Tuesday 31 August 2010

Cherry Tree Lane: Vintage Violence? (The List, Issue 665)

When it comes to going to the cinema, how much screen violence is too much? Or is it more to do with the type of violence? Paul Gallagher ducks the punches

Paul Andrew Williams’s Cherry Tree Lane is a real-time enactment of the break-in and torture of a middle class suburban couple by vengeful teenagers. At a mere 77 minutes, it’s still a brutal, unpleasant endurance test, and much of its power comes from Williams’s stylistic choices. From the film’s opening – a portentous ultra-slow zoom onto a front door – he eschews the furious editing of modern American horror, as well as the more traditional camp vagaries of the genre, in favour of something less comfortable, more shocking, and closer to art house in form. Torture scenes unfold in beautifully composed long takes, and most of the gut-wrenching violence takes place just beyond the camera’s line of sight, with sound filling in the blanks in audience members’ pummelled imaginations. It’s an impressive display of technical expertise, but I struggled to understand why Williams would want to put anyone through such an experience. It’s not a question that he convincingly addresses at any point in the film.

I had a similar reaction recently watching another horror of sorts. Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me features two protracted scenes of brutal and humiliating violence against the film’s female characters; powerfully shocking scenes that have no justifiable place in what is an otherwise traditional, even unremarkable, noir.

These examples represent a growing number of British filmmakers employing the extreme tendencies of art house cinema in mainstream horror films, in a universally empty-headed manner. In the wake of what James Quandt referred to in 2004 as the ‘New Extremity’ – European filmmakers including Gaspar NoĆ©, Catherine Breillat and Bruno Dumont who consciously provoked with painstakingly realised sex, violence and debasement – burgeoning British filmmakers have a new reference, more immediate and shocking than stylised Italian Giallo, but are doing nothing constructive or insightful with it. In fact, with their ‘realistic’ aesthetic, James Watkins’ Eden Lake (2008), Thomas Clay’s execrable The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005) and Cherry Tree Lane serve only to reinforce the inaccurate stereotype that the only teenagers this country produces are fearsome amoral troublemakers.

The film that Cherry Tree Lane immediately brings to mind is Michael Haneke’s home-invasion grueller Funny Games, in which the divisive Austrian director dared audiences to withstand the extreme humiliation and pain he put his characters through. Haneke was making a point about screen violence though; you can disagree with him, but his motivation is clear.

Williams claims that his motivation was ‘to see if I could create what it would be like if this really happened’, while Winterbottom, reflecting on negative reactions to his film, simply said ‘I was surprised that people were so shocked by the violence’, suggesting a distinct lack of reasoning behind their provocative presentations of violence. Film is primarily a means of communication; on this evidence, extreme violence is the current easy option for directors with nothing to say.

Cherry Tree Lane, selected release, Fri 3 Sep. The Killer Inside Me is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Mon 27 Feb. This article first published in The List magazine.

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