Bright Lights Film Journal

Disturbing Movies: or the Flip Side of the Real

Roman Polanski's The Tenant

Disturbing movies shouldn’t equivocate

And the first to come to mind is David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1980). His films usually dwell on advanced agitated states in two primary areas. First, he covers man’s relation to the technological and dramatizes our uneven relationship with technology. One image (disturbing) from many of his films stands out: men merging with their instruments, tools, and machines: Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), and eXistenZ (1999). Secondly, a Cronenberg’s movie becomes a pure cinematic representation of his character’s psyche. Here The Brood dwells. It dramatizes a divorce and custody struggle. During this traumatic time, the wife, Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar), becomes closely attached to Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) at the Somafree Institute, where Nola undergoes the Raglan’s Psychoplasmic therapy. Raglan anticipates other Cronenberg technicists — Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) in Scanners (1981), Brian O’Blivion in Videodrome, Seth Brindle (Jeff Goldblum) in The Fly — who intuitively grasp and manipulate a new mental or physical reality, and in the process unleash and are destroyed by new forces they thought controllable.

Nola Carveth becomes Dr. Raglan’s involuntary monster. Through a therapy called psychoplasmics, she has been given the power to deal with her ex-husband and anyone else she perceives has hurt her. Nola herself does not attack her husband, her husband’s girlfriend, and her father, but wills into existence dwarfish creatures who manifest her anger. Instead of healing herself through psychoplasmics’s esoteric methodology, she creates an arsenal of murderous children. This is her brood. They have rough features, just human enough to appear as people, small enough to look like children.

Cronenberg’s master stroke, something he accomplishes in his other films in similar ways, shows Nola giving birth to one of these monsters and then eating the placenta. The merging of her willfulness and the elemental body functions reminds one of Seth Brundle’s metamorphosis in The Fly, specifically when he expels acids onto his food (donuts) and sucks the liquid remains back into his mouth. This kind of effect — eating placenta or the vomited acid/donut solution — becomes the unequivocally disturbing note amidst others. Maybe what seems effective about The Brood is its ability to unsettle the audience without manipulating or stimulating unwanted sympathies. Only when the child monstrosities kidnap Nola’s daughter and force the girl to stay with them in a bunkhouse do we fear for her life, possibly believing Nola has resorted to Medean extremes to hurt her husband. Despite saving his daughter and killing Nola, the husband’s triumph proves to be hollow. The last shot in the car suggests that the daughter may have inherited her mother’s talent.

On the opposite end of our agitation, whence we become more involved with one character, Angel Heart (1987) stands out as a film not safely remembered. The hero, Harry Angel, deserves little sympathy. We sense immediately there’s something wrong about him. Perhaps it’s Mickey Rourke’s unshaven countenance. Yet we’re caught up in what becomes a supernatural noir quest. In fact, the noirish elements help us accept Angel’s lowlife characteristics. He belongs to a large stable of private eyes dating back to Sam Spade. Only we haven’t bargained for nor anticipated the depth of his depravity.

Angel is hired to find a “certain person” and, Oedipus-like, uncovers the trail leading back to himself. He traces leads from New York City to the bayous (and voodoo) outside New Orleans. His willful ignorance prevents him and us from seeing that his quest has actually become an attempt to cover up all traces of his past outrage (The Big Clock [1948] meets Mr. Arkadin [1955]) and binds us more deeply with his unsavory character. The final truth overwhelms us as much as it does Angel. Apparently, he had an innocent man killed and the heart cut out of the man’s body in order to gain a longer life. Learning his abomination nearly upsets us as much as when we see Nola eat her placenta.

Our bond to Harry Angel appears irregularly during the course of the film when an enigmatic shot of a descending freight elevator interposes itself on Angel’s consciousness. It turns out to be a premonition of his descent into Hell. A descent we must also take for indulging Angel’s quest, for exposing ourselves to the high level of violence during his circular search, and for not taking seriously enough the mysterious Mr. Sypher’s (Robert De Niro) imperious demands.

Our defibrillation watching Angel Heart stems from accepting the traditional narrative. We trust the narrator-hero, even if it’s Mickey Rourke. Hitchcock proved in Psycho that when an audience deprived of its focal viewpoint — after Marion Crane is murdered — we must identify with another character. Marion’s boyfriend and sister are too weak fit our needs. Norman Bates, as he struggles to clean up after his mother’s murder (we already know how she berates him and makes his life a prison), gains our sympathy and, subsequently, we resist believing Norman’s the psycho. Likewise, we want Harry Angel to have, at bottom, a pure heart. The narrative betrays us because, although we have followed Angel around, we have not been privy to his murders. His crimes have been too horrendous to admit to himself. We’re going down the elevator with Harry.

A more complex mode of identification occurs in Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976). Polanski plays the title character, Trelkovsky, who moves into a Paris apartment. The film establishes a dual mode of identification. First, he gradually takes on the psychotic qualities of the woman who had previously lived in the apartment and had attempted suicide. Then we experience his slow disintegration, helplessly watching the oppressive forces — his friend (Bernard Fresson), the concierge (Shelly Winters), the landlord (Melvyn Douglas), the woman across the hall — bullying him in overt and subtle ways and causing him to retreat into another identity.

As in Polanski’s early film Repulsion (1965), the spiral of madness is tracked through small but telling events. Trelkovski’s friend urinates in the sink during a small party with his co-workers to celebrate the new digs. The group also makes too much noise, and anonymous complaints are lodged against Trelkovsky. Later, the landlord and concierge accuse him of transgressions only because of the previous indiscretions. Later, he finds in a hole in the wall a tooth which may have belonged to the previous tenant, although later we see that he has pulled out his own tooth. Later, he falls ill and precariously makes his way to the bathroom as the walls in the hall bend and blur. Once inside the bathroom, he finds hieroglyphics emblazoned on all the walls (a similar scene in tone and effect is used in A Beautiful Mind (2002) to indicate John Nash’s growing schizophrenia). This episode is Trelkovsky’s point of no return and his paranoia increases. He starts dressing in the clothes left by the woman who had lived there and increasingly mired in her life, pulling out his tooth and putting it into the hole in the wall, and finally flinging himself from his window (twice) into the courtyard, egged on by the other tenants.

Earlier in the film, Trelkovsky visits the hospital with Stella (Isabel Adjani), a friend of the previous tenant, to see how the woman’s recovering from her injuries. Suddenly, the patient utters an earth-shattering scream, but we don’t know why. Later, after he’s taken to the hospital, we see him peering through his head bandages and see Stella standing at the foot of the bed. Coming up behind her is…Trelkovsky! Suddenly, he utters a scream like the one heard earlier. The logic of this scene seems impossible, yet consistent if we follow the skein of identifications he had made with the former tenant. Just as we have gone along with Harry Angel and investigated the identity of Johnny Favorite in Angel Heart, we have also been caught in Polanski’s narrative cycle of madness. Only the madness has always been in the narrative. Like movement on a mobius strip, we have unwittingly, inexplicably, found ourselves where we do not want to be, on the other side of the real, without moorings, fearful as prey living in the shadow of a predator.

Taking us where we won’t go voluntarily: this seems a key aesthetic urgency to a disturbing film. Should you not find Angel Heart disturbing, perhaps Harry Angel is too loathsome or because you have no time for films with devil pacts. Reviewers do this all the time, rejecting the unbelievable or unbelievably disturbing premise, and dispatch a damning judgment to save the public from the experience. I’m sure John Simon’s principles would not let him conceive the possibility of approving the eating of placenta in a film, let alone commenting positively on the acting style of Mickey Rourke. Other less fastidious reviewers would simply reject the narrative game, claiming foul at, or denying themselves the fun of, being taken in and terrorized.

We should be disturbed because we were willing to taken further than expected or were used to. Taking ourselves imaginatively where we originally would not have wanted to go. We should be disturbed because we are capable of joining the movie’s game, of being taken in, but taken in further than we had expected.

The mere concept of the disturbing film should not equivocate. You accept immediately the premise, and even then you would have never anticipated how far you would really have to go. For instance, the French film Baxter (1989) is about a dog who thinks and who narrates most of the movie. Actually, not really thinks. He narrates how he feels. Thus, what Baxter thinks is a rendering of inarticulate but acute dog feelings. Baxter even feels things he can’t render, which is why his narration only roughly represents his desires.

How safe do we feel within our humanity, untouched by these animal feelings. What is this nature on the other side of humanity? Baxter discloses a tangle of desires and resentment, the human reductio ad absurdem. That is, when things goes his way, Baxter’s a friendly, lovable dog, a dog with a not so faint sense of morality. When things go badly, we have an unhappy Baxter — one deprived of its immediate desires — who plots and schemes to satisfy its feelings regardless of any previously expressed morality. Yet what feelings and desires he has! Baxter diminishes all past and future movie representation of animals talking and acting like humans.

The surges of emotion that this dog experiences can be both light and dark. The dark aspect of his nature emerges when he says “Birds have always amazed me. Maybe one day I’ll kill one.” Also, it is only a small step to his becoming contemptuous of his first owner, Mrs. Deville, an elderly widow, which contempt soon transforms into the murderous act of tripping her as she descends some steps. His second owners have a young baby. Baxter senses something “different” when the wife is pregnant. After the birth, the dog wants to kill the infant. Can we blame Baxter for wanting to get rid of such a dangerous rival — a rival for his owners’ affections? He barks, only a little too soon, to alert the parents of their baby drowning in the small pool. He wants to kill the baby and act heroically simultaneously.

The baby is saved at the last second, and the parents are unaware of Baxter’s action, though they are shaken up enough to sell the dog to a family with a twelve-year old boy. Charles, who has a Hitler and Eva Braun fetish, has constructed a bunker in a junkyard and becomes infatuated over the fact thta the couple had a dog. Baxter becomes his final piece of Hitlerania. He disciplines Baxter, as if the dog was a member of the S.S., and trains him to kill; meanwhile, Baxter impregnates an effete show dog. Finally, while the dog’s human desires are depicted, several canine qualities exude from Charles, as if the boy is merging with the dog emotionally. This explains the film’s final scene.

The boy breaks into a house, abandoned by the family of Baxter’s first owner, and sits where Baxter used to, at a window, staring toward the property across the street, where Baxter’s second owners live. Alienated from his parents, the boy yearns, as did Baxter, to belong to a new family. The ambit from dog to human and human to dog completes an identity transference similar to the jarring ending of The Tenant. It’s the mobius strip again, whence our nature appears one-sided, that is, indistinct from animal nature. Instead of saying we have no soul and we are only animals, imagine as is done in Baxter, the inarticulate soul of an animal, a dog, coagulating into one appearing human. Our complacency shattered, we feel less comfortable with our sense of human edification.

Perhaps the greatest works of art enter our consciousness and perform the same unnerving, disturbing operation. The movie, book, or painting craft a vision of reality — the truth of reality — in such a way that we cannot deny it, even though we would feel much safer denying it. The art work which impresses too easily becomes suspect aesthetically. Being pleased is not enough, although pleasure empowers aesthetic judgments. The greatest works met on their own terms shake and disturb our fundamental beliefs. The “disturbing movie” accelerates aesthetic disturbance. Symmetrically speaking, the movies I am describing repel traditional criticism because they don’t look aesthetically pleasing.

Another, Don’t Look Now (1973), performs the intricate trick of attaining critical acclaim while shattering the audience’s nerves. Like Cronenberg’s, director Nicolas Roeg’s films consistently create tormented characters in very agitated environments. His protagonists, with few exceptions, are driven to self-destruction or weakened to the point of being destroyed. Don’t Look Now‘s John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife, Laura (Julie Christie), are aggrieved by the death of their daughter. She drowned while her parents were otherwise occupied (reminiscent of the couple in Baxter who are making love when their child nearly drowns). Initially, Laura is inconsolable. They go to Venice where John works restoring a church. Laura meets a woman who claims to have psychic power. The psychic tells her two things: her daughter is happy, and John is in great danger. The film strongly distinguishes its male characters as rational and blind, while the women are open-minded and have foresight (although the psychic is literally blind).

John Baxter resembles Harry Angel as he stumbles ignorantly toward a harsh fate. Just as Harry envisioned his doom in fragmented pieces, so does John several times have a foreboding, particularly when he sees his wife, seemingly in mourning, pass by on a boat. He calls to her but she doesn’t hear him. Later, we learn the boat is a hearse transporting his body. Secondary glimpses of his doom occur when John sees the Venice police block a canal because of a murder and, later, he sees the police pull a murdered girl from the water. Subsequently, because of the episode when he sees his wife accompany the psychic and her sister on the boat, he goes to the police himself, initiating a chain of events leading directly to his own murder. Indeed, had he the insight to heed the warnings, he might have been saved.

Our sense of dread for him starts at this level but had been subliminally stimulated several times by the appearance of a small figure wearing a red mackintosh exactly like the one John’s daughter was wearing when she drowned. The figure first appeared in a picture John was inspecting around the time of the drowning. In Venice, we (not John) see the same small figure turn around a corner or dart into an alleyway. Then John is nearly killed during an inspection of a mosaic near the roof of the church. Finally, the boat incident turns our dread into a mortal fear for him, as if we sense that he cannot make it alone. More, it becomes increasingly apparent that he, not his wife, has not gotten nor will easily get over the death of his daughter. He blames himself, as Laura tartly reminds him during an argument that he should have been watching over their daughter while she was playing.

Thus, when he sees the small person in the red raincoat running through the back canals, he desperately pursues, believing perhaps he is on the verge of solving the mystery, tantamount to believing the child will be returned to him — more, that this is in fact his child! He follows the cloaked figure to a church bell tower. Suddenly, the small figure, a dwarfish old man or woman who strongly resembles one of the “old children” of The Brood, turns toward him, flashes a knife and slices John’s neck. John falls to the floor and bleeds to death, during which time a nausea flows through us as we watch his body quiver and freeze. We’re distraught, in part, because we also had succumbed to John Baxter’s latent dream of reclaiming his daughter from death. The dream, our latent hope, dies unceremoniously on the concrete floor.

While several elements of the other disturbing films shimmer on the surface of Don’t Look Now, the narrative strategies in all of them are alike. These strategies draw us more closely to the protagonists, even though they (all men) are not traditionally attractive types; Donald Sutherland’s character might be the one with whom we most identify. The power or level of aesthetic disturbance comes from Don’t Look Now‘s ability to live within the viewer. The eventual rupture of the relationship by the end of the film creates the unambiguous disturbing feeling that seems impossible to shake, so much so that, despite enjoying the films, one avoids watching these particular disturbing films too often.