Against Happiness

Nikolaj Lübecker's exploration of "The Feel-Bad Film" outlines a theoretical approach to films that allows us to stress their value, and highlight their implicit critique.

By Russell WilliamsSeptember 23, 2015

The Feel-Bad Film by Nikolaj Lübecker. Edinburgh University Press. 192 pages.

THESE DAYS, feeling good is less of an individual aspiration than a cultural, social, and political obligation. As Slavoj Žižek has noted, Western subjects have little choice but to follow the cultural imperative to “Enjoy!” themselves. Pharrell Williams suggests contemporary experience leaves the individual feeling like “a hot air balloon that could go to space” since, he croons, “happiness is the truth.” In his recent book, The Happiness Industry, which examines the close links between capitalist culture and the world of psychology, William Davies describes the “limitless pursuit of self-optimization that counts for happiness in the age of neoliberalism.” In late capitalism, anything that stands in the way of positive thinking and its corollary, blissful consumption, is viewed with suspicion.

As we might expect, Hollywood is also complicit. The narrative trajectories of mainstream cinema from Jaws (1975) to Dead Poets’ Society (1989) to The Intouchables (2011) strive to provide a feel-good experience when the lights go on: whatever the ups and downs of the plot might be, they are ultimately concerned with redemptive closure. Even the end of the first season of Nic Pizzolatto’s nihilistic True Detective (2014) saw the antagonistic main characters buddy up and stare doe-eyed into the starry sky. For the individual subject, the feel-good experience is a conservative one: we leave the cinema or eject the DVD feeling, above all, entertained. Any potential for critique provoked by the film has been neutralized or subsumed into the overall emotional trajectory of the film, restoring our sense of engagement with the world. Our strings have been pulled: we’ve been made to feel a certain way by a director by means of a traditional dictatorial address that propagates the illusion that we are coherent, autonomous, and, most importantly, content subjects. The structures of consumerism, of course, have a vested interest here — the better we feel, the more eagerly we’ll embrace capitalist markets. 

For better or worse, then, happiness is the norm. Neither Williams’s happy clapping nor that of the movie industry, of course, reflects all real experience. As Oliver James, Jonathan Crary, and Franco “Bifo” Berardi, among others, have shown, one of the side effects of such wide-eyed market-driven “bliss” is depression, despair, and mental disturbance. The avant-garde edge of culture reflects this: for every Marley & Me (2008) and StreetDance 3D (2010), there exists a Melancholia (2011), Peeping Tom (1960), and Irréversible (2002). How can we start to describe such a state of affairs? How can we find sites of potential resistance to the tyranny of happiness? In challenging the industry, how can we articulate new or alternative politico-ethical paradigms? What would happen if we brought Pharrell’s hot air balloon crashing back to earth? 

Nikolaj Lübecker’s exploration of The Feel-Bad Film outlines a theoretical approach to such films that allows us to stress their value, highlight their implicit critique, and to move beyond dismissive descriptions of them as “depressing,” “shocking,” or just plain “weird,” in a way that engages spectators and encourages them to reorient themselves in terms of what they expect from cinema. The films he considers, consciously, knowingly, and, indeed, very deliberately, demand a physical or strong, often unpleasant, emotional response from their audiences. In Lübecker’s terms, these are films that “maximize the possibility of bodily displeasure,” and “assault” and produce “unease” in their viewers. The films under examination are more than just “boring” or unsettling art house movies: Lübecker is interested in a particular flavor of extreme contemporary cinema, such as that of European directors like Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noé, and (sporadically) Claire Denis. He also considers less notorious names such as Lucile Hadzihalilovoc and Stan Brakhage as well as, perhaps surprisingly, American names more typically associated with the mainstream, like Gus Van Sant and Brian De Palma.

The most notable precedent for Lübecker’s study is James Quandt’s widely read essay “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema,” originally published by Artforum in 2004. Quandt pours critical scorn on much of the French film output of the early 2000s which, he argues, was marked mostly by the filmmakers’ desire to shock rather than produce work with redemptive political or philosophical qualities. He presents as an example the (real) sex and violence of Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi (2000), a rape and revenge narrative where a pair of female killers go on a spree of gruesome murder and real, explicit sex. For Quandt, the films he considers the “New French Extremity” were “determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.” He concludes that “the authentic, liberating outrage — political, social, sexual — that fueled such apocalyptic visions as [Pasolini’s] Salò and [Godard’s] Weekend now seems impossible, replaced by an aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity.” Quandt’s argument is that the contemporary feel-bad film is cynical, anti-humanist, and doesn’t possess the same potential to emancipate its audiences as its more illustrious canonical predecessors. 

Quandt’s aim was to criticize what he saw as an early tendency in millennial French cinema, born out of his own disappointment with Bruno Dumont’s twisted road movie Twentynine Palms (2003) (a film Lübecker considers in depth here). Lübecker, however, takes a broader geographical view and looks to sketch some specific tropes, in terms of technique and emotional impact of the films he considers, moving beyond Quandt’s dismissal of these films, as well as taking into consideration other important scholarly work by Martine Beugnet and Tim Palmer on the topic. At the core of Lübecker’s argument is the relationship these films have with the cathartic experience and, crucially, the desire they create for some form of beneficial or productive catharsis in the form of a message, conclusion, or resolution. A feel-bad film “creates, and then deadlocks, our desire for catharsis.” In a feel-good (or at least a feel-better film) this desire is satisfied. Think about Chief Bromden’s heroic walk to freedom at the end of Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) or the revolutionary “O Captain! My Captain!” outburst of Keating’s class at the end of Dead Poets Society.

In Lübecker’s feel-bad films, the deadlock he identifies creates a range of different effects, all of which are related to the viewer’s subsequent frustration. Of von Trier’s Dogville (2003), for example, Lübecker demonstrates how the ending, which is already frustrating by virtue of the film’s length and repetitiveness, further complicates and rejects its viewers’ satisfaction with its final revelation about the true identity of Grace (Nicole Kidman), who, rather than being a down-at-heel and vulnerable stranger, is actually the daughter of a powerful local mobster. This effectively “assaults” a spectator’s ethical position as developed over the previous two and a half hours by forcing them into a position of complicity with the final, devastating massacre she instigates. Lübecker suggests that von Trier forces the spectators to reveal their “inner bastard,” or own latent capacity for angry, violent responses which mirrors, he argues, the effects of discourses frequently mobilized in contemporary debates on nationalism and racial identity which, he in turn argues, provides an important context for the film.

The films Lübecker considers can also be more delicately, or subtly, subversive. His reading of Denis’s Les Salauds (2013), which veers disconcertingly between film noir, corporate thriller, and incestuous melodrama, explains how the viewer’s discomfort is created as the film glides ambiguously between potential sources of meaning and moral attitudes, consequently destabilizing its own ethical and political frames. As the protagonist Marco (Vincent Lindon) investigates the suicide of his brother-in-law, he picks up the strands of several stories that the viewer is invited to weave together, while Denis rejects dictatorial control for a lighter narrative touch. This process, until the shocking (and arguably disappointing) revelations in the final scene, brings about both the frustration and the empowerment of the spectator in the absence of any obvious directorial control of narrative. This offers the viewer a disconcerting amount of freedom to impose their own interpretation on the events leading to the suicide. 

The most radical, and critically exciting, aspect of Lübecker’s book is the manner in which he engages with the “why?” question of the broader social significance of his work that — he notes — increasingly besets researchers in the humanities. What, Lübecker asks, are the political and ethical implications of our relationship to cinema when we move out of clearly defined spectatorial positions? To put it another way, what happens when we stop watching Sleepless in Seattle (1993), or movies that don’t make things easy for us? Lübecker argues that in withholding cathartic release, and complicating our broader relationship with art, these films can be seen to provide an alternative model for intersubjective relations and implicitly critique the dictatorial terms of address of capitalist culture. Critiquing Jean-Paul Sartre’s view of the neatly dialectical relationship between art/the artist and his or her audience as presented in the 1947 essay Qu’est-ce que la littérature?, Lübecker argues that feel-bad films destabilize the possibility of such a symmetrical rapport. As such, there is an implicit but provocative lesson in the films he considers, since they introduce a degree of distance between the work and its audience and encourage thinking, reflection, and indeterminacy, as opposed to quick or easy judgments. In liberating the subject in such a way, individual thought is freed and, possibly, a model for freer democratic relations can emerge.

Judith Butler’s work on “framing” is crucial to Lübecker’s argument, which he illustrates with reference to Haneke’s Caché (2005). One of the values of this film is the way it subverts a spectator’s expectation of closure by allowing him or her to locate a definitive “meaning.” Is the film “about” Georges’s childhood? Possibly. Is it “about” Franco-Algerian political relationships? Equally possible. These are complex and broad situations that cannot be reduced to facile movie theater answers, as the traditional frames of interpretation are removed. The ambiguous formal complexity of the film reflects the ambiguities of its subject matter. In this way, Lübecker suggests how there is thus a fundamental tension between the film and its protagonist who is determined to find quick, definitive answers to the mysteries that surround him.

Lübecker suggests that a similar process of subjective contemplation is equally brought about by Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), which he contrasts with another film about the Columbine massacre, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002). Van Sant’s film is “feel-bad,” not only because of the bleak subject matter but because, unlike Moore’s film, it frustratingly refuses to present reasons which allow the spectator to explain or understand the reason why the teenagers opened fire in their high school. As such, it empowers the subject to reflect independently, as a free subject. In challenging conventional, tired interpretative frames (sociological, parental) the film encourages us, as Butler suggests, to suspend our judgment, think independently, more freely, and more radically.

Lübecker’s analysis of the feel-bad film closes with an attempt to situate the form within the modern and contemporary avant-garde, transgressive, or anti-humanist creative work. He argues in the final chapter that films such as Twentynine Palms and Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009) should be explored not in the light of what Quandt described as a “rejection of humanism” but more positively and productively in terms of the vestiges of humanism that can be located therein. These films, while they might not immediately offer the radical, emancipatory potential of Salò or Weekend, do indeed have something to say. Lübecker stresses, however, that their value must be situated in the context of a contemporary culture where the potential to transgress, scandalize, and revolutionize is waning, and, thus, viewers need to work a little harder to locate their qualities. Could the end of Trash Humpers, Lübecker suggests, where one of the protagonists steals a sleeping baby, be the sign of a redemptive new beginning for its outsider characters?

Lübecker’s work throughout is illuminating, convincing, and contributes to making The Feel-Bad Film a valuable text, one that helps us to unlock and unpack the complexities of extreme cinema. On, and indeed after, reading, I have been speculating to what extent the analysis he proffers can be extended toward other genres, outside the specifically filmic. It is, then, tempting to suggest that Lübecker’s book can be read as establishing a framework that can be extended to consider the “feel-bad experience” more broadly. His consideration of cinema, and the figures of Korine and Brakhage, indicates that much of what he argues could also be extended to incorporate the world of contemporary visual art, rather than just the world of cinema. Lübecker’s brief consideration of Paul McCarthy points in this direction. If visual art can make us feel bad, then what about music? There appear, for example, to be subjective and aural implications for the work of Mahler, Sunn O))) and Joy Division, which withhold satisfaction, Pharrell-style hooks, and listening pleasure.

Equally, I’m inclined to think that Lübecker’s work allows us to start thinking about the “Feel-Bad Book.” The bleak and deflationary work of Cormac McCarthy and J.M. Coetzee, for example, steeped in brutality, disappointment and ambiguous authorial presence, seems to be calling out for such a reading. Equally, the writing of arch-pessimist Michel Houellebecq (himself, incidentally, a trained filmmaker), whose novels lead a reader into a complex mix of unpleasure and ethical dilemmas that resonate with what Lübecker notes in von Trier and Haneke, also seems to produce a productively feel-bad atmosphere along the lines this book suggests. There is, then, more to the experiences discussed than wallowing or navel-gazing — there is, perhaps, too, a liberating dimension. As Davies wonders, “What if the greatest threat to capitalism […] is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity?” Lübecker’s work provides us with a framework to start thinking through artistic alternatives to the “enthusiasm” and “activity” that consumer culture demands and to describe subjective artistic experiences that don’t fit quite so neatly into the capitalist mainstream. The feel-bad experience as articulated here could indeed be a step toward a productive way of articulating radical, if quiet, resistance.


Russell Williams is a writer and researcher. His work explores the contemporary French novel and he teaches literature at the American University of Paris.

LARB Contributor

Russell Williams is a writer and researcher. His work explores the contemporary French novel and he teaches literature at the American University of Paris.


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