stale dichotomies of form and content, is to reframe them as realism versus formalism, or naturalism against fantasy. It is the Kane and Abel of cinema going back to the Lumiere brothers and Melies, and isn’t without plenty staleness itself.
Yet this isn’t at all a simple opposition; an animated work like Waltz with Bashir can be documentary in its form, as it rotoscopes talking heads into animated versions of themselves. We can think too of the carefully hand-drawn The Illusionist. As Anthony Quinn says: “Some cities become the ghosts of the movies that immortalised them. When we visit, we see their romance through the prism of the screen. Vienna in The Third Man. Rome in Roman Holiday. Venice in Don’t Look Now. New York in Manhattan. To this list we can now add Edinburgh in The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet’s beautiful and melancholy portrait of a man out of time, which also happens to be a valentine to Scotland’s capital.” (The Independent) The other films are live action, but Quinn is right to see in Sylvain Chomet and his team’s film an immense attention to the specifics of the city – set in the 50s. Indeed maybe animation is the most ‘real’ way of filming the past: it is not here in the present, but it can be as accurately as possible reconstructed in animated form. Quinn adds: “that it is an animated film should not be any reason to doubt its place among those urban classics; indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more exquisitely crafted picture of Edinburgh’s gaunt, handsome streets, its weather, its light, even its traffic.” By our reckoning these animated works are not stylistic; they are styled. They are consistent with an interest in the Real. This isn’t a simple notion of realism, but rather a consciousness of, and a conscience for, a reality that it takes as its base. They are not enervated works because they pass through various principles of verisimilitude that can’t easily be reduced to narrow notions of realism.
In Art and Revolution, John Berger says “all the Russian artists of the nineteenth century knew how they were going to paint before they knew what they were going to paint. As a result, their pictures reveal their choice of subject, but never the subjects themselves.” Again, this seems a question of style versus stylistics. Berger adds: “a subject is revealed in art only when it has forced the artist to adapt his procedure, to admit in terms of his formal means its special case.” By our reckoning stylistic films do not do this: they cannot find in the subject the special case. What we end up admiring is not an intrinsic quality found, but an extrinsic one displayed.
Let us now be a bit more specific. Early on in The Neon Demon we see central character Jesse being photographed in a shiny blue dress on a couch covered in red blood, by what will turn out to be a prospective boyfriend. The photos are elegantly and very artificially staged, but this is in keeping with the nature of a film where the production design generates characterisation, and where we are assumed to believe that the reason Elle Fanning’s Jesse is such a rarity in this environment is because she still possesses an authentic look. It is what attracts a top fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) instantly. She is sixteen and looks it, so when people tell her she should say to everyone she is nineteen this isn’t to fool others so much as to allow the LA powerful to justify themselves in the face of an innocent. We don’t sense that Jesse empowers herself with this lie; she provides an alibi for others. Yet she is not as innocent as she looks, saying that beauty is not everything; it is the only thing, as we see a woman swallowed up by the glamour of Hollywood. There isn’t much sense here of a real world out of which Jesse comes, and director Nicolas Winding Refn might say that is the point: the film becomes a semi-vampire flick with the lesbian Ruby (Jena Malone) trying to eat blood from Jesse’s arm after the latter cuts herself. By the conclusion there is even a bit of cannibalism: Jesse’s dead and one of the envious models she befriends vomits up Jesse’s eyeball.
In philosophical and semiotic terms we can perhaps explain why we see films like The Neon Demon as merely stylistic. Let us think of a jumper that is blue and another that is red, but one is V neck and the other round necked. We wouldn’t say if we both have a red jumper that we have the same one: we would say our jumpers are the same colour. However, if we have the same design, we would be likely to say we have the same jumper: only yours is a different colour. This suggests that in general perception we differentiate between a foremost property (the design) and the secondary property (the colour). This is close to what John Locke would call primary versus secondary qualities. In a study titled ‘Impact of Color on Marketing’, researchers found that up to 90% of snap judgments made about products can be based on color alone, depending on the product.?” (Help Scout) In marketing it is as though the general hierarchy of design versus colour is thus reversed. Now of course in the work of great colourists there is an interrogatory relationship between form and colour, with many artists since post-impressionism insisting on the importance of colour over the shape of things. Kandinsky, Rothko and Pollock, for example, would all find ways to escape the tyranny of the line over the hue. Yet our inclination is to see the importance of colour in the neo-enervatives to be closer to advertising principles rather than to painterly ones.
In a Slant interview exchange with Refn, the interviewer says: “the color palette, the score by Cliff Martinez, this vision of a downtrodden, film-noir underclass that’s nonetheless very hip. It seems to borrow more from movies than from reality.” Winding Refn replies: “Well said. I agree with everything you just stated. [laughs]” The interviewer asks: “And that’s it?”Refn says: “I don’t know what else to add!” Perhaps it isn’t fair to use a filmmakers words against him in pursuit of an argument, yet there seems to be a difference between the ad hominem and the openly intentional. We are not saying here that we believe Winding Refn only made the film because he wanted to sleep with his leading lady, that he wanted to get some Oscar nominations for design, or that he made the film to buy an LA swimming pool. The former would be ad hominem assertions; we instead quote the filmmaker to comprehend his intentions using the director’s own words. Later in the interview Refn and the interviewer discuss the idea of Jesse as an empty vessel – with Refn saying “being enigmatic can become a strength.” Yet it can only be so if the filmmaker manages to suggest a metaphysical texture that goes beyond the sociological and the psychological. Bresson’s characters ‘lack’ the precision we might find in any number of other films about people in crisis, but Bresson is looking instead for the enigma of the spiritual. Susan Sontag notes in Bresson that “the “interior drama” which Bresson seeks to depict does not mean psychology. In realistic terms, the motives of Bresson’s characters are often hidden, sometimes downright incredible…Bresson is interested in the forms of spiritual action – in the physics, as it were, of souls.” (Sontag Reader) The enigma is not one of stylistics but of style.
“I was never much of a fan of social realism”, Peter Strickland says in an interview discussing The Duke of Burgundy. Yet escaping from social realism doesn’t automatically arrive at the work of mythic intensity, of abstract depth, though of course it can if the filmmaker tends to a certain stylisation that has no truck with the advertorial. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai is hardly a work of social realism either, but it knows that realism will not help it resolve the problem it addresses. In Melville’s film that undeniably invokes the enervated, a man devotes his life not so much to crime as the devotion to escape from being detected. His lover isn’t chiefly a woman with whom he enjoys sex; she is an alibi. His apartment isn’t the product of his criminal ways, it is an austere flat that protects him from ever being found out. He lives in a prison of his own making rather than the one that he might find himself in if he were more flamboyant in his lifestyle, and Melville creates a monastic figure who lives with his every move tracked by no one more than himself. The film is very stylish as it works chiefly off blues and greys, and suggests very little psychological or sociological detail. Yet it is a great film partly because it asks a very interesting question: how does a meticulous criminal live, and by insistently escaping prison does he find himself in one of his own design? Melville here isn’t too far from Bresson, and might bring to mind the director’s A Man Escaped and Pickpocket. In the former film the central character is imprisoned but finds freedom; in the latter the main figure is a free man who ends up in prison. Yet all three films suggest the problem of the prison as literal and metaphoric. Melville is as far removed from social realism as Strickland, but we can see exactly why. In neo-enervation we cannot find the underlying principle by which to escape from cinema’s capacity for the real.
In the Cinemascope interview the interviewer says: “The Duke is to some extent about sustaining a long-term relationship, and I think what’s negotiated can be applied to any long-term relationship. A dear friend once told me that every relationship reaches a point, usually several years in, where each member of the relationship has to forgive the other for being who they really are.” Strickland replies that he finds this interesting, but we might wonder whether the interviewer is talking about a more enquring film than the one Strickland has made. Here the film plays on a plot twist that asks us to reassess the relationship we have been witnessing. This tale of two women living together where one is constantly bossing the other one around, turns on the idea that the real control rests in the hands of the bullied: it is she who is dictating the terms of her own masochism, and thus in control of the relationship and of the person who is being sadistic with her. We don’t want to simplify Strickland’s film, yet we don’t quite believe that it addresses the problem the interviewer proposes. Is this just us saying that if a film doesn’t enquire into a subject that we find appealing the film fails? We hope not; rather that great films engage with pressing problematics, and the narrative intrigues and the visual elements are part of an emotional and intellectual excavation. Few filmmakers are more concerned with the nature of the frame than Antonioni, but this doesn’t mean he sacrifices a problem to art direction and design.
A film is stylistic when we cannot find a problem within the film that justifies the givens of its mise-en-scene, of its visual style. This could, of course, be a failure of insight on the part of the critic: that they see only the accoutrements of ostentation without recognizing the problematic the filmmaker is working through. One reason we offered Le Samurai as an example lies in the unequivocal stylish nature of the film, but a very real question coursing through it as well.
Strickland might claim The Duke of Burgundy has a problematic too, Yet where is this problem going to reside if Strickland says in relation to the autobiographical: “God, no,” to the idea the film might reflect his own experience as an Englishman abroad? “For one thing I’m half-Greek. I also believe in keeping your personal life off screen.” With no interest in realism and no interest in the personal, one interviewer asks about the fact that all three of his films draw very strongly on generic referencing. “It’s a good point because I’m aware for three films I’ve done this now and for the new one I’m doing, for one film, I just want to put that aside and see if I can forget references. I don’t want to just do this genre, do that genre, do this genre. I just want to say, okay, just put that away and see. God knows what’s going to happen, but I want to try that.” (Indiewire) With no interest in the real, though, and a retreat from the autobiographical, Strickland’s options become narrower, and the generic more pronounced. Of course we are not saying great films can’t made by filmmakers who have no interest in realism or in the personal, but they usually possess an aspect of the pre-occupational. Kubrick too would work in genres, but invest the war film, the period movie, sci-fi or horror with pressing questions about aggression or the future, tradition and power. The form opens up and explores the thematic. As Vincent LoBrutto says in Kubrick: “Paths of Glory demonstrates Kubrick’s technical virtuosity and his bleak, cold vision. The high-key, wide-angle shots of the chateau interior are contrasted against the bleak, gray. Constant tracking shots of the men. Kubrick learned lessons from the masters.” Lo Brutto concludes: “The fluid tracking shots he so admired from Max Ophuls and the deep-focus, low-wide angle shots that became Orson Welles’ signature are articulated through the humanity and theatrical drama out of the images. This is the human chess-game, an overwhelming metaphor that obsesses Kubrick.”
Strickland acknowledges influences too. On the bfi website he discusses six films including Mothlight, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Morgiana: none of which can be described as belonging to ready genre. Mothlight is a three and half minute Stan Brakhage film that works with images directly painted onto the frame, flickering to give the impression of moths. Bitter Tears is a Rainer Werner Fassbinder work showing the director’s fascination with power and possession, while Morgiana is a Czech movie Strickland couldn’t but steal from: “there is one scene in The Duke of Burgundy where Evelyn discovers a trunk as a consolation prize for missing out on the purchase of a bondage bed, which is a blatant rip-off from the basement scene in Morgiana. Without any false modesty, we couldn’t come close to matching the ecstatic chiaroscuro of that scene, but we tried. It’s a scene worthy of Cocteau or even a Cocteau Twins album.”
So what is the difference between Strickland and Kubrick? Talent would be the easy answer, but wouldn’t be fair to Strickland, and wouldn’t be useful to our argument. It rests on principles; first versus second ones perhaps. Strickland doesn’t quite know what he has, but he knows how to construct a world. Kubrick instead would seem to have a question that he then surrounds with a world. Now of course this doesn’t mean an artist starts with a clear idea and aesthetically then furnishes it, like someone buying an empty house and then doing the interior design. No, it is more that the questions he or she asks must find a form within which they can be contained, but that the film is made out of the pressing nature of that question: the nature of a problem that is not irrelevant to our own natures, to nature. As Stanley Cavell puts it, discussing King Lear: “neither is God in nature, neither are square roots, neither is the spirit of the age, or the correct tempo of the Great Fugue. But if these things do not exist that is not because they are not in nature. And there have always been certain people who have known how to find them.” The creation of King Lear for Cavell is “rather, the name of a problem.” If we regard the films of the neo-enervationists as of little importance, it rests on the absence of a problem and the fetishisation of a style. They do not in Cavellian terms bring anything new into existence.
Again this is a moot point. Who is to say that there is nothing new? Another cop out would be time will tell. But this article is being written now, not long after these films have been made. The other option is to say by the very person writing the article, which is all very well as opinion, but is it possible to elevate it to the conceptual realm: to feel one is talking about more than just personal preference and a dislike of the individual films? The ideal would be to find a way of writing about these films not simply as negative polemic, but as an explanation of a failure on the films’ part according to the aesthetic expectations of the person writing on them. There should be enough space in the argument for someone to extract from it a reason why they actually believe these films to be quite good, perhaps seeing for example the notion of first principles as an outdated demand from art that is more concerned with surfaces; that any insistence on a question is contrary to what these films are trying to do. And yet then we have the danger of what is called the fallacy of expressive form. As Gilberto Perez says in ‘Imperfection’, “The notion that a work representing untidiness should itself be untidy, that art should be messy because life is messy, comes under the heading of the fallacy of expressive form. “In the instance of the enervationists this would be that life today is hollow and shallow and we need a shallow and hollow expression to capture it.
Now one reason why we invoked Kubrick and the presence of other filmmakers on his work and the choices he would make, is to say that it isn’t borrowing that is itself the problem. It is whether we can find in the work anything more than the homages offered. Whatever we think of Almodovar’s films, however close he can often appear to the neo-enervationists in his interest in costume design and interior decoration, there is nevertheless a problem to be extracted from the material. One might find the recent Julieta a shallow work on the question of consequences, but few could deny what the film is about. As Almodovar flashes back on Emma Suarez’s life as she tries to explain on paper her past, so we see how one evening she ignored an older man on a train, who that evening kills himself, while showing interest in a younger one with whom she has sex. In typical Almodovarian fashion the plot thickens: the young man on the train has a wife who has been in a coma for five years, he has had an ongoing, casual affair with a female friend, and Suarez’s character is pregnant with his child after that evening of sex on the train. All of this leads to further problems down the line, including the daughter’s realisation of certain events in the past impacting on her life, and the daughter in turn making decisions that will not only impact on her mother’s existence, but also on that of the mother’s lover in the present.
Almodovar gets caught a little in the seriousness of his theme meeting the lightness of his form: Almodovar’s melodramatic narratives work as long as the tone has a hint of comedy. Here Almodovar plays is straight, so to speak, and the ram-packed story occasionally becomes risible. And of course there is Almodovar’s careful colour coordination so that we feel the central character is always contained by her dress sense. The contrast of red and blue clothes with her almost white punkish hair style in the past; the older Julieta dressed in a Klimt print dressing gown. Almodovar doesn’t do accidental, and his camera has an Hitchcockian attention to detail: closing in on objects that are of narrative importance, or emotional resonance. Yet it isn’t difficult to say that Julieta is about something. It would hardly pass for an example of neo-enervation. We could easily recommend the film to a friend who is about to make a decision like leaving their husband for another man, or someone who gets high-minded about others’ actions. The film explores the consequences of one’s behaviour, and we can see the film isn’t there to play narrative tricks or generic games but to explore the thematic however hastily.
Adapted from Alice Munro stories, some might insist the film’s backbone lies in Munro’s own narrative strengths. Yet one of our examples, High-Rise, is an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel: a film that seems devoid of an idea even if Ballard’s work is full of them. How to explain this; and what do we mean by an idea? Despite Martin Amis’s claim in The War Against Cliche that Ballard is a great writer because he finds new things to see as an opportunity to write well (that the ideas are very much secondary to the prose style that can generate fresh ways of using language), Ballard’s ideas are good enough in themselves to allow for the term Ballardian. There is a vision coming out of the prose, and we can use Ballard as short-hand to describe numerous modern crises. From a fetishistic obsession with danger (Crash), to the Corbusier dream gone wrong (High-Rise), Ballard didn’t just have words at his fingertips, he could also take the societal pulse. Yet High-Rise seems to add nothing to the Ballardian universe, as though the director Ben Wheatley cannot find in his own vision one that comes close to matching and augmenting Ballard’s own. When David Cronenberg adapted Crash to the screen, it was as though the book had been written for the director. It managed to share a preoccupation with the transformation of the flesh and desire so vital to Cronenberg’s work but also gave Cronenberg the opportunity to extend it into the fetishisation of the automobile. Though Cronenberg made a film in 1978 that was full of car sequences (Fast Company), Cronenberg’s oeuvre has usually been much less technological than Ballard’s and much more viral. It has been about disease rather than unease. Yet the two minds coming together proved a wonderful weld. Wheatley’s films are interested in the uneasy (Kill List and Sightseers), but not really the visionary. This gives High-Rise a lot of queasy moments but none of the tension evident in Ballard’s work. There is little sense of the societal slide into disintegration partly because Wheatley is too wedded to the societally awkward and the socially messy. He is a director of the now, and so the mise-en-scene as production design becomes irrelevant next to the class issues and sexual chaos of the characters’ lives. Wheatley interestingly says: “We didn’t want to get into the world of things being too nostalgic or too obviously art design from the 70s. You see it in TV stuff sometimes where people have just gone for the greatest hits of what the 70s looked like. And that kind of collective memory isn’t really true, I don’t think, as someone who lived through it. If you look at design magazines now and go through them, you realise they don’t really reflect the period we’re living in at all.” (The Skinny) Yet the film doesn’t possess the intimacy of perspective evident in the comment, as we find in a film like Ratcatcher which gives us the sense of retro-intimacy, a fondnesss for the feel and touch of objects. High-Rise suggests a world collapsing, but it doesn’t quite register the feel for the details of that world that can create a futuristic sense of despair out of a retrospective sense of nostalgia. Also, Jeremy Irons might be present as a nod to Cronenberg (Dead Ringers and Madame Butterfly), but the Ballardian becomes no more than a visual possibility in the film. The movie is stylistic rather than possessed of a style. The relationship with things appears secondary to the relationship with decadent despair: we sense the ruin, but less the beauty. Produced by Jeremy Thomas, the film was originally going to be made by Nic Roeg, and here is a filmmaker who we could see attending so richly to the texture, seeing the beauty within the ruin.
Our purpose isn’t to say too much about the films themselves: we have chosen to offer an impression rather than an analysis of the movies under discussion. There will be those who insist that the thrust of the argument is wrong-headed, and of course there is always a danger that one’s instant dislikes allow for no space except the polemical. Perhaps. But while we can accept that someone might defend High-Rise, The Neon Demon or any of the others against the general attacks made on them in this piece, perhaps those doing so can still agree with the general point, and feel that there are other films they would give as examples. This is what can take us beyond polemic. The argument holds but the criticism of specific works might seem unfair. This is partly why we attend to the films without too much close attention.
Some, after all, will claim that The Berberian Sound Studios is a subtle examination of the work of audio design in Italian horror cinema of the seventies, with Toby Jones the British sound technician, homesick and haunted by his childhood, trying to get some work done on the continent. Yet we would be inclined to agree with Colin Colvert in The Star Tribune who refers to it as a one-trick pony without explanation, and this is a useful way of looking at films of neo-enervation. They have an idea rather than a theme, a proper style without substance because the notion can’t be, or isn’t, taken anywhere. It is a nice idea to muse over how sound design happened to be created in Giallo films, where dubbing was so utilised, but while something like Roeg’s Don’t Look Now was a film coinciding with the Giallo that was happy to share similarities with the genre, it had a twofold advantage over Peter Strickland’s film. It was neither a homage to other movies nor a film that predicated its high concept over its theme. In other words, the idea of second sight that the film works with is far less important than the question of grief that the film examines.
In an interview in Bright Lights Film Journal, Strickland mentions Roeg admiringly, admits he doesn’t like Mike Leigh, and thinks Ken Loach’s films are really TV dramas. Yet The Berberian Sound Studios is a film that creates a milieu without generating a story to justify its existence. Loach and Leigh are filmmakers who might have more style than many will see, but it is subordinate to a milieu that is plausibly vivid. Style is secondary to situation. In Roeg it is equal to it. This isn’t at all to defend story. Indeed it is Strickland who does exactly that when he says: “the best we can aim for is to serve the story and atmosphere we want to create whether we employ cliches or not.” (Bright Lights Film Journal). It is to defend an exploration that often happens to require a strong narrative (Casablanca or The Godfather for example), but sometimes does not – Loach’s Family Life or Mike Leigh’s Naked. The questions the films ask in each instance appear ably answered: story is secondary to this. Casablanca can end when moral value has been recognized; The Godfather when its absence is pronounced. In Family Life the film can conclude when we realise the degree to which mental health issues are often societally generated, and Naked when we recognize how damaged a figure the central character happens to be. Berberian Sound Studios spends so much of its time showing Toby Jones working in the studio that when we get a glimpse of his psychology near the end of the film it feels too little too late. The film may not have needed an extra fifteen minutes at the end, but possibly fifteen more minutes at the beginning: a sort of prologue to give us a sense of Jones’ fragile self in the world, and not only in Italy. In contrast, Don’t Look Now, while set almost exclusively in Venice, nevertheless offers that prologue which gives us a very detailed context for the family and the tragedy that precedes the couple’s visit abroad. In a brilliant couple of minutes, Roeg offers us a sense of the family home, the relationship between the couple, the dynamic between the kids, and the immense grief the father feels when he tries to save his daughter from drowning and lifts up her dead body. Formally the film masterfully utilises a play on colour and editing match cuts, yet the form is never to the detriment of the story. Yet to say it serves the story would be too weak also. We might be inclined to say that the form and the story serve the theme: it registers and sets in motion the problem of grief and the importance of belief as Donald Sutherland is the dad who happens to have second-sight but won’t trust it, and Julie Christie his wife who doesn’t possess this gift but nevertheless believes that people do have it. Roeg muses over the problem of a gift unused and a belief utilised, and suggests a health in Christie absent from Sutherland.
If the film is much more than an exercise in stylistics it is because it goes through the Bresson formulation. They might be very different filmmakers, with some inclined to see Roeg as a flamboyant director, but on this point we feel they would concur. Bresson’s remark about digging into your sensation seems as appropriate to Roeg as it is to Bresson, and this rests on the question that is being asked within what the film contains. Berberian Sound Studios echoes a film like Don’t Look Now, but echo is the operative word, and a useful one when thinking on neo-enervative cinema.
This leaves us with the filmmaker with whom we started: Nicolas Winding Refn, but with Only God Forgives rather than The Neon Demon. Yet they both appear to us to be enervated works, from a director who is perhaps at his best when combining the realism of his early Pusher trilogy, with the stylistics of The Neon Demon and Only God Forgives: in films like Bronson and Drive. Let us think of a moment in Drive and a moment in The Neon Demon before saying a few words about OGF. In Drive there is a scene where Albert Brooks’s character sticks a knife into another character’s eye, and it ‘works’ because of an investment we have made in a character we aren’t too sure about. There is also a key moment in Drive where Ryan Gosling’s central character beats a man to death in a lift while his romantic interest looks on, wondering who exactly she happens to have fallen in love with. In Bronson we watch a man continually involved in violent acts whom we never quite lose sympathy for. Drive might be a film with a stylish surface, but it also appears to be a movie that has passed through the influence of Bresson’s Pickpocket, Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo and Light Sleeper. The problem it seeks is a lighter version of the one we find in Bresson and that so influenced Schrader: what is it to be a solitary man? Bronson is more Kubrickian, musing like A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket on the violence of which man is capable. They have themes, however much borrowed from others. They might echo ‘better’ films, but they are not quite enervated in their echoing.
In Only God Forgives the stylistics do not find a style if we now accept that a style must at the very least pass through a thematic preoccupation, the nature of a question. We may believe this might be too lighly handled (as in Julieta), or too obviously borrowed (as in Drive), but it is still present enough to be a contribution to the question other filmmakers open up much more deeply and complexly. Julieta can seem frivolous next to a Bergman film; Drive a footnote to Pickpocket, but we could nevertheless recommend them to people who might not quite be ready for Bergman or Bresson. This wouldn’t be to patronise neither Julieta or Drive, nor the people we would suggest the film to; no, it would be to say this is a good place to start if the question of consequences or of solitude really interests someone. But with the neo-enervative films what can we recommend exactly? In Only God Forgives the film is a series of scenes trying to out-do each other in Jacobean violence. It is a revenge film that never quite concentrates on vengeance because it is too fascinated by its own set-piece aggression. While a film such as, say, In The Bedroom is all about the question of vengeance as a father determines to kill the man responsible for his son’s murder, as it weighs up all the possible permutations, Only God Forgives uses the idea of revenge as a means by which to activate a series of violent deeds. The audience isn’t involved in an ethical relationship with an eye for an eye; they are instead expressing disgusted awe at the removal of body parts.
As Refn says: “I think if you approach violence as a sexuality, it’s all about the build-up to a climax. The first image I had for Only God Forgives was a clenched fist, because it’s such an iconic image of male brutality, and masculine entertainment. But it’s also an extension of a phallus, and the more you clench your fist, the more of a phallus it symbolizes.” (Slant). This seems to be violence as the money shot; just as porn is reliant on the cum-letting as both raison d’etre and conclusion, so Only God Forgives finds the same in the violent. As the Slant interviewer talks of: “Refn’s trademark arterial splatters,” the analogy is clear. It is about the spraying of bodily substance.
Let us take a couple of scenes from the film. The first shows Gosling pushing a glass that someone is drinking into the man’s face and then dragging him along the corridor by the man’s mouth; the second shows a gangster taking someone out with a Bushido blade he removes from behind his back and under his shirt. In the first scene, it is about what we might call innovative aggression: a Fosbury flop in action cinema as it shows new ways to do old things. Gosling doesn’t have ferociously to break a glass in a man’s face; all he has to do is push his hand against the glass and watch it smash into the man’s mouth. The glass is already in his face as he drinks out of it. Usually our hero would drag him along the corridor by the hair, but instead he does it by the mouth. In the second sequence it is as if the blade comes out of nowhere: a variation on the gunslinger pulling quickly, or the samurai unsheathing at lightning speed. Here the gangster extracts it as though a second backbone.
The point and purpose of the scenes are neo-enervative because they appear to have little purpose in themselves as diegetic actions, but seem to find their meaning much more in the history of cinematic violence. This is quite different from Drive. The key moments of aggression are not new: the elevator scene with Gosling smashing in the man’s face with his boot isn’t very different from the infamous pavement sequence in American History X, for example, or the fire extinguisher scene in Irreversible. Indeed Refn asked Noe how he achieved the effect according to Matt Barone in Complex. Brooks’ eye-ball moment is similar to Joe Pesci taking out a man’s eye with a pen in Casino. What matters isn’t trying to top other filmmakers, but generating a plausible act of violence within the story being told.
In neo-enervative filmmaking we find a reason usually beyond the story (and the problematic being explored) in homage or in competition: the filmmaker wants to pay his respects or top a scene from elsewhere. Perhaps the most obvious example of this type of filmmaking is evident in a director whose name we have thus far not mentioned: Brian de Palma. There are many who regard De Palma as a modern master, from Cahiers du Cinema to Adrian Martin, from Raymond Bellour, who writes so well on Obsession, to Nicole Brenez. Yet De Palma seems to us the empty vessel who makes most noise, a director who can take a problem to be found in Hitchcock or Eisenstein (from Psycho to Dressed to Kill, from Battleship Potemkin to The Untouchables), and remove the problem and replace it with a premise or a solution. Marion getting killed in the shower halfway through Psycho becomes a mystery near the beginning of Dressed to Kill when Angie Dickenson gets murdered in a dream sequence in the shower, before getting brutally killed in an elevator later on. The pram trundling down the stairs is part of a moment of revolutionary chaos quelled in Battleship Potemkin; it becomes a tamed suspense sequence as Kevin Costner helps save a baby’s life in The Untouchables.
Some might insist that De Palma is a master because he isn’t interested in plausibility of character and narration, that he isn’t afraid to manipulate a viewer without much point or purpose. Our remarks about Only God Forgives could be equally pertinent to many a De Palma film. Speaking of Body Double De Palma would say: “It was a suspense thriller, and I was always interested in finding new ways to kill people.” In the same interview, he says “I always said that film lies 24 times a second. That’s the antithesis of what Jean-Luc Godard said, that it’s truth 24 per second. That’s nonsense! Film lies all of the time.” This might well be the motto of the neo-enervationists, and the antithesis of Bresson’s belief that “one recognizes the true by its efficacy, by its power.” It is the difference we feel between a style and a stylistics, and what we have tried to explore is a type of cinema we might be happy to have in our midst, but gives us little sense of necessity in its image-making.