Note: Contains violence and sexual references.
From as long ago as 1896, when screenings of the Lumière brothers’ one-shot reel the “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” reportedly caused audience members to flee in panic from the rapidly approaching locomotive on screen, cinema has displayed a remarkable power to elicit extreme visceral reactions.
Ever since then, filmmakers have been testing the boundaries both of their chosen medium, and of their viewers’ tolerance. Here are five films that have given vivid realisation to the repellent, the unconscionable, and the downright offensive, all in the service of pushing art to its outer limits.
Top: The disturbed loner Martin in “The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence).”
A gruesome blade slicing of an eye in “Un Chien Andalou” (1929).
Un Chien Andalou
In 1929, “Un Chien Andalou” was a short sharp shock of the new. Film novices Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí deployed voguish ideas of Freudian free association, and Surrealist dream logic to unsettle bourgeois values and destabilize cinematic convention. There are irrational leaps in time and space, the dead come back to life, books turn into guns, ants pour from a human hand, a man’s mouth is replaced with a woman’s armpit (or perhaps, even more outrageously, with her pubic triangle), a rape is prevented by the combined weight of pianos, clergymen and dead donkeys. Yet, it is the opening sequence of this 16-minute film that would prove most shocking: after a man watches a thin cloud pass across the full moon, a woman’s open eye is shown in close-up as the man’s razor blade graphically slices through it. Cinema’s capacity for ocular assault had been revealed.
A shocking tongue-cutting scene in “Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom” (1975).
Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom
“All things are good when taken to excess,” announces an ageing Italian dignitary near the beginning of “Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom.” In what was to be his final film, Pier Paolo Pasolini adapted the closed libertine system of de Sade’s eighteenth-century novel to Italy’s mid-War Fascist period, exposing the contagious corruption of absolute power even in uncomfortably recent times. The dignitary and his three equally respectable companions have 18 teenage boys and girls abducted to service their own perverse pleasures, which include orgiastic rapes, staged spectacles parodying religious and cultural institutions, enforced coprophilia, and ultimately torture and murder. It is a film that speaks to the authoritarian abuses of twentieth-century history—but it has also, thanks to the chilling (and unflinching) way in which it presents grotesque atrocity, proven as difficult as feces for censors to swallow whole, if at all.
Paul Laugier’s scarring movie “Martyrs” (2008).
The real-world terror of 9/11 and the counter-terror of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib ushered in a new(ish) kind of horror—loosely termed “torture porn”—which served up bodily depravities as uneasy entertainment throughout the mid-Noughties. The final word in—and on—this film cycle is Pascal Laugier’s fiercely intelligent “Martyrs.” At first, it traumatises viewers and characters alike with a jarring blend of genres, and a gut-wrenching confusion of moral sympathies to match all the on-screen helter-skelter of violence and abjection. But then, as its heroine Anna (Morjana Alaoui) finds herself trapped in a hellhole of torments from which there can be no escape, Laugier puts the screws on us all, in a contemplative and ambiguous final-act interrogation (delivered in a whisper) of the contradictory motives involved in bearing witness to such horrors.
The mysteriously masked man and Milos (Torovic) in “A Serbian Film” (2010).
A Serbian Film
True to its state-of-the-nation title, Srdjan Spasojevic’s “A Serbian Film” is an electrifying, ithyphallic allegory of a country bestialised, violated, commodified and sold—by its own—down the river, as Milos (Srdjan Torovic) agrees to make one last sex movie for former State Security apparatchik Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), only to become complicit in his family’s tragic undoing. Spasojevic reduces Belgrade to a Sadean porn set where everyone is both metaphorically and literally fucked from the cradle (“Newborn porn!”) to the grave for the dubious entertainment of exploitative outsiders (just like ourselves). In all its hyperbolic viciousness, “A Serbian Film” may be, to borrow the phrase used by Milos’ wife to describe pornography to their young son, “like a cartoon for the grown-ups”, but Spasojevic makes us uncomfortably aware how right Vukmir is in what he says of his own absurdist production: “Victim sells.”
The stomach-churning “Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)” (2011).
The Human Centipede II
Mad surgeon sews abductees together, mouth-to-anus. So unspeakably, surreally shocking was the concept underlying Tom Six’s “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” (2009) that the director could exercise visual restraint without seeming to. Not so, “The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)” (2011), which graphically depicts outrages perpetrated by a mentally challenged man doomed to repeat (at least in his head) the horrific abuses that he himself had suffered as a child. Yet Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) is also repeating scenes from the first film—a film which he watches and re-watches with a fanboy’s obsession, making him an unnerving double for the kind of person (just like you and me) who would seek out this sequel. Martin may lack his rôle model’s surgical skills, professional tools, scientific interests or concern with clinical hygiene—but in all his sick, sweaty grotesquery, Martin is us. Confronting cinema has come full circle.
Film stills © respective film studios.