Monday, February 15, 2016

Some Thoughts About Cheap Shock

(Note: I get pretty spoilery about the films Martyrs and Frontiere(s) in this post, and if you haven't yet seen Martyrs, close this tab immediately and go watch it first.)

So while I'm assembling part 2 of my survey of the entire extant Hellraiser franchise (those posts take longer because they're, like, three times as long as a regular one), I'm also trying to keep an eye on new stuff coming out, which lead me to a trailer for a Turkish film called Baskin (which looks really promising). That film is not the point of this short post as much as the comparisons it garnered were. So it's getting compared to Martyrs and the New French Extremity in general. Which definitely gets it a slot on my to-check-out list.

But it also got me thinking that within the canon of the New French Extremity (which, let's face it, sort of ended up fizzling out, at least as horror went), there's a great opportunity to think about the use of graphic imagery by examining two films - Martyrs, and Frontiere(s). The first is, I think, easily one of the best horror films of the 21st century so far, and the second is, I think, a pretty big disappointment. Both deal in graphic violence and helpless people experiencing prolonged suffering in close detail. And, as a result, both have been criticized as trafficking in cheap shocks, as is often the case when a filmmaker - especially a genre filmmaker - uses graphic imagery. It's dismissed as an attempt at cheap heat, getting attention by being outrageous instead of doing something substantive. 

And so here's the thing - by comparing these two films, I think we can usefully distinguish between graphic violence as a substitute for good storytelling, and graphic violence as a tool for good storytelling.

Martyrs is, at its heart, a movie strongly concerned with ideas of suffering, transcendence, and sacrifice. Lucie begins the film escaping from unseen tormentors, at whose hands she suffered. As it transpires, her tormentors were using suffering as a tool to hasten transcendence, to follow the examples of history's martyrs to try and find out what lies beyond death. Martyrs sacrifice themselves for a higher purpose, and in their suffering they are offered a glimpse of the divine. And when Lucie catches up to her tormentors, we see that she continues to suffer, haunted by the specter of a woman she failed to free before she fled. As martyrs do, she mortifies her own flesh in penance for her sin. And when Lucie's tormentors catch up to her, Anna steps in and takes her place - Anna sacrifices herself, and we are walked through the stages of Anna's martyrdom - the beatings, the starvation, the flaying - on her way to transcendence. She suffers in Lucie's place, she martyrs herself, and she sees what lies beyond (or perhaps not - her final words, whatever they are, might very well have been a lie intended to deny the people who tortured her any satisfaction). All of this - Lucie's inner torment, her revenge, and Anna's martyrdom - is presented graphically, yes, but it is at every point contextualized. We see this because we need to see this - we need to see the cost exacted on Lucie, on Anna, just as audiences for the medieval passion plays of which Martyrs feels like a modernization needed to see the ugly details of Christ's sacrifice, to truly know what the cost was. How do you tell a story about martyrdom without knowing what the martyr endured? Here, then, the graphic violence was a tool for good storytelling, one with textual and metatextual justification.

By contrast, Frontiere(s) is largely a series of bloody scenes attached loosely by a common set of characters. It's about a group of criminals (why their criminality is important isn't really articulated beyond "we have to get out of Paris, like, now," nor are the actual riots they were escaping) who flee a rioting city for an isolated country inn, apparently run not by cannibals, not by neo-Nazis, but by neo-Nazi cannibals. I pondered the ridiculousness of this in my original post, and time hasn't really given me any additional insight beyond "well, if one of these two things is bad, then both together must be really bad." It's like the narrative equivalent of an amplifier that goes to eleven. Once they all get to the inn, they're captured and tortured and/or killed for food. It's mostly just moving characters from point to point, where different bloody set pieces occur, and if there's a thematic reading to be had, I didn't really see it. I suppose it suggests notions of racial superiority leading to a level of dehumanization that literally makes other people into cattle, maybe you could make an argument for widening class divides that sees a poor rural class resorting to cannibalism to survive - to literally consume city dwellers whose excesses are figuratively consuming them - but these are not things clearly articulated in the film. I am mostly just looking at the elements - racial purity, a rural setting with urban characters, and cannibalism - and thinking of some things that might emerge. The violence in Frontiere(s) signifies nothing other than "this is what happens when helpless people run into neo-Nazi cannibals." There's a lot of blood, and a lot of screaming (which seems to be the director's thing) but there isn't really much of a "why" to it beyond "because they were there, and because this is what bad people do." The antagonists are caricatured because their extremity justifies the extremity of their actions, and the extremity of their actions exists free of context. All of the blood and pain and people hung on hooks, butchered, are there because they are. They are spectacle. They are the cheap shock for which even films like Martyrs are criticized. 

So I think it's a useful heuristic - does the violence in a film illustrate, elaborate upon, or articulate something about the characters or the human condition? Or are the characters designed and arranged in such a way as to rationalize instances of violence? Anna and Lucie's relationship, their history, they tell a story before a single drop of blood is shed, but the four young criminals of Frontiere(s) are only people to the extent that it gets them to the inn for the bloodshed to occur.

Does the violence help tell a story, or is the story a framework for violence? I think there's a difference, and mistaking the former for the latter is a problem in how people read horror film.