David Lynch and the Actualization of the Virtual
Written by Elias Stang
The cinematic oeuvre of David Lynch has been subject to multiple different interpretations and conceptual analyses throughout his career. Films including his feature debut Eraserhead (1977) and 1980’s The Elephant Man have been formally linked to concepts such as the Abject and Freud’s work with the Uncanny. Other prominent theoretical approaches consist of his connection to the puzzle film genre with regards to Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006). As well, the handling of sex, identity, and race throughout his career has given rise to polarizing arguments and evaluations by scholars of how to consider Lynch as an individual and as a filmmaker. Though the myriad of theoretical approaches Lynch’s work collects is intelligent and thoughtful with attempting to understand his films, they also bring with them strong oppositions as they may limit or contradict one’s understanding and interpretation of Lynch’s work. One particularly interesting idea one can attribute to these films, specifically Mulholland Drive is that of Gilles Deleuze’s work on the time-image and the Virtual. This paper intends to identify in what specific ways Mulholland Drive expresses Deleuze’s philosophy of a direct time-image and how it invokes the idea of the Virtual as an approach which favors Lynch’s more unconventional style. This will be done through the analysis of certain scenes including the scene involving the man in the Winkie’s diner and the nature of the blue key in the film’s final sequence. Additional examples will be provided from the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) to further illustrate how these concepts may be applied to Lynch’s work.
Before an analysis can be done, one must first be aware of what specifically Deleuze means by the “time-image” and the “virtual”. The concept of the time-image can seem dense and convoluted at first glance much like the work of David Lynch, as it comprises of various working parts. Suffice to say, “Deleuze's discussion of the time-image, in particular, is directed towards the cinema's capacity to produce certain kinds of indeterminacies between what the spectator may regard as physical and mental, past and present, objective and subjective, and above all, actual and virtual” (Croombs 7). The spectator acts as a “seer” rather than an “agent” when encountering the film image (Deleuze 3). For Deleuze the film image is directly linked to time. The role and power specific to the film image is to “make perceptible, to make visible, relationships of time which cannot be seen in the represented object and do not allow themselves to be reduced to the present” (Deleuze xii). It brings the perceptually invisible qualities of the image to the forefront; the various “sensory (visual and sound), kinetic, intensive, affective, rhythmic, tonal, and even verbal (oral and written)” material which comprise the image (Deleuze 29).
To that effect, the time-image is in a sense a new form of this image. Time represented in the film image does not occupy one temporal environment whether in relation to itself or the spectator but rather “a grouping of temporal relations”, “a system of relationships between its elements” (Rodowick 8). These relationships are in constant movement and transformation. Nothing is exempt from importance as every element holds a specific purpose, working in contention with one another but producing a “fluid ordering of representational elements. This ordering in turn produces different types of signs, a logic based on division and regrouping” (Rodowick 6).
The time-image is a distinct capturing of time and more importantly duration with which film is capable of presenting through its series of edited shots. Deleuze briefly speaks of still life as an example of the time-image. He uses a specific example from Late Spring (1949) involving a medium shot of a vase intercut between a woman lying in bed holding a half smile, beginning to cry. Deleuze expresses that with this “there is becoming, change, passage. But the form of what changes does not itself change, does not pass on. This is time, time itself, 'a little time in its pure state': a direct time-image, which gives what changes the unchanging form in which the change is produced” (17).
The blue key seen in the final sequence of Mulholland Drive acts similarly to that of the vase. The viewer is presented a shot of the blue key sitting on the edge of Diane’s coffee table as the camera slowly pans left to right across the table, settling in on a close-up of Diane sitting still on her couch across from the key. Diane stares at the key slightly shaking, appearing distinctly anxious. A close-up shot of the key is intercut between Diane’s close-ups as the viewer notices her apprehensive expression grow, her breathing becoming heavier, and her body more noticeably twitching before interjected with a striking knock to her door. In Deleuze’s words, “The still life is time, for everything that changes is in time, but time does not itself change, it could itself change only in another time, indefinitely. At the point where the cinematographic image most directly confronts the photo, it also becomes most radically distinct from it” (17). Still life is time in the sense that it is a constant. Everything around the still life experiences change and evolution but itself is left unaltered. The only way for time to change is for it to change in another time, a paradoxical conclusion. The still life endures as all else undergoes continuous evolution. The intercutting of still to real life expresses the idea that everything is connected to time, everything changes within time and is subject to time. With this, time itself is confronted as each sequence brings forward its perceptually invisible qualities and in doing so time becomes wholly apparent. The viewer is presented with a direct image of time.
Moving forward, a counterpart to the time-image is the movement-image. The movement-image can be interpreted as the traditional cause and effect relationship between time and image in film. It’s what is present in films which involve a linear narrative, “conventional narration” (Croombs 32). The time-image and movement-image are at odds with one another as the latter is used as a traditional mode of narrative relationship between movement and time, a mode which extinguishes critical thinking through cliché. “[A] cliché is a sensory-image of a
thing whose function is to discourage thought” (Croombs 33). The former advocates “the irrational linkage of images, and the concomitant emancipation of time from movement” (Croombs 32). With this power struggle, the movement-image fights through a series of crises attempting to maintain its position of power over the film image (Croombs 32). One such crisis is that of the action-image. As the movement-image represents the common mode of narrative thinking in film, the crisis of the action-image is made apparent by “a series of films that seek to confound the binary oppositions that define organic narration, specifically, that of the real and the imaginary” (Croombs 32). These films are those which implement the time-image mode of narrative thinking and with which the virtual comes into play.
The traditional characterization of the virtual is as the unreal, fantasy, apart from reality. Deleuze believes that each moment of an individual’s life is simultaneously actual and virtual, and both forms “operate in a reciprocal determination to constitute reality” (Croombs 46). By this, both sections of a given event, the actual and virtual, help to establish a sense of reality rather than a substitution, through a mutual dependency. With this we are given three simultaneous states of time: “present of the past, a present of the present, and a present of the future” (Croombs 47). Each state of the present marks a different state of recollection of the event as the “present of the present” is objective and tangible, while the “present of the past” is based on subjective interpretation or a virtual representation of the event. The “present of the past” leaves its virtual state to some extent when it is brought into the present, meaning when the event is recalled in the mind of the individual. Before actualization, the “present of the past” is “passively synthesized into the ‘pure past’ or ‘pure memory’ - the virtual condition that makes a psychological experience of the past possible” (Croombs 47). This recollection is skewed though by the fact that the “pure past” is only pure when left in the realm of the past. Once brought into the present the memory becomes fragmented by the unreliable recall of the event. We do not remember the memory in its entirety but by the features, the objects which catch our attention, this is what is known as attentive recognition. “Attentive recognition is thus not a re-cognition proper, but a description that constantly erases and recreates its object” (Croombs 49). In film it is no different. Rodowick states that “because of its constitutive factors of movement and time, the cinematic image can never be reduced to a simple unity, nor can the relation between image and thought be reduced to a simple, punctual present” (8).
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is an excellent example of the virtual in this sense. The scene of the man in the Winkie’s diner can be used to illustrate the virtual in some sense. The scene in question involves a man recounting a recurring dream he has been having to his friend involving the diner in which they sit. Everything aside from the lighting fits what the man had saw in his dream. This fact weighs heavy on the man. One prominent feature of his dream is a homeless man who lives behind the diner. This character is the cause of the man’s distress, this nightmarish feeling and the purpose of visiting the diner is to assure himself that this man does not inhabit his reality. Soon though, through his eyes his dream seems to be coming to life. His dream is not only actualized in his mind but actualized in his present. His pain grows as he notices different elements from his dream be represented in reality, the present of the past and the present of the present seemingly meeting. The man is conflicted with the ambiguous nature of what he sees, all leading up to his contact with the homeless man. The fear of living out his dream, the fear of not knowing for certain the nature of his reality causes the man to feel such a visceral shock as he confronts the manifested image that he collapses outside of the diner. The uncanny nature of this scene “undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror” capable of doing so by presenting something so familiar and unsettling that dread manifests out of its ambiguity (Freud 1). As well it presents the virtual and actual manifesting a reality of uncertainty for its subject.
Similarly, the final two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) illustrates the impossibility of actualizing the “pure past” as it will always be perceptually altered, granted in a more literal sense. In the previous episode we witness Agent Cooper wandering through the woods, happening upon a young James Hurley and Laura Palmer, presented in black and white. This encounter is taken, albeit adapted to Cooper’s perspective, from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Directly after Laura screams into James’ ear about her love for him, tearful and ashamed, she stumbles into direct contact with Cooper. Cooper stands motionless as Laura asks if they’ve met before, a sudden flicker of recognition hits her as she realizes that she had seen him in a dream. Cooper silently extends his hand, Laura cautiously takes it as the shot colourizes. The shot cuts to Laura’s plastic wrapped body washed ashore from the original series and miraculously vanishes. We return to Laura and Cooper, she asks where they are going to which Cooper replies “we’re going home” as they begin to traverse the woods. The finale continues their trek through the woods. Cooper leisurely guides Laura through the trees, their arms creating a bridge between them. The spectator follows them both until the camera slowly zooms in solely on Cooper. At this moment Cooper stops in his tracks, turning back to see that Laura is no longer behind him. He stares back at the empty woods where Laura once stood as her frightening and deafening shriek is heard throughout.
These scenes illustrate the impossibility of actualizing the “pure past” with a more literal expression. Cooper, being transported into the past world of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is thrusted into the realm of the “present of the past”. The figures of James and Laura represent the prominent aspects of memory which has clinched Cooper’s attention, they are the objects of his perceived recollection. By grabbing hold of Laura Palmer, Cooper is attempting to actualize the “pure past”, bringing her into the “present of the present” as they switch from monochrome to full colour. Cooper is attempting to save Laura from her death as we see from the disappearance of her body from the shore but is physically unable to since she as the “pure past” can never be brought out of her time. Cooper’s pursuit is halted, destroyed due to the nature of Laura Palmer. Her scream is the resistance of the “pure past”, the physical embodiment of the impossible act.
Gilles Deleuze’s work on the time-image and the Virtual presents a thorough and interesting look at time and reality within film as a medium. Though the myriad of theoretical approaches Lynch’s work collects is intelligent and thoughtful with attempting to understand his films, Deleuze’s ideas and arguments can be applied to the work of David Lynch to a greater extent than some of the other approaches. That is not to say that other theoretical methods are less informative and applicable but rather Deleuze’s approach can be seen as more appreciative towards Lynch’s more abnormal style.
Croombs, Matthew. “Encountering the Virtual: On Deleuze and the Disappearing Realities of Recent Hollywood Cinema.” Carleton University, 2006, pp. 31–92.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Beyond the Movement-Image.” Cinema 2: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pp. 1–24.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny, pp. 1-21.
Lynch, David, director. Mulholland Dr. Universal Pictures, 2001
Lynch, David, director. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. New Line Cinema, 1992
Ozu, Yasujiro, director. Late Spring. Shochiku, 1949
“Part 17.” Twin Peaks: The Return, written by Mark Frost and David Lynch, directed by David Lynch, Showtime Networks, 2017.
“Part 18.” Twin Peaks: The Return, written by Mark Frost and David Lynch, directed by David Lynch, Showtime Networks, 2017.
Rodowick, David. “A Short History of Cinema.” Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine, Duke University Press, 1997, pp. 3–17.
An Analysis of the Lack of Independent Sequels in Relation to Richard Linkater’s Before Trilogy
By Jocelyn Illing
Over the past couple of decades, there has been thorough discussion regarding the definition of the independent film. Although the definition has grown and developed over time, there remains three basic categories of elements that make up an independent film. For example, the film’s style, such as its heavy usage of dialogue, a lack of a narrative, or experimental editing, might lead a film to be classified as independent. At the industrial level, independent films are often known to be low budget, self-funded and include friends or family of the filmmaker as cast or crew. Finally, the social or political elements of the film often expose its independent qualities. Independent films often comment on society and include controversial topics that aren’t normally fleshed out in mainstream films. However, although we have become aware of the independent film, what is rarely discussed is the idea of an independent sequel or series. Films that are made into trilogies or a series are often reserved for the blockbuster genre. It seems as though we are constantly hearing about the release of a science-fiction series or a sequel to the latest super-hero movie. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy serves as an important point in the history of American independent cinema for it challenges the idea of the Hollywood sequel. By expanding his 1995 film Before Sunrise into a three-part series, Linklater demonstrates the artistic potential in the sequel. Unlike many filmmakers, who take popular films and continue to milk them for all they’re worth through the production of sequels, Linklater’s intensions were purely artistic rather than financial. The expansion of the film allowed for him to explore the growth of the characters and how they react to the changes in society.
Before analyzing how the Before trilogy challenged the idea of the sequel, it is important to first understand more about the definition of the independent film. As previously mentioned, the criteria concerning what makes a film independent has changed over time. In the 1960s, independence was determined by “circumstances of financing and producing narrative fictional films for theatrical release” (Staiger, 2013, p.16), including the partnering with production companies with no relationship to a distribution firm. This decade of independent filmmaking mainly focussed on creating cheap films with elements directed toward specific audiences to bring in maximum profit (Staiger, 2013, p.18). As the popularity of independent films and creating films for a specific targeted audience grew in the 1970s, the Hollywood majors began to catch on. The “’New New’ Hollywood” (Staiger, 2013, p.18) began to rely on these targeted audiences, making films such as Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). The next two decades saw the partnership of the majors with independent producers in order to broaden their repertoire and their audiences (Staiger, 2013, p. 20). Since the arrival of the “indie” film, many scholars have put their spin on different definitions of the independent film. Two definitions that I find quite useful come from the scholarsnnette Insdorf and Geoff King. Insdorf states that an independent film “should have differences from Hollywood in terms of its mode of production, subject matter, and formal and stylistic conventions” (Staiger, 2013, p.21). Similarly, King argues that “American independent films depart from Hollywood filmmaking ‘either in making greater claims to verisimilitude/realism, or in the use of more complex, stylized, expressive, showy or self-conscious forms’ and ‘offer visions of society not usually found in the mainstream’” (Staiger, 2013, p.21). In his Before trilogy, Linklater takes these elements of the independent film and applies them to the Hollywood idea of the sequel, using it to explore the evolution of a couple’s relationship overtime.
When Linklater decided that he was going to expand Before Sunrise into an eighteen-year epic, it wasn’t for the money. After all, if you were going to make a sequel in order to make a profit, why would you wait nine years to do so? The extreme gap between the first and second film came from the indecisiveness of the director and principle actors. Because of their auteurist nature, and their investment in the story and characters, they had to come up with the right idea (Hepola, 2004, p.4). These films were going to be different from the other trilogies in Hollywood. One of the defining features of Before Sunrise is its notion that “experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary… [add] up to something worth documenting” (Horton, 1995, p.4). The three films follow a man and a woman essentially doing nothing but wandering around and talking. Linklater “dances around expectations” (Horton, 1995, p.7) regarding both the characters within the film and the audience. Just as “Jesse (Ethan Hawke)” and “Céline (Julie Delpy)” await the other person’s kiss, we sit on the edge of our seats, waiting for them to stay together at the end of the film. Alas, due to poetic justice, we are left with a “will-they-won’t-they” cliff hanger. The sequels allow for the artists to return to their former characters and for the audience to continue watching “Jesse” and “Céline’s” relationship unfold. The large gaps between the films also coincide with the concept of time within the films. Each film returns to the protagonists during a different decade of their lives, with the first film following them in their twenties, the second in their thirties and the final film in their forties. During the gaps between the production of each film “the characters were still kind of alive in [Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy]” (Bozelka, 2008). The Before trilogy served as an experiment regarding what could be done with the sequel format with a purely artistic, rather than financial motive. What resulted was, as previously mentioned, an almost two-decade phenomenon, beautifully chronicling a relationship based on pure coincidence, or as it could be argued, fate.
Before Sunrise, the first film in the trilogy, follows “Jesse”, an American man, and “Céline”, a French woman who meet on a train in Europe and spend the night together in Vienna. Through his leads, Linklater portrays the cynicism of twenty-somethings in the nineties with charm, intelligence and wit. As they wander through the streets, “Jesse” and “Céline’s” conversations turn philosophical, discussing topics such as the roles of media, feminism and government brainwashing. Hawke and Delpy give engaging performances due to their “subtle reactions” and “relaxed comic touch” (Wrathall, 1995, p.39). Their performances, and the script’s balance between poetry and the everyday, are said to create the charm of the film (Wrathall, 1996, p.39). Unlike many mainstream Hollywood romance films, Linklater set out to mix together both conventional and radical elements. While we can spot many romance tropes within the film, such as the kiss on the Ferris wheel or the wine picnic in the park, Before Sunrise offers the audience new ways to tell a love story. Rather than presenting a couple going on a series of set up adventures, the film simply shows “people who are attracted by each other’s minds rather than simply by looks or…. ‘chemistry’” (Wrathall, 1996, p.39), enjoying each other’s company and conversation. The leads flirt and challenge each other, causing the audience to wonder what will happen to them by morning. The tone of the film is established upon “Jesse” and “Céline’s” first encounter on the train. As they sit on the train, exchanging glances, an attraction is established. However, instead of exchanging numbers, the two exit to the dining area of the train to begin a conversation that would last all evening. The end of the film, with “Jesse” seeing “Céline” off at the train station and them promising to meet up again, leaves us wondering if we will see these two reunite again onscreen.
Sure enough, nine years after the first film, and nine years after they first met, “Jesse” and “Céline” reunited in Before Sunset (Linklater, 2004). In keeping with the theme of time, Linklater presents the characters in new positions, expressing how their lives have changed in the past decade. “Jesse” and “Céline” are now both in relationships, with “Jesse” in a loveless marriage with the mother of his son and “Céline” longing for a feeling of intimacy. Not only do the changes in the characters reflect the artistic motivation for the sequels, for they portray the change in a couple’s relationship over time, but they again evoke an element of realism. Although the gaps between the films are prevalent, we are caught up with their lives as if we had been following them since the end of the previous film. Time in the film is “shaped in terms of emotion rather than conventional plotting” (Taubin, 2004, para. 3). Linklater challenges the unity of time and space with flashbacks to Before Sunrise, deadlines and a particularly empty setting. As “Jesse” and “Céline” wander through the streets of Paris, gone are the encounters with strangers and the awkward silences. The film is “structurally more spare and emotionally richer than” (Taubin, 2004, para. 7) its predecessor. A great example of the growth in “Jesse” and “Céline’s” relationship, as well as the changing commentary in the film, is the scene set in “Céline’s” apartment. By bringing “Jesse” into her home, “Céline” is letting down her guard and letting him into her world. Rather than the small chit chat and joking, they reveal different parts of themselves, such as “Céline’s” passion for music. The ending, as in the Before Sunrise, presents us with extreme uncertainty. Will they see each other again?
Before Midnight (Linklater, 2013), the final film in the series, depicts a middle aged “Jesse” and “Céline”, now married with twin girls, on vacation in Greece. Much has changed since the previous film. “Jesse” is now confronted with a deep feeling of guilt regarding leaving his son and “Céline” has turned into a type of workaholic. Arguably the film furthest from the mainstream definition of a romance film, Before Midnight depicts the challenges of long-term commitment. “[W]here the earlier two films achieve erotic release, the third keeps veering off into irritable argument” (Lopate, 2013, para.1). Playful flirting and spontaneity have been replaced by petty lovers-quarrels and routine. However, it can be argued that their fights are “proof that the couple has finally achieved a true intimacy” (Lopate, 2013, para. 1.) The film also represents the changing nature of cinematic romance in the digital age (Sandhu, 2013, para. 7). With the invention of cell phones and social media, it seems as if the spontaneity in romance has died. We are constantly in communication with each other and have access to each other’s personal information. “Jesse” and “Céline” cannot escape this reality, as they are constantly seen on their cell phones, sending text messages and taking photos. Towards the end of the film, we are presented with the couple’s most eruptive argument. Alone together in the hotel, “Jesse” and “Céline” contemplate their relationship and if it is worth continuing. As the scene progresses, it seems as if they are going to breakup. However, they don’t. Instead, they laugh. In this film, Linklater creates a new definition of romance. “’The fact that they are still together is pretty romantic. But it’s a different, more hard-earned romance’” (Lim, 2013).
Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy challenges mainstream Hollywood by expanding an independent film into a three-part epic. Unlike many directors who choose to make sequels, usually blockbuster films, Linklater’s intensions were purely artistic. He and his actors felt an extreme connection with the characters that they had developed and wanted to chronicle their relationship over real and cinematic time. What resulted was an honest love story, following a couple from their first encounter to their eventual achievement of true intimacy, complete with uncertainty, charm and tenderness.
Bozelka, K. “An Interview with Richard Linklater.” The Velvet Light Trap 61 (2008): n. pag. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Hepola, S. “Those Strangers on a Train Nine Years Later.” New York Times, 9 (2004): n. pag. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Horton, R. “Offhand enchantment – ‘Before Sunrise’ directed by Richard Linklater.” Film Comment 31.1 (1995): 4. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Lim, D. “Nine more years on, and still talking.” New York Times (2013): 3. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Lopate, P. “Before Midnight.” Essential Cinema (2013): n. pag. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Sandhu, S. “Before Midnight.” Sight & Sound 23.7 (2013): 71. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Staiger, J. “Independent of What? Sorting out differences from Hollywood.” American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond. New York: Routledge, 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Taubin, A. “Nine Years On, Richard Linklater Reunites Ethan Hawke And Julie Delpy For Another Brief Encounter In This Miraculous Real-time Sequel To ‘Before Sunrise’.” Film Comment 40.3 (2004): 18. Web. 31 Oct, 2018
Wrathall, J. “Before Sunrise.” Sight & Sound 5.4 (1995): 39. Web. 31 Oct. 2018
Horror. Terror. Lynch.
Written by Anton Charpentier
The horror we experience when watching a David Lynch film is unlike any other. The mundane everyday experience is contaminated, and our idea of self is shattered by an unknown entity. Lynch plays a game of psychological warfare with the audience; coercing us to feel disgust to what we once thought was pure and sacred. David Lynch pays this extra focus on his depiction of Americana and by doing so, dismantling our North American perceptions of society. This horror plays a special role in his films and separates his work from most films in the genre. It remains important to distinguish his films from Terror films; which imply a sense of mortal and physical danger. Instead, we should categorize his films as true horror pictures; in this paper the two films being Eraserhead (1977) and Inland Empire (2006). By defining horror and terror as two separate terms; horror describing the potential phycological trauma and terror describing the physical embodiment of danger. I hope to assert that Lynch is not only unique to the genre but in fact a realization of what the genre should be. After distinguishing horror from terror, I’ll dissect how both Eraserhead and Inland Empire utilize elements of Sigmund Freud’s definition of the uncanny to subjugate his audience to horror. Additionally, I’ll dissect how both films utilize the abject an element of horror, specifically the disfigurement of the self in relation to the symbolic universe of his characters. This paper is attempting to prove that Lynch is characteristically a horror director but additionally shapes how we understand horror as a cinematically complex genre that’s often generalized by the public.
THE HORROR… THE TERROR…
The genre term horror is often misapplied; condensing horror and terror as one and the same. Conceptually, they could not be further apart and deserve unique categorization. According to Adrinna Cavarero in her book Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, horror is best described as “in contrast to what occurs with terror”(8). Therefore, establishing the definition of terror is essential to understanding horror. Terror as defined by Cavarero is “characterized by the physical experience of fear as manifested in a trembling body” (4). Additionally, it can be characterized by the it’s entomological dissection which includes the term flight (Cavareo, 4). Suggesting not only the physical embodiment of danger, but also the potential of escape and prevention; simply put as flight. Take for example, Friday the 13th (1980), which encapsulates terror in the physical treat of Jason (or more aptly his mother) who physically harms the counsellors of Camp Crystal Lake. The film is based on the fear the audience feels when confronted with a life-threatening situation and therefore is better defined as a terror movie.
Further, we can apply the term Terror to the everyday experience of our reality. Particularly in our contemporary culture which is all too familiar with terrorist attacks; be it domestic or foreign. Terrorism frightens the public because of its potential harm to us physically and the fear lies in the penetration of our physical wellbeing, especially if it leads to our death. In a case example Cavarero provides:
Using Cavarero’s definition of terror; it’s clear distinction is the physicality of terror and it’s treat to our mortal wellbeing. Using Friday the 13th as an example, it remains terrifying because we worry about being in physical danger like the counsellors.
Horror on the other hand is psychological; in Cavarero’s dissection of the etymology of the word begins by stating “although it is often paired with terror, horror actually displays quite opposite characteristics” (7). The characteristics of horror align with that of the mind; the effects of horror can still affect someone even though they may be physically absent. This psychological affect is what interests the cinema of David Lynch; and categorizes his work in the field of horror rather than terror. In Eraserhead and Inland Empire, the viewer is brought into the symptoms of horror through Lynch’s deliberate use of uncanny elements; creating a strong feeling of being disturbed by what’s on screen. Cavarero summarizes this horror in this passage:
ERASERHEAD: DISGUSTING FILMMAKING
Lynch’s first feature film Eraserhead is perhaps one of the best examples for a true horror movie. Eraserhead is perhaps one of the most disturbing pieces of film I’ve ever seen, yet there is little to no physical treats presented to our protagonist Henri. Instead, Eraserhead toys with psychological trauma by fracturing of our perception of reality and is achieved primarily through techniques relating to the uncanny. The uncanny as defined by Sigmund Freud “occurs either when repressed infantile complexes have been revived by some impression, or when the primitive beliefs we have surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (17). Eraserhead seems to function as a means of capturing what Freud describes; adhering to the proposed idea of the uncanny. The most obvious uncanny element in the film being the abnormal newborn and additionally the elements around Henri’s sexual experiences.
The infant is immediately uncanny to look at; as a viewer we do not understand why the infant is so immediately repulsive. Acting against our instinctive nature to adore and protect babies. What makes it uncanny is it’s howling screams which only push us further away from how we should feel around an infant and instead of wanting to offer assistance to nurture the child, we feel as if we should leave the room. Freud describes this constructed feeling as “all condition operating to produce uncanny feelings in real life; and everything that would have an uncanny effect in reality has it in his story. But in this case, too, he can increase his effect and multiply it by bringing about events which never or very rarely happen in fact” (18). This quote from Freud on the uncanny in storytelling also surmises why we react in such a negative way to Eraserhead and helps us understand the how horror is invoked in the film.
Additionally, the theory of the abject can be argued as a means of understanding horror. In Julia Kristeva essay “Powers of Horror”, and specifically the section entitled “The Abjection of Self”, where she posits that:
Asserting that what is equally disturbing as the rotting of flesh, or the decomposition of food, is the loss of control over one’s self; also suggesting that horror stems from the realization that death is inevitable part of life. There is no better example of this then the unwrapping of the babies’ swaddle revealing the infant’s innards; exposing them to the world. Disgusting in the fact that it reveals our mortality and exposes the horrid processes that bring us our own life. Henri then proceeds to stab and kill the child; providing an instant relief to the audience that the creeping form of death has now came and passed. This feeling of relief is a truly horrible reaction for the audience to have but distinguishes the abject from the uncanny. As Kristeva points out when described the abject, “essentially different from “uncanniness,” more violent, too, abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory” (5).
INLAND EMPIRE: WHAT THE LYCHIAN
The abject functions like the uncanny as means of creating horror. Both terms describe not only what makes Lynch’s cinema unique but drive it to be a true symbol of the horror genre. No other film in Lynch’s oeuvre solidifies this point more than Inland Empire. His last feature film as of writing this, the film acts as a return to form that we saw in Eraserhead. The film relies on the uncanny and the abject to sustain it horror element. Like his previous films, Lynch dives into the separation of one’s self, or more succinctly, the loss of control over one’s actions. This action is primary achieved through the character of Nikki Grace; played by Laura Dern. Especially towards the end of the film, in which Nikki’s face gets digitally superimposed onto her head. Capturing something that is quintessentially abject through the digital medium. Prior to the scene, the film is dominated by the uncanny; however, this marks a turn to the abject because Dern has become unrecognizable. The moment is truly horrifying because all familiarity has been lost and the evil is inescapable for it has ultimately become us.
Conversely, the films uncanny elements act as method of horror filmmaking. The film makes no attempt to convey a conventional plot; yet it does incorporate familiar elements we ‘ve come to expect in a typical Hollywood narrative. Through acting in a deformed manner with these classical elements, the film delivers a familiar yet entirely independently manufactured story. In Freuds words “we react to his inventions as we should have reacted to real experiences; by the time we have seen through his trick it is already too late and the author has made it flow in another, and he often obtains a great variety of effects from the same material” (18). The films formal qualities can also be argued as a means of invoking the uncanny; specifically, the use of digital film which gives the film a home video quality. The aspect of the home plays a special role in the film, embodied not only in the films digital medium but with its depiction of Nikki’s home slowly diminishing in size and quality. Aspects that should be associated with the familiar and safe are instead warped and destroyed.
In his article on Lynch, titled "Lynch keeps his head", David Foster Wallace mentions the concept of the Lynchian; a term used to define Lynch’s unique method of filmmaking (141). In his words “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter” (141). In short, the term defines the specific form of uncanny and abject elements that are apparent in Lynch’s filmmaking. In terms of horror, I argue the Lynchian is in fact what true horror genre filmmaking is; something that terrifies that audience not in the physical embodiment of death but rather the psychological processes that accompany it. As with both Eraserhead and Inland Empire, the psychological and subconscious are elements at play that define what horror really is.
In summary, the horror genre is often used as a blanket term for vastly different types of films; specifically, films that could be described as terror or horror. The oeuvre of Lynch falls under the latter and offers us a what I would call true horror filmmaking. The uncanny as suggest by Freud and the abject by Kristeva offer us a way of categorizing real horror filmmaking techniques. Often, we complain that horror depends on cliché tricks in order to invoke panic in the audience; but the same cannot be said about Lynch. As an artist, Lynch uses our own psychological processes against ourselves and providing true feelings of disgust and panic when we watch his films. Lynch’s horror falls under Cavarero’s definition of the word; arguably being an exemplary form of what she strives to define in her book. Perhaps when we consider what we define as the Lynchian, we should be defining what we consider what a horror film truly is; and that is Lynch.
Cavarero, Adriana. Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Sammlung: Imago, 1919.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Wallace, David Foster. "Lynch keeps his head." Premiere (1995): 131-170.
A Circuit Board of Worlds: Electricity in the Works of David Lynch
Written by Zach Green
An advocate for Transcendental Meditation, one of David Lynch’s favourite metaphors to support his theory of embodied consciousness is that of a lightbulb. Evoking a steady stream of vibrant consciousness, it is no wonder that electricity plays such a central role in his films. However, the light in Lynch’s work rarely shines with the serene radiance that inspires his creative flow. Electricity is a frantic, affective motif that frequently acts as a bridge to “incompossible worlds” at play in Lynch’s films.[i] Thematically, sequences of flashing lights often have a strong connection to domestic abuse and patriarchy, as the play of light and dark evokes the conflict of male and female, abuser and survivor. Using a Deluzian framework, this paper will chart the use of electricity across three distinct areas of Lynch’s filmography. In Eraserhead (1977), Lynch sparks his application of electricity as an affective device with a connection to the home and incompossible worlds. In the Hollywood Trilogy, the motif of flashing lights becomes an essential force by organizing its various realities. Finally, electricity is a vital element in the world(s) of Twin Peaks, becoming more prevalent with each iteration of the series.
Eraserhead: Sparking Incompossibility
Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead, sets a foundation for his relationship with electricity, incompossible worlds, and domestic abuse. Henry, cramped in an oppressively dark and small apartment with his mutated newborn and its mother, receives comfort through the strikingly bright light that shines behind the radiator. Revealing Lynch’s fascination with electricity and television, Nieland states “Henry watches like a virtual window – a television set or, better, a movie screen placed under his room’s actual window, which frames only the claustrophobic view of a brick wall.”[ii] When the Lady in the Radiator is revealed, the camera tracks right, following light bulbs that surround her stage as they illuminate one-by-one. This implies that Lynch’s spiritual admiration for the lightbulb translates to Henry, as his focus on the steady stream of light summoned by the Lady in the Radiator literally transports him to another world. This flow is disrupted in the film’s conclusion, where Henry’s infanticide provokes the apartment’s total electrical meltdown. As the baby’s guts grotesquely erupt from its torso, the apartment’s single lamp begins to flicker erratically. Alongside the sick imagery and horrendous buzzing noise, the visual of a flashing light creates an affective intensity that begins to overload the senses. An emotive close-up of Henry paired with strobing lights is an image that Lynch remediates time-and-time again after this sequence. As the baby’s now giant head relocates around the frame with each flash, there’s a sense that the dead infant’s soul has become fused with the electrical chaos, eventually flying into the lamp in a point-of-view shot. Following the death, the Man in the Planet, another otherworldly figure, struggles to pull a lever as sparks fly. His success leads to Henry’s reunion with the Lady in the Radiator, as he becomes enveloped by her light. In comparison to his later films, the presence of electricity in Eraserhead is somewhat simple, as it acts as an affective conduit between Henry’s world and the otherworldly realms of the Lady in the Radiator and the Man in the Planet.
The Hollywood Trilogy: Worlds, Time, and Media
20 years after Eraserhead, Lynch infuses electricity into the Hollywood Trilogy in a much more convoluted manner. Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006) use electricity to order their ever-shifting worlds while also complicating filmic time. Due to this complexity, these films are highly compatible with Deleuze’s concepts of incompossible worlds and time explored in Cinema 2: The Time-Image.
Lost Highway’s worldly shifts are accompanied by electrical disruptions during the transformation of Fred to Pete, and from Pete back to Fred. Moments of electrical disruption indicate the bends in Lost Highway’s “Mobius Strip” structure.[iii] After a sequence in which Fred metaphysically witnesses the reverse-explosion of a desert cabin from his prison cell, a blue light shimmers onto him from above, followed by a shot of the ceiling light going out. Bright strobing overwhelms the senses as a medium close-up of Pete is superimposed over a shot of his parents and girlfriend chasing after him. Sporadic flashes persist as Fred convulses in an affective medium close-up, becoming Pete. In the final act of the film, Pete reverts to Fred at the same desert cabin that appears prior to the initial transformation. The reversion occurs as Pete stands in front of car headlights, which fade immediately after takes his place. These moments also provide a point to ponder the question posed by Patricia Arquette in David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Lynch Keeps His Head”:
The question for Bill and Balthazar is what kind of woman hater is Fred [-dash-Pete]? Is he the kind of woman-hater who goes out with a woman and fucks her and then never calls her again, or is he the kind who goes out with a woman and fucks her and then kills her? And the real question to explore is: how different are these kinds?[iv]
The shifts in incompossible worlds illustrate a shift between these two different versions of patriarchy, presenting them as two sides of a crystal-image for the spectator to compare for themselves.[v]
Electricity similarly governs and recircuits the structure of Mulholland Drive. The deceivingly ordinary first half of the film does not use electric imagery until Betty and Rita arrive at Club Silencio, when the appearance of the flashing light causes Betty to convulse uncontrollably, as if her body is torn between the actual and virtual worlds of Betty and Diane. The split of these two worlds is implied by shot of lights flickering on the “Mulholland Dr.” sign that appears at both the beginning is repeated in the final act of the film. A scene where Rita sits in the back seat of a car and asks “What are you doing? We don’t stop here,” is replicated with Diane taking her place. The effect of flashing lights in these repeated shots suggests the splitting between the film’s two incompossible worlds and establishes what Beckman describes as the film’s “temporal loop,” where the actual and virtual worlds of the film “haunt each other.”[vi] Lynch’s lights create an enormous sense of terror in the final scene as Diane is driven to suicide by the terrifyingly gleeful old couple who intrude her house. The scene is yet another example of Lynch using strobe lights to inspire affective terror, rendering Diane’s screaming face all the more impactful. The supernatural nature of the event suggests that greater forces are attempting to converge the two worlds established by the film, causing Diane’s suicide to account for the corpse found by Betty and Rita earlier in the film. The Blue Haired Woman’s utterance of “Silencio” following the calming of a blue shimmer on the stage suggests a metaphysical resolution of the film’s divergent worlds. Much like Lost Highway, Lynch uses electric visuals as an affective motif that reveals the seams that unite the film’s incompossible worlds.
As Lynch’s first film shot on digital, Inland Empire establishes its incompossible worlds with a self-consciousness of the medium. Beyond the narrative loops that divide the other two films of the Hollywood Trilogy, Inland Empire diverges, according to Nieland, as “a network of fractal worlds that open onto each other through electricity.”[vii] Unlike Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, the film barely provides the spectator with any kind of narrative foothold before completely decentering itself. Consequently, although the motif of flashing lights occurs at several points throughout the film, it does not easily reveal the separations between ruptured worlds. The series of images provided by the film produces what Deleuze describes as an “indiscernibility of the real and the imaginary, or of the present and the past, of the actual and the virtual.”[viii] Nieland describes the film as a “multimedia event,”[ix] with its inclusion of Rabbits (2002), an online sitcom released on davidlynch.com, and “AXXon N” an unrealized webseries developed by Lynch. A loose framing device that anchors the film emerges from the Lost Girl, a character who watches television with a desperation that evokes Henry’s infatuation with the radiator in Eraserhead. The film frequently returns to close-ups of the Lost Girl tearfully watching TV as its light softly illuminates her face, creating a sense that what the spectator is watching is akin to a constant switching of channels as the editing becomes more erratic. The Lost Girl’s involvement with the action on the TV suggests that media has an affective power to transport characters across worlds. Nieland argues that domestic abuse is a central concern of the film, as it links the Lost Girl and Nikki/Sue through their violent pasts.[x] Scenes of the characters being battered by their partners mirror each other, both accompanied by an unnatural white light. The Lost Girl’s scene demonstrates a Lynchian close-up of a screaming face accompanied by strobing lights, whereas Sue’s scene presents an intense light that remains consistent, but unhomelike due to its radiation from low angle. Nikki/Sue creates an opening between the multimedia worlds of these “Women in Trouble” in the film’s final act. After she destroys the Phantom, the door into the Rabbits set opens. The lights in the living room immediately turn off, and a flashing light shines through the door, once again signaling a worldly transformation. Nikki/Sue walks backwards into the room, which is now empty. She appears confused, until the scene cuts to a bright blue light. When we return to the Lost Girl, a strong white light now strikes her face as she now watches herself in the moment on the television, in front of the television, creating an endless fractal of media worlds. Nikki/Sue walks into the room, finally motivating the Lost Girl to stand up as she kisses her in the spotlight before fading away. In this scene, the Lost Girl confronts a mirror-image of herself on the television, and the media worlds begin to fold over each other. The Lynch’s reflexive approach to digital filmmaking utilizes “vital media through which passes a pervasive feeling of relatedness, of a sensual community that happens through and across the unbounded situations of the digital image.”[xi] Inland Empire’s end-credits sequence is a surprisingly feminist summation of this unifying potential of fractal worlds. A brigade abused women dance to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” reclaiming the motif of strobe lights in a rare instance of joy where Lynch fully indulges in a merging of the film’s incompossible digital worlds.
The World(s) of Twin Peaks: A Grid of Garmonbozia
A sprawling franchise rather than a contained film, the use of electricity becomes increasingly complex across the three iterations of Twin Peaks . This analysis requires some historical backtracking, as Twin Peaks (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) release prior to the Hollywood Trilogy, but Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) illustrates Lynch’s most current use of electricity.
Electricity is the medium that connects the “real” world to the cosmic otherworld of the Black Lodge, where the motif of flashing lights recurs frequently to create an atmosphere of affective intensity. Electric disruption plagues the life of Laura Palmer, appearing frequently within her home. Lynch makes the worldly otherworldly with his focus on the Palmer home’s ceiling fan, defamiliarized in the pilot from eerie low-angle shots up the stairs. The fan acts as an identifiable source of the flashing lights motif. In a deleted scene from Fire Walk with Me, BOB speaks to Laura through the fan. An extreme close-up of Laura illustrates a slow, unnerving shift in expression from a hypnotic entrancement to a manic smile as light flashes across her face and the distinct whooshing of the fan oppresses the sound design. This eerie whooshing returns in the scene where Laura is murdered by Leland/BOB, accompanied by the brighter, otherworldly strobe lights that appear in the Black Lodge. This not only suggests the fan as the connector between the two worlds but reminds the viewer that this evil stems from the home. Laura Palmer’s murder is accompanied by these formal elements, enhancing the pure terror of the scene as her father forces her to watch her own death in the mirror. When Laura looks at herself, her image is replaced with BOB’s, and her scream triggers television static that dissolves to a shot the Man from Another Place laughing. The static evokes a self-consciousness of the medium comparable to Inland Empire, suggesting that the otherworldly figures of the Black Lodge influence the film’s construction. Laura’s confrontation with herself causes an upset in the world’s circuitry. Deleuze states that this kind of confrontation with the mirror-image “is virtual in relation to the actual character that the mirror catches, but it is only actual in the mirror which now leaves the character with only a virtuality that pushes him back out-of-field.”[xii] The moment foreshadows the virtual Laura who remains trapped in the Black Lodge following her death.
In the final two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return, Dale Cooper uses the series’ electric materiality to rescue Laura from her murder, while revoking her of her agency and disrupting the series’ metaphysical stability. In “Part 17” Cooper travels back in time with the help of the One-Armed Man, whose exclamation of “Electricity” triggers an electrical storm, followed by the too-familiar whooshing of the Palmer home’s ceiling fan. The fan transports the viewer back to the evening of Laura’s death, where Cooper meddles with the past as he effectively saves Laura but removes her from the world of Twin Peaks. “Part 18” reveals that there are more incompossible worlds in Twin Peaks than expected. Cooper uses powerlines transports himself to a reality where Laura Palmer is now an adult woman named Carrie Page who lives in Odessa and unsurprisingly lives next to a loudly buzzing telephone pole. In The Return’s final scene, Cooper brings Carrie to the Palmer house to reunite Laura with Sarah Palmer, but it is not Sarah who answers. Instead, a woman named Alice Tremond opens the door, and informs them that they purchased the home from a “Mrs. Chalfont.” Tremond and Chalfont are both names that have been taken by the enigmatic old woman connected to the Black Lodge who Laura encounters in Fire Walk with Me. Furthermore, the woman who plays Alice Tremond is the woman who owns the Palmer house in real life, suggesting a radical possibility that Cooper may have transported to the spectator’s world. An unnerving silence resounds as Cooper and Carrie slowly walk back to the car. Cooper walks forward a few steps and asks, “What year is this?” Carrie’s face become slowly horrified as she looks up at the house and Sarah Palmer’s distorted voice calls “Laura,” a sound clip from the pilot. Carrie releases out a shattering scream, which reverbs on top of itself, and the Palmer house lights black out completely in one final white flash. The concluding moment of The Return evokes Deleuze’s discussion of “peaks of present,” in which past, present and future no longer follow a sequential order.[xiii] Instead, “a present of the future, a present of the present, and a present of the past” are rolled up together within the event, rendering a present that is both simultaneous and inexplicable. Carrie’s scream summons a choir of screams from Laura’s past(s). Laura can never be rescued, as her “garmobozia,” her pain and sorrow, resounds across all dimensions and times. Laura is dead, but she is alive as Carrie Page. A virtual Laura, Carrie’s very existence is a paradox. The blurring of past, present and future in this final moment triggers a blackout in the electrical multiverses of Twin Peaks. The world affectively responds to Carrie scream, leading to a breakdown of worlds rather than an electrical transition into another. The end credits show Laura whispering to Cooper’s ear in the Black Lodge as he appears disturbed. The image echoes the Lodge’s first appearance in “Episode 2” of the original Twin Peaks, but the 2018 iteration does without the sexy jazz and flashing lights of the original. Trapped in a dark, virtual world, it is with the absence of electricity that Lynch concludes the multi-generational saga of Twin Peaks.
The infusion of electricity in the works of David Lynch informs the formal, narrative and thematic dimensions of his films. On the surface, moments of electrical upset such as flashing lights are an affective motif that enhances the sense of horror, particularly when combined with emotive close-ups. A Deluzian approach also reveals electricity as a key element that assembles, dissembles, bridges and shifts the incompossible worlds and unstable timelines that make up the narratives of his films. Finally, Lynch’s thematic explorations of domestic abuse frequently portray a relationship with electrical upset. Although electrical imagery, particularly the use of strobe lights, recurs abundantly across Lynch’s work, it resists becoming a trope. Electrical intensities shape his films, working on multiple levels to create a sense of worldly disruption. Presenting various effects and affects across Lynch’s filmography, electricity is an essential component of the Lynchian.
[i] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. High Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 131.
[ii] Justus Nieland, David Lynch (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 16.
[iii] Warren Buckland, “Making Sense of Lost Highway,” in Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, ed. Warren Buckland (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 56.
[iv] David Foster Wallace, “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” in Supposedly Funny Things I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (Columbus: Little, Brown and Company, 1995), 158-59.
[v] Deleuze, 68.
[vi] Frida Beckman, “From Irony to Narrative Crisis: Reconsidering the Femme Fatale in the Films of David Lynch,” Cinema Journal 52, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 42.
[vii] Nieland, 137.
[viii] Deleuze, 69.
[ix] Nieland, 141.
[x] Nieland, 151.
[xi] Nieland, 153.
[xii] Deleuze, 70.
[xiii] Deleuze, 100.
Beckman, Frida. “From Irony to Narrative Crisis: Reconsidering the Femme Fatale in the Films of David Lynch.” Cinema Journal 52, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 25-44.
Buckland, Warren. “Making Sense of Lost Highway.” In Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, edited by Warren Buckland, 42-61. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Nieland, Justus. David Lynch. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
Wallace, David Foster. “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” In Supposedly Funny Things I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, 131-170. Columbus: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.
The New French Extremism and Fat Girl: Violence, Sensation, and Dread
Written by Erin Shanks
The New French Extremism tendency permeates the screen with images and sounds that leave the viewer with an uneasy sensation. Films of this tendency have been described as “aggressive”, “obscene”, and “in-your-face” (Horeck and Kendall, 1). In many ways, Catherine Breillat’s film A ma soeur! (France, 2001)—or known in English as Fat Girl—fits this description. In many other ways, Breillat’s Fat Girl deviates from much of the description and discussion of New French Extremism. Throughout this paper, I will tackle how Fat Girl is simultaneously a part of New French Extremism and how it differs. I will begin by breaking down James Quandt’s essay “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema” and his argument about New French Extremism. I will then counter Quandt’s ideas with by analyzing excerpts from the introduction of Tanya C Horeck and Tina Kendall’s book The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe. Then I will bring my argument together by discussing the film, Fat Girl and how the film fits within the two previously presented idea of New French Extremism. I will then conclude by exploring Fat Girl’s sensory qualities and I will argue that it is those qualities that set the film a part from other French Extremism films.
James Quandt begins his essay with the words “convulsive violence” (18). He uses this phrase to describe Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), but within Quandt’s argument this phrase is indicative of how he thinks about New French Extremism. Quandt introduces us to, as he calls it “the New French Extremity”, by calling it a “growing vogue for shock tactics in French Cinema over the past decade” (18). Quandt then lists directors such as Gaspar Noé, Phillipe Grandieux, Catherine Breillat —the director of Fat Girl—, and Bruno Dumont, and makes a comparison to famed French directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Georges Franju (18). The comparison of directors from the tendency of the New French Extremism against directors that came before that were known for their distinctive and sometimes controversial style leads to a greater concern from Quandt about the state of contemporary French culture. Quandt’s main concern is that of a “cultural crisis” (19). In the essay, he raises this question: “do they [the directors of the New French Extremism] bespeak a cultural crisis, forcing French filmmakers to respond to the death of the ineluctable (French identity, language, ideology, aesthetic forms) with desperate measures?” (19). The “desperate measures which Quandt refers to can be best summarized with one of the most infamous quotes from his essay:
This quote is entirely indicative of Quandt’s view of the New French Extremism tendency. He believes that the filmmakers of this tendency fill the screen shocking images and have no agenda behind them. They want to shock the audience for the sole reason of the shock value. He is let down by these films because they do not contain the same political and social messages and goals as the films of Godard or Clouzot, they are devoid of a greater meaning that would justify their “shock tactics” (18). Quandt concludes the essay by claiming that the films of the New French Extremism are “a narcissistic response to the collapse of ideology in a society traditionally defined by political polarity and theoretical certitude” (25). Quandt is suggesting that this “narcissistic response” is simply the filmmakers putting very intense and visceral images on the screen just because they are able to. I believe that Quandt’s reading of the New French Extremism tendency is overly simplified and one-dimensional. Quandt fails to see passed the “convulsive violence” and take into consideration the role of the spectator within his overall argument (18). His comparison of different generations of filmmakers seems unfair and taken out of context. Overall, James Quandt is correct with many of narrative observation of the films of the New French Extremism tendency, but his argument lacks a deeper consideration of the motivations of the filmmakers.
Next, I would like to discuss the Horeck and Kendall essay. Horeck and Kendall begin their essay by bringing together the New French Extremism tendency by specifically qualifying them as having “graphic and confrontational images of sex and violence” (1). Immediately, the way that Horeck and Kendall discuss this tendency is different than Quandt. By using the word “confrontational” they are including the viewer as a participant in these films, instead of excluding them as only having a passive gaze (1). Horeck and Kendall’s main concern lies in the relationship that the films of the New French Extremism have with their viewers and the ways in which the viewers interact with the films. They write, “the films of the new extremism bring the notion of response to the fore, interrogating, challenging and often destroying the notion of a passive or disinterested spectator in ways that are productive for film theorising today” (2). Within this quote lies Horeck and Kendall’s central argument about New French Extremism. The idea that the films of this particular tendency challenge the way the viewer watches a film and that spectatorship is not a “passive” act (2). The authors are engaged with the interplay of the viewer with the film, which is an idea that I would like to focus on throughout this essay.
Horeck and Kendall create their own definition of what it means to be a part of the New Extremism tendency. First they clarify why the New French Extremism is not seen as a movement, “the work of film directors associated with the new extremism does not amount to a collective ‘style’, and the films considered in this volume evoke and often deconstruct a range of generic tropes rather than constituting one collectively” (5). The authors put into consideration the broad spectrum of different filmic styles that the filmmakers employ within their films. This understanding and consideration of the differences of style is an important distinction from James Quandt’s understanding of New French Extremism. They then move on to talk about the extreme quality of the films that are reflected within the very title of the tendency. They admit that the definition of extreme is subjective and “slippery”, but they clarify the term by writing “the extremity evinced by these films is often as much of a matter of asserting particular filiations with artistic, cinematic, literary and philosophical forebears as it is of breaking new taboos” (5). Horeck and Kendall are able to extract more of the filmmaker’s authorial intent rather than just believing that the sole intent of the film is to shock with the breaking of taboos. When the authors speak about the films’ aesthetic quality they emphasize the “visceral intensity” and “their essential ambiguity around politics and history” (6). Rather than dismissing the films as passive and “narcissistic”, they validate the ambiguous standpoint of the filmmakers (Quandt, 25). To summarize what I want to extract from Horeck and Kendall’s essay on New French Extremism I will use this quote: “Although they have often been described as immoral, nasty and irredeemable, much of what is so interesting and disturbing about this group of films is precisely the challenges they pose to commonly held belief systems” (8). These challenges that the authors write about are exactly what I would like to discuss about in regards to Fat Girl, because it is my belief that these challenges cause specific sensory reactions within the viewer.
Catherine Breillat’s film Fat Girl tells the story of two young girls on vacation with their parents. The two sisters—Anaïs who is about 13 and Elena who is 15—are radically different in a number of ways. The first notable dichotomy is their difference in appearance. Elena is thin and conventionally pretty, whereas Anaïs is the titular “fat girl”. Another dissimilarity between the girls is their views on sex and relationships. While Elena believes that sex should be between people that love each other, Anaïs wants her first sexual experience with someone she does not care about so they will not brag about being with her. As Anaïs claims in the film “guys are all sick”. The film begins by the two girls meeting an Italian law student named Fernando at a café. Immediately, Elena and Fernando begin to flirt and eventually end up kissing at the café, directly in front of Anaïs. Elena and Fernando’s relationship then escalates when he sneaks into the shared bedroom of Elena and Anaïs during the middle of the night. Anaïs watches on as Fernando coerces Elena into performing sexual acts that she is obviously uncomfortable with. Fernando claims that by doing these acts, Elena is proving her love for him. The next night, he comes back and Elena has sex for the first time with him while Anaïs watches on and cries. Soon, the girls’ mother discovers the truth about Fernando and Elena’s relationship and decides to end the vacation and drive the girls back home. The mother decides to take a break from driving and sleep at a rest stop parking lot. While the mother is sleeping, Elena finally admits that she knows that Fernando does not love her and that she wishes both her and the mother were dead. Anaïs consoles her and Elena falls asleep. While Elena and the mother are asleep, a man smashes their windshield with an axe and murders both the mother and Elena while Anaïs watches on. Anaïs then gets out of the car and goes to the forest where the man rapes her. When the police arrive at the scene, Anaïs denies the rape and looks into the lens of the camera. There is a freeze frame on Anaïs stare while light guitar music begins to play and the film ends.
On the surface, Fat Girl has many components of a typical New French Extremism film. The bulk of the film is made up of graphic sex scenes that are shot in the exact opposite way that a traditional Hollywood sex scene would be shot. There are also a brutally violent murders at the end of the film and the ending is riddled with ambiguity that makes up many other New French Extremism films. In Eugenia Brinkema’s essay “Celluloid is Sticky: Sex, Death, Materiality, Metaphysics (in Some Films by Catherine Breillat)”, the author makes this claim: “Though notorious for her cinematic treatment of female sexuality, do not be mistaken: provocauteur Catherine Breillat makes films about death” (147). Although death does not come until the end of the film, there is a sensation of dread and an atmosphere of impending death throughout the entire film. From the first frame of the film, the viewer is confronted and challenged by the Kubrickian stare of Anaïs. This stare which is accompanied by the childish singing of Anaïs immediate creates an uneasy sensation within the viewer, one that linger and is not easily shaken off. Brinkema claims that the deaths in Breillat’s film are “symbolic (virginity, always) (everywhere)” (156). In Martine Beugnet’s book Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression, the author uses the phrase “an ominous sense of threat” to describe the Grandieux film Sombre (1998), but this phrase perfectly describes the sensation that Fat Girl imparts onto its viewers. Throughout the film there are multiple kinds of threats. There is the threat of Fernando of his coercive behavior. There is the threat of the semi-trucks on the highway as the mother drives. There is the threat of the gazes from the truckers. There is the threat of the murderer and rapist. Finally, there is the threat of Anaïs’ stare on the viewer. All of these threats culminate in an overwhelming sense of dread.
Compared to many of the other New French Extremism films, Fat Girl is a quiet film. Its final rape scene is nowhere near as traumatizing and “in-your-face” as the 10-minute-long unbroken rape scene from Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002). I argue that the quietness helps amplify the sense of unease and dread. In Martin Barker’s essay “Watching Rape, Enjoying Watching Rape…: How Does a Study of Audience Cha(lle)nge Mainstream Film Studies Approaches?”, he discusses the reactions of viewers who “embraced” the film and how there was a general sense of “knowing something’s coming” (111). This sensation of dread is palpable throughout the film and amplifies the experience of viewing each and every even throughout the film. The experience of watching the film is one of visceral dread and tension, even though the brutality of the film does not come until the end. I think this idea sets Fat Girl apart from other films of the tendency. What makes Fat Girl shocking is that watching the girls interact with the world around them is almost as viscerally uncomfortable as watching the brutality of the end. The sense of dread makes it so that each time Anaïs takes a bit of a piece of food and each time Elena reaches out to touch something or someone it feels as tactile and invading as watching the girls be violated and brutalized. In Brinkema’s essay she says this about Catherine Breillat’s filmmaking style, “she is interested in a more tactile, haptic, warring encounter between text and reader. She wants our blood to run too” (158). I believe that this quote from the Brinkema essay helps solidify the argument that I would like to make. Fat Girl is not a film interested in shocking its viewer because it can. In fact, most of the key plot point in Fat Girl are not very shocking at all. Fat Girl is interested in creating an environment full of dread, unease and tension to draw attention to each and every major and minor transgression that goes on during its 95-minute runtime. Catherine Breillat does not want the viewers to faint or vomit, she wants them to sweat (Horeck and Kendall, 1).
In conclusion, the New French Extremism is a tendency which has been interpreted and dissected in a variety of ways. From James Quandt’s view of a “cultural crisis” of “convulsive violence” to Horeck and Kendall’s understanding of creating an active spectatorship, the New French extremism tendency has always been divisive (Quandt, 18 – 19). Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl shares many of the qualities of the New French Extremism, but its quiet and palpable dread that permeates the film is what sets it apart from the other films within the tendency. Fat Girl’s sensory qualities help firmly establish it as powerful film that sinks into the viewer and refuses to leave easily.
Barker, Martin. “Watching Rape, Enjoying Watching Rape…: How Does a Study of Audience Cha(lle)nge Mainstream Film Studies Approaches?”. The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, edited by Tanya C Horeck and Tina Kendall, Edinburgh University Press, 2011.
Beugnet, Martine. Cinema and Sensation: French and the Art of Transgression, Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Brinkema, Eugenie. “Celluloid is Sticky: Sex, Death, Materiality, Metaphysics (in Some Films by Catherine Breillat). Women a Cultural Review, 2006.
Horeck, Tanya and Tina Kendall. “Introduction”. The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, edited by Tanya C Horeck and Tina Kendall, Edinburgh University Press, 2011.
Quandt, James. “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema”. The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, edited by Tanya C Horeck and Tina Kendall, Edinburgh University Press, 2011.
Fat Girl. Directed by Catherine Breillat, performance by Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, and Libero De Rienzo, Canal+, 2001.
Twentynine Palms. Directed by Bruno Dumont, performances by David Wissak and Yekaterina Golubeva, 3B Production, The 7th Floor, and Thoke Moebuis Film Company, 2003.
Sombre. Directed by Philippe Grandrieux, performances by Marc Barbé and Elina Lowensohn, Canal +, 1998.
Irreversible. Directed by Gaspar Noé, performances by Monica Belluic and Vincent Cassel, Canal +, 2002.