When describing the plot of films such as Funny Games (1997), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and Salò, or, 120 Days of Sodom (1975), the response from my mum is typically: “Not my sort of thing”. But why? I get that people can be put off by gore, by sex, or by the title for the second chapter of Salò, ‘Circle of Shit’ – but I am here to write about why these excessive portrayals are not only the best of content, but why they are worthwhile content at that.
Cinema, though it can provide solace to an individual, is certainly a group event in culture today – and what screams ‘group’ more than cult films? The cult following of films like Wiseau’s The Room create a dedicated audience to an often extreme, or excessive, artform. But they have this cult for a reason – they provide entertainment, excitement, or simply a space of like-minded people to share an interest in. When watching Salò, there are moments of disgust, but when watching it with a friend, we laughed at the uncomfortable moments, and spent up to an hour afterwards reading reviews and talking about the merit in the film. Yes, there is a lot to be concerned about (the young age of many of the actors being a huge issue, of course), but as a film, the sex does say something, and it is wrong to discredit the film purely because its ‘too much’.
Both Requiem for a Dream and Funny Games have something to say about the excesses that they show: for the former, it is about the dangers of drugs, and for the latter, the danger of violence on screen. Haneke’s 1997 film (which he remade in English shot-for-shot in 2007) in particular suits this question of why excess can be a good thing, because its message is a sort of paradox: the film pushes violence, murder and sexual abuse to an extreme in a family setting, but at the same time, is asking why we want to see such extremes, and judging us for enjoying it. The fourth wall break from the intruders are in my opinion, amazing – the best one being halfway through an especially violent scene, when the intruder turns to the camera and asks “is this violent enough for you?”. You feel attacked, but you also feel seen – and really, is that not one of the most important things people look for when watching a film – to feel seen?
But now, let’s think, rather than feel, and look at the excess of Requiem for a Dream. Darren Aronofsky is not a man known for his subtlety – having a baby-murder scene in his 2017 flick Mother! made that pretty clear. Requiem for a Dream is a film which objectively works because of its excess – it is whole-heartedly devoted to excessiveness, from its extended scenes with Jared Leto’s mother being chased by her fridge, to the parallels of each character turning onto their side in the final shots, made particularly extreme by Leto’s amputation. This is an antidrugs film, and it serves this aim well – the excess is what allows this film to work, so I have to ask how anyone could criticise it for being ‘too much’.
Excess can feel as though the creator is just throwing everything even slightly ‘horrible’ in to get a reaction, but that’s the joy. When Von Trier ends his film The House that Jack Built (2018) with a house made of mutilated, murdered dead bodies, strung up and screwed together after being frozen for years, you may be disgusted and (wrongly) discredit Von Trier’s work forever, but one thing is for sure, you don’t forget the ending.