European Film Violence
Putting the Viewer to the Test
If American cinema violence seems almost tautological (aren't many American films violent?), does this make European cinema violence seem an oxymoron? When we think of violence in film numerous American movies come to mind, but how many European ones? Our purpose here today is to explore violence in film in a European context, but also beyond, to talk, if in passing, about films from Asia too.
Though there have been great periods in American film of what we might call naturalised violence, its purpose has frequently been to deploy it in stylised form. We don't believe in the environment in which the violent action takes place; we believe merely in the story that contains it. This is why for example an action film will think nothing of using a pounding music track and amplified sound effects of bullets being fired or punches being thrown. We care that the hero wins the fight, but we don't need tobelieve in the environment in which the fight takes place. European films will often ask that we take seriously the place as readily as the characters, which is partly why British cinema has been very effective in registering domestic violence. Whether it is the razor blade the young son puts in his mouth in Alan Clark's The Firm, the loan sharks coming round and menacing the wife in Ken Loach's Raining Stones, or the beating Ray Winston administers to his spouse in Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, these are examples of naturalised violence that asks us not only to care about the character within the story, but to believe in the context out of which it comes. This is both a social and a formal question. In other words, the directors say this is about a social milieux that needs to be explored and out of which violence comes, rather than a central conflict dichotomy of good guys and bad guys. The tension isn't in the story only, but in the circumstances too.The Firm explores football casuals in London as Clark tries to understand what would make a successful married state agent with a son turn into a a football thug. This isn't a radical transformation, more like a personal and occasional deformation. Each Saturday the central character goes out and causes mayhem, and Clark is more interested, finally, in the milieu of the football fan, and the personal life of his character, than in the violence that is occasionally enacted. These aren't set-piece sequences or part of a melodramatic momentum; they are embedded moments. Ditto in Loach and Oldman's films. When Loach was asked in Loach and Loach whether there was a "danger that [central character] Bob's killing of the loan shark could have turned melodramatic",Loach said "it was a danger and one we were very aware of. But I think it was the kind of situation that's occurred once or twice in films we've done: people get to such a pitch of desperation that they're just going to strike out...the loan shark didn't come out of any cinematic memory of mine. Loan sharking is a common occurrence in that community and in many other communities."
While British cinema has brilliantly explored the domestic nature of violence in a very naturalised form, continental Europe often respects the naturalism, but plays up the self-reflexive or the ethical: they ask us to call into question what we are watching and why. This is be evident in seventies' works like Salo, The Last Woman and Themroc. What the films offer are exaggerated premises all the better to show asocial and political possibilities, however positive or negative. In Salo, Pier Paolo Pasolini updates Sade's book to the end of the war in Fascist Italy. At a castle, wealthy figures abuse, torture and kill various youngsters they ensconce there. The film possesses an unremitting despair: an exploration of radical exploitation with the weaker human form a plaything for those with power. "In this new film", Pasolini said before its release, "sex is nothing but an allegory of the commodification of bodies at the hands of power. I think that consumerism manipulates and violates bodies as much as Nazism did. My film represents this sinister coincidence between Nazism and consumerism. (Mubi.Com)
In The Last Woman, Marco Ferreri shows the emasculated man taking things literally: removing his penis with a carving knife. It is a moment perhaps consistent with how Gilles Deleuze sees Jean-Luc Godard turning language into image. In Cinema 2: The Time Image, Deleuze says: "If, according to ready made formulas, the revolutionaries are at our doors, besieging us like cannibals, they must be shown in the scrub of Seine-et-Oise, eating human flesh...[in Weekend] if the workers are being screwed by their bosses [Tout va bien, Passion etc.], this needs to be shown, not 'metaphorized'. (p183)
Claude Faraldo's Themroc shows us scenes of cannibalism and incest as a man really does refuse to take it any more. The film picks up on the idea of modern society dehumanizing us at it initially pays close attention to the everyday details of city living. Relying on grunts and groans rather than spoken language, the films wonders what happens to us when the world in which we live has a dehumanizing effect, as the film takes a catch word like dehumanization and muses over it literally.
In all three films, in Salo, The Last Woman and Themroc, as well as a Godard film such as Weekend, the violence becomes a question, a means by which to wonder what society is doing to us as much as what we do to each other. Of course this is evident in the British films too (and Loach is an especially socio-political filmmaker), but they remain within the naturalistic realm. In the continental European films of the seventies it became absurdist, aloof, cold.
In a number of European films of the late nineties and early 2000s - with Funny Games,Seul contre tous, and Dogville, for example - the nature of the story itself is called into question. Michael Haneke's Funny Games thinks nothing of having a character within the diegesis rewinding the footage we have recently seen. Gaspar Noe brings Seul contre tous to a sudden halt as a warning comes up telling us we have thirty seconds to leave the cinema: what he is about to show us will be very graphic indeed. In Dogville, Lars von Trier films on a Swedish sound stage with minimal props to register the environment as his central characters gets increasingly degraded in a small town in America before taking revenge. In each instance the film asks us to question the form, the nature of the violence we see not as (or at least not only as) a complex ethical problem, but as a filmic one too: each film muses over the cinematic form violence takes, and asks us to wonder about our own complicit role within it.
A final word for cinematic violence elsewhere, with a number of millennial films playing up the violent and suggesting extremity needn't be the preserve of American and European film. The Isle, Old Boy and Audition, for example, emphasised the gratuitously violent as raison d'etre. If the seventies European films wanted to make us think, did these Asian films want us to talk - wanted the viewer to turn the moments of extremity into talking points. The central character eats a live Octopus in Park Chan Wook's Old Boy; in Miike Takashi's Audition, a young woman gets revenge by paralysing a man she tortures with drugs, but making sure his nervous system is very much capable of feeling pain. In The Isle a character attempts to take his own life by swallowing a series of fish hooks. In each instance the film asks us less to muse over the image of violence; more to spread the word. It is as though it takes the cliched assumption about the cruelty of the Orient often illustrated in American films, and playing it up for all its worth as home grown product. These film are far from without merit, but we might wonder whether they have much of a point. They are in themselves perhaps torture machines, inverting the Hollywood Dream Factory and suggesting the Nightmare Factory instead. We don't after all only go to the cinema to see better versions of ourselves, but also worst case scenarios concerning our fears.
What matters, one supposes, is the range of film violence available, as if we want to understand a little better ourselves through the ways in which we might no longer be quite ourselves - through getting killed, tortured, abused and maimed. There are plenty terms available to describe these experiences. As Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall say in their introduction to The New Extremism in Cinema: "The collective emphasis in these films on explicit and brutal sex, and on graphic or sadistic violence - [are] features shared by a range of other global trends such as 'torture porn'...'the new brutality film' or Asian Extreme' cinema - It is first and foremost the uncompromising and highly self-reflexive appeal to the spectator that marks out the specificity of these films..." We can look at the films in a classroom context, and test these assumptions as we muse over the naturalistic, the self-reflexive and the gratuitous nature of violence in European film and beyond.
© Tony McKibbin