Extreme Cinema: Arthouse Ethics, Exoticism and the Desire for the Real

Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of Arts


Shocking, explicitly violent and sexual "art films" have in recent years led to heated debate in the popular press and among cultural critics, who praise the works as "challenging art" or dismiss them as "torture porn." Hardly a season goes by when there is no news about a controversial new art film, whether the next incarnation in the "Asia Extreme" DVD series or the latest provocation by Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, or Gaspar Noé. Premiering at glamorous film festivals among cultural sophisticates, playing at upmarket cinemas, and featuring in the "world cinema" or "arthouse" sections at video stores and online DVD and download services, these productions shock with graphic depictions of violence, rape, genital mutilation, incest, bestiality, paedophilia, or purport to capture "real" sex.

At the heart of these films lies a paradox: why do these productions attain the status of "art" despite (or, even, because of) the use of the very tools of the lowbrow: the "gratuitous" or disturbing sex and violence of pornography, snuff films, horror, and action movies?

In the interest of cultural commentators, parents, censors, and cinephile audiences, we need to know the means by which Extreme Cinema partakes of the institutional discourses of art cinema, and--on account of violent, sexual, or other graphic content--simultaneously engineers critical and popular controversy.

In particular, this project explores:

1. the way that Extreme filmmakers use formal and stylistic strategies, but also ethical claims to position their work as "art" and to differentiate their work from "conventional" representations of sex and violence;

2. how international distribution channels add (exotic) cultural value to these productions and thus changes the way that domestic censors and audiences respond to them;

3. how blurred boundaries between documentary and fiction function as major components in their controversy and appeal.

My research method synthesizes (1) textual anlysis, (2) scrutiny of critical and institutional discourse, (3) analysis of popular discourse and qualitative audience reception reports and (4) the critical analysis of the above methods with cultural theory. Specifically, I look not only at the films as texts but also to the discourses in the marketing and reception of these films. This includes:

(1. Textual Analysis) - close narrative and formal analysis of case studies such as Funny Games, Irreversible, Oldboy and 9 Songs

(2. Analysis of critical and institutional discourse) - scrutiny of publicity material; critical reviews; published interviews with Extreme filmmakers; and interviews I will conduct with Christoph Terhechte (Berlin Film Festival programmer of EC), Hamish McAlpine (producer and distributor of EC) and Nick Jones (television programmer of EC)

(3. Analysis of popular discourse and reception) - scrutiny of online forums, attendance figures and qualitative audience reception reports

(4. Critical analysis of material above via cultural theory) - this includes assimilation of:

--theories and histories of taste, in general, and function of taste in the distribution of art cinema, in particular

--accounts of the "exotic," in general, and the history of the reception of "foreign" filmmaking, in particular

--broader theoretical conceptions of cinematic realism and of the cultural and ethical problems of screening sex

The research will be presented in THREE CONFERENCE PAPERS at three major, important, and international conferences (Society for Cinema and Media Studies; European Network for Cinema and Media Studies; Screen); it will be written up in a scholarly MONOGRAPH. Linking with key educational institutions (British Film Institute, Gulbenkian Cinema, Austrian Cultural Forum, Institut Francais, Korean Cultural Centre), the media (Sight and Sound, the BBC) and the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will insure its pathway to impact.

Planned Impact

The COMPREHENSIVE METHODOLOGY of this project generates two potential sites of impact. The first is academic beneficiaries in Film and Media Studies, Area Studies, and Cultural Studies. The second is a wider network of cultural and educational institutions: these groups have consistently voiced their pressing concern with this issue.

1. The dissemination of my results to academic beneficiaries will occur in the form of THREE CONFERENCE PAPERS presented to international scholars at the SCMS, NECS, and Screen conferences and via one MONOGRAPH, as detailed in my impact plan

2. As detailed in my Pathways to Impact and Workplan, I will be in contact with educational bodies, national-cultural institutions and the media at every stage of the project. This includes:

--outreach events via the Education Department at the BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE (BFI);

--introductory comments to screenings of new Extreme films at the NATIONAL FILM THEATRE and at the GULBENKIAN CINEMA (University of Kent Cinema);

--linking with national-cultural institutions AUSTRIAN CULTURAL FORUM LONDON, INSTITUT FRANCAIS DU ROYAUME-UNI, and KOREAN CULTURAL CENTRE UK to provide programming consultation, introduce films and moderate discussions on key Extreme Cinema from their respective cultures

--an accessible article for the mainstream periodical SIGHT AND SOUND, which has shown interest in this issue;

--proposing a factual television programme on this subject to the BBC and CHANNEL FOUR

--Finally, the monograph engages the cultural sector, the government, and the wider public sector by offering policy suggestions on the classification and censorship of Extreme Cinema. This is of urgent interest to the national film censor, the BRITISH BOARD OF FILM CLASSIFICATION (BBFC), which has highlighted Extreme Cinema as an acute area that needs to be researched. My work will help the BBFC to be able to make more informed decisions.


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Frey M (2018) Researching Sex and the Cinema in the #MeToo Age in Film Studies

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Frey, M. (2018) Unwatchable

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Frey, Mattias Antares, Sex and International Distribution in Picturing Austrian Cinema

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Frey, Mattias Arthouse Ethics and Provocation in European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS) Annual Conference, Lisbon -23 June 2012

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Frey, Mattias Cosmopolitanism, Exoticism and the 'Sandwich Process': the Programming and Discourse of Extreme Cinema at Film Festivals in European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS) Annual Conference, Prague - 21 June 2013

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Frey, Mattias Suburban Violence in German-Language Film in Political Cultures/Cultural Politics of Germany in the 21st Century, University of Birmingham, 8 December 2012

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Frey, Mattias 'Real' Sex by 'Real' People: Realist Aesthetics and Celebrity Couples in the Marketing of Extreme Cinema in Society of Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Annual Conference, Seattle - 21 March 2014

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Frey, Mattias Disturbing Directors, Disturbed Programmers: The Rhetoric and Reception of Extreme Cinema in Screen Studies Conference, Glasgow University, 29 June 2013

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Frey, Mattias The Role of Violence and Sex in Recent Austrian Cinema in King's College London, Research Seminar, 27 November 2013

Description Whether it is the installments of the Eastern Edge or Asia Extreme DVD series; fare from niche distributors Artsploitation, A-Film, or Invincible Pictures; or Korean or Austrian filmmakers' latest provocations about rape or pedophilia: these films are ubiquitous on the festival circuit and in arthouse cinemas, puzzle ratings committees, and appear reliably in the media cycle, often accompanied by a critic, politician, or lobby group's consternation at how these productions might deform our brains or our impressionable children, or how they dumb-down and devalue artistic cinema.

My project examines this extreme cinema: contemporary films of artistic pretension that graphically represent violence and/or sex. These productions, the incentives that motivate their circulation, and how key personnel in film culture understand them, are the focus of my inquiry.

Although histories regularly allude to the role of titillating or scandalous content in art cinema, assessments of today's scene have largely come piecemeal. These films have most often been analyzed in terms of individual auteurs (Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, Michael Haneke, Miike Takashi, von Trier) or as expressions of or trends in various national or regional cinemas (new French extremity, Asia Extreme, Austria's feel-bad movies). Up to now, there has not been a comprehensive scholarly study into how arthouse taboo-breakers have become a systematic, institutionalized feature of contemporary cinema.

The monograph I have written argues that the transgressive representation of sex and violence, long a feature of art cinema, has thrived and become codified in the last twenty years and that this phenomenon has been caused by a number of interrelated incentives. They include: the long-standing need and desire of filmmakers, festival programmers, niche distributors and exhibitors, and so on to transgress and thereby appear artistic; the widespread introduction of inexpensive digital cameras, which reduced start-up costs and allowed provocative material to go into production without the need to placate nervous funders; the proliferation of film festivals and the increased importance of this network for funding, distribution, and exhibition; new developments in distribution business models and consumption platforms; the loosening of censorship and classification regimes and the publicity that resistance from classification bodies provides; the recognition and branding of the potential added value that "extremity" can achieve when presented in combination with the "exotic" or "foreign"; and the competition of extreme images of violence and sexuality on the internet. These cultural and institutional incentives, key objects of inquiry here, motivate the production, distribution, exhibition, and reception of these films and will foster their presence and proliferation for the foreseeable future.
Exploitation Route Filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, censors and classification bodies, journalists and other academics would have interest in these findings.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The findings from this project have been used, for example, in a cinema restructure of the CITY 46 cinema in Bremen, Germany.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

Description Philip Leverhulme Prize
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Funding ID PLP-2015-008 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2016 
End 12/2018
Description "Why Is Cinema Violent?" - British Council, Tokyo, 1 May 2013 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 30 members of the public attended a talk, which sparked questions, discussion and debate afterwards

queries from attendees
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description 'Ekel im Kino', Invited Speaker, Deutsches Filmmuseum Frankfurt, 23 January 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 35 members of the general public attended a talk I gave regarding 'Disgust in Cinema' at the Deutsches Filmmuseum Frankfurt
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Why the Arts Matter, or: The Role of Violence in Film and Media - Kaywon School of Art and Design, Seoul, 18 October 2013 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact 49 pupils attended a talk, which sparked questions, discussion and debate afterwards

interests in applying to my research institution to pursue these questions further
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013