Why Some Movies Shouldn’t Be Explained

Why Some Movies Shouldn't Be Explained

Whenever a particularly surreal or confusing movie is released, the first instinct of the viewer might be to ask what the hell it was all about. Go to the message board for any David Lynch movie and you’re bound to come across someone either asking for an answer or claiming to have one. Denis Villeneuve’s psychological thriller “Enemy” is among the latest films seemingly begging for someone to solve them, but maybe that’s not the best approach to watching it. Scott Meslow of The Week wrote an article tackling the film’s bizarre imagery and maddening ending, and why finding an airtight explanation for the film is missing the point.

This is an increasingly common approach: the idea that a seemingly inscrutable film is just a puzzle waiting to be pieced together. But “Enemy’s” effect is achieved, in part, by the fact that the various elements of its story are impossible to reconcile. As Stuckman correctly notes, there are plenty of hints that Gyllenhaal and his “double” might be the same person — or, at the very least, that the lines between them are uncomfortably blurry. But there are also several scenes that don’t work if Gyllenhaal’s double isn’t a real and separate person: an awkward encounter outside a university, a fight over a missing wedding ring, and a fatal car crash that’s independently reported on the radio. Those scenes don’t fit into the explanation Stuckman has constructed, so they’re glossed over or ignored.

He goes on to write that “Enemy’s” ending is more important for its emotional impact than its meaning, and that it’s a film that’s meant more to be experienced than explained. 

Personally, I strongly disliked “Enemy,” not because it didn’t make sense, but because Villeneuve directs with a suffocatingly dour and portentous touch that makes experiencing the film’s strangeness feel one-note and dull rather than unnerving. A number of reviews compared it to Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant,” which I prefer for its unhinged terror and moments of comical bizarreness (see: Polanski’s character slapping a child for no discernible reason). Same goes for “Eraserhead,” which is frequently as funny as it is horrifying (Mr. X’s fatherly kindliness amidst all weirdness never fails to make me laugh). But I think Meslow’s right when he says that trying to find the point to “Enemy’s” surreal storyline misses the larger point. If the film works for you, it’s because it drops you into a bizarre and unsettling world for 90 minutes.

This speaks to a larger issue in moviegoers and TV fans trying to solve everything whether or not it’s a puzzle – every ambiguity has to be a clue to something much larger. But that robs so many films of their power. Would “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or “L’Avventura” benefit from solutions to the mysteries that Peter Weir and Michelangelo Antonioni weren’t interested in solving? “Room 237” is a fascinating look at movie obsession, but the film doesn’t reveal what “The Shining” is about so much as it reveals that the film is practically designed to be a cinematic Rorschach test. 

This could extend to horror films as well, where rational explanations for what’s going on often make the films less interesting. “Halloween” was frightening because there was no explanation for Michael Myers’s actions or his unstoppable nature. When it was explained in “Halloween II” as “it’s because Jamie Lee Curtis is his sister,” it became banal. “Psycho” is more frightening if you ignore psychiatrist Simon Oakland’s explanation of Norman Bates’s psychosis and instead accept that it’s far beyond rational explanation, as I’d argue the final scene suggests. The question of “Why this girl?” in “The Exorcist” is answered in the much-derided “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” to the film’s detriment: With no answer, it’s a Bergman-influenced meditation on why God allows bad things to happen to innocents; with an answer, it’s less interesting. If there’s nothing more frightening than the unknown, why make it known?

I recently caught up with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique,” which features two characters played by Irene Jacob, one Polish and one French. When something happens to the Polish Weronika, the French Veronique feels it, but can’t explain it. Some have interpreted the film as an elaborate metaphor for Poland and France’s connection in post-World War II Europe, but even if that’s what it means, that explanation has nothing to do with what’s so remarkable about the film: the gorgeous yellow-hued cinematography, the scenes of Weronika lingering in the rain to finish a song in her haunting soprano, Veronique being moved to tears by a photograph of Weronika that she didn’t know she took. Most of what’s great about the film is intuitive rather than intellectual.

So perhaps it’s time to dispose of the decoder rings and accept that some films are better left unsolved, or at very least that the solutions are less interesting than the questions.

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Comments

Chris

I for one did not see the film "Enemy" that is discussed in the article, but I still understand the sentiment of what O'Connell is trying to say. Obsessive consumption of films and television has become the norm, especially with the growth of social media and various internet communities. Ever since the groundbreaking television program "Lost," viewers seem to find just as much enjoyment as picking apart mysterious and confusing storylines as they do watching them. Certain films work better as a viewing experience, however, and are best left ultimately unexplained. Viewing these films and television programs with an open mind helps appreciate them more as art and makes them more enjoyable than they would be once they are deconstructed. O'Connell makes a good point when he suggests this tactic works better across different genres, such as how the "unknown" is what really makes horror films truly frightening. Other films that come to mind for me are Fight Club, Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Prestige. All of these films offer explanations for their own narratives by each of their conclusions (some better than others), but the point isn't to always have something resolved so cleanly and evenly. Films should be enjoyed as a viewing experience, and by obsessively trying to find an answer to every aspect of the story the viewer misses out on the point.

PDFH

I had a prof. once say, "I don't believe in Bigfoot, but wouldn't the world be a more interesting place if he exists?" Translation: the unknown > the known (in the right circumstances).

Daniella Isaacs

Ingmar Bergman's PERSONA is one of the greatest films ever made, unless you see it through the eyes of someone who's "figured it out." Then it's just a pretentious melodrama.

Kovacs

There's compellingly mysterious and annoyingly mysterious. I consider "Upstream Colour" an example of the former and, I'm sorry to say, "Holy Motors" an example of the latter.

HLH

The best explanation I've come across is on YouTube by Chris Stucker. Search "Enemy explained" and click the 24 minute result. It should be the first.

MDL

I think it's in the nature of many viewers to attempt to solve the riddles of some films and when someone does it in a particularly acute and intelligent way it can really help appreciate the film better. I've seen many films in the past that a good, close reading helped bring it all together. Films in particular by Bergman or Antonioni or Godard or Lynch. I'm not saying people can't enjoy these films for what appears on the surface. But trying to crack the code of these films can enrich them.

RGL

Under the Skin took on a greater life in my view after it was analyzed by Chris Stuckmann. The same goes for Enemy. There are some films that I don't crave answers from that certainly keep them from you, but there are people who want resolve in that respect.

Phoned

Human consciousness is paralleled in the heisenberg uncertainty principle. The observer affects the results.

By accepting that outcomes are beyond a solution, you negate a central goal of humanity. And, conversely to what the writer believes or is trying to enforce, that is exactly what the point of films that are 'beyond' any solution. The point is that to remain coherent, there must remain the possibility of solution. This article pretends that blank disengagement from the search is the key to enjoying them.

The writer is deluded

Keith

I largely agree with your point but I think you chose a bad example in "Enemy". I believe the quote at the beginning of the film ("Chaos is order yet undefined") invites watchers to piece together the narrative and hints at a singular answer for what follows.

I also think that there is a positive way to try and make sense of narrative ambiguity that many people have been discouraged from or have never been shown how to engage in. Conversations do tend to turn vitriolic quickly and ambiguity is many times used as a weapon against the film, but some of my favorite writing and conversations to engage in involve people who are inspired by a narrative to explore its ambiguity, even if many of their ideas are merely theoretical.

Chris

There is no point in any mystery if the viewer doesn't try to solve it (it is also basic human behavior to try). It is one thing to say that some movies or mysteries in them cannot be convincingly or conclusively solved – in fact it is perfectly appropriate for a filmmaker to structure a mystery or film as ultimately unsolvable (such is life itself). It is entirely another to ask that moviegoers de-intellectualize moviegoing because you find it annoying when people try to solve the riddles in the films they see. People should be doing more talking and debating about films, not less. That is the only way that the cinema will recapture the cultural currency it has lost in a wave of films that ask moviegoers to turn off their brains and that cannot be satisfyingly discussed for more than a few minutes.

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