What are those “one-time-only” movies that you just can’t leave alone? To which movies do you find yourself returning again and again, in spite of the agony they inflict upon you? Coming of age as a die-hard fan of Takashi Miike I became one of those loathsome cinephiles that is proud of their endurance for extreme and brutal movies. But there are some great films so tough on the viewer that I figure anyone willing to revisit them must have specific personal reasons for doing so. How else could anyone justify re-watching, say, Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992)?
Questions like this were inspired by a couple of lists from the archived episodes of Chicago's finest purveyor of movie podcasts, Filmspotting.net Back when Filmspotting was called Cinecast they dedicated two top-five lists (1 and 2) to "one timers": great movies so harrowing and painful to watch that you can only stand to see them once. Sam van Hallgren and Adam Kempenaar cited the likes of The Elephant Man (1980), Boys Don't Cry (1999) and, of course, Takashi Miike's Audition (1999). They hit a couple of serious "one timers" for me, including Roman Polanski's holocaust drama The Pianist (2002), which I saw in-part and never worked up the courage to go back and finish. (It's worth noting that they missed a trick by overlooking Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò (1975), the most unwatchable five-star film of all time).
It was tempting to think that Adam and Sam were wimps for mentioning Requiem for a Dream (2001), a film I've seen several times, but there is no denying that this film does not get any easier to watch with successive viewings. Why would any sane viewer want to relive the electro-shock-trauma of that film? Circumstances, people... circumstances. I believe that every cinephile has a handful of great movies that pain them to watch, yet come around again and again in the story of their lives for reasons perhaps deeply personal or because of bloody circumstances.
I hope the following top-five list might stir up a few painful memories and, who knows, encourage some catharsis among fellow cinephiles with a tendency towards sadomasochism.
1. Come & See (1985)
A film so tough, I never imagined I would be able to watch it twice. And yet I feel compelled to sit through it each time I find a friend ready to take the plunge into the wild mire of the Nazi invasion of Russia. Maybe I watch it with the newbie in question to make sure they sit through the whole thing. Maybe I do it out of concern that they might lose their mind. It never gets any easier to see that church full of people burning down at the end.
2. The Piano Teacher (2001)
Any one of Michael Haneke's films could appear on this list but the film that first introduced me to the work of Austria's greatest cinematic torturer has to rank as one of the most bleak and brutal films ever made. It's even harder to re-watch than either version of Haneke's Funny Games (1997/2007) but somehow I’ve seen The Piano Teacher at least four times. If you really must re-watch it, just don't watch it with your Mum. In case you need any persuasion to take a deep breath and see The Piano Teacher for the first time Louis C.K.'s review might just persuade you.
3. I Fidanzati (1963)
Ermanno Olmi’s Italian neorealist story of separated lovers is neither brutal nor bland. It is rich, profound and engrossing. But, boy, oh boy, is it slow. It is not a slow film that demands re-viewing - it is easily absorbed the first time around. Yet I’ve seen it in its entirety five times, mainly because it took three attempts for my wife to watch it without falling asleep. Each time that I noticed that my wife had fallen asleep, I could have switched it off half-way through but the film wouldn’t let me.
4. Hunger (2008)
A deeply painful film to endure (for audiences on both sides of the Irish Sea) but I chose to write about it for the final chapter of my dissertation at university, thus condemning myself to one gruelling sitting after another. Like Michael Haneke, Steve McQueen seems to have built his career on a succession of gruelling "one timers" but despite the grim psychological depravity of Shame (2011) and the excruciating scenes in 12 Years a Slave (2013) Hunger is still McQueen's most compelling, visceral depiction of dehumanisation.
5. FAMILY-FRIENDLY DOUBLE FEATURE !!! Animal Farm (1954) and Watership Down (1978)
The voice-over of the Animal Farm trailer announces it as "a film that every child can enjoy" ... okay ... That the copywriters had actually seen the film at this point is doubtful (but hey, copywriting isn't always about truth and accuracy). By now most parents should know better than to lump either Animal Farm or Watership Down in with the kid-friendly DVD pile. Both are cartoons with talking animals, adapted from beloved books by British authors, and both have scarred generations of children with their haunting, nightmarish images of humanity at its worst and nature at its most unforgiving. Eventually the Black Rabbit will come for us all and we’ll be hauled off to the glue factory for processing.
What horrible, agonising but great films do you find yourself suffering through again and again (and why)?