There’s one every year. Last year it was Holy Motors. This year it’s Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, a beautifully shot but impenetrable imbroglio of parasitic worms, pigs and dirgelike music. Predictably, it has divided audiences. Some find it mesmeric and challenging. Others call it “pretentious hogwash”, “pretentious and exhausting” and “infuriatingly pretentious.”
My Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines “pretentious” as “making claim to great merit or importance, esp. when unwarranted.” I’m not sure Carruth makes claim to great merit or importance; I think he just made the film he wanted to make, and then put it out there to let audiences, in their turn, make of it what they will. But “pretentious” is a word that now appears to have expanded from its original definition to mean, among other things, “snobby and intellectual”, or “black and white, with subtitles”, or “I don’t understand it, therefore it must be tosh”.
The charge of pretentiousness is most frequently levelled at films that don’t conform to a conventional narrative structure. It’s human nature to want to impose meaning on chaos, and to try to knit seemingly random events into a story, and there can be resentment when film-makers fail to provide signposts. Often there is a story there – perhaps it takes effort to winkle it out, or perhaps it’s up to viewers to impose their own structure and insights. Not everyone wants to do this, which is fair enough – sometimes we just want to be entertained.
Here then are my Top Ten Pretentious Films (I’ve deliberately left out experimental fine art films, such as Andy Warhol’s Empire). Some of these I love, others I loathe, though I am happy for all of them to exist. But of one thing you can be sure – each has been hailed as a masterpiece AND dismissed as pretentious tosh.
A woman mysteriously disappears during a trip to an island off Sicily. Her friend and fiancé join forces in a search, but don’t worry about the plot, because Michelangelo Antonioni certainly didn’t. Instead we get two hours of exquisitely filmed alienation. It’s all very (there’s no other word for it) Antonioniesque – but never underestimate the joys of watching Monica Vitti being effortlessly magnificent for a couple of hours.
The first time I saw this I was very tired, and kept nodding off. But – and this was the clincher for me – each time I dozed off I would dream about the film.
L’ANNÉE DERNIÈRE À MARIENBAD (1961)
Delphine Seyrig swans around a grand hotel, looking fabulous. Other hotel guests stand around in the grounds. This might possibly be a haunted hotel story, or a tale of adultery, rape and murder enacted by a bunch of formally dressed swells uttering stilted dialogue. Or then again it might not. Elegant meditation on the nature of time and memory or, in Albert Steptoe’s words, “a load of old boots”? I find it mesmerising, and the mounting sense that something horrific has happened, or is about to happen, is also quite terrifying.
Time, memory and the past were recurring motifs in the films of director Alain Resnais, while the work of screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet is characterised by its juggling of conventional structure, repetition and free association – all elements that risk being dismissed as “pretentious” by filmgoers who prefer their stories to have a beginning, middle and end – in that order. The characters in Marienbad, incidentally, remind me of the ghosts in Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), trapped in a melodrama which they’re obliged to reenact over and over again.
INDIA SONG (1975)
John Waters once wrote that Marguerite Duras “makes the kind of films that get you punched in the mouth for recommending them to even your closest friends.” This is one of them.
For two hours, Delphine Seyrig swans around looking gorgeous as wife of the French ambassador in Calcutta between the wars. There’s no spoken dialogue, only voice-over. Which isn’t in synch with the images. If you can sit through this without losing consciousness, I take my hat off to you.
JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1975)
For three and half hours, Delphine Seyrig (clearly some sort of poster girl for hard-to-fathom arthouse films) does household chores, runs errands, turns the occasional trick. Then something happens. Uh-oh.
Chantal Akerman’s film sounds boring, but in fact is surprisingly gripping. Once you adapt to its somnolent rhythms it becomes almost impossible to tear yourself away, so that the eventual disruption to Jeanne’s routine is almost as shocking to the attentive viewer as it is to her.
THE QUINCE TREE SUN (1992)
A Spanish artist sits in his backyard and paints a quince tree. Anyone nowadays can watch scenes of Reservoir Dogs-style torture and mutilation without flinching, but it takes a Real Man to endure all 133 minutes of Victor Erice’s film without passing out. Obviously not for anyone with ADD, but if you can slow your pulse rate down sufficiently, it’s all a rather wonderful and ultimately very moving experience.
MOTHER AND SON (1997)
A son sits by the bedside of his dying mother. They talk about their nightmares. Then he picks her up, takes her out into the forest and leaves her lying motionless on a bench before going away for a while. A little later on, he comes back. Will the excitement never end?
Even at 73 minutes, Alexandr Sokurov’s film is a long haul, though (as you can see from this still) some of the imagery is ravishing. Is ravishing imagery enough, though? I don’t know, you tell me. Maybe it is, sometimes.
The murder of a girl in north-east France leads to a lot of introspection on the part of the cop on the case. Instead of interviewing suspects, he rubs his stubble all over their faces. Later, while digging his allotment, he levitates.
This is one of those films where you see a tiny figure on a distant skyline, and realise with a sinking feeling that you’re going to have to watch that figure toiling very slowly across the horizon, all the one way from one side of the frame to the other, before the camera cuts away.
Bruno Dumont’s L’humanité was roundly booed at the Cannes Film festival; I loved it, though I’m not sure it was supposed to make me laugh quite as much as it did. I should probably also confess here that the same director’s Hors Satan (2011) is one of my all-time favourite arthouse films.
WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000)
Inhabitants of a provincial town in Hungary are waiting to see the Biggest Whale in the World… and waiting… and waiting… Béla Tarr’s adaptation of Lászlo Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance is composed of only 39 tracking shots. A shot of townsfolk tramping down the street went on for so long that I nodded off, had a little dream about something completely different, and then woke up – to find the townsfolk still tramping, tramping, tramping…
I’ve never dared watch the same director’s Sátántango, which weighs in at 432 minutes. It also depicts the torture of a cat, which I’m told was very obviously in distress during filming. If you’re unable to express your artistic vision without torturing animals, then I’m sorry, but fuck your artistic vision.
THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)
Terrence Malick’s films inspire adoration and derision in equal measure. I think Badlands is brilliant, and I have a lot of time for the exquisitely photographed Days of Heaven, but after that, I’m afraid, he lost me. Sean Penn glumly remembers his parents and childhood in sunny Texas. There is classical music, not necessarily well chosen (I’m sorry, but I can’t hear Smetana’s Vltava without thinking of Czech nationalism). Hello birds, hello sky. All is grace. Isn’t nature wonderful?
Epic meditation on life, love and the cosmos, or glorified life insurance commercial in which heaven is a beach where all your loved ones are wandering around looking dazed in colour-coordinated clothing? Either way, the bit with the dinosaurs is ace. And at least you won’t catch Malick torturing animals.
HOLY MOTORS (2012)
Denis Lavant plays “Monsieur Oscar”, who is chauffeured to a number of rendez-vous around Paris. At each stop, he assumes a different persona. Léos Carax’s arthouse hit is often funny, sometimes sad, and occasionally very moving. I loved it, and raved about it to my friends. Many of whom declared it a tedious load of old cobblers. It takes all types.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in September 2013. I have since lightly edited and in some parts added to the text.
Addendum: I wrote this piece because I’d noticed people were applying the word “pretentious” to just about anything and anyone they disliked or disagreed with – not just films – with scant regard to the word’s actual meaning. It seems to have become a catch-all derogatory term, diminished by overuse and well on the way to becoming virtually meaningless.
For the record, I find the following films more pretentious than any of the ones listed in this article, since I think they really are guilty of “making claim to great merit or importance, esp. when unwarranted” (and of course I don’t expect you to agree with me): Atonement, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, The Hours, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, The New World, American Beauty, Hanna, Crash (2004), Forrest Gump, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby.