Movies Too Disturbing to Sit Through

As a film critic, I have to see a lot of movies that are not necessarily pleasant to sit through. Which is fine. A lot of my favorite films—and some of the most beautiful, important films of all time—would hardly be categorized as “pleasant” viewing experiences. Films like Breaking the Waves, or Requiem for a Dream, or a number of films by David Lynch, are in my view works of art, deeply disturbing though they may be.

But sometimes it’s a fine line between “just far enough to make an impact” and “that’s gone too far.” Whether we are talking about brutal violence, explicit sex, or just a general thematic fixation on nihilism and despair, I think there is definitely a line that can be crossed.

Sometimes the line can be clearly agreed upon. Most everyone can agree that the brutality of Schindler’s List is worth watching, while that of Hostel 2 is probably excessive and needless. But more often than not, these “lines” are subjective things… rendered visible in one’s conscience when that inner monologue speaks up and says, “I shouldn’t be watching this.”

There have been moments when this voice led me to stop watching a film mid-stream. Such was the case last week, when I was watching the DVD of The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke, a filmmaker (Cache, The White Ribbon) who I admire for his tasteful pushing of the envelope, but who in my opinion pushed it a little too far with The Piano Teacher. I stopped watching about an hour in.

Lars von Trier is another cinematic provocateur who I greatly admire; but this summer when I went to a theater in Paris to view his new film Antichrist, I couldn’t bear his sickeningly violent provocations. I walked out of the theater and tried to find a creperie on the Left Bank to get my mind on other things.

There have been other films I never finished or walked out of, for the same reasons: Films like Pasolini’s Salo, or Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, or Noé’s Irreversible.

The obvious question is: Why would you even attempt to watch these films? I can just hear the parents and preachers now: “Why subject yourself to such debased filth?” Trust me: I have thought the same thing; wrestled with it, prayed about it.

My answers usually have to do with the fact that “the line” is so subjective, and that my experience has shown that some of my favorite, most treasured movies included some “hard to watch” content. There is truth to be found—sometimes most clearly—in the midst of, or on account of, darkness. Should we wallow in it? No. Should we seek it out? Surely not. But should we bear with it, in the task of experiencing art? I think so, to an extent.

But I’m extremely interested in what others think. What is your line? Which films have you walked out of? What should be our moral ground rules for spectatorship? I definitely think there is a time when we should refuse to be subjected to certain things on screen—but I wonder sometimes about when those times are called for.