Home Invasion and Bourgeois Ideals: Part 2

26 February 2010 at 19:48 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

As discussed in Part 1, the home invasion narrative (exemplified by Straw Dogs among other films) sometimes places the spectator in the uneasy position of identifying with a flawed, bourgeois hero. The same proves to be true for the French film Ils and the similarly conceptualized American film The Strangers. Like À l’intérieur, these films focus on middle-class protagonists whose peaceful existence suddenly becomes threatened by unwanted intruders. Below are these films’ respective trailers:

Both films depict the terrorization of a couple occupying a country house. As with À l’intérieur, the film titles prove significant in understanding the conflicts within the film. Ils, translated into English as Them, immediately calls to mind the opposing pronoun of “us.” The Strangers even more blatantly connotes the specter of otherness and the unknown with its title. In short, both films hinge on the fear of encroachment by mysterious outsiders.

And what is being attacked? The house as symbol immediately signifies bourgeois ideals of wealth, ownership, and domestic spaces designed for privacy and leisure. The heterosexual couples central to these narratives also embody these values. In the case of The Strangers, issues of matrimony come to the fore as a result of the female protagonist, Kristen (Liv Tyler) rejecting the proposal of her longtime boyfriend, James (Scott Speedman). James’s parents’ vacation house where the film is set was to serve as a celebratory getaway, but the rejection deflates that intention. As the film progresses, the couple (initially headed toward an inevitable break-up) becomes united through their shared trauma. The film hits us over the head with this point when Kristen puts on the engagement ring she had previously declined just before the strangers repeatedly stab the couple, who are bound to chairs side-by-side. In short, Kristen ceremoniously accepts their status as a mature couple just before the two are (literally) ripped apart.

The antagonists of both Ils and The Strangers dramatically contrast this sense of adulthood by aligning their terrifying actions with youthful games. In Ils, the assailants taunt the couple with loud music, noisemakers, and the blaring headlights of their cars. It’s no surprise, then, when we learn in the final shots that the couple had been attacked by a group of teenagers. Similarly, Kristen and Kate face three young attackers whose faces we never see–one has a sack over his head while the other two wear cartoonish masks. In both films, the assailants claim that they wanted to “play” with their victims, again aligning childhood games with sadistic torture.

The masked killers of The Strangers face their victims.

This metaphor between torture and play brings Funny Games (both the US and Austrian versions) to mind. Written and directed by Michael Haneke, both films depict two clean-cut young men taking a well-to-do family hostage while on vacation. Here are the trailers:

Because these films so clearly side with the couples/families being terrorized, it would be easy to conclude that they take a reactionary stance by portraying youthful rebellion in such sharp contrast to the quaintness of bourgeois living. Dig a little deeper, though, and I think you can actually unearth a more radical reading. Take Funny Games, for instance: the antagonists do not represent an opposing force to white middle-classness so much as another side of the same coin. They dress in their preppiest tennis whites, speak with perfect diction, and regularly make gestures of politeness. These monsters, then, do not represent the repressed other from without but the one from within the bourgeois psyche. They manifest the excess of this lifestyle with their inclination to torture and kill for sport. Like Leopold and Loeb, their sense of superiority leads them to murder.

Ils and The Strangers may not focus on these themes as sharply, but nevertheless, there is a sense in all three films that the perpetrators of these crimes consider torture and murder a form of leisure, which necessarily references bourgeois inclinations. As a result, these films might be read as cautionary tails of contemporary western culture and its excesses, for the very sanctuary (the home) designated as space for relaxation and play becomes appropriated by outsiders for the purpose with horrific results.

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Home Invasion and Bourgeois Ideals: Part 1

21 February 2010 at 09:49 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

***I decided to break this post into parts due to the sprawling length. Expect Part 2 very soon. Also, BEWARE OF SPOILERS.***

Based on the recommendation of two friends, I finally watched À l’intérieur last night. I’m trolling for good paper ideas for the class that I am taking, and I may have found one in this film, which is so gruesome you might think that the reels were literally treated in baths of blood.

The film follows Sarah (Alysson Paradis), a photo journalist and soon-to-be first time mom. The film opens with the aftermath of a grisly car accident in which Sarah’s husband dies. Four months later, Sarah’s somberly anticipating the birth of her baby on Christmas Eve when a woman (Béatrice Dalle, whose impressive filmography makes me think this was a gutsy role for her) knocks on her door, asking her for help. Sarah refuses, claiming that her husband is in bed and she does not want to disturb him; however, the woman retorts that Sarah’s husband is dead. Sarah calls the police who upon arriving cannot find the would-be intruder. The authorities reassure Sarah that all will be well and promise to check in on her later. This intervention does not stop the woman from returning with a pair of scissors on hand. Here’s the trailer to get a sense of what ensues:

The film brutally depicts the parallel invasions of Sarah’s home and Sarah’s body–hence, the film’s title, translated into English as Inside, connotes the boundaries of within from without, and tension results from the violation and defense of these divisions.

Of course, À l’intérieur treads on well-explored territory here in its use of the home invasion plot. Straw Dogs, one of the most notorious and paradigmatic examples, laid out the gender and class dynamics often at stake in films where the attack/defense of the household becomes the central conflict. In short, the home stands in for bourgeois values (i.e. marriage, gender roles, civility) with the attacker threatening these ideals.

While some, such as the late Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, derided Straw Dogs (Kael called it “the first American film that is a fascist work of art”) others, such as Dana Knowles of The High Hat, convincingly argue that the film’s depictions of violence actually critique dominant notions of masculinity and class. Are we meant to identify with Dustin Hoffman‘s David as he defends his wife/property (same thing?) from the local rubes, or does his passive aggressive behavior provoke the attack? The above trailer seems to put forward the dominant interpretation of an inherently mild-mannered man provoked to violence, but Knowles debunks that reading point-by-point. This radical contrast in readings reveals the polysemy of the home invasion narrative.

À l’intérieur tweeks the themes to fit a contemporary French context. Lurking in the background of a seemingly simple plot are the events of the 2005 civil unrest in France. These massive riots resulted from the deaths of two teenage boys living in a north Parisian suburb mostly populated by African immigrants. The boys died of electrocution after hiding in a power station to avoid police interrogation (authorities claim that the police did not actually pursue the boys, but some dispute this version of events). The boys’ deaths sparked riots across France, with rioters citing concerns over discrimination, unemployment, and poor living conditions.

In À l’intérieur, we hear discussions about these riots due to Sarah’s occupation. When her mother mentions the dangerous nature of her work, Sarah dismisses the riots as “a couple of burned cars” and chalks it up to youthful rebellion, saying “it’s just kids having a blast ’cause their bored.” While certainly a far cry from the more conservative, racist vitriol spouted in response to the rioters, Sarah’s perspective disavows the political motivations of the rioters. She seems blissfully ignorant of the broader social and cultural context of the civil unrest, instead preoccupied (somewhat understandably) by her personal tragedies.

The home invasion puts those losses into context since Sarah’s survival suddenly becomes threatened by the woman; in other words, while Sarah lost her husband, she didn’t lose everything, a message driven home by the woman, who it turns out was the occupant of the other vehicle in the accident and miscarried her own baby as a result of the wreck. Here again Sarah’s self-absorption comes to light: she is so consumed by her own pain that she fails to consider the impact of the accident on others.

These details along with the background of the 2005 civil unrest lead me to wonder if the filmmakers intended to comment on bourgeois French identity. Other recent horror films out of France, such as Frontier(s)< have done so more overtly:

Nonetheless, the invasion of Sarah's home may be metonymic of a broader cultural anxiety of the invasion of France by immigrants (note that the woman dresses in black, a common signifier of racial otherness) and the threat to "French identity" posed by these new inhabitants. It's an analogy muddied (much like Straw Dogs) by the way it encourages sympathy with its bourgeois heroine, even as it also seems to critique her somewhat.

The horrific final scene only heightens the confusion. A wounded police officer who had come to Sarah’s aid mistakes her for the woman and beats her so badly that her water breaks. The woman defends Sarah, who then attempts to deliver the baby but cries out that it is stuck. In an act that simultaneously seems merciful and brutal, the woman performs a c-section, with Sarah calling her “mother.” The next time we see the woman, it is again an ambivalent image of the the woman tenderly rocking and caressing the newborn baby, while the next shot reveals Sarah’s dead, open body. As a viewer I was horrified by the consequences and brutality of the woman’s actions, but I was also disturbed by the tenderness of the woman.

Like another French home invasion horror film, Haute Tension, queer tensions also problematize the bonds between an- and protagonist. Just after a police officer enters the house to assist Sarah, the woman confront her as she lies in bed. The woman then passionately kisses Sarah in an unexpectedly erotic moment. The film’s French poster plays with this suggestion:

The French poster for À l'intérieur

Some may dismiss these images as cheap lesbian chic, as Nicholas Green points out in an excellent summary of recent French horror in Bright Lights Film Journal. Without a doubt, such moments prove troubling in their alignment of lesbianism and criminality. But unlike Haute Tension, À l’intérieur never sets up eroticism and violence as mutually exclusive categories, but rather depicts them as two sides of the same coin: the woman wants to possess Sarah’s body in every way possible with both eroticism and violence being means toward that entrapment. At the very least, this provocative twist complicates the motives of the woman.

Either way, what we get in À l’intérieur (and Haute Tension for that matter) is the shattering of the bourgeois dream. The home, supposedly a safe retreat and a place to raise a family, becomes the setting for a gruesome dismantling of these aspirations. These films suggest that for the bourgeois lifestyle to exist for one person, someone else has to be robbed of something. The horror of it all comes out in the taking back.

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Undermining Auteurism #2 – Hermann Warm

14 February 2010 at 10:27 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

As was the case last semester, I am auditing a course at the local university; this one happens to be directly related to this blog. The class, titled “Gender and Horror Films” will most definitely provide fodder for this little online venture of mine.

These first few weeks of class, our professor has taken a “back-to-basics” approach to screenings, with the classic horror titles The Cabinet of Caligari and Vampyr serving as our texts for discussion. Both films struck me for their visual style particularly in terms of mise-en-scene. It didn’t shock me, then, to find out that the same art director, Hermann Warm, coordinated the sets, costumes, and props in both films. Hermann Warm, it turns out, played a key roll in the rise of expressionism in German cinema of the 1920s and 30s, serving as art director on some of the defining examples of this artistic movement. Oddly enough, his name tends to emerge less frequently in discussions of the movement than the directors he worked for, who include Carl Dreyer, Robert Wiene, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang (a refreshing exception: an entry from The Morbid Imagination). Hence, his induction into my Undermining Auteurism series.

A still from Vampyr. Image taken from Senses of Cinema.

Warm’s work for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari stands out most prominently due to the use of sets composed of jagged, angular lines that create a distorted, nigtmarish world. According to R. Barton Palmer, Warm used the sets to demonstrate the expressionist concept of Ballung defined as “that crystallization of the inner reality of objects, concepts, and people through an artistic expression that cuts through and discards a false exterior.” In other words, the sets are meant to make the world seem as strange is it really is, in spite of the order regularly imposed upon it through conventions in architecture, dress, and interior design. Below are some Caligari stills that demonstrate this effect. To see the entire film, click this link.

The somnambulist, Cesare, flees with Jane. Image taken from grayclouds.net.

Cesare arises out of his cabinet in Dr. Caligari's askew trailer. Image taken from photobucket.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the sets of Caligari and those of other horror films, particularly Suspiria. While Suspiria cannot directly be tied to German Expressionism and distinguishes itself dramatically with its vivid use of color, production designer Guiseppe Bassan clearly gives a nod to Warm’s work in his use of murals, such as in the frame below:

The large mural used in Suspiria seems reminiscent of similar large canvasses used for backgrounds in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Image taken from Photobucket.

A shot of the protagonist's village with a fair in the foreground. Image taken form University of Alabama Telecommunication and Film Department website.

Bassan also plays with scale in interesting ways, heightening ceilings, raising doorknobs, and twisting corridors to make the set seem as if it is looming and labyrinthine. Again, Caligari achieves a similar effect, mirroring the emotions that its characters feel toward their environment. The penultimate scene below demonstrates this effective use of mise-en-scene:

Of course, not all of the credit can be given to Warm. Painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig played crucial roles in developing the uncanny sets of Caligari, as did many other artists on the numerous other projects taken up by Warm. Nevertheless, Warm’s work–which includes some of the earliest horror films in cinematic history–indisputably lays a foundation for the genre as much as any of the directors with whom Warm collaborated.

A still from The Student of Prague with art direction by Hermann Warm. Picture taken from Museum of Modern Art.

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Childhood Cinematic Traumas #5: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

7 February 2010 at 20:27 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , )

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial might seem like a strange choice for this series. One of the most successful family movies of all time, the Spielberg directed film is not generally considered in the company of the horror films I have previously covered in “Cinematic Childhood Traumas.” But in the same way that Fantasia frightened my friend and fellow blogger, Alyx, in spite of its kid-friendly content, so did E.T. scare me when I first saw it at a young age.

The poster for E.T. (1982). Taken from epmediagroup.files.wordpress.com.

I remember the night my family rented E.T. It must have been in the mid- to late-eighties, well after the initial release, but to us kids, the film seemed brand-new. I have a feeling my father had hyped it up, because I remember very clearly waiting in my family’s mini-van in the parking lot of Albertson’s and dad accompanying my older brother excitedly bringing the video out to the car, piquing my interest in the movie.

Of course, the story goes downhill from here with the events that transpired now a part of family legend. Intensely engaged in the film, I found the scenes in which the sick E.T. comes under medical surveillance and dies heartbreakingly sad and alarming in their implications. As my siblings watched, I snuck out of the family TV room and into my bedroom where I attempted to cry discretely. Of course, a child’s subtlety is typically fairly obvious to an adult. My father found me in my room and attempted to console me. I told my dad I was upset that E.T. had been captured and died, but my dad reassured me that in fact, E.T. would live and escape their clutches. With this reassuranced, he was able to coax me out of my room for the remainder of the screening.

Unfortunately, the film’s final scenes left me no less emotional: I remember a sniveling young Drew Barrymore saying goodbye to E.T. as he flew off in his spaceship and being even more upset by this result.

In the intervening years, I somehow avoided the film in spite of its popularity. I’d see it on television and make it no further than the scenes in which the kids first discovere and become acquainted with E.T. My negative associations were so strong that when theatrical promos for the 20th anniversary reissue appeared, I immediately felt tense and on the verge of tears, much to my family’s amusement. Keep in mind that I was born the same year as the movie, putting me into adulthood when these trailers screened.

Soon after I started the “Childhood Cinematic Traumas” series, the idea occurred to me that I should finally rewatch the film in earnest. Upon doing so I discovered that the film continues to resonate for me in spite of the many years that have passed since I first watched it. While I found some of the familial melodrama a bit obvious, the film’s portrayal of childhood wonder defying the modern impulse toward scientific scrutiny retains its power.

Like any good kid’s film, E.T. is all about the absurdity of the world as adults run it. From the very first series of shots, grown-up characters tend to be framed from the torso down. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course: the overworked single mom (Dee Wallace) and the scientist (Peter Coyote) who seems to identify with Elliott’s awe over E.T. are both humanized through close-ups on their facial expressions. Several scenes of the scientists and government agents also film these characters’ faces for pragmatic purposes. Otherwise, the film represents teachers, scientists, and government investigators as faceless authority figures.

By contrast, E.T.’s short stature lowers him to the height of the child protagonists, making him physically relatable. In other words, E.T. is less alien to Elliott and company than the majority of adult figures that populate the film. The scene in which government officials donning space suits invade Elliott’s house drives home the point that E.T. poses little threat by comparison to adult-created and maintained institutions.


E.T. face-to-face with Draw Barrymoore due to his short stature. Image from Virginmedia.com.

The scene that struck me most during my recent viewing was the frog dissection scene. I had not thought of it for ages, but as I watched it, I suddenly remembered it. While in science class, Elliott (the impressive Henry Thomas) impulsively frees the frog he is about to dissect and inspires his classmates to do the same. The scene crosscuts to E.T. watching television, specifically a scene in which a man grabs a woman by the hand and pulls her in for a kiss. The film jumps back to Elliott doing the same, and even stepping upon a classmate to rise to the appropriate height to do so, once again drawing our attention to stature.

That scene foretells the disturbing intrusion of the scientists, who use medical apparatuses to study E.T. and preserve him as a specimen just as the science teacher instructs the students to anesthetize and cut open their frogs. It also anticipates Elliott’s efforts to free E.T. with the help of his brother and friends, which easily prove to be the most affective in the film. John Williams’ score, the gorgeous shot of the kids biking across a sun-filled sky, and fast-paced, high-energy mood all prime you for the emotional kick in the ass that is E.T.’s departing thereafter. This is where I lost it: E.T. and Elliott, face-to-face and confronting the realization that E.T. will depart never to return; E.T. touches Elliott’s finger and says “ouch,” knowing this to be a painful exclamation, and Elliott repeats it also.

Elliott escapes with E.T. Image from solasfilmfestival.com

Of course, none of this is to say that E.T. is a perfect film. In the context of the Reagan Era, one might read the film as a neo-liberal critique of government interference in our lives, a pretty conservative message. To compound that, the product-placement throughout the film reminds us that multi-national corporations run the culture industry. For that reason, the moments when Elliott introduces E.T. to the name brands that compose his world make me cringe. I also hated the CGI adjustments made to the 20th Anniversary Version–just like George Lucas, the re-issue mucks with a good thing in order to advertise this version as “new and improved”–not necessary.

Still, the film suckered me in with its gorgeous cinematography, amazing performances by child actors, and touching moments. Watching it again proved to me that my emotions as a kid were strong because the film itself was designed to illicit such a response. While I am better able to control my response as an adult, E.T. remains a film that pushes all of my sentimental buttons in spite of receiving an education in the mechanics of film in the intervening years.

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