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Lights, camera, controversy: Movies that caused a stir

New movie Swiss Army Man is not the first film to attract scandalised notices ... and it won't be the last

By Tanya Sweeney

Published 01/10/2016

Video nasty: Paul Dano annd Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man
Video nasty: Paul Dano annd Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man
Another film that caused controversy on release was The Exorcist
Pulp Fiction

It's a cutthroat business, this filmmaking lark. To say that the competition is stiff is kind of like saying Kim Kardashian is a bit fond of publicity. Yet a few film-makers have already cottoned on to an enduring truism: when it comes to getting a film out there and finding an audience, salience - with a hefty soupcon of controversy - is the Holy Grail.

And where better to set out one's stall than at a film festival, where movie buffs and industry execs are watching all unfold with a keen eye?

The makers of Swiss Army Man were no doubt mindful of creating a controversy. The film revolves around a lone traveller (Paul Dano), who finds himself on a beach when a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. To say that the film is bizarre is understating the case somewhat.

Radcliffe's ill-fated corpse is prone to farting a lot. Weird sex scenes also feature in the plot, making it one of the most unlikely "love" stories you're ever likely to see. Sundance Film Festival is a hotbed for those who like their indie films quirky and groundbreaking, but Swiss Army Man's team appears to have pushed even them too far.

Sure enough, the film hit the headlines on its maiden voyage at this year's Sundance, where crowds walked out in disgust from its sold-out premiere. Undeterred, dozens of movie fans had to be turned away from screenings.

Not that Swiss Army Man's producers were fazed in the slightest; in fact, the film made headlines across the globe for its dubious content, making it one of the standouts of a festival already teeming with interesting projects.

It's a wily way to find visibility in an industry where films are vying for even a tiny bit of elbow room. Film festivals are famously the place where distributors pick films up for release, and if a film comes inbuilt with its own set of controversial headlines, it stands a greater chance of success.

The question looms large: with Swiss Army Man, have we finally reached the final taboo in an industry that has been teetering perilously close to the line of late?

Over at the Toronto Film Festival last month, paramedics were called to the scene of feminist cannibal film Raw. The film's graphic content became too much for a number of the festival's attendees, who passed out during the film.

Raw, from debutant director Julie Ducournau, follows a vegetarian veterinary student who slowly turns to cannibalism. Unpalatable though it may be to some, the film has had a rollicking - and rather successful - ride through the festival circuit. The genre film was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May where it went away with the FIPRESCI Critics' prize.

It calls to mind the moment in 2009, when Lars von Trier's Antichrist was shown to audiences at Cannes. The Danish horror film elicited derisive laughter, gasps of disbelief, a smattering of applause and loud boos at the festival.

"Cannes' notoriously picky critics and Press often react audibly to films during screenings, but Sunday evening's viewing was unusually demonstrative," wrote one critic.

This may sound like a thoroughly modern way to create and market a movie, but creating physically revolting movies is an age-old art.

In 1931, women were reportedly carried out of cinemas after fainting during Dracula, in which Bela Lugosi played a seductive vampire. In 1973, screenings of The Exorcist resulted in fainting, vomiting, mass walkouts and even, allegedly, a few heart attacks. In 2006, Saw III saw a few horror fans assisted by paramedics after leaving screenings in distress.

Famously, a woman died of a heart attack while watching Passion of the Christ in Kansas in 2004. And in 2011, 127 Hours - in which James Franco cuts off his own arm with a pen-knife after being pinned between two rocks - was followed by reports of faintings and seizures all over the world.

For all its queasy quality, the film went on to be nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Ironically, and far from spelling doom for the future of the film, reports of audience members walking out of festival screenings only seem to fan the flames of interest. At Cannes, Pulp Fiction was booed by a section of its audience, and several others walked out in disgust at the scenes of graphic violence.

Yet this didn't stop the film from winning not just the festival's highest award, the Palme d'Or, but also an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Director Quentin Tarantino was booed during his Palme d'Or acceptance speech, mind.

Some movies don't even have to be gory, graphic or controversial to turn cinemagoers' stomachs. Even seasoned film critics and industry insiders felt the dizzying effects of French daredevil Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walking a tightrope between Manhattan's Twin Towers in 2015's The Walk. Some reportedly left the theatre to vomit, and many reported symptoms of vertigo.

And that same year, The Revenant caused a strong reaction at initial screenings when folks couldn't handle the film's most gruesome moments; among them a bear attack, ear removal and wound cauterisation. Others cited director Alejandro Inarritu's hand-held camerawork for causing them motion-sickness during the 156-minute gore-fest.

But, as we already know from The Revenant's many moments of glory during this year's awards season, queasy critics and disgusted movie fans are but a mere hurdle on the way to true cinematic glory.

  • Swiss Army Man is in cinemas now

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