The sustained critical success of auteur directors like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, the emergence in the 1990s and 2000s of the “new extremism” particularly in French cinema, and the rise in recent years of the “feel-bad” film have all contributed to a rise in the critical attention paid to the relationship between violence and European art cinema. Alison Taylor’s new book Troubled Everyday: The Aesthetics of Violence and the Everyday in European Art Cinema builds on this scholarship and takes it in a new direction.
While Taylor acknowledges her debt to preceding scholarship on violence in European cinema, she points out that her book is not strictly about the “new extremism” but rather “an account of a strand in the broader history of violence in European art cinema” (p. 4), an account which she anticipates will contribute to an understanding of both contemporary and historical extremes in cinema. Taylor’s approach is as much about situating this “new extremism” in relation to certain films from the history of cinema which can be seen as “precursors to the aesthetic dynamic that pitches violence and the everyday in tension” (p. 11), particularly the films of Pasolini and Klimov.
Taylor’s main argument – and it is a salient one – is that the experience of violence in European cinema is aesthetic and not hermeneutic; a troubling prospect in itself and one which a director such as Haneke would probably agree with (without, of course, sanctioning it). The book introduces the dialectical opposition between violence and the everyday which is, for Taylor, a dialectic without synthesis: the everyday is both “shattered” by sudden violence while at the same time violence is part of the everyday of these films.
Rather than give a comprehensive or encyclopaedic overview of the connection between violence and European art cinema, Taylor productively uses case studies. Her close readings of the films selected, with a focus on their aesthetics is effective and makes for an engaging read.
The argument of Troubled Everyday rests on two interrelated premises, that European art cinema depicts violence in a particular way and that this violence both emerges from and is a part of the aesthetic of the “everyday”. Thus much rests on how these key terms (violence, the “everyday”) are set up and defined. What constitutes violence in European art cinema, and what is its relationship to the everyday lives depicted in the films discussed? Taylor defines the everyday with reference to theorists of the everyday like Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau: banal, yet full of potential (including, one supposes, the potential for violence). It is, however, Taylor’s use of a citation from Georg Lukács which sets the scene for the analyses of the films which follow:
Suddenly there is a gleam, a lightening that illuminates the banal paths of empirical life: something disturbing and seductive, dangerous and surprising; the accident, the great moment, the miracle; an enrichment and a confusion. (cited on p. 5)1
For Taylor, violence in European art cinema is this lightning flash which shows the everyday in all its banality. However, “the path that is illuminated is anything but clear.” (p. 6) Violence, on the other hand, is a more nebulous concept, particularly in the context of the films discussed: it is at once authentic, illuminating, meaningless, spectacle, excessive and, of course, physical or sexual. Above all, for the viewer of European art cinema, violence is an aesthetic experience which refuses meaningful interpretation: “the stylistic and structural methods employed [in these films] are marked by a refusal to define the meaning of this violence and offer closure.” (p. 7)
The opening chapter introduces the reader to the key terms and the central tendency of European art cinema to hold the everyday and violence in a state of tension, a state which is left unresolved for the viewer. Taylor argues that the films she discusses throughout her book “employ violent disruptions to the everyday that throw into focus a troubling inability to understand the world and others.” (p. 2) To illustrate her point, Taylor describes a crucial scene from Haneke’s Hidden (Caché, 2005): Majid’s suicide. She remarks that the scene “exemplifies some of the qualities” at the centre of her selected films for discussion which she summarises as follows: “it is unexpected and de-dramatised […]; it is staged in an everyday setting […]; the violence is perpetrated by a person (as opposed to a monster or supernatural force); […] it is neither clearly motivated or easily recognisable to the narrative (p. 2). Taylor’s use of this specific scene from Haneke’s film nicely sets up and puts into play key issues that will be encountered in the case studies which follow. Moreover, Taylor’s vivid description and close reading of the scene is compelling and propels the reader into her other case studies.”
Chapter Two deals with what Taylor calls “ordinary moments in extraordinary films” (p. 11) and focuses on Pasolini’s Saló or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985). The aim of this chapter is to create a bridge between “past and present examples of disturbing cinema” (p. 18) and the films discussed are to be seen as important precursors to the contemporary European art film.
Chapter Three explores “the concept of the everyday as a film style” (p. 11) and draws attention to what Taylor calls “a lack of authorial guidance on how to respond to violent narrative events” (p. 37) in two films: Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) and Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (Der siebente Kontinent, 1989). There is a comparative element to this chapter which is both interesting and enlightening, particularly as Bresson is among Haneke’s most important influences. The focus here is on film style and the way the mundane is represented stylistically in both films, but also on the “gradual dissociation of action and meaning” (p. 57) which renders the sudden outbursts of violence illegible.
Chapter Four shifts from the apparent “meaninglessness” of violence to the need for critical discourse to somehow make it meaningful. Whereas in Bresson and Haneke, violence emerges from the mundane and sinks back into it, this chapter deals with films in which violence marks a “definitive rupture” with the everyday in two films, Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (Á ma sœur, 2001) and Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003). The approach here is a kind of metacommentary on these two films, particularly in relation to how the sudden rupture of violence has been interpreted. This in turn raises the question – not directly addressed here – of the need for meaning in the first place. This is not, however, Taylor’s concern in this chapter; rather she is more interested in the “structural affinities” between the two films and the “affective quality” of the violence of the final moments.
The unsettling nature of this violence vis-à-vis the viewers’ conception of what constitutes daily life is the focus of Chapter Five, an analysis of Gasper Noé’s I Stand Alone (1998) and Markus Schleinzer’s Michael (2011). Entitled “Return to the Everyday”, this chapter makes a timely revisit to the theorists of the everyday discussed in the opening chapter, with a subtle shift away from the concept of the everyday as such toward the concept of “everyday time” and its importance for narrative cinema. Of importance here is what Taylor refers to as our “desire to place narrative parameters upon the world, in spite of its persistent undermining of these narratives” (91). In Noé’s film, for example, extreme violence is depicted as the “boiling over” of latent pressure simmering beneath the everyday narrative surface. In Michael, it is the insertion of violence into the routine of everyday time that is most affecting for the viewer. Ultimately, however, in these films it is the everyday that endures over its ruptures; whether the rupture appears as part of the everyday or that which momentarily breaks with it. However, the real point, for Taylor, is that these films “point to something beyond themselves” (p. 116).
The conclusion is perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book. It begins with an account of four faits divers (a terrorist attack, a brutal and senseless murder, a mass-gynocide, and the deliberate crashing of a commercial aircraft). We are suddenly taken out of the cinematic frame and into the “real” world, where outbursts of violence seem to function in the same way as it does in those films previously discussed. What relationship do these events have to the cinema discussed? Taylor admits that any comparison between these “real-life” events and the explosions of violence in European art cinema is “necessarily speculative” (p. 119). She does, however, offer two possible reasons for why disturbing cinema has such currency: on the one hand, these films reflect a “deep uncertainty” about contemporary life (terrorist attacks, random acts of violence); on the other, viewers discover in these films a renewed “scepticism” about contemporary life in its everyday sense and our ambivalence toward it. Ultimately, it seems, the aesthetic experience – one might hesitate to call it “pleasure” – of the violence depicted in contemporary European art cinema is in part dependent on our own ambivalence toward the everyday.
Troubled Everyday is a timely book and it will find its readers among both academics and a general interest audience. The book is scholarly without being impenetrable. Its argument is complex at times but the clear structure helps guide the reader through the subtleties of its main claims. The central premise of the book, that of the tension between violence and the everyday, is well-supported with examples that go beyond the films set for close study. But this tension itself is brought into tension by the slowly dawning realisation – alluded to in the conclusion – that violence and the everyday are becoming more and more indistinguishable. Isn’t this, after all, the meaning of terrorism, which, according to Terry Eagleton (cited by Taylor), distorts the everyday “beyond recognition” (p. 119)?2
The central question posed by the book (why do moments of violence punctuate the everyday in these films?) remains essentially unanswered. This is not due to some critical oversight on Taylor’s part but something inherent in the structure of the films – and perhaps our own everyday – themselves. For readers looking to make sense of the problem of violence in European art cinema, this is not the book for you. Meaning, as Taylor takes pains to point out, is not what is at stake here. Further, this absence of “hermeneutic closure” is considered the highest achievement of these films. It is this absence which “extends the films’ disturbance beyond the moment of consumption into our own everyday lives” (p. 3). The aftertaste of this meaninglessness lives on after reading this book, as much as it does after watching the films – and this too can be considered the book’s highest achievement.
Alison Taylor, Troubled Everyday: The Aesthetics of Violence and the Everyday in European Art Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)