The Cannes festival traditionally bestows the Palme d'Or on films that are off the beaten path - the kind that would not see large releases if not for the prestigious award. The work of Terrence Mullick and Abbas Kiarastami won global attention after acclaim at Cannes. Recently, though, the festival has turned its attention from poetry to violence. And occasionally to comedy, Parasite being a notable beneficiary.
After the emotional and sexual violence of Blue is the Warmest Colour some years ago, and the attention given to Julia Ducournau for her Raw, the award and attention this year went to the latter's second outing Titane.
This appears to reflect a trend that has established itself over the last decade and particularly after the inception of OTT platforms.
Titane is as violent a film as any, so grisly that it saw walkouts during its premiere at Cannes. It begins with a car accident and within a quarter of an hour, we have seen a cringe-inducing surgery, women gyrating against cars and cages, a shower scene with some interaction between hair and a body piercing, and a murder. To say nothing of impaled children.
Does the film have a message? Does it have a storyline? Does it push one to think about anything other than blood and body parts? The answer is, unless one is being particularly imaginative and perhaps even in the latter case, no.
A film is not bound to answer yes to any of the above. But have we, dating back to the arrival of Quentin Tarantino, begun to prioritise style over content to the extent we no longer care about content?
Titane takes on a host of issues, from machismo to gender to incest. It steps into the bizarre, or whatever you might call a pregnancy from sex with a car and a woman lactating - if that's the right word - with engine oil. But what it has to say about any of this, and whether it even intends to say anything about any of this, remains unclear.
Why was it given what is arguably the most coveted award for serious filmmakers who also aspire to a large audience? Is it that the film goes with the taste of the judges, or is it a response to a larger trend? Notably, several of the judges themselves are mainstream Hollywood personalities.
Take any OTT platform. Most web series have their share - in fact several series' share - of blood and gore.
I came to know recently about the British television series Utopia, which began airing in 2013. It ran for two seasons on Channel 4, during which both the channel and the UK media watchdog Ofcom received tens of complaints about the violence and sadism in the series. Among the complaints was one about a child actor being present during the filming of adult scenes and even participating in the violence. The series begins with four stylised murders - including one of a child - and establishes its street cred in the style-over-content genre with a shot of a dancing rabbit. Over the next fifty minutes, one witnesses a man being forced to kill himself, and a ten-minute-long torture sequence. The episode gave me palpitations, and I looked up the storyline on Wikipedia. It is a jumble of coincidences and plot twists, punctuated by violence against humans and animals.
Utopia, despite being cancelled after the second season, developed a cult following and spawned an American counterpart, which continues to air on Netflix.
Perhaps the finest example of how much violence appeals to consumers of tele series is Game of Thrones, where every season ramped up the gore. The first had set the bar fairly high, what with a baby being killed on screen.
The tendency appears to be reflected in the literature that is considered daring and prize-worthy too. A case in point is Discomfort of an Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, which won the Booker International Prize 2020. The publishers claim it is a story "poignantly told" about "death, innocence and loss." Those three happen in the first chapter. The rest of the book is about three siblings torturing and killing animals and then sexually exploiting each other. There is no story. It might as well be a long diary entry.
When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels became posthumous hits, their readership exploded after the first film was released.
What does our eager consumption of violence on screen say about us as a society? Art, according to Aristotle's Poetics, serves two chief purposes - it is a form of entertainment, and a form of catharsis. Do we draw pleasure from murder and torture? Or do we satisfy our criminal impulses by watching them?
The violence is not without reflection in real life. It may be argued that some of these films - although perhaps not the ones involving copulation with cars resulting in fuel-consuming foetuses - may be inspired by reality.
It is intriguing that violence in film appears to have a hold equally on mass and niche audiences - such as the jury of the Cannes Festival competition segment. We feel the need not just to consume, but also reward, films that smack us in the face with it. We have evolved terms like "hard-hitting" and "no-holds-barred" to describe what is horrific and changed the connotations of adjectives like "shocking".
Do we live in so violent a society that we have become numb to its echoes on-screen, or are we seeking to make ourselves numb so we can cope with the real-world version of what we manufacture?
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com