The Death of Shock Cinema

What's a film festival without a scandal? When Lars von Trier's Antichristdebuted at the Cannes film festival it prompted boos, cheers, derisive laughter, and angry complaints that the Danish provocateur (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) had really gone too far this time. Von Trier, mixing horror-movie conventions with art-film angst, assaulted the audience with hard-to-watch depictions of genital mutilation, bloody orgasms, and a heroine cutting off her clitoris with scissors. (Article continued below...)

Antichrist was but the latest in a long, long line of shock-tactic art films that follow a principal enunciated by Baudelaire and Rimbaud in the late 19th century: épater le bourgeois. This cinematic tradition can be traced back at least as far as 1929, when Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí began their surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou with a depiction of a man slicing a woman's eyeball open.

Buñuel and Dalí, like von Trier, delighted in shocking their audiences, yanking them out of their safety zones, upending their complacency—subversive goals that, 80 years later, every "transgressive" auteur still aspires to. The shock-art film—which typically involves some previously unexplored combo of sex and violence—has become a convention unto itself. Every few years, film festivals are (predictably) rocked and socked by some new affront against good taste: there was the protracted rape scene in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible; the teenage sex, drugs, and AIDS in Larry Clark and Harmony Korine's Kids; the full frontal sex in Catherine Breillat's Romance; the nudity and cannibalism in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. And these came decades after Pier Paolo Pasolini's horrific torture-porn Salò or the sex and castration that climaxed Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses. Plus ça change

In the age of Saw IV, Internet pornography, and unending real-life reports of torture and terrorism, aren't these bad-boy outrages looking a little tired? The shock of the new, after all, is now an old idea. But does it still carry a punch? It's not that we've become inured—you'd have to be half dead not to shudder at von Trier's grisly visions. But the artist's assumption that depicting these violations will open our eyes to mankind's vile nature—a lesson that can be learned almost daily on the front page of a newspaper—often seems smug and vainglorious, a clichéd subversion. Shock is too easy a shortcut to significance.

Also, the art film has been ghettoized as audiences have fragmented into niche markets. The very notion of what a movie audience is has changed: how do you arouse a public when many are no longer watching movies publicly, but sitting at home in front of their entertainment centers? It's a powerful feeling to share an audience's collective gasp, such as the one elicited by a startling suicide in Michael Haneke's Caché. That can't be duplicated in solitude. But increasingly rare is the breakthrough movie, such as a Blue Velvet or a Brokeback Mountain, that reaches a mass audience. These days we get our culture jolts in daily, bite-size potions on YouTube or Facebook, a kind of viral fast-food diet of scandal, easily digested and quickly forgotten.

In the '60s and '70s, when film was at the center of the cultural revolution, filmmakers seemed to have paradigm-shifting powers: a Godard or an Antonioni or a Fellini, by inventing a new cinematic language, altered both the ways movies were made around the world and the way we perceived the world. Filmmakers had the advantage of being part of a culture war—they had an enemy to attack: the establishment. Movies such as The Battle of Algiers or Godard's Weekend felt dangerous. Has any movie since those days seriously ruffled bourgeois feathers the way rap music did in its early years, before it was assimilated into the mainstream?

Today, to make a dent, filmmakers who want to shake up the status quo—and get themselves noticed—have to market themselves like products, something that von Trier grasped from the start. Years ago, when his Zentropa failed to win a top prize in Cannes, he grabbed headlines by dismissing the jury chairman, Roman Polanski, as "a midget." Like Dalí before him, von Trier is a showman, burnishing his (aging) enfant terrible image with quotable outrages. In Cannes he pronounced himself "the greatest director in the world," a remark calculated to rile the press, which dutifully rose to the bait. The American Harmony Korine, whose envelope-pushing movie Trash Humpers debuted at the New York Film Festival alongside Antichrist, plays the same game differently: his persona (which you can see on his Letterman appearance on YouTube) is somewhere between mumbling space cadet and idiot savant.

Korine's bizarre, nonnarrative Trash Humpers isn't easy to classify, or to watch. Shot in the crudest video, it purports to be a "found object"—the discarded home movies of a gaggle of deformed trailer-trash degenerates. This circle of small-town cretins and peeping Toms, whose faces look disfigured by fire, spend their time smashing furniture, dragging dolls from the back of their bikes as they cackle obscenely, having sex with obese hookers, and, yes, humping both trash containers and trees. These grotesques are, in fact, actors—Harmony and wife Rachel Korine among others—wearing fright masks. While it's a relief to discover that none of it is real, you may wonder what the point is of this creepy—and sometimes creepily funny—freak show. Is it a sendup of outsider art, an experimental Halloween masquerade, a vision of antisocial behavior at its most extreme? I couldn't recommend this movie to any but diehard Korine fans, yet as eager as I was for the movie to be over, its dirty rummage-sale images won't go away. Trash Humpers leaves the residue of an authentic nightmare. You'll want to shower afterward.

Antichrist is as artfully crafted as Trash Humpers is deliberately artless. Its admirers find it a profound cry of anguish, a piercing exploration of grief, pain, and despair (as its first three chapters are titled). Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play He and She, a married couple who retreat to a cabin in the woods (Eden, they call it) in the aftermath of a tragedy that has left them bereft and at each other's throats: their child fell out of a window to his death as they were making love. He's a shrink, arrogantly playing doctor to his wife, convinced that she must confront her worst fears to exorcise her demons of guilt. The rational man will soon get his comeuppance, as von Trier's horror story shifts gears from psychological realism to surreal mystical hysteria—talking foxes, visions of writhing corpses, and the wife's transformation from grieving mother to a psychotic witch avenging centuries of violence against women.

Though it's hard to deny the fierce purity of Gainsbourg's performance, Antichrist plays like an incoherent mix of Gothic horror claptrap and Bergmanesque power struggle. I was more bored and puzzled than shattered and provoked. Perhaps if I hadn't seen Gérard Depardieu take an electric saw to his member in Marco Ferreri's far more resonant The Last Woman in 1976, I might think von Trier was traversing brave new territory.

Who will go to these movies? The irony is that the audience these directors want to challenge and shock is a relatively small, self-selected bunch of cinéastes who faithfully attend the latest von Trier and Haneke movies, well versed in the cinema of outrage. This isn't 1913, when the bourgeois audience rioted at the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Even in '29, Buñuel and Dalí found it hard to get a rise out of their supposed antagonists: as the story goes, the two Spaniards arrived at the theater where Un Chien Andalou was premiered armed with rocks to protect themselves against the angry mobs. The rocks never came out of their pockets: the audience (to their disappointment?) rather liked what they saw.