Cinematic tendencies: an enquiry of contemporary art films

Good cinema, like all other forms of art, can be understood as an extension to the socio-political environment of its time. Despite their very short history, art films have been compositionally changing at an accelerated pace, through the rise of artistic ideals aiming to oppose, challenge, and improve the cinematic vision prevailing in the previous time period. To compare it in a loose sense with something which might be more familiar to the reader, one could think about film tendencies as if they were art movements applied to the particularities of cinema. Since the processes of transition from one art movement to another operate in the same way for filmmaking trends, Expressionism, for instance, may be compared to the French New Wave, if the necessary “cross-departmental” transformations are being performed.

Cinematic tendencies have a peculiar construction: although the changes being made are recurrent and self-referential, they are nonetheless infused with the concerns prevailing in the social and political arena. Take Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, for instance – Stanley Kubrick’s take on the Cold War is both an artistic innovation reflective of his distinctive style and a satirical political critique of his time.

So, where are we now? The latest materialization of a cinematic movement was performed in 1995 by directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg as an attempt to detach film production from the studio system. They wrote the Dogme 95 manifesto, which criticized the use of special effects and technology in cinema and instead promoted a realist approach with an emphasis on the characters, storyline, and the choice of a thought-provoking theme. For instance, Vinterberg’s Festen or The Celebration, the first Dogme 95 film, is a portrayal of the obscure parts of human nature and of the inherent awkwardness of formality; during a toast, a renowned businessman celebrating his 60th birthday is publicly being accused of sexual assault by one of his children.

Since many contemporary non-commercial films are being crafted in the studio, there is evidence that the Dogme 95 movement is not very influential today. Nicolas Bedos’ La Belle Époque, Joaquim Trier’s Verdens Verste Menneske (or The Worst Person in the World) and Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 are examples of the violations of the 95’ manifesto. To stress this even more, the cinematic ideal envisioned in 1995 was overthrown by one of its founders 16 years later, in Lars von Trier’s heart-wrenching apocalyptic film about a mysterious planet that dances around Earth. Melancholia is a sublime and very well documented metaphor-portrayal of how depression feels. The special effects, and there were plenty, were provided by multiple companies under Peter Hjorth’s supervision. Overall, filmmakers have noticed that subtle technological processes could sometimes enhance the strength of their message and generate the kind of symbolism that “pure”, unaltered cinema could never attain.  

Although the Dogme 95 project is not fully satisfied today, the preoccupation of directors with meaningful stories and complex characters has stood the test of time. The trajectory of contemporary films has less to do with fantasy and more to do with some misunderstood part of reality, often combining a range of genres, suitable for a more nuanced and genuine capture of life. Movies tend to be blunt, personal, and uninhibited, forceful representations of the reflections of their creators, who will use all possible filmmaking resources to produce the desired effects.

Alice Diop’s 2016 Vers la Tendresse or Towards Tenderness is representative of this shapeless cinematic movement: “During a workshop about love, I met four young men from Seine-Saint-Denis. I recorded our conversations. I made a film out of these voices.”. The film aims to be an invasive glimpse into four men’s psychology, portraying 10-minute confessions of emotionally stunted subjects expressing their honest perceptions of love and intimacy. Focusing on how factors such as society, race, sexual orientation, and family may shape men’s ability and willingness to feel and express their emotions, this film shows how the pursuit of hyper-masculinity and the use of “masculine heuristics” can have destructive implications, provoking psychological distress and behavioural unpredictability. Diop’s subject of choice is daring and intriguing, walking the viewer through the soft layers of embedded trauma. The delivery of the disturbing perspectives through Diop’s delicate methods produces feelings of closeness and empathy towards the four men. As Usinger puts it, “From misogynistic violence to the possibility of loving: such is the upward movement of Vers la Tendresse”. Most art films, such as Laurent Cantet’s Entre les Murs (or The Class), Ekwa Msagi’s Farewell Amor, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kynodontas (or Dogtooth) or Bong Joon Ho’s Gisaengchung (or Parasite), adhere to a similar compositional pattern.

To sketch an answer to my initial question, cinema is at a point where individuality and social and political critique are placed under the spotlight. The special focus on arousing feelings and debunking misconceptions is driven by an active objective to invade the viewer’s spirit and create internal tensions. Stirring emotions charges nowadays cinema with lively powers: by acquiring a life of its own in the mind of its audience, the film creates awareness and lays the groundwork for further exploration.


Image: Jeremy Yap via Unsplash.



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