I hate to admit it, but I never made it all the way through Hollywood vs. America, film critic Michael Medved’s long and rather ponderous book which suggested in 1993 that Hollywood filmmakers were largely to blame for the decay of the American social fabric. The idea that any such decay might be attributable to other factors (anyone remember supply-side economics?), and that Hollywood was merely reflecting the social condition, did not get much love from Mr. Medved. However, while doing publicity for the book’s release, I heard him on a radio show say something that has always stuck with me – something that he really nailed. Medved said that however good American filmmakers were at portraying physical violence on screen, they were equally bad at showing emotional violence.
Of course, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Oftentimes, physical violence is the catalyst for emotional violence. Another film critic, whom I enjoy quite a bit more than Medved, Stephen Hunter, wrote that American films are very eager to show a man with a gun, but mostly ignore the emotional turmoil created by the presence of a gun. Just having a weapon aimed at you leaves scars, Hunter argues, and those scars are almost never part of the movie.
Physical violence is not the only catalyst for emotional violence. Indeed, in real life, both physical and emotional violence are typically the byproducts of other root causes. Poverty, mental and physical illness, substance abuse, prejudice… these are just a few of the factors that dramatists have in their arsenal. But though filmmakers have made good use of these to generate dramatic conflict, it is the rare movie that really plumbs the depths of devastating problems. Let’s face it, few people ever got rich heaping emotional devastation upon their audience.
One way to look at the difference between emotional and physical violence is through the prism of two Australian cult films. The Horseman (2006), Stephen Kastrissios’ revenge thriller, and Wake in Fright (1971), the psychological horror from Canadian Ted Kotcheff, both feature scenes of disturbing violence. But whereas Kastrissios seems almost exclusively concerned with physical sadism and punishment, with the emotional residue left behind largely an afterthought, Kotcheff probes the inner weaknesses of his characters, whose inability to say no to just one more go at “two up” or one more round of beers invariably leads to destruction. The fight scenes in The Horseman have undeniable impact, but the roo hunt in Wake in Fright is more potent because with each kangaroo shot, the men are ripping away a small piece of their own humanity. For me, the hero’s return to the tiny nowhere town of Tiboonda at the end of Wake in Fright is more emotionally devastating than the bloody hero fighting his final battle in The Horseman.
It seems to me that American and British films are particularly ill-equipped to dramatise emotional violence. Perhaps it has something to do with cultures that champion the self-made man and the stiff upper lip, leaving little room for emotional examination. On the other hand, sit down for an Italian movie, or an Italian dinner, and you’ll see laughter, tears, and romance before the first act (or first course) has ended. Of course, these gross cultural stereotypes have their exceptions. You won’t find much emotion in Michaelangelo Antonioni, and you’ll find an abundance of it in Darren Aronofsky.
I realise Aronofsky is a polarising figure in American film, and I’ll immediately own up to the fact that I like his movies quite a bit. My appreciation has little to do with his sharp visual style, which I find overbearing at times. It has to do with that fact that he portrays emotional violence better than any other young American director I know of. It is palpable in the underrated The Wrestler (2008) and it is truly extraordinary in the heartbreaking character of Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) in Requiem for a Dream. Compare the emotional violence in Requiem to the more plot-driven physical violence of the similarly-themed Traffic (2000), Steven Soderbergh’s movie from the same year, which takes a much broader view of the same dramatic issue. As with Wake in Fright and The Horseman, Traffic has long since left my brain space, while Sara Goldfarb has long-term residence. Even within an Aronofsky movie, you can see the variation. Noah is at its best when the title character is having his hellish internal debate over how to interpret God’s word. It is at its worst when he is having a standard physical brawl with bad guy Tubal-cain.
Physical violence has been effectively used as a gauge of emotional violence in a number of powerful movies. Typically, these movies work best when the action is understated. We get a detailed build-up. We get to know a character quite well before the action of the narrative takes us to a place where a rupture occurs. The violent act then serves as the climax. The textbook example of this comes in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), with the extraordinary central performance from Delphine Seyrig. The American film In the Bedroom (2001) offered a similar build-up, but with a more melodramatic plot-line. In both cases, the act of physical violence carries far more emotional weight than your typical movie murder largely because we are so intimately familiar with the characters and conditions involved.
Understatement is not the only way to achieve such emotional impact. What follows is a brief list of films from the last thirty years that I think deliver a high degree of emotional violence. Now, since it’s the rare filmgoer who seeks out emotional devastation when browsing Netflix, I can’t necessarily promise you will love these movies. But if you crave being put through the emotional wringer – and you know who you are – then find these titles, set aside a couple hours to watch, and a couple more hours to recover.
The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983)
Imamura deserves a place on the ladder of Japanese filmmakers equal to Kurusawa and Mizoguchi, just a half step below Ozu. He helped rescue Japanese film from its staid consideration of the past by looking with great clarity at the underside of Japan’s present. In terms of emotional violence, Mizoguchi may have had a more artistic eye, but whereas he would demurely gaze away from the attendant physical turmoil, Imamura would glare right into its heart. In Narayama, he showed that the seamier parts of Japanese life were not confined to the 20th century. In this period piece about a small mountain village that disposes of anyone unable to pull his own weight, raunchy laughter and extreme cruelty go hand in hand. The relatively short sequence showing the murder of the Amaya family is the kind of moment that lingers for a long time, as much for its offhandedness as for its cruelty. And the climax is a devastating combination of cold-hearted pragmatism and beauty that you won’t soon forget.
La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)
What happened to Mathieu Kassovitz? In 1995, with the release of just his second feature, he appeared poised to be the next Jean-Luc Godard. This was extremely energetic filmmaking, combining the youthful joy of Guy Ritchie with the political commitment of Spike Lee. This B&W study of the have-nots in Paris on the verge of revolution presented Vincent Cassel as an angrier and less cool version of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless (1960). The hopeless frustration of the first world underclass, the seductive/destructive influence of America and its films, the sheer miracle of the moving image. It is all there. The sequence in which Hubert (Hubert Kounde), the most mature of La Haine’s trio of main characters, is beaten and humiliated by the police, is a tour de force. And the way Hubert is thereafter transformed, leading to the extraordinary climax, meets all the requirements of emotional devastation.
The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998)
Vinterberg and fellow director Lars von Trier unleashed Dogme 95 on the film world in 1995. Their manifesto called for the elimination of visual spectacle and effects. Simple unadorned stories, without elaborate soundtrack music or other device became central to their theory. As with most theoretical film movements, Dogme 95 didn’t actually result in many great films, but it was highly influential in battling world cinema’s increasing subordination of story and character to spectacle. For my money, the first Dogme film, Vinterbeg’s The Celebration, was the best. A searing portrait of a family coming apart at the seams, it centres on the patriarch’s 60th birthday party and a revelation of abuse that lingers just below the family’s polished exterior. As in Imamura’s movie, the balance of coarse humour and devastating emotional cruelty is well maintained. When eldest son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) initially levels accusations at his father early on, it becomes very uncomfortable for the characters on screen as well for the audience. And that is only the beginning of the emotional brutality. The matter-of-fact ending brilliantly counterpoints the turmoil that we have witnessed.
May (Lucky McKee, 2002)
Though often compared to Carrie for its focus on a socially-awkward and lonely young woman, I find McKee’s horror to be most reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Like Repulsion, May is about a young woman (Angela Bettis) whose inability to interact in a normal sexual manner causes her initial neuroses to turn inward and bloom into horrific psychosis. In many ways, May is a more relatable character than Catherine Deneuve’s Carole in Repulsion, and that in some ways makes the emotional violence more poignant. Compare the final shots of May to the similar final images from Carrie and you will get a brief primer on the difference between emotional violence and shock horror.
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain, 2008)
Tony Manero, Chilean director Larrain’s second feature, is not easily forgotten. Alfredo Castro plays Raul Peralta, an aging sociopath whose only goal in life is to imitate John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever (Tony Manero) better than anyone else in the world. This drives him to great lengths, both artistic and violent. We see the fringes of life in Santiago, where Raul pursues his dream. An early episode of offhand violence is staggering, but by the end, Larrain has managed a seemingly impossible task. We actually can feel sympathy for the monster. Raul is almost universally unlikeable, and yet we can’t help but feel his devastation when things don’t work out for him. That puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position, which is precisely what makes the movie so hard to forget.
The Temptation of St. Tony (Veiko Ounpuu, 2009)
If you’re looking for that Estonian film to make your weekend complete, this could be just what you need. Actually, I prefer Ounpuu’s first film, Sugisball (2007) to this follow-up, but that’s largely due to my preference for realism over surrealism. There is a horrifying scene in Sugisball in which one of the characters brutally beats a drunken film director, and it is hard not to take that as a message of some kind. But in St. Tony, a very eerie B&W journey through a grieving regular guy’s psyche, there is one scene that ranks among the most emotionally devastating I have ever witnessed on film. Dead centre in the movie, Tony finds an old priest in a magnificent decaying church and discusses his loss of faith. I will not reveal what the priest says, but it is not your standard sympathetic compassion. St. Tony also shows us perverted police, a resurrected dog, and a bizarre climax in a cannibalistic cabaret, but it is that scene with the priest, as potent a depiction of lost faith as you will find in Ingmar Bergman, that provides the most emotional devastation.
So, if that’s what you’re looking for…