Review of Troubled Everyday: The Aesthetics of Violence and the Everyday in European Art Cinema by Alison Taylor. Edinburgh University Press, 2017. (HB £70) 144pp.
review by Alice Haylett Bryan, King’s College London, UK.
So often European extreme cinema is spoken about in terms of shock, spectacle and provocation that we forget that the narratives of many of these films are grounded in the everyday, and even the banal. In her book Troubled Everyday, Alison Taylor addresses this oversight, carrying out a formal analysis of a range of films such as Michael (Markus Schleinzer and Kathrin Resetarits 2011), Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont 2003) and I Stand Alone/Seul contre tous (Gaspar Noé 1998) in order to reframe the extreme through its relationship with the quotidian. Taylor argues that it is the tension between extremity and the ordinary that gives these films their affective power, a tension that refuses clear-cut meaning and hermeneutic closure, and spills out beyond the screen as part of their intrusive viewing experience.
Taylor’s focus on aesthetics, extending from the work of Eugenie Brinkema, presents affect as being expressed through film form, and moves away from the subjective experience of these powerful works. Each chapter contrasts two films from over 40 years of European art cinema, moving from a study of incongruous quotidian moments in otherwise violent films, through to an attention on style and language respectively, and then to films which position violence as an integral and persistent force within the everyday. Taylor introduces a number of binaries throughout her study that allow her to explore this tension, such as proximity and distance, order and disorder, immediate visceral response and enduring affect, and linear and cyclical time. At the same time she questions the differing conceptions of the everyday as negative (inconsequential, mundane, passive, with profundity located externally to it) and positive (a site of potential that allows a connection with something greater). Her film analysis then proceeds to demonstrate how European art cinema constantly complicates such distinctions, bringing together the violent and the everyday in a way that seeks to “reconsider the boundary between the ordinary and the extreme”.
This approach is particularly successful in her comparison of Twentynine Palms and À Ma Soeur!/Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat 2001). Here Taylor uses language to explore the sudden interruption of violence in the otherwise mundane everyday of the narratives. She contends that it is the way we are called to inhabit the worlds and lives of the protagonists that shapes our experience of the films’ violent final acts. Yet this invitation is through proximity and character interiority in À ma soeur and distance and alienation in Twentynine Palms. Breillat’s film invites us in through a connection with its young female protagonist Anaïs (Anaïs Pingot) and, in Taylor’s view, a positive approach to the everyday as a site of authenticity via two sisters’ relationship with one another. Conversely, Dumont’s Twentynine Palms is a world that is stilted and cyclical. Taylor argues that the film’s lead characters, Katia (Yekaterina Golubeva) and David (David Wissak), are locked in a world of repetitive language, repetitive fights and repetitive make-up sex. They inhabit a negative and alienating everyday of which the film’s violent denouement is but a mark on a world unaffected by their death.
Throughout Troubled Everyday, Taylor’s focus is predominantly on the presentation of violence within these films. Sex is discussed, but for the most part as a violent act, such as rape or child abuse. However, there is lot that could be gained from a study of sex through her theoretical framework. Where Taylor argues that violence within European art cinema is presented as a spectrum with one end being a flattening out of aesthetic with violent acts depicted in the same tone as the mundane duties of the everyday, and the other being the horrific and spectacular unexpected outburst, the same could be said about the depiction of sex in these films. Sex in European art cinema is awkward, passionate, brutal, loving, devoid of emotion, and used as a weapon. Like Taylor’s reading of violence, its depiction sits both within the constant tone of a narrative or bursts out of the screen like a spectacular sideshow (sometimes literally as with the case of Noé’s 2015 film Love). This omission of an analysis of sex in these films is not a critique of the book, rather a potential area for further research, and would be a welcome addition to the study of sex on screen. As such, Troubled Everyday is an inspiring text that allows for a rethinking of aspects of extreme cinema outside of its own remit. Taylor’s style is engaging and accessible and the book presents an original and interesting contribution to the discussion of European art cinema.
Alice Haylett Bryan received her PhD in Film Studies from King’s College London in 2017, where she submitted a thesis on womb phantasies in horror and extreme cinema. Her recent publications include ‘“I Only Like Seeing Myself in Small Bits”: Catherine Breillat’s Reflections of the Female Body’, Cine-Excess 2 (2016), and ‘Surgery, Blood and Patriarchal Sex: Excision and American Mary’ in Transgression in Anglo-American cinema: Gender, Sex and the Deviant Body, edited by Joel Robert Gwynne (2016). She currently teaches Film Studies at King’s College London, and is researching the reaction to the rise of the far right in twenty-first century American and European horror cinema.