allegory: the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalisations about human existence.
Throughout history, allegories have been used by artists across different mediums for a variety of purposes. They can help simplify an intended message to a particular audience, or assist in deepening it’s impact. Metaphors and symbolism are often used overtly, but can also be employed subversively to communicate under a veil of secrecy. Occasionally, hidden messages and meanings can be interpreted outside of the initial intent of the author. Parables detailed throughout the Bible are early examples of this type of story-telling, as are Aesop’s fables, and it’s effectiveness as a technique has ensured it’s continued usage today.
Cinema is a particularly serviceable channel for the application of allegory. The ability to hook into and disrupt our emotions through imagery and sound provides many options for creators who may want to take an abstract approach in delivery of their vision. To what extent this is achieved is often subjective, but nonetheless I intend to highlight some examples that have personally resonated with me in this piece.
mother! – Darren Aronofksy – 2017
It was clear from the outset that mother! was going to be an unusual cinematic experience to undertake. Hints of a movie ripe with symbolism and hidden meaning were evident in the statement Darren Aronofksy made prior to it’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Reception to the film seemed to be violently divisive, famously earning an F from CinemaScore (a badge of honour as far as I’m concerned) as well as being passionately defended by the likes of Martin Scorsese. The chatter around this film was intense on release, and I did my best to avoid as much of it as I could, wanting to take the journey with as little baggage as possible. This enabled me to enjoy my most treasured visit to the cinema in 2017, and it’s with this in mind that I ask the following favour: if you have not yet seen this movie, stop reading now and make it a priority to do so. This article can certainly wait.
In an extremely unlikely scenario where I would be required to showcase how film can utilise allegory as a story-telling device (but alas, I am only afforded ONE choice!), mother! would be my go-to. Immediately following the viewing with my esteemed cohort, Tobias French, we engaged in a lengthy discussion around the meaning of the movie, and it became very quickly obvious that there were many conclusions one could draw about it’s messaging. Multi-layered approaches to story-telling are sought after by capable patrons looking for depth, but can sometimes be mired down within it’s own intricacies. Aronofsky managed to, almost incomprehensibly, deliver a complex and polymorphic work of art driven by minimalism, marrying the visceral and intellectual in a cacophonous escalation.
Is mother! a reaction to the treatment of our planet by the people who inhabit it? Is it a retelling of of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, an abstract cousin of Aronofsky’s previous work, Noah? Is it a commentary on the creative process of an artist and the sacrifices that devotion to an artform can involve, from inception of an idea to it’s release to a voracious public? Is it a brutal exorcism of the trauma of a soured personal relationship? Is it a meta-allegory, referencing religious texts, ancient myths and legends, leading our minds to question what in this world of ours is true, and more importantly, why it is true?
The truth is that it is none, some or all of these things, depending on your perspective as the viewer. One thing is certain: after watching mother!, you will have a lot to think about.
Valhalla Rising – Nicolas Winding Refn – 2009
There is no question that Nicolas Winding Refn’s tale of a silent, one-eyed Norse warrior can be an onerous slog to get through. Those expecting to be entertained by an action-packed Viking version of 300 (which some marketing strongly alluded the film to) would no doubt be left feeling confused, if indeed they managed to make it through a full viewing. The pacing of the film is gruelling, and exposition almost non-existent. It is a film that demands a lot from it’s audience, as is Refn’s want. Although his movies have been subject to criticism for containing too much style over substance, I believe such criticism to be unfair, and Refn’s approach to film-making makes him one of the most exciting director’s working today. Valhalla Rising saw him completely discard a traditionally structured narrative, providing a tapestry of symbolic imagery amidst it’s sparse, yet stunning landscapes to reward the viewer instead.
On it’s surface, the film sees Mads Mikkelsen’s violent One-Eye and his nameless young boy companion join a band of Christian crusaders on a quest for the Holy Land, but the opportunity for interpretation throughout is ample. The clearest insulation of allegory can be made to Norse mythology, with One-Eye sharing many characteristics (not the least a singular oculus) with the god Odin, a figure strongly associated to death and self-sacrifice. Comparisons can be also be made of the character as an abstract representation of Christ, with parallels to some events from the Bible. Conversely, it could also be held true that One-Eye represents a man’s rejection of religion and embrace of self as sole contributor to one’s own agency. In addition, Valhalla Rising acts as a figurative description of the breakdown and erosion of strongly held traditions or beliefs, triggered by exposure to disparate modern ideals and structures.
Viewers with patience and an appetite for the thought-provoking will come away from Valhalla Rising with much to chew on, which simply could not have been achieved if the film was made any other way. The film brazenly risked alienating its audience and commercial success to provide an experience akin to high-art, and in this respect, it succeeded. With Refn’s ongoing filmography continuing to showcase his love for the emblematic whilst partnered with more accessible story-telling techniques, I hope this will increase the amount of eyes on his catalogue of work and provide many more opportunities to indulge in his vision.
Long Weekend – Colin Eggleston – 1978
Long Weekend released at the approximate mid-point of the ‘Ozploitation’ golden age in Australian cinema, a time where film-makers across the country revelled in the opportunity to take advantage of the newly introduced adult (R) rating. Like many of it’s ilk, it was shot quickly and on a low-budget, however it is set apart by the way it tackles themes beyond the scope of what many would have expected of the genre.
A husband and wife embark on a seemingly normal weekend camping getaway by the coast, but a sense of unease quickly sets in as the audience is confronted with some uncomfortable behaviour on display from both the wildlife of the habitat and the couple who have made the trip. Were this to be a run-of-the-mill ‘when animals attack’ horror film, no doubt it would have provided some entertainment at the time, only to be quickly forgotten later. In this case, the script, written in 10 days by Everett De Roche (who also penned Patrick, Road Games and Razorback), provided depth to the characters and their relationship, opening up a number of possible interpretations behind the film’s events.
Long Weekend is a thinly-veiled warning to mankind about interacting with nature and our environment with thoughtless and reckless abandon, but also more than that. It is a morality tale, castigating Peter and Marcia’s treatment of their marriage, subversively comparing the betrayals that occur to original sin. The incidents that occur around the couple to provoke them have correlation to the circumstances and history of their relationship, the film detailing the destructive dissolution of a partnership that toxicity and contempt almost always brings.
Whilst Long Weekend did not initially receive the attention and financial successive of some of its Ozploitation brethren, it is pleasing to see it now discussed as a revered and respected release from this period of Australian cinema. It is a delightfully intrepid piece of film-making that elevates itself above the majority of it’s horror stablemates by veering from the worn and trodden paths that the genre can often find itself locked into.
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom – Pier Paolo Pasolini – 1975
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film, before his brutal murder in 1975, has a reputation that precedes it. It is a controversial movie that is both praised and decried in seemingly equal measure. Cited by some critics as the sickest film ever made, by others as an essential work, it polarises to this day due to its unprecedented depictions of cruel sadism, and accompanying images of graphic sexual, physical and mental violence.
Salo is an adaptation of the infamous Marquis de Sade’s 100 Days of Sodom, with elements of some of Dante’s work incorporated into the structure, however it is set during a period of Fascist rule in Italy under Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic. Pasolini utilised this framework to demonstrate a forcible repulsion of Facism and the dehumanisation and destruction that occurs when a populace is at the whim of a state consumed by the desire of absolute power and control. Whilst one would struggle to locate many penetrating examples of analogy in De Sade’s original manuscripts, Pasolini’s intention to commandeer the work as a vehicle for political statement is undoubted.
This does not make the pill any easier to swallow. Salo (amongst some other films on this list) makes its message unpalatable to some of its potential audience due to its unwavering and merciless illustration of human cruelty and associated atrocities committed. For those with the stomach to withstand such an assault on their morality, it’s uncompromising tactics may have ironically diverted from connotations Pasolini wanted to make about Italian society, and his belief that consumerism and neo-capitalism had enabled levels of degradation and social decay that classical Facism enacted by Mussolini and company could not.
In all of its depravity and vulgarity, the film is an exaggerated and figurative mirror being held up to the ugliest aspects of society. It is a lesson, a warning, a lament and objection that evokes the strongest of reactions from its viewers. The ability to affect emotion is something that I consider critically important in my judgement of art, and Salo, if nothing else, does exactly this.
Enemy – Denis Villenueve – 2013
In 2013, fans of doppelgangers were blessed with not one, but two (huh) cinematic explorations of the phenomenon, both adaptations. Richard Ayoade’s The Double (based on Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name) and Denis Villleneuve’s Enemy (based on Jose Saramago’s book also called The Double) were both exceptional films, and either could have easily served as a talking point for allegory in film. I have chosen Enemy, however, as Villeneuve injected specific imagery into the film not present in the novel he adapted from, providing additional metaphorical layers to stunning effect. If you’ve seen Enemy already, you know exactly what I’m talking about: Spiders.
The use of the ‘doppelganger device’ in fiction has often been applied to explore concepts and issues related to self-identity and the duality of human nature. There is no doubt that Enemy explored these themes throughout its course. Villeneuve wrote, in his recommendation of the superb soundtrack from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, that “Enemy is a one-way trip to the subconscious of a man struggling with issue regarding intimacy”. Interpreting the film as an illustrative tale would suggest that the Jake Gyllenhaal’s dual characters, Adam and Anthony, are in fact one and the same, and denotive of the conflicting desires and perhaps personal justifications or distance afforded to some of his actions.
There are further layers to uncover in this story. Saramago’s writing often referenced his experiences in living under a totalitarian regime, and Villeneuve had insinuated some relation in commentary made in promotion of the film, “Sometimes you have compulsions that you can’t control coming from the subconscious… they are the dictator inside ourselves.” And then there’s the spiders, Enemy’s stand-out example of pure, and unnerving, metaphor. Much debate can be had about what they represent, but attributing the presence of the arachnids within the film to Anthony/Adam’s feeling about relationships and commitment, and women in general, can go a long way towards decoding their meaning. Some female spider species are known to be male-killers, particularly within or around the act of sex, and their placement within the film helps to epitomise his mindset.
Enemy’s greatest strength is that it poses itself as a series of questions, as a puzzle to solve. As a viewer, you understand that the answers are there, but you aren’t directed to them. Villeneuve clearly dislikes gifting his audience an easy reveal behind the hidden meaning in his work, and, as a by-product of this, his films are extremely rewarding to watch. Enemy is the most cryptic and subjective film of his oeuvre, and one that makes me desperate to see something similar to in his future.
Man Bites Dog – Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde – 1992
“When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” This quote from a 19th century British newspaper magnate was abbreviated to title this darkly comic Belgian found footage film, and it serves to accentuate some of the underlying themes in Man Bites Dog. Pre-dating Natural Born Killers, the film follows Ben, a charismatic serial-killer, and the three-man documentary film-crew that follows him around whilst he jaunts around town on a sadistic murdering spree. Whilst it does draw some similar conclusions from the viewer as NBK did two years later, distinction is evident in its subtler tone and deeper insinuations.
Man Bites Dog could have simply been, like Natural Born Killers, a commentary on the media, and the culpability it may have in driving a thirst for ever-escalating and bloodier news-cycles. It is, however, also pointedly symbolic of the film-making process and consumption of movies as entertainment. Haneke’s Funny Games pulled off such meta-commentary in fine fashion, but again, did so years after this film had released. This stands as testament to the film’s shrewdness and foresight, so much so that it can easily be used as an analogy to trends that hadn’t even exhibited themselves in 1992, such as the Reality TV craze that exploded in the late ‘90s. Ben revels in the presence of his documentarians, and jumps at any opportunity to display his knowledge and proficiency in the art of murder.
The film-crew’s gradual progression from static onlookers to full-blown participants is plainly questioning the viewer as to their culpability in even viewing the film in the first place. It draws parallels between creators and consumers. If the appetite for violence was not there, would there a product such as this exist? It also demonstrates the give and take that exists within the process of creating art collaboratively and in close proximity, as the film-makers experienced here. It must be expected, where time is short and budgets tight, that compromises will need to be made when unforeseen issues arise.
Last, but not least, the film points it’s finger at the very form it appropriated to drive home its points: the documentary. Is it at all possible for a documentary to be completely objective, and its subject/s completely unaffected by the process of them being documented? Consider Man Bites Dog an abstract cinematic thesis of the Hawthorne effect, and Ben the human manifestation of a tree falling in the woods. He is quite the philosopher after all.
Possession – Andrzej Zulawski – 1981
Anyone who’s been through a horrible break-up knows that dealing with the fall-out of a broken relationship can be traumatic. It is this sad reality that is the basis of Andrzej Zulawski’s incomparable masterpiece, Possession. Fuelled by the experience of a notably messy divorce, he painted an unrelenting picture of pain, anxiety and despair, a surrealistic nightmare with no small measure of absolute truth, no matter the extreme lengths it goes to in conveying its message.
Zulawski did not hold back in his use of metaphors and analogy, even if the film took some time to descend completely into the fantastical. The marital woes experienced by Anna and Mark (stunningly portrayed by Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill) are painfully observant in short time, and echoed in the setting of a divided Berlin. I hesitate to provide detail regarding the hyperbolic development of the plot in the film, as it is best experienced without prior knowledge. Suffice to say, Zuwalski has some strong statements to make in respect to love, lust, loss and longing, and does so in devastating fashion.
Watching Possession is an intense and anxiety-inducing ordeal. It truly feels like a forcible exorcism of raging and uncontrollable emotions. It is excessive in every way: frenzied performances are coupled with frantic camera work to assist in inducing a palpable sense of terror and further aid in the collusion of the outlandish events that unfold and the indicative significance of them. Where mother! succeeds in stimulating emotion and personal reflection with a minimalist approach that builds up to a bombardment, Possession ratchets up the intensity early, and does not let up until it reaches its cataclysmic conclusion.
A Serbian Film – Srdan Spasojevic – 2010
To be the most objectionable film on a list that also contains Salo and Cannibal Holocaust is no mean feat, but A Serbian Film has this distinction in the bag. More than any other film in recent history, Srdan Spasojevic’s nasty debut shocked and divided audiences that bore witness to its depravity, and it’s safe to estimate the majority would condemn it. Its content provokes such a visceral reaction that I’m certain there will be many that discount and refuse to read this list based on its inclusion alone. It really is ‘that’ type of movie, with portrayals of horrifying gruesomeness that would feel perfectly at home in an American Psycho/100 Days of Sodom cross-over.
Can a film this vile be considered art, or should it be disregarded as an irredeemable attempt at puerile shock and horror? It all depends on who is answering the question, but if you ask Spasojevic, he would point to the film as an allegorical device, intentionally extreme and uncompromising in order to leave the viewer with a strong emotional connection to the underlying message. As stated by Spasojevic: “This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government. It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotise you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about.”
Spasojevic is referring to the period of time in his country’s history known as the Yugoslav Wars, where Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in Serbia and sparked bloody conflicts that engulfed many countries in Central and South-Eastern Europe and led to the eventual disintegration of the country of Yugoslavia. Estimates place the number of lives lost during the war at approximately 130,000, with almost 4.5 million people either fleeing the countries or becoming displaced. Many war crimes were committed during this time, not limited to ethnic cleansing, rape and other crimes against humanity. It is apparent that the events unfolded have left an indelible mark on the people of Serbia and its surrounding countries: pain, anger and sorrow to depths most people would not comprehend. Spasojevic attempts to demonstrate this with a journey of a family descending into the depths of Hell. A criticism often levelled at A Serbian Film is that he did not need to go to such lengths to achieve his goal.
The film is undeniably a transgressive act, pushing against, and perhaps breaking, the boundaries of taste and acceptability. On top of the aforementioned, the director has also described his movie as a parody of state-funded ‘politically correct’ films and an attack on weak, watered-down modern cinema and censorship. Whatever the lens used to look at A Serbian Film, it is certainly not a movie for everyone. I believe that it has a strong message, a level of depth to it that elevates it above the level of just shock value. The reality is, though, that this specific approach to story-telling aggravates and alienates such a large volume of the general public, the message will only ever be witnessed by a limited niche, and let’s be honest, many of these folk are not watching A Serbian Film for its socio-political commentary.
Killing Them Softly – Andrew Dominik – 2012
Killing Them Softly is the second film from this list to be blessed with an F rating from CinemaScore, and thus reiterating my belief this is a recommendation rather than a denunciation. An adaptation of George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade, it’s a neo-noir that charts the fall-out of a robbery of a Mob-run poker game. Whilst Higgin’s novel was set in the mid-to-late 1970s, Dominik updated the setting to 2008, in the midst of the Barack Obama vs John McCain Presidential election campaign and, more pertinently, when the global financial crisis reached a peak crisis point and the American economy was on the verge of collapse.
The film is transparent in its service as a parable of sorts. Footage of political power-players flicker on background TV sets and campaign billboards dot the landscape, ensuring that the time and place of this tale is never in question. This was important to Andrew Dominik, and in preparing for the film he explains, “As I started adapting it, it was the story of an economic crisis, and it was an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling – and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation. It just seemed to have something you couldn’t ignore.”
The film has been criticised as heavy-handed, but I personally feel that Dominik had the balance right. Killing Them Softly can be enjoyed on its own merits as an engaging crime thriller if one wished to disregard the clear-cut associations in the film. Although each character in the film represents a particular participant or group who had a stake in the 2008 GFC, prior knowledge about the situation and how it unfolded is not necessary in order to understand the movie and motivations of the key players.
Killing Them Softly, as evidenced by the F from CinemaScore, was not a hit with the general public upon release, nor with some critics. Albeit that there was no expectation of it becoming a run-away box-office smash, I strongly feel it was under-rated and under-seen by many. In addition to some quarters finding the analogous nature of it too distracting, audiences were perhaps not prepared for what the film had to offer, possibly expecting a more accessible film that did not propose to draw such equivalence to the recent economic turmoil that had taken place. In the future ahead, as Dominik continues to add to his back-catalogue with sterling examples of quality film-making, I’m hopeful that Killing Them Softly will be revisited and upheld as a splendid feature.
Cannibal Holocaust – Ruggero Deodato – 1980
Cannibal Holocaust is the first found-footage horror film to be made, pre-dating The Blair Witch Project by almost 20 years. Much like The Blair Witch Project, its release was accompanied by much speculation about the genuineness of its content, but to much more dramatic affect. Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges after the premiere in Italy, and soon charged with murder, with media speculation that the actors in the film had actually been slaughtered during filming. Deodato was only released after the actors presented themselves in court and demonstrated the how the special effects were achieved.
It is a movie that draws out much allegorical analysis, but interestingly, this intention has been both confirmed and denied by Deodato at various points over the years, in a similar vein to comments by Srdan Spasojevic about A Serbian Film. When a director provides mixed-messages about their purposes in the creation of a film, it can be difficult to understand their true motivations, but luckily it does not make it any more difficult for the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
At its core, Cannibal Holocaust shows us two different worlds, the ‘civilised’ and uncivilised’, and through the actions of the characters, begs the question of what being civilised means, and whether it should be a point of pride or shame. Much like Man Bites Dog, it points the finger at the documentarians and their contribution to the horror that takes place on-screen. It serves as a poignant statement on environmental degradation and destruction that occurs with industrialisation, and can also be interpreted as a reminder of the damage wrought by colonialism and unchecked imperialism. If this was Deodato’s purpose from the get-go, it is somewhat ironic that the film-makers may have personified this threat themselves. It is said that many of the tribespeople used to portray the cannibals were exploited during the making of the film and the presence of the crew caused tensions between two tribes that had not existed prior.
Like the rest of the examples on this list, Cannibal Holocaust demonstrates that cinema is a fitting medium for endowing meaning into a story beyond what is immediately apparent, whether intentional or not. Receptiveness to this particular message does depend on the stomach of the viewer, though, as in Cannibal Holocaust it is packaged in depictions of the worst types of human behaviour, including real animal cruelty and death. The willingness to submit to a confronting and disturbing experience in order to agitate a strong emotional reaction is not in everybody’s DNA, and thus guarantees that conversation about the philosophical merits of Cannibal Holocaust will be limited.