The Disgusting Allure of Movies That Push Us Beyond Our Limits

Trigger warning: all the triggers.
By  · Published on September 29th, 2015

Trigger warning: all the triggers.

A year ago I watched a movie with an extended, merciless, backroom abortion sequence in the middle of day-to-day destitution that was followed by an angry young man crushing the skulls of his enemies with heavy pieces of furniture. Then I walked into the theater next door and sat down for Lars von Trier’s 5+ hour cut of Nymphomaniac.

That was bad planning on my part.

I really, really shouldn’t have teed up von Trier’s vivid exploration of brutal sex and self-loathing with Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, but I like going into film festival movies cold and knew exactly nothing about the Ukrainian drama featuring deaf students and zero subtitles. As it turns out, Fantastic Fest is the most dangerous festival for walking into movies blind. For better and worse.

Thus, I was subjected to two graphic abortion scenes in one afternoon – one featuring a boyish high school prostitute who pays a creaking woman in an Eastern bloc apartment to rip out her insides, and the second featuring Charlotte Gainsbourg using household tools and a wire coat hanger on herself.

In The Tribe, the act is treated with Soviet matter-of-factness relative to the high pitch of the girl’s labored screams. It’s another element of life she has to endure to attain the version of freedom that surrounds her and her peach-fuzzed criminals. In Nymphomaniac, the act is treated with the political messaging of blunt force trauma. Gainsbourg’s Joe gives herself an abortion after being hassled by a clinic-mandated visit with a psychologist (who is overwhelmingly intent on changing Joe’s mind instead of understanding why she wants to abort), and she engages in a debate immediately afterward with a man (played by Stellan Skarsgard) who finds abortion despicable and yet refuses to personally face the danger and intensity of Joe’s description of the act.

As a cipher for the audience, this is von Trier shaming anyone who dares to have an opinion about abortion without opening themselves to the visceral reality of it. Unlike Skarsgard’s character (who only has to hear the tale), he cannot avoid the sequence in its plain-faced anguish without avoiding the movie itself. (In a way, it’s a compression of Cristian Mungiu’s wonderfully abysmal 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.)

Needless to say, this 7-hour, double feature was the most brutal cinematic experience of my life, and it made me recognize the harsh value of witnessing brutality beyond the badge of honor that comes with crowing about how much you can handle.

Fantastic Fest itself is a hotbed for this kind of thing – a genre-celebrating film festival that always boasts at least a half-dozen movies that exhaust audiences with savagery or simply include scenes that can only be described afterward with expletives – but when I was younger the thrill of viewing was more about treating those scenes and films like cans of beer to be stacked as towering proof that I could handle the brutal intoxication while others shielded their eyes, unable to hold their own at the party. After scenes of genital mutilation, unflinching rape and extended torture, I wanted (or maybe needed) a way of letting people know that I’d made it through. Like the sticker, you get after voting or giving blood. While you were watching that silly Danish comedy, I was in Theater 3 doing the hard work of cinema.

This attitude started in college with Salo – the excrement-filled Juvenalian satire of sadism and corrupt power – and my urge to impress some new friends. I got my art house introduction to cinema from an upperclassman named Travon who seemed impervious to that kind of thing and echoing it was my way of trying to fit in. This continued on with the usual titles that make the rounds: Requiem For a Dream, Irreversible, Last House on the Left. The kinds of movies you get dared to watch. The kinds of movies you love but never want to see again.

Requiem For a Dream

It wasn’t until my accidental double bill of The Tribe and Nymphomaniac that I finally recognized that viewing my willingness to witness these atrocities as a point of pride was my own defense mechanism against fully engaging with them. Not that they didn’t have an effect, and not that all of them successfully pull of a lingering sense of dread that demands reflection, but compartmentalizing them had a way of wrapping them in a warm blanket that I could easily understand.

I could exhale, rub my eyes, shake my head, and then log the experience of ugly verisimilitude away as more proof of cinephile badassdom.

At the same time, it was also a recognition and reaffirmation of my relative safety, leaving acts of brutality – often modeled on real life – in the theater as I strolled slightly shaken to the well-lit lobby. It was really a coincidence that I starting thinking about how I respond to acts of on-screen evil. A scheduling quirk that saw me exit Nymphomaniac while everyone else at the festival was in the middle of midnight screenings. I had no one but myself to talk to, which meant I had no one to inform of what I’d just lived through.

Plus, the sequences themselves (and their pairing) required something more than new chalk marks on the mental tally. Maybe because they’re inexorably political. Maybe because I left college years ago. Maybe because they aren’t empty, shocking calories. A year later, with grotesque descriptions being used dubiously as cannon fodder for pro-life chargers on the campaign trail, I can envision a progressive politician making a challenge of their own: “If you’d just watch that fucked up scene from Nymphomaniac, you’d want abortion rare, safe, legal and done by medical professionals. Also, did you see Antichrist? You’re telling me Sandra Bullock won for The Blind Side that year?”

They might word it more elegantly than that.

Obviously abortion isn’t the only issue that pours out of movies that push us past our limits. They cover every corner of human suffering, which is why movies like Pather Panchali and The Bicycle Thief can be every bit as harrowing in their marathons of despair (if not more so) than films boasting intense scenes of violent, fierce immediacy. Like most things, the nature of being “challenging to watch,” is a broad concept that swings wildly between political/personal anguish and gross-out horror meant to make people faint or throw up in the aisles. That also means a broad range of responses. Not every challenging scene deserves intimate personal reflection beyond the safety of the liminal space (“But what did it mean when he took the blow torch to her eyeball??”).

But for the others (like Nymphomaniac and The Tribe), what I realized in rethinking about these kinds of films is that it’s not enough to sit through their brutality, or even to revel in their ability to shave off your nerve endings. You’ve got to understand their allure, what drives you to watch them, and to recognize their value beyond the initial, gut-wrenching attraction. The irony is that I’m also looking for meaning in having an iron stomach for these kinds of movies as being boast-worthy, a reality dictated by the fact that very few people are willing to watch.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.