Another contribution to the pretentious vocation comes from yet another miserable “Depression Trilogy” classic; Lars Von Trier’s 2009 Anti-Christ. Like The Neon Demon, this film is another example of a filmmaker’s artistic impulse betraying their alarming gynophobia.
A very simple synopsis would be that the film revolves around a couple who become mad following the death of their son. However, it is more interested in a strange thesis of gynophobia, where the primordial mother archetype is perverted for no discernible purpose.
Though the film feels self aware in its dauntless depravity, viewers are not actively included in the convoluted rendering that they are so unpleasantly subjected to. How could they be? The imposing pretense of diegetic depravity is consistently privileged over any philosophical or ideological objectivity. Some might argue against the proposal that Anti-Christ is pretentious, believing that Von Trier’s corrupting cinema is simply an acquired taste.
To retaliate, Anti-Christ is more visceral than thoughtful in its execution. Unlike the political works of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lars Von Trier follows his artistic impulse with little regard to the consequences of his reactive methodology.
This film is especially harmful in its mean spirited conclusions, which are retrogressive and misogynistic. It poses as something highly symbolic and calculated, when it is more of an empty spectacle of ghoulish virility.
4. Fight Club
David Fincher’s 1999 Fight Club is a singularity on this list, as it is a well made and thoroughly enjoyable film –that just so happens to be pretentious. In many ways, the pretentiousness is operative to the film’s sense of humour and ultimate enjoyability.
What makes this film pretentious is the general mood. In the midnight monologues of a neurotic insomniac, the burgeoning materialism of the 90’s works to pathologize the modern man.
While producers seek to beguile the consumer with the half-hearted promise of prosperity and happiness, Fight Club seeks to deconstruct the gossamer of marketization through the melancholy of Tyler Durden. Wise from the insomniac’s isolated experience, Durden walks in the contemporary dreamscape –half awake. While enjoying the carnivalism, Tyler is skeptical of the hegemonic imperative. Cushioned in the narcissistic emotions wrought from any consumer culture, the story of Tyler Durden succeeds as an endearing yet insufficient attempt at social criticism.
What is pretentious here is how the mood does not befit the diegetic deduction. The final act, though thrilling and interesting, detracts from the underscoring suggestion that the film has any specific rhyme or reason outside of its commercial and entertainment value. To reiterate, Fight Club is a great film with the one shortcoming of affecting a greater significance to its own critical punch than it rightfully deserves.
3. The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2016 film The Neon Demon gives itself away with the line; “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” First of all, this film wants to be Mulholland Drive so badly. However, its attack on the LA fashion juggernaut comes across as more lecherous than Lynchian.
Jesse, played by the scarcely legal Elle Fanning, comes to Los Angeles to become a model. Given her inherent beauty, she is immediately sought after by producers, and soon envied by her superiors. However, the film isn’t your typical descent down the maelstrom of self degradation. This time, there is strobe lights.
Having been inspired by the folk tale of Elizabeth Bathory, the film has a traumatic depiction of necrophilia, cannibalism, and blood bathing. Like Ruby, the film tries to reassert dominance while making love to a dead thing –the screenplay. The lines are always either laughably trying or tediously cliché.
For instance, in astonishing conventionality, Jesse reveals how special she is because she “once looked at the moon and felt small.” The script is blatantly pretentious, especially when it is so outmatched by the cinematography. Admittedly, the cinematography is good, but it is also alarmingly exploitative. Putting Fanning’s barely legal status on the back burner, the character Jesse is hardly sixteen.
Understandably, the industry’s cannibalistic relationship with youth is intrinsic to the film’s thematic objective. Nonetheless, the voyeuristic cinematography forces viewers to be complicit in the predatory male gaze in which the film is devilishly transfixed. This makes for a needlessly uncomfortable viewing experience that is wildly inappropriate, but also just questionable and useless. Ultimately, The Neon Demon is a beautiful but undeniably pretentious cinematic mortuary.
2. The Bling Ring
Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring was made in 2013, and is based off of a true crime that took place from 2008-2009 involving privileged teenaged criminals who committed a string of celebrity robberies. Provided this rather promising premise, alongside Sofia Coppola’s known directorial prowess from critically acclaimed films like The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Lost in Translation (2003), with the sparkling addition of a fresh-off-the-broom Emma Watson starring as Nicki Moore, the film seemed destined for success.
Though The Bling Ring is a self identified “Crime Parody,” the humor in this film is as elusive as Orlando Bloom’s stolen Rolex watch collection. Though it is made definitively clear that the film does not take itself seriously, it falls into a weird state of liminality because it is never actually funny. Not only are the characters shallow and spiritless, but the film is so lacking in morale that it seems to have no purpose in the end.
Expectedly, the cinematography is stunning, and Emma Watson is naturally fascinating, yet in post-viewing rumination –all the talent only further frustrates The Bling Ring’s lost opportunity. There is no trace of a moral compass, and no sincere thematic effort made in this telling. Essentially, it gives about as much as any Lifetime Movie Network adaptation, except it was marketed as some cheeky dark comedy promising to be fun and edgy.
1. The Tree of Life
Probably the most polarizing film on the list, Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life definitely has more merits than most other films on this list. However, it is pretentious nonetheless due to its overstated theme and embellished conventionality.
Frankly, everything about the film is heavy handed. Most notably, the shots of nature juxtaposed with images of childhood. The perpetual paternal motifs become obnoxious and impeding, as the message here is obvious from the get go. The Tree of Life symbology isn’t as illuminating nor as unfathomable as Malick seems to believe it to be.
To clarify, Terrence Malick is a great filmmaker, and his intentions with this film are earnest and admirable. His sentimentality is endearing and accessible to most viewers. However, the film’s clear cupidity to be “all-encompassing” feels distracting and overzealous.
Though the film is undeniably beautiful, it is not as immersive as other nonlinear works. Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil for instance, is far more immersive and philosophically impressive. It is the nonlinear temporality of the film that is most lacking.
The message of The Tree of Life simply does not require almost two hours of convoluted meditation. Furthermore, in a film that desperately seeks dominion over life and death, the diversity of experience actually feels quite limited. Once again, the supposedly prototypical childhood development shown in this film is meant as a fundamental base for its depiction of the human condition.
Therefore the film can be incredibly boring for those who do not share the same nostalgic contemplation. Overall, The Tree of Life is most disappointing because of Malick’s perfunctory thematic conclusions.
Author Bio: Heather is a Communications major with a Chinese minor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and he is also pursuing a film studies certificate. His favorite films include Igmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre The Wrath of God, Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, and Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Other interests include theology, Asian studies, Italian Giallo, Czech avant garde, and Soviet Cinema.