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The Treatment of Violence in European Art Films #Introduction

With the framework of the European art cinema, this research focuses on three films: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997) and Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009).  The link between them is double: on one level, the violence is their constant energy and the epicentre of the drama throughout; and also, the way they express their violence is unique.

To enter the violence that inhabits in the images created by Kubrick, Haneke or Lanthimos, it means to enter a non-conventional world, to explore the unexpected. The art films analysed in this project –the reason to refer to them as art films is confirmed in the opening sequences of each film–, also represent what has been described as the “unpleasant” type of film: these films are going to manipulate you, they are going to make you feel uncomfortable.

The kind of violence they represent could not be analysed without considering the existence of the spectator, so it becomes crucial to understand how these films work in relation to the spectator. Therefore, the following pages will describe the mechanisms within the films that actively involve the audience participation.

This essay supports the idea that their violence could not exist without a framework of reference that only the spectator can provide.

Considering every film a closed, unique universe, it is one of the objectives of this essay to point out and to describe their very own intrinsic way of expressing violence.  This is not an exercise of valuing which one deploys violence in a more effective way –for we cannot objectively measure that impact in an audience–, but it intends to become a critical analysis based on the different elements that operate within each film.

One of the elements that these films share is that they deal in a very strong way with the concept of family unity and the existence of an exterior element that disturbs the desired balanced. Although this is not an accurate point in A Clockwork Orange, for instance, since the role that develops the real family of the main character, Alex De Large, is not determinant for his personal journey (it is presented as an aseptic relationship, and they do not waste a second to substitute him with another child when he is in jail).

 

In a figurative sense, it would be more accurate to consider the figure of the “Father” represented by Beethoven. There is no doubt that Beethoven’s music becomes the real influence for Alex de Large, the real engine of his ultra-violent acts, and moreover, it is indeed Beethoven what motivates the Alex’s climatic rise and fall in his personal journey.

But to a large scale, we could also consider Alex to be the disturbing element that tries to break balance in society, if we were to place the political state on the other side of the equation. What is ironically conveyed in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange is that the Alex must be changed (that means, violently divested from his free will) in order to be inserted in the system as a pacific (an aseptic) individual. And this process is a painful one: he has to give up his love for the music of Beethoven. Through the “Ludovico” treatment, Alex learns to associate the violent impulse with pain. But more painfully, as a mere and isolated casualty during the treatment, the music of Beethoven is accidentally played and he ends up hating it too.

The dichotomy between the balanced unity and the disruptive element that tears that balance apart is double in A Clockwork Orange, because of the way its violence is presented –always a stylized and satirized violence when it’s performed by Alex de Large, and cruel and explicit when the State performs it through the Ludovico treatment–.

The violence of the Government during the Ludovico Experiment in A Clockwork Orange.

The violence of the Government during the Ludovico Experiment in A Clockwork Orange.

 

As mentioned earlier, Alex could very well be considered the disruptive and conflictive element in society. As an audience, we are morally positioned against the violence that Alex does to innocent people, and we tend to reject it. However, when we pay attention to the way this violence is presented, and if we add a critical observation to the relationship that the film establishes with the spectator, Alex is placed at the other side of the equation: it is in fact, the political state meant to be perceived as even a crueller element, more violent, more radical against the individual since the attack not only happens in a physical level, but also at a psychological one. Comparing both acts, Alex’s violence, as brutal as it is, is more perceived as a stylized act, even theatrical, therefore we are morally allowed or legitimated to be relaxed and enjoy the acts of ultra-violence happening in front of our eyes.

In this sense, however, the violence happening in the filmic universes of Dogtooth and Funny Games is not presented in a theatrical manner, but in a very realistic way –in the Bazinian sense of the term–, through the use of long static shots that lock the viewer’s perspective, allowing the audience’s gaze to analyse the frame in detail and absorb the information that it provides. And to another extent, it demands from the viewer the responsibility to think about the present moment (or to analyse the consequences of an act that has just happened) rather than evocating his interest in what will happen next.

A perfect example of this is portrayed in the scene that happens immediately after George’s death in Funny Games. Haneke shifts the codes of cinema language and goes from the perfectly coherent use of generic conventions of the thriller (where the editing pace and the amount of information delivered to the spectator in the choices of shot/reverse shot match the thriller genre) to a more reflexive demand from the spectator.

In other words, the scene previous to George’s death (his escape to the neighbour’s home, to the anti-climax moment where he points the gun at the antagonist and the surprise when it doesn’t fire) can be considered -in Metzian terms- as a the “pleasurable” type of scene, in the sense that it pays off every single expectation from the audience, considering that Funny Games was sold in the first place as a thriller and the audience has completely bought that idea. The real violence -the murder of the child- happens off-screen, and we only have the auditive information to understand what has just happened. The next scene, however, a static wide shot of the living room where we see the consequences of what we just heard, clearly discomforts the audience.

 

Long static shot in Funny games (1997). The audience is forced to reflect on the consequences of the violence.

Long static shot in Funny games (1997). The audience is forced to reflect on the consequences of the violence.

All of the films presented in this research, also share the ability to demand the active participation from the viewer, and in some cases (such as in A Clockwork Orange and Funny Games) they explicitly point out the existence of the spectator within the film.

We are forced to look at some scenes becoming aware of the elements of fiction and our position as external spectators: Alex de Large breaking the forth wall and looking straight at us in the first seconds of the film, the way he addresses the audience in first person, the theatrical sets and sometimes even the camera positions –where we are forced to look at the scene as if we were an audience sitting on a theatre– even the synthetized sounds of the composer Wendy Carlos applied to the soundtrack, are determinant choices to establish in a very clear way the position of the audience and the fact that we should perceive it as a film. A resonance of this idea, where the spectator is aware of his position and compromise to the film, is also present in Haneke’s Funny Games, as we may see later on.