Friday 20 April 2018

The films that pushed audiences to their limits

'Antichrist' is just the latest movie made to shock us, says Paul Whitington

Taboo: Charlotte Gainsbourg in the controversial Antichrist
Taboo: Charlotte Gainsbourg in the controversial Antichrist

With its extreme violence, genital mutilation and graphic scenes of sexual penetration, Lars von Trier's Antichrist has caused a huge fuss before it's even opened.

Many viewers walked out in disgust when it was screened at Cannes, British critics have dubbed it "torture porn", and the 18 certificate the Irish censor has awarded it is exceedingly richly deserved. It opens here on Friday.

But while von Trier is no doubt enjoying all the fuss his film is attracting, the controversy that rages around it is nothing new, because Antichrist is only the latest in a long line of films that, for various reasons, have caused a massive outcry and even led to bloodshed.

Even the silent era had its fair shares of dust-ups. DW Griffiths' 1915 epic Birth of a Nation is widely seen as a seminal classic, but when it was released it sparked nationwide protests because of its depiction of African-Americans as either simpletons, rapists or both, and it subsequently became a favourite at Ku Klux Klan rallies.

Controversial films usually get into trouble because they push the prevailing boundaries of taste, and when the counterculture years of the 1960s came along the shocks came thick and fast. Modern viewers watching Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde wouldn't even blink at its violent ending, but the slow-motion machine-gunning of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway caused a huge outcry at the time, with actor James Garner calling it "amoral". It paved the way for the operatic violence of films like The Godfather.

One of the most controversial films ever made was released four years later by Stanley Kubrick. The great man seemed genuinely shocked when A Clockwork Orange (1971) was greeted with a veritable frenzy of protests. In fairness it did include the senseless beating to death of an old tramp and a particularly gleeful rape, but Kubrick was so marked by the experience that he banned its distribution in Britain for the rest of his life.

If violence is a pretty good way of offending folk, sex and religion can be even more effective. Especially so in 1972, which was a gala year for cinematic sex scandals, with both Deep Throat and Last Tango in Paris being released.

The latter film earned an X certificate in most countries because of the collision of Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider and a knob of butter, but if some critics found other merits in Last Tango, Deep Throat had little to recommend it other than Linda Lovelace's lips. The film resulted in obscenity court cases and was banned in some US states.

Both these films, however, would come in time to seem a little tame when compared to later arthouse sexual explorations such as Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs. In that film actors Margo Stilly and Kieran O'Brien performed a variety of unsimulated sex acts including full intercrouse in front of camera. And who needed a story with all of that going on?

When Hollywood first approached the subject of the New Testament they did so with such numbing reverence that no one could object. But once filmmakers dared depart from the script there was bound to be trouble.

In Martin Scorsese's 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus passes the time on the cross by imagining a long life, and marriage to Mary Magdalene. The poor man was only daydreaming, but the very notion of Jesus having sex had people up in arms. There were boycotts, pickets, and one Christian group in America offered to buy the film for $6.5m so they could destroy it.

There was none of that type of nonsense in Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, but his unflinchingly grisly depiction of the crucifiction got him accused of both dubious biblical interpretation and, more seriously, anti-semitism. As a result of the attention, however, his film made a lot of money. The worst thing you can do to God, though, is laugh at him, because Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) attracted more anger than Scorsese's and Gibson's films put together.

Sometimes controversy sneaks up on filmmakers when they least expect it. Michael Cimino could hardly have imagined that his 1978 anti-war epic The Deer Hunter would be attacked by the liberal left, but the notorious scene in which Viet Cong captors force their American prisoners to play Russian roulette certainly seemed to conform to the old WWII stereotype of the slanty-eyed fanatic, and there is absolutely no evidence that the real Viet Cong ever did any such thing.

Oliver Stone is no stranger to controversy, but he could argue that his most contentious film was a victim of misenterpretation. In Natural Born Killers (1994), he used the story of a pair of serial killing lovers as the basis for a satire on the growing obsession with celebrity. But the satire was obscured by the film's glib attitude to extreme violence. It was banned in several countries, including here, and Stone was threatened with litigation in the States after an apparent copycat killing.

Other films, though, are so gratuitously unpleasant that controversy has to be central to their plans. Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, told the sorry tale of a group of Italian wartime fascists who abduct young men and women and horribly torture and rape them. It was banned in some countries, and at times is virtually unwatchable.

As is von Trier's Antichrist, a film that cannot have attracted such an impressive amount of controversy by accident.

Ian O'Doherty's take on 'Antichrist', page 34

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