How Far Is Too Far?

Except for those who insist that films should only be escapist froth, most of us go to the movies expecting a degree of unpleasantness. Horror movies are the most obvious example, but the more sophisticated moviegoer also finds pleasure in movies meant to challenge, disturb, shock and even sicken. But at what point does the challenging become the unbearable? Even a movie as well mannered as "The Hours" strikes one faction of the audience as an intolerable downer. Others, of the No Pain No Gain school, think a movie should be appalling if it is making a serious statement about violence. Still others believe shocking the bourgeoisie--the razor slicing an eyeball in Bunuel's 1928 "Un Chien Andalou"--is an esthetic strategy that never wears out its unwelcoming welcome.

The line between art and abuse, between what's bracingly unflinching and what's simply unbearable is always shifting. Every few years another movie comes along that pushes the limits of what audiences can endure. In 1975 it was Pasolini's "Salo," which transplanted the Marquis de Sade's horrifically perverse fantasies to the Italian Fascist era. In 1986 it was the matter-of-fact carnage of "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." In 1992 heated arguments arose over the severed ear in "Reservoir Dogs." Yesterday it was "Jackass": toxic or tonic?

This year the state of the art in unpleasant cinema is achieved by Gaspar Noe's already notorious "Irreversible," which opens next week. If outraged viewers (mostly women) at the Cannes Film Festival are any indication, this will be the most walked-out-of movie of 2003. This revenge story, told backward, opens with a nightmarishly intense sequence in a gay Parisian S&M club called The Rectum that ends with a man's face being bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher. The piece de resistance, however, is an almost-10-minute-long rape scene in a pedestrian underpass in which a pimp violates Monica Bellucci while slamming her bloodied head against the concrete over and over. TIME DESTROYS EVERYTHING, the movie tells us in portentous billboards--the seeming moral of the story. Maybe so, but as the brutal scene went on and on it wasn't metaphysics I was wondering about, but WHY DO I HAVE TO WATCH THIS?

Noe is in love with shock. His powerful first feature, "I Stand Alone," took us inside the mind of a racist, boorish butcher who sleeps with his own daughter. It wasn't easy to watch, but it illuminated a psychological and social landscape I hadn't seen before, and its artistry transcended its sordid details. "Irreversible," though, takes an adolescent pride in its own ugliness. The first film told me something about the world; this one tells me more than I want to know about the calculating mind of its maker.

A more honorable challenge is offered by David Cronenberg's "Spider," a precision-carved jigsaw puzzle that takes us inside the head of Dennis (Spider) Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a deeply disturbed, isolated schizophrenic who's just arrived at a seedy London halfway house after years in a mental institution. This spare, claustrophobic movie follows the twisting mind of its protagonist as it's flooded with childhood memories of his mother (Miranda Richardson) and father (Gabriel Byrne), and a crime that is at the root of his trauma.

Cronenberg has always been one of our foremost envelope-pushers. "Dead Ringers" and "Crash" took perversity to unnerving new levels. The superbly acted "Spider" is muted in comparison: it's a quiet nightmare, painted in hospital greens and rust browns. The movie offers no escape from the airless interior of Cleg's dementia, which is what makes it so grueling and so effective: only at the end are we able to pluck the truth from the cobwebs of distortion his madness has spun. "Spider" may not be your cup of poison--no glamour or uplift here--but unlike "Irreversible," its painfulness has purpose. Everybody, of course, draws the line at a different point: hey, some people think "Bambi" is beyond the pale. The distinction between the usefully shocking and the indefensible is in the eye of the beholder. It's an argument that can't be settled, and shouldn't.