When did you last walk out of the cinema? That’s a question often asked of film directors, critics and other cineastes. Well, personally, I can say that I’ve never walked out before the end of a film. I’ve sat through cranium-numbing Godard cine-essays, I’ve braved the worst of Jim Carrey, Steve Martin and Adam Sandler, I’ve stood manfully on the deck of the sinking Gucci-designed steamer that was Sex and the City: The Movie, all the while saluting and determined to stay until the bitter end.
You see, if you leave early you might miss something important. You might miss the best bit of the film! You might miss the one beautiful and profound moment of truth that the film-maker has to communicate to the world. And so, even if I have my doubts, I always stay put until the final credits roll.
Except… well, maybe once I did walk out. It was at The Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, in 2002, I think. The film was Audition by Takeshi Miike. In mitigation, I have to say that my sudden exit had nothing to do with the quality of the film. No, it had more to do with the rush of blood to my head and the queasy feeling in my stomach.
Audition, if you haven’t already seen it, starts off as rather a sweet romantic comedy about a middle-aged Japanese salaryman who is looking for a wife. Too shy to look for love through the small ads or in a singles bar, he enlists the help of a film producer friend and holds fake ‘auditions’ to find the girl of his dreams. ‘All fine and good so far,’ you might think. Except, halfway through the film, the plot suddenly and brutally lurches off into the realms of extreme cinema. The girl who the salaryman picks turns out to be a bit of a wrong ‘un, to put it mildly. By the start of Act Three, he’s been bound and sedated by his new ladyfriend and is being brutally tortured by her.
The scene that provoked my near swoon was one in which needles are pushed into the stomach of the salaryman. It wasn’t so much the torture itself that got to me, more the little ‘here kitty-kitty’ noises that the girl makes as she’s doing it.
Since then, I’ve become somewhat cowardly when it comes to torture in films. For example, I know that Gaspar Noë’s Irreversible is a film that I should see. I know that because I’ve been listening to people telling me so for the last few years. It’s intense! It’s visceral! It’s full-on! Its reverse-time revenge plot will blow my mind! And yet, something’s always stopped me from seeing it. When it was out in the cinema, I found myself thinking: ‘Next week. Next week I’ll go and see a man having his head beaten in with a fire extinguisher. Next week I’ll go and watch a ten-minute rape scene. But maybe today I’ll go to that special screening of Airplane! instead.’
These days I think about renting Irreversible at least once a month, but somehow there’s always another DVD that comes higher up the list. “Maybe I’ll concentrate on Thai cinema this week,” I’ll think. “Maybe that new Sandra Bullock film isn’t as bad as you’d imagine.”
Recently, I’ve been feeling the same way about Lars von Trier’s Antichrist too. In theory, I’d love to see what all the fuss is about. In theory, I’d love to see if the provocateur who gave us The Idiots and Dogville has managed to plumb any real psychological depths with his latest. But then I read this from Sean O’ Hagan in The Guardian: ‘In one scene, having pounded her husband’s genitals with a brick, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character … drills a hole through his legs, inserts an iron bar through it, and attaches the bar to a heavy iron wheel.’ Gulp!
Of course the depiction of torture in film is almost as old as cinema itself and can serve a variety of purposes. In The Battle of Algiers (1966), the torture of captured Algerian guerrillas is shown quite dispassionately, documentary-style. This serves to show us what actually happened in the Franco-Algerian War and to make us feel righteously angry on behalf of the colonised people. In 2008’s The Dark Knight, the threat of torture against a ‘bad’ guy is used allegorically to explore the moral climate of Bush and Cheney’s U.S., and the kind of thinking that led to ‘water-boarding’ and ‘extraordinary rendition’.
Then there’s the other side of the coin: torture as entertainment, as another thrill to be added to the car chase and the shoot-out. Torture is inherently dramatic, after all – the odds are always stacked against the torturee; he (or she) is always desperate to escape. I can well remember how my teenage heart pounded the first time I saw Reservoir Dogs, as Mr. Blonde took a long sadistic walk to his car to pick up some petrol after having sliced off the ear of the unfortunate captive cop. When Mr. Pink shoots him before he can do any more harm, the audience punches the air with delight and relief. Since then we’ve had Hostel and Saw – films widely described as ‘torture porn’ – and, of course, Tarantino himself continues to lace his work with a strong dose of sadism.
Recently, in a rare move, the British Board of Film Classification refused to grant an 18 certificate to the Japanese horror film Grotesque (Gurotesuku), in which a young couple on their first date are kidnapped and tortured unrelentingly for the best part of an hour of screen time.
Much as I’m against banning films, it’s this last kind of cine-torture that seems to me to be the most difficult to defend. For a start, it’s often a sign of lazy film-making. Throw a torture scene into any film and you instantly have some cut-price tension. Also, it risks trivialising torture. At any given time, let’s not forget, there are quite a few real people around the world really being tortured by real unpleasant regimes. Obviously there’s not much that film-makers and film-goers can do about this, apart from joining Amnesty International. But still, while this is going on, is it really right to sit there with your popcorn watching Saw IV as entertainment?
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that torture, like rape or the Holocaust, should not appear in a film incidentally. It should be there because it absolutely has to be, because it’s something horrible and necessary to the narrative. Otherwise, as viewers, we risk becoming deadened to everything, with no compassion for anyone, and cinema may as well pack up its bags and go home.