Open Impact Aesthetics
The Devil’s Alchemists
European and more generally international cinema hasn't been averse to impact aesthetics of its own. It might be the Americans that push for ever louder explosions and inducing dazed awe in the viewer, but European films and beyond also work their own version with effectiveness. Often combining the weak violence of cartoonish action with moments of intense impact aesthetic brutality, we can mention for example Jan Kounen's Dobermann, Eric Rochant's Total Western, and Mathieu Kassovitz's The Crimson Rivers, as well as Korean director Park Chan-Wook's Old Boy and Lady Vengeance. It is also present in horror and fantasy films like Autopsy, Calvaire, Switchblade Romance, Martyrs,and Asian works like Audition and The Isle. It's been no accident that a number of French filmmakers have in recent years made horror and action remakes in Hollywood: Switchblade Romance director Alexandre Aja with The Hills Have Eyes, and Jean-Francois (Ma 6-T va Crack-er) Richet with Assault on Precinct 13. However, in their initial films, the directors worked not only generically but also transgressively: as if what often interested them about the generic conventions of the horror film, the western or the thriller was the body and how it could be shown in increasingly shocking and traumatic ways. Consequently it has been referred to as, amongst other things, 'ordeal cinema'.
This brings together two comments that might initially seem mutually contradictory. One is from James Quandt, where he says in an article in Artforum called 'New French Extremity' that "the drastic tactics of these directors could be an attempt to meet [and perchance defeat] Hollywood and Asian filmmakers on their own Kill Bill terms, or to secure distributors and audiences in a market disinclined toward foreign films." Such a comment indicates the exploitation dimension. The other remark comes from Hampus Hagman, in an essay in Film International, where he believes "what might be called the 'bodily turn' within theoretical discourse." This suggests not exploitation but examination. However one senses in some French directors the emphasis is on exploitation - Martyrs, Calvaire, Switchblade Romance - and an interest in what we might call the generically transgressive, with genre still prominently utilised, while other films in France and elsewhere seem more interested in the bodily turn. Seul Contre Tous, In My Skin, A Ma Soeur!, L'humanite, and even the more obviously generic Twenty Nine Palms and Trouble Every Day - indebted respectively to the revenge drama and the horror - seem interested in producing new shocks in terms of character and narrative, rather than trading on old ones where the extremity is upped but the conventions still in place.This helps explain why Twenty Nine Palms director Bruno Dumont can claim in a Sight and Sound interview when the film was released that his film was a "negation of American cinema, almost a terrorist attack": as if searching for a very different impact aesthetic.
Thus there are filmmakers working loosely in the American style no matter the transgressive extremity; others pursuing a more searching approach. Dumont, Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat etc. want to generate, it would seem, an open impact aesthetic, to break apart the closed system that covers anything from Speed to Saving Private Ryan. Such filmmakers aren't only from France, though many of them happen to be: Gaspar Noe, with Seul Contre Tous and Irreversible, Catherine Breillat, director of Romance and A ma soeur!, Marina de Van, who made In My Skin, and Claire Denis who directed Trouble Every Day. But one can also mention Russia's Ilya Khrzhanovsky's 4, Austrian director Michael Haneke's Hidden, and Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth, from Greece.
What impact aesthetics European style sets out to achieve, perhaps, is a shock of thought out of physiological shock. Where the shock in American impact aesthetics is a shock to the body watching the film - often an advanced version of the 'startle effect' as Robert Baird once defined it in Film Quarterly. Here, in say a terror film, the director will make us jump, but we don't concern ourselves with repercussions of thought out of the action. When for example the head pops out of the hull of the boat in Jaws, it is an undeniably scary moment, but it doesn't move from a shock of the body to a shock of thought.
So what would be an example of a shock of thought, as exemplified by A ma soeur! and Hidden? In Breillat's film we have two sisters, one slender and beautiful; the other plain and overweight. The beautiful sister gives her virginity to a handsome older teenager she meets at a caf. The younger plain sister loses her virginity to a man who rapes her after violently murdering her family. Now generally, before the rape, the film has been moving at a sedate pace, closer to the demands of observation over action, when suddenly a sledgehammer smashes through the windscreen one evening as the family drives back home from their holiday in Brittany. After the murders, after the younger sister's been raped, the police ask her what happened and she denies she's been violated as if in complicity with her rapist.
What we have in A Ma Soeur! is the sudden action that cuts into the observational style (it's unlikely the viewer anticipates this startle effect the way one might in a horror film), and then an inexplicable response on the character's part to her rape. This can allow for the thought shock rather than the more conventional body shock of the startle effect. As the philosopher Gilles Deleuze has said of thought and cinema, quoting Antonin Artaud, the aim is "of bringing cinema together with the innermost reality of the brain." This is a little like Michel Foucault's idea of the outside: "this experience involves "going outside of oneself", to wrap and gather oneself in the dazzling interiority of thought that is rightfully Being and Speech, in others words, Discourse, even if it is the silence beyond all language and the nothingness beyond all being."
A big claim perhaps, and are films like A Ma Soeur! up to the task? All we need to say for the moment is that this open form of impact aesthetics should create a degree of puzzlement over the image, if not quite the full Deleuzian fresh thought, or the Foucaldian outside. It can nevertheless open up the possibility. So though Deleuze wonders in his books, Cinema 1 and Cinema 2, to "what respect and how is cinema concerned with a thought whose essential character is not yet to be?", sometimes we might ask of the shocking image no more than that it creates a question in the viewer, however small, rather than the ready answer of the generically or morally predictable film, however transgressive.
Let us imagine that A Ma Soeur! had an ominous sense of tension that eventually led to the murders that take place, but that the younger sister, who's raped, then promptly manages to kill her rapist. We would have the shock to the system, but we wouldn't have had a shock of thought in relation to the system. The shock resides first in the complete shift in cinematic vocabulary from observational slowness, to shocking immediacy, and then in the inexplicability of her reaction when she insists she wasn't raped. Her closing comment to the police is that they don't have to believe her if they don't want to. The film then freeze-frames on her curiously unreadable look. This may well perhaps be a homage to Truffaut's famous concluding shot in The 400 Blows, but if it is more than a respectful nod it resides in the problematic nature of the character's rite of passage. The film asks us to wonder what it is exactly that moves someone to maturity and self-awareness. Sometimes the shock of thought isn't necessarily about a thought whose essential character is not yet to be but just the revelation of a burgeoning and paradoxical psychology. At the moment the young sister should be it at her most abject and despairing, she seems at her most assured.
What we find in A Ma Soeur!, then, is the demand for the after-effect of thought in the wake of the physiological shock. We can see this again in Haneke's Hidden. Here we have an apparently self-centred central character (Daniel Auteuil) who receives tapes from a mysterious source and quickly begins to suspect his Algerian half-brother. This is a half brother he hasn't seen since they were children, when the brother was expelled from the family after Auteuil made up stories that led to the expulsion. Now a very comfortably off TV journalist, Auteuil turns up twice at his poor half-brother's small council flat accusing him of sending the tapes after also receiving one or two other tell- tale notes. On both occasions the half-brother denies any involvement in the tapes, and then, on Auteuil's second visit, takes out a cut-throat razor from his pocket and slits open his neck. Moments later he lies dead on the floor.
There is no obvious cause and effect reason for this action - the way there might be in an action film where a cornered villain blows his own brains out as he realises there are no options available to him other than being captured. No, in Haneke's film it remains an inexplicable action, and so it achieves that impact aesthetic European style combination of a sudden shock, and a prolonged attempt to understand the motive for the action.
So if in mainstream American film we have the shock effect, we can say that it is both motivated by the action and also consistent with the filmic character. It's an impact aesthetics within a filmically closed space. When we talk of Total Western, of Dobermann, or Asian films like Old Boy and Audition, for all their transgressive extremism, they are consistent with this American impact aesthetic: this closed form.
In the European style open form, the impact aesthetic incorporates within it aspects of the real world in the sense that the violence will often contain that inexplicable dimension. It is not an event the viewer anticipates - it shares nothing with Hitchcock's claim in Hitchcock on Hitchcock that you lay out the situation for the viewer , and "if the audience does know, if they've been told all the secrets that the characters do not know, they'll work like the devil for you because they know what fate is facing the poor actors. That is what is known as playing God." In European style impact aesthetics the directorial certitude, and consequently the audience assuredness, is no longer in place, and the viewer receives both a physiological shock and shock of thought. Is the director no longer playing God but closer to playing the 'devil'? The films provide a sort of catharsis of evil in the Georges Bataille sense, evident when he says in Literature and Evil that "If a man kills for a material advantage his crime only really becomes a purely evil deed if he actually enjoys committing it, independently of the advantage to be obtained from it." If Hitchcock talks of playing God, and puts us in a very rational role as his servant, Breillat, Haneke and others are more like devil's alchemists, directors willing to "achieve a cinema of the negative" . So says critic Nicole Brenez's words, writing in this instance on an American filmmaker who has often found his audience in Europe, Abel Ferrara. In such an approach the filmmaker doesn't want to manipulate for a reason, for the advantage to be gained, but for a more obscure sense of enquiry. Brenez reckons such cinema can achieve compassion, but not with the general devices that readily control our feelings. It is 'evil' as a search for the rationale within the irrational, and of course shares similarities with Foucault's the outside.
Not all the impact aesthetic scenes in European art house films are quite as inexplicable as those in A Ma Soeur! and Hidden. Some ostensibly work within genre - as we've already noted in Dumont's Twenty Nine Palms. Yet even here the conventional devices of the revenge drama are eschewed, and thus the events become hard to comprehend. When near the end of the film the central character and his partner are beaten, and the central character multiply anally raped by the good ol' boy locals, we're left wondering about the motivation for the deed. Usually a filmmaker would at least hint, formally, at the rapists' motives by having a series of reaction shots to the rapists preceding the event. There is little doubt that the central character waltzes into the small town of Twenty Nine Palms with an arrogant attitude, but we have no idea what the locals have witnessed that seems to demand so complete a humiliation of our dubious hero. It's as if Dumont wants us not to concern ourselves with the avenger's motives, if avengers they are, but with how a very assured photographer, who can't understand the insecurities of his model girlfriend, finds his ego completely dismantled by one action. The conventional approach to such a film would be a clear, or at least allusive, comprehension of the observers, the motives for their action and, in the wake of the action, the central character's need for revenge. None of these tropes are utilised.
Breillat, Haneke and Dumont are all searching out an aspect of the shock of thought. But there are other filmmakers who hardly seem Hollywood in their approach, but who are nevertheless also not especially interested in complex psychology, behaviour or thought for thought's sake. These include Gaspar Noe, Philippe Grandrieux and Lucille Hadzihalilovic, who want to work much more with the texture of film, and the immediate effect of cinema not always mediated through character. Thus in Seul Contre Tous Noe utilises nerve shattering gun shot zooms, fades to white from darkness that impacts on the eyes, and the sort of emotional, yet hardly Hitchcockian, manipulation that allows it to fall into the body genre category as a critic like Linda Williams, in Hard Core, would perceive it. These are the genres that demand an emotional reaction, as comedy makes us laugh, weepies make us weep, horror makes us jump. When Noe would ask the audience if Seul Contre Tous made them cry, it is as if he wanted to know whether he had succeeded in making a good weepie. But Noe wants us to emote not so much through straightforward empathy for the character - who by conventional standards passes for a monster as he beats his mistress to a miscarriage and looks like he's murdered his daughter - but as though through sheer manipulation of technique.
What he wanted to do was take an unappetizing character and force us to journey with him through hell. When we seem to be coming out of it at the end of the film, there is as much a sense of relief and release as any conventional catharsis for the character. In fact, Noe manages to keep his character's actions at the end thoroughly ambiguous whilst still allowing the viewer a cathartic response. It seems consistent with Brenez's notion of compassion. In Irreversible Noe moves further away from conventional characterization and narrative as he tells a revenge story backwards. Noe's philosophical enquiry might not be up to much, but his attempt to wrestle impact from character is intriguing. In an early scene of horrific violence involving a fire extinguisher and, as we realise later, an innocent victim, we're again - like in Seul contre tous - left not so much in a conventionally empathic relationship with a character (we know absolutely nothing about the victim except that he's suspected of raping what turns out to be a central character's partner), but with the visceral nature of the images. Noe goes to great lengths to make the impact itself work on the audience, as he removes many aspects of the characterisational and moves us closer towards pure impact.
Yet Noe would still seem conventional next to a filmmaker like Philippe Grandrieux in La Vie Nouvelle. Grandrieux talks about this dissolution of certitude over character into character as film form. "For instance", he says in an interview with Brenez called 'The Body's Night', "we never know whether Roscoe and Seymour are friends, or father and son, or lovers. There's the impression that everything is moving all time like a kind of vibrant, disturbed materiology." He adds "I wanted, via fragments, blocks of pure sound and image events." This is the body genre without even the genre, just an attempt to make the audience feel on an increasingly abstract level.
There are elements of this abstraction in less radical form in Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence, where the director takes us into a strange netherworld first and foremost through the opening couple of minutes that play up a rumbling, difficult to discern sound to draw us into an otherworldly story. In 4, Ilya Khrzhanovsky wants to achieve something similar in a sequence where one of his characters take off to a village that time and sanity forgot, and he mixes various incompatible sounds as if to lead us into a world that has little sense of its own. It is an extreme example of what critics and theorists like David Bordwell call sound infidelity: the director uses sounds that have no direct relationship with the image, like Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot's Holiday using a plucked cello string as swing doors open and close. But this isn't comedic aural infidelity, but an unfaithfulness capturing a social despair. In this film about cloning and the collapse of Russia, the sound metonymises madness.
What Breillat, Noe, Grandrieux and others have in common, however, is some desire to create open impact aesthetic systems, systems that don't lend themselves readily to clearly defined characters in clearly defined spaces with clearly defined goals. Not all achieve the ambitious shock of thought so proposed by Deleuze through Artaud, but they're useful and often experimental antidotes to the Hollywood machine.
© Tony McKibbin