by Alex Billington
May 25, 2017
Challenge accepted. What kind of world would we live in if there were not any art, or books, or discussions that made us question our own beliefs. This kind of intelligent provocation is how we grow, and learn, and progress, and step forward together as people from different countries and different cultures all over the world. Over the last few days at the Cannes Film Festival, cinephiles and critics have been treated to a few unique films that challenge the audience. These are the kind of films that are designed to deliberately challenge viewers, to make them feel uncomfortable, or upset, or angry, or frustrated. Great artists know that it’s possible to create work that challenges us in just the right ways, that makes us think and question ourselves as a process of learning, and critiquing who we are. And it’s refreshing to come across these films.
The most provocative film at Cannes that got me thinking about this is Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Scared of a Killing Deer. It really pissed people off, made so many viewers angry, and made many critics just outright hate the film. But it’s designed to do this. Lanthimos knows exactly what he is doing and made this film so that it would challenge us. Lanthimos hails from Greece and has been making provocative films for years, first bringing his break out hit Dogtooth to the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. With this new film, he really cut deep and goes for the jugular telling a story about a well-off family that is confronted by pure evil in the form of a teenage boy who threatens them in subtle but painful ways. It’s actually a dark comedy, if you’re brave enough to laugh at it, because it’s clear that Lanthimos is trying to upset people. And in doing so he creates more intriguing art worthy of discussion. It’s nice to analyze and to figure out what he’s trying to say.
Many won’t be able to take it and will probably walk out, but those who stay and sit through it and do their best to understand the filmmaker’s intentions will enjoy the film. Perhaps “enjoy” is the wrong word, but they will recognize that there’s a good, healthy side to challenging movies. As my friend and colleague Alicia Malone tweeted after seeing the film, “in a world full of ‘it’s okay’, I love a movie which challenges me, makes me feel, even if it’s uncomfortable.” But this feeling isn’t something that most people will “enjoy”. In all honesty, it took me years of attending film festivals and watching challenging films to really appreciate them. Some films still piss me off (I can’t stand Jason Reitman’s Young Adult about an insufferable woman) but others I totally love (like The Scared of a Killing Deer, as I discussed in my positive review of the film).
In a world full of “it’s okay”, I love a movie which challenges me, makes me feel, even if it’s uncomfortable #TheKillingOfASacredDeer
— Alicia Malone (@aliciamalone) May 22, 2017
After emerging from screenings at Cannes, I usually have a quick discussion with some of my friends (or I check Twitter to see what everyone else is saying). I’ve heard so many complaints about the provocative films, that it made me realize how important it is to appreciate the most challenging work. One other film that seems to be challenging people is Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which mocks the entire art world as well as society and the good intentions of wealthy people. This film has some other problems (it needs to be cut down, and the ending needs work) but in terms of its provocations and criticism of society, it’s brilliant. Really brilliant. And that’s what I love about it, the way it shows how much bullshit there is, and how much we really need to look at ourselves in the mirror sometimes and question whether we’re actually as good as we think we are. We can see forgettable escapism from Hollywood any day, but these kind of films are rare.
Part of the experience of film festivals is keeping an open mind when watching the films. You never know what you’ll see. This comes from experience (I’ve been writing about cinema for 11 years) and is something that most people need to learn. It’s not that feeling uncomfortable or upset is “good”. It’s more about the way that art, a movie, can stir up these kind of emotions. That takes storytelling talent and an intelligent ability to understand emotions, and how to manipulate them. I started my first editorial about Cannes this year with a quote from Spielberg saying how “through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time.” This kind of talent is the mark of a great filmmaker, an artist who can use the screen to make us feel.
Another film that just premiered at Cannes this week and seems to be challenging for audiences/critics is a Russian feature called A Gentle Creature (originally titled Krotkaya), directed by prominent Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa. Not only is it challenging because it’s nearly two-and-a-half hours (143 minutes) but it’s about how brutal and frustrating and awful and corrupt it is in Russia. There are many scenes where so much bad stuff is happening, or the characters are arguing, or fighting, or something awful is happening to the woman we’re following and there’s nothing we can do about it. The film is divisive (which is usually the sign of a very provocative, challenging film) and is extremely dense, with many layers to peel back and analyze. I really like the film, but it’s not an easy one to watch, and I’m still thinking about it and trying to figure it out. It’s hard to even write about without seeing it again. But if it’s interesting, it’s worth revisiting.
If you want to learn how to enjoy and appreciate provocative films, start simple. Watch films that everyone has already talked about. I’ll recommend work from two directors already mentioned – Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, and Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. I’d also suggest watching Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible and also Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. And if you end up hating these films, read a few reviews and read discussions about them. Keep an open mind, and try to figure out why you didn’t like them, or why they made you upset. Learn to recognize how films can manipulate your own emotions. Sometimes it may be too uncomfortable to appreciate, but other times you may learn more about yourself. And you may eventually recognize that being angry, or feeling uncomfortable or icky, can be odd but refreshing to experience. At the end of the day, these are “just movies” (as people love to say) and they haven’t ruined your life (hopefully).
In Robbie Collins’ review of The Scared of a Killing Deer from Cannes (for The Telegraph), he emphasizes that the most unforgettable films at festivals may be the ones that no one agrees about. And this is so true. He writes: “The films that stick with you from Cannes tend not to be the settled hits, but those the press corps cheer and boo in equal measure. Often, you get an early sense this reaction may be brewing. But when you’re so transfixed the closing yelps of disapproval hit you like a spray of icy water, that’s when you know you’ve seen something you won’t forget.” There are over 300 movies released every year, and while many people don’t see most of them, discovering something that really sticks with you is an exciting experience. The most provocative and upsetting films don’t all deserve to be pushed away. They deserve to be discussed.
Then again, this is why we come to film festivals like Cannes. To experience and discover and revel in the opportunity to watch work by filmmakers who challenge the typical notions of storytelling or cinema as we know it. And I’ve learned that it’s not always easy, but it is rewarding, when you give in to their tricks and appreciate the filmmaker’s intentions. Sometimes you’ll learn more about yourself, sometimes you’ll learn more about other people. They use cinema to teach us about society, about the world, and how we can be better. They ask us to look in the mirror and question ourselves, and make us wonder if there’s something wrong with us. Films are more than just “entertainment”, and film festivals promise to present the kind of art that is unforgettable, no matter how upsetting or challenging it may be. Let’s continue to appreciate that.