Saturday, December 17, 2005

DVD Review: High Tension

If one cared to demonstrate how little critics, or film audiences in general, care to think about the movies they watch, one need only contemplate reactions to the French meta-slasher film High Tension, particularly in regard to the film’s “surprise ending” (which, I should note, I will spoil slightly in the course of this piece of writing, though actually I doubt intelligent viewers of the movie will find the pleasures of the film lessened much by my doing this; intelligent horror film buffs and attentive viewers alike, in fact, will probably see the “surprise” telegraphed from the gitgo, when Marie says that the person pursuing her in her dream is actually herself, and simply spend the rest of the movie waiting to see how the significance of this line will play out in the narrative). The movie, and its surprise, hinge on one idea, that the good guy and bad guy in horror films, insofar as they both serve as our representatives, are really one, and that in standard horror films, the audiences get to be somewhat hypocritical about this, projecting their transgressive desires onto the one while pretending to utter virtue themselves, by identifying solely with the hero or heroine, even as they delight at seeing blood spill. High Tension plays a little trick on us to jolt us out of the comfort of this denial, and that’s basically its whole point in existing; it wants us to own our Ids, to admit that we exist on both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum, and wouldn’t be watching the film if it were otherwise. While this idea is not particularly new, or complex, or profound, and the presentation of it is not necessarily a valid pretext for having made the film (which some might find a pretty sordid piece of work), it is amazing to see how resilient critics are to at least acknowledging that an idea exists, and that the twist ending, whatever damage it does to the narrative logic of the film – and it does indeed do some -- does actually convey meaning, and in fact exists for that purpose alone. Almost none of the critics who pan the film want to acknowledge this:
Critic Daniel Kimmel complains about an “utterly moronic twist that comes out of left field and makes a hash out of much of what we have already had to endure;” Wesley Morris calls the film a “fraud” that doesn’t make an “iota of sense,” and notes that “what happens in the final minutes is narratively dumb -- and psychosexually ridiculous,” and Roger Ebert, who seldom seems worried enough about revealing the limits of his perceptions, complains about the “physically, logically and dramatically impossible” twist, which one can drive a “truck” through (punning on the fact that the “killer,” who apparently does not really exist save as a creation of the heroine’s fragmented personality, drives a truck that is apparently real). Brian Buzz Juergens gets the prize for the harshest rejection of the film’s central point, though:
I won’t speak in any detail about the final twist, but it stings like a
slap in the face. Take a step back, and it’s puzzling. Take another step
back, and it’s just stupid. Take another, and it’s actually quite offensive.
It’s bad enough to effectively ruin everything that comes before it, so I
feel that I at least have to mention it here, even without any details. If
M. Night Shyamalan’s movies piss you off, you haven’t seen anything – and
his twists actually make sense.

Well, so does the twist in High Tension, Buzz. If you paid attention to the significance of the fact that the heroine is masturbating as the killer approaches the house, say, you might actually have been less surprised by it. Even if the film doesn’t survive on the level of coherent narrative – fares even worse than Fight Club or Identity, which play similar tricks on us – there’s no reason why coherent narrative should be more important than the articulation of an idea. I mean, isn’t the watching of films intimately tied to the pursuit of meaning? Isn’t that what film is supposed to do, to stimulate our emotions and desires, so we can observe and think about them, and perhaps learn something about ourselves? Why are so many of the people who write about film so stupid, then? Why does an idea as obvious and as uncomplicated as the one behind High Tension seem to catch so many viewers unprepared?

Anyhow, while it’s far from essential viewing, the film seems like a reasonably harmless invitation to enjoy a horror film and think about it, too, which is actually quite close to my idea of a good time at the cinema; it’s a passably entertaining way to spend an evening. I’m sure Carol J. Clover would be passably amused by it and could productively include discussion of it in an updated version of Men, Women, and Chainsaws. It belongs on the lowbrow edge of the “genre” that has been ironically dubbed New French Extremity (art films with lots of gore, brutal violence, and/or sex in them – the films of Gaspar Noe being the best known other example of this style of filmmaking). The DVD, somewhat amusingly, has three different versions of the film on it: the first is partially dubbed, but (if I’m getting this right – it’s a little complicated) uncensored; the second is completely dubbed and partially censored; the third is subtitled and uncensored. Pretty ridiculous. I've yet to check to see which of the three is the default -- it'll be a handy litmus test to determine just how dumb (or how smart) the people at Lions Gate think their audience is.

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