I’m no stranger to films that have squirm-inducing scenes, questionable motives, and bleak morals. One of my favorite films, or it was a few years ago anyway, is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet which has amongst other elements a completely objectionable and unnecessarily-protracted rape scene.
That said, I’m a bit selective and capricious when it comes to this kind of thing. I’m never sure what it is that might make me switch off a viewing for what seems cruelly exploitive (as I did recently for the first collection of “Trial and Retribution”), or what I might sit through for the sake of the larger story arc (as I recently did for the film The Long Good Friday).
The following films are intense; some are gory, some involve scenes of torture, some are at the very least highly upsetting. For some they may be triggering. Please do not say I didn’t warn you. Spoilers.
I keep thinking I’ll make a list of media that, in my opinion, present the experience of addiction in sublime, convincing, and authentic ways. Shame is one of these, although to my knowledge the term “addiction” is never mentioned. The film centers around an adult brother and sister pair, Brandon and Sissy. Brandon has a good job, a good apartment, and is a good-looking guy. He presents himself as reserved and sophisticated while hiding expensive and dysfunctional relationships with human beings and pornography; his sister Sissy, in contrast, is a free-spirit, an active alcoholic, cannot hold a job, and is prone to codependency and publicly unhealthy relationships.
There are intense sexual manifestations in both brother and sister’s problems. As the movie unfolded I was at first tensed up for, let’s face it, some kind of twisted/noir/sexy/”damaged” incest romp. Shame instead renders, in a poetically wretched way, the roots of addiction: deep emotional pain, obsession, compulsion, and a profound disconnect from other human beings. Addiction and pain manifest itself in different ways and it would seem those responsible for the film know this: Brandon snorts coke, maintains a tight profile at work, and holds a taut repressive anger he only occasionally gives vent to with his sister. Sissy is sloppy, emotional, willing to be publicly messy, and also more willing to try to talk about what’s bothering her.
Over the course of the film we witness Brandon coming to his bottom – but whether it is his last, the film does not tell us. It doesn’t really matter, not to me anyway. I have not experienced sex addiction and compulsion, but I do know addiction. For anyone else interested in the subject, I’d direct them to view this graphic, and deeply sad, piece of film.
Rosario Dawson is thoroughly convincing as Maya, a bright, beautiful college student whose life is abruptly changed after her experiences with a fellow student named Jared. Although initially reluctant to engage with her new would-be suitor, she gradually begins to take a chance, believing that romance might be possible. After all Jared is charming, ardent, and persistent. On a date she talks about her feelings. Alone with him she begins to accept his ardor. But once he is in the position to do so, Jared acts on an intense hatred for Maya (or rather, what she represents to him) based on his own sense of inadequacies, his own internalized racism, misogyny, and entitlement. Maya, shattered after the horrific experience, is lost for a time being until she makes a few new friends.
Unlike so very, very many films centering on a rape – and a resultant revenge – Maya’s experience is not portrayed as exploitive; that is to say, shown as “sexy” in any way – and Maya is not reduced to a caricature of a victim, either. Even better, Jared is not reduced to a caricature; it is clear he doesn’t think he’s a rapist, which is something many films miss while they center on stranger-assaults in alleyways.
In my opinion this film is less about rape and a revenge than it is about power and sadism, misogyny and racism as played out in the personal level. Maya, almost by chance, meets an even more successful sadist than Jared, a man named Adrien. Adrien is intelligent and powerful; he also gives voice to the experiences Maya is struggling with in regards to race and power. Maya gets her power back and makes a plan.
I can’t say enough about the nuance of this film; however not all is subtle. The final scene, which is extremely hard to watch, is best described by the NYT review: “its Grand Guignol particulars resist euphemism”. I ain’t gonna lie, it’s not a happy ending. I suppose to some viewers it might be more terrifying than to others; most women, especially women of color, already know what it’s like to live with the constant threat of, if not the reality of, sexual assault.
The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
Young, preternaturally-beautiful housewife in a sexually-tepid marriage with an older, rich husband meets a young, dashing man and has an affair (Rachel Weisz, Simon Russell Beale, and Tom Hiddleston, resp). We’ve seen it before; it often goes to predictable places. I can tell you this film did not go anywhere I predicted, and for that I’m grateful. In watching it I thought it might be sourced in a play, and as it turns out I was right. Having no familiarity with the original work, I will give you my impressions of the film on its own merits.
The affair and the marriage are showcased in a series of vignettes that are at first a bit confusing. We expect to see the film linger over the forbidden courtship and consummation; largely the film skips this because, we all know lust and infatuation. Early on it is apparent Weisz’s Hester is more deeply in love with Hiddleston’s Freddie than he is with her; however he is not a womanizer nor particularly coldhearted, he is merely a human being. As Hester falls deeper into obsession and depression, he struggles his best to satisfy her, but he is only human (and an alcoholic, besides). In addition, Hester’s position as a British 50s-era separated housewife is a vulnerable one, and the film presents those difficulties in a nuanced, snowflake-delicate rendering of oppressive mores. Weisz is stunning in every way in her role.
I’ve been on both sides – as if there really are “sides” – of obsessive love. That’s probably why this film was so painful for me. The pleading and the promises not to “make a scene”, the cruelties, the suicidal ideation, the self harm. A dense knowledge the other party does not share one’s experience and there is no choice that seems liveable (hence the movie’s title). However, the film provides a few counterparts to Hester’s obsession; first by her mother-in-law who, while not a sympathetic character, cautions Hester that “a guarded enthusiasm” is a wiser choice than unrestrained passion. But my favorite moment in the film was towards the end, when Hester’s landlady Mrs. Elton speaks about the true nature of love.
The film closes on a vision of a blitz-ravaged portion of Hester’s flat’s neighborhood. The scene could be interpreted as sad, ominious, or devastating. I interpreted it as a bittersweet realization of possibility and renewal.
Of all the films reviewed here, this is the one I’d like least to discuss in any detail, because it is my belief the themes reveal themselves only gradually in what we originally might think is merely a horror film or twisted drama. So: go watch Audition, if you’re in the mood for a torture scene or two. I’ll wait.
Briefly, the plot: the film introduces us to widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi)). He is a fairly well-to-do man in a position of power at his job, and has a good relationship with his live-in teenage son. At his son’s urging, he entertains the idea of dating again. His friend Yasuhisa Yoshikawa, a film producer, talks Aoyama into devising a mock casting audition in which young women audition for the “part” of Aoyama’s new wife. Aoyama gets more excited about this process and quickly becomes fascinated with young Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). He takes her on a series of dates and continues to interview her, finding her more suitable for his purposes and quickly, despite red flags about her past, setting his sights on her.
But who is auditioning who? In final analysis, both Aoyama and Asami audition one another and both are convinced they’re getting something that they’re not. This film is probably experienced by some as a Fatal Attraction type of fable, but there is more to it than that. What is Aoyama really trying to hire, to obtain, to buy? Asami, as it turns out, is not who Aoyama wants to insist she is. Yet instead of the common trope of woman-as-(psychotic)-deceiver, the film demonstrates Asami has been telling Aoyama about her past; he has chosen not to see it, instead searching for the compliant, obedient, young, problem-free wife, an accessory for his bottomless vanity.
The film has a notorious reputation of being SO horrible and having SUCH an awful torture scene at the end; if you’ve seen the film you know the sequences I’m talking about. Many male film critics have called out this torture scene as being particularly barbaric or even making the film the worst horror they’ve seen. However, in comparison with the Saw Part 15 HOLY SHIT PEOPLE GET TORN APART IN EVEN MORE RIDICULOUS AND ELABORATE FASHION gore-porn saturating even our Cineplex mainstream market, the torture scene in Audition is very brief. Only a few shots show the subject being tortured; most show the perpetrator’s perspective of the torture. And notably, the torturer is female, the one being tortured is male.
And that, my friends, is why so many, especially men, are upset by the film. We want to believe Aoyama is “the good guy” – especially given the film opens on him as he is newly-widowed. But watch how he speaks about women with his friend, watch the degrading interview process, watch his memory of conversation with Asami versus what she was telling him. Aoyama is not the Good Guy, and his treatment of women and the role of wife is what really should be making us squeamish. Aoyama’s treatment of women and girls and Asami herself mirrors horrific experiences in Asami’s past. It is the reversal of the typically black-and-white concepts of “villian” and “victim”, the willingness to show complexity in these roles, and the very personal portrayal of both individuals, that makes some people uncomfortable.
At a horror level, the film delivered wonderful surprises that no amount of Hostel Caro-syrup and HUGE MUSIC SCORE can complete with. A body discovered: along with three extra fingers, an extra ear, and an extra tongue. The phone ringing, ringing, ringing – and then suddenly movement from a sack on the floor. Audition doesn’t overplay these creepy surprises but delivers them in a most satisfactory manner.
I welcome feedback; email me your responses if you’d like them published them here. kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.