There is no category for “best” insufferable drama at the Oscars, as it might too aptly describe the interminable awards ceremony itself. But it may not be a bad idea to add it to the Academy’s roster, since the thriving genre is full of films that, like long vacations spent with mothers-in-laws and prostate exams performed by non-board certified medical outlaws, are physically and emotionally exhausting.
I first became aware of this cinematic niche after seeing Breaking the Waves, a 1996 release by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. The movie tells the story of woman and her husband who, after being rendered impotent in an industrial accident, implores her to have sex with other men and relay the details to him. It’s an unconventional plot. But that’s not the film’s problem. Breaking the Waves falls short because of its severe morbidity: for 158 minutes, viewers are subjected to a grim story that plumbs the depths of dysfunction without coming up for air. The spiral downward is unrelenting. An hour of the lugubrious saga is emotionally draining. Two hours into it, viewers are recommended to substitute Prozac for their Raisinets.
Several years after seeing Braking the Waves, I went to Dancer in the Dark, unaware that von Trier directed it. Here again, the plot plummets into a black hole of misery as the protagonist, played by the Icelandic singer Björk, is mercilessly subjected to one egregious indignity after the next—all while losing her eyesight to a degenerative disorder. Excruciating musical numbers dig the knife in deeper over the course of 139 grueling minutes.
This genre of misanthropic films is not monopolized by European art house moviemakers. Hollywood has gotten into the act. Perhaps the most notable American entry of late was Revolutionary Road, a 2008 drama based on a novel of the same name by Richard Yates. The critically-acclaimed film, which earned three Oscar nominations, reunited Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, co-stars of Titanic, the highest-grossing movie ever. Perhaps seeking a counterpoint to that schmaltzy love story, the two actors sought out its analogue: a romance in reverse.
Revolutionary Road tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, two middle-class suburbanites whose youthful dreams of carefree adventure and wanderlust are quashed by the arrival of children, the promises of promotions, and the other banal realities of life that inevitably arise. As both realize that escaping the “hopeless emptiness” of their stylized 1950s existence is impossible, the narcissistic couple dissolves into bitter recrimination. Altercation follows altercation. Then affairs. Then death. Not that Frank and April’s ultimate fate tugs on the heartstrings, as the viewer has long since lost sympathy for both. The damage from the hackneyed tale of suburban malaise: 121 minutes of your time.
Out in theatres now is Biutiful, another unremittingly dour movie. Directed by noted Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the film stars the wonderful Javier Bardem as a street-smart hustler in the seedy Barcelona underworld who must reconcile his dissolute life in the remaining months of life before succumbing to terminal cancer. He’s also a single father. And the mother of his two children suffers from mental illness. And his brother is a louse. It’s the stuff of von Trier.
Ubiquitous moral depravity weighs down the film. Life isn’t beautiful in Biutiful, which presumably explains the movie’s misspelled title that, ostensibly, references one of the movie’s scenes. Even Barcelona, a breathtakingly stunning city, is drably portrayed. Yet critics loved the film. It was competed for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for two Academy Awards. Biutiful’s real tally: A whopping 148 minutes of misery.
Can emotionally trying topics be successfully explored on film? Definitely. Steven Spielberg tackled the holocaust adeptly in Schindler’s List. Must every movie have a happy ending? Certainly not. The sympathetic protagonist of Peter Weir’s exquisite Gallipoli leaps from his trench into enemy fire at the film’s conclusion, assuring his death on the Turkish front in World War One. The challenge is finding balance.
Unremittingly negative dramas devoid of any humanity fail to present the full complexity of life, which, however tragic, also abounds with kindness and compassion. Perhaps this is why filmmakers who grossly accentuate the negative feel the need to compensate for their simplistic worldview by making up for it with long running times. Regardless, critics love their stuff. Good news for them, von Trier’s next film should be coming out soon. Its title? “Melancholia.”