Elena del Río, The Grace of Destruction: A Vital Ethology of Extreme Cinemas. London: Bloomsbury, 2016; 267 pages. ISBN 978-1501303029.

Reviewed by David H. Fleming, University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

As the latest instalment in Bloomsbury’s “Thinking Cinema” series, The Grace of Destruction surfaces as a paradoxically timely and untimely book. Indeed, insofar as the ongoing “ethical-turn” in contemporary film-philosophy is concerned (see Nagib, 2011, 10; Choi and Frey, 2014, 1; Sinnerbrink, 2016, 5), and the wider “affective-turn” within millennial humanities, the book is very much of its moment. However, if we frame it alongside 2016’s populist nationalist movements (in the “West”), and the so-called “post-truth” events, it suddenly appears recast—in the Nietzschean sense—as an incredibly untimely work. For almost in anticipation of these events, Elena del Río celebrates “extreme” artworks that use their form and content to show how passive forces breed ressentiment and bad conscience, while active forces can help stimulate experimental creativity, and positively change the world. In such endeavours, del Río finds her untimely ally in Nietzsche, who (in)famously argued that the conjunction of art and philosophy is “useful for harming stupidity” and exposing all “forms of baseness of thought.” (183)

Following in the footsteps materialist philosophers such as Brian Massumi, affect is here viewed as being “inherently political” (3), especially when used within various world cinemas that challenge viewers to “think with negative affects, rather than against them.” (6) As with her earlier book Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance, del Rio foregrounds the non-representational “powers of affection” associated with film, albeit this time arguing that the articulation of extreme cinema and immanent philosophical thoughts provide a fertile “breeding ground for generating new forms of life and thought, new libidinal and affective assemblages.” (22) The book’s aims are outlined up-front in terms of five interventions into the fields of Deleuze, cinema, ethics, and violence studies. These constitute a desire to (1) “trace the emergence of violence to the genealogy of morality and its breeding of reactive forces,” (2) shift “a worn out, self-evident emphasis on violence into a more complex discourse of affective forces,” (3) “stress the political embeddedness of affective life,” (4) “recast the political as affirmative potential by underscoring the experimental, ethological program that many of these so-called ‘extreme’ cinemas undertake,” (5) and “make a case for extremism as a global cinematic tendency and not one that is limited to European cinemas.” (5)

Over five cumulative chapters, del Río dives into the work of cultural and clinical “diagnosticians” such as Christian Mungiu, Michael Haneke, Taksehi Kitano, Lars von Trier, and David Lynch, whose cruel, affective films she sees dealing a “critical and philosophical blow against moral man,” while also affectively promoting the creation of new values. Approaching cinema as a “war machine” and a kind of thought, the introduction employs Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills (2012) to help give shape to, and signpost, the style of film-philosophy that readers can expect throughout the book. For amongst other things, this andante Romanian work foregrounds situations where either “the sensory-motor schema is disabled and cannot remedy the situation” or else a “moral vision does not come to anybody’s rescue, and anxiety and despair are not redeemed by either the invention of scapegoats or of moral meanings.” (25) What is more, the film also creates an affective interval that acts “like a spur or a revelation,” generating a crack in the edifice of moral thinking. (25) Chapter One, “The Disease of Morality” explores von Trier’s Dogville (2003) and Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009). These transport us into yet more sick and sickening communities that breed “an unquenchable thirst for judgement and retribution and a defensive position of hatred and suspicion toward the forces of the Outside.” (26) By allowing viewers to sense the difference between morality and ethics, judgement and cruelty, reactive and active forces, these films are celebrated for offering a Spinozist-Nietzschean-Deleuzian perspective on the world. That is to say, these films variously expose the structural violence bound up in morality and moral thought, the role this plays in the production of evil, the apportioning of blame for this evil’s existence, and the reactive desire to visit retribution upon the guilty body. Del Río’s discussion of Dogville clearly illustrates this while showing how Grace (Nicole Kidman) surfaces as an active agent of cruelty (72), who unleashes a “momentous final act of annihilation” (70) that expresses a will to “overthrown the human in the human.” (72) Von Trier’s film philosophy is thus framed as “an unapologetic allegory for the death of moral man” and “an aesthetic allegory of the way cinema, and art in general, can advance the destruction of morality and its deadening debilitating tricks.” (74–5)

In another timely manoeuvre, the chapter “Bare Life” takes the conceptual apparatus of Giorgio Agamben as its point of departure, essentially divorcing notions of biopolitics and bare life from their exclusive association with the Nazi death camps. This chapter also curates an encounter between Haneke’s Code Unknown (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven (2005): two films that diagnose the state of life under what Deleuze called the modern societies of control. Starting with the work of Haneke, which betrays an “intuitive grasp of the present cultural and historical zeitgeist” and undertakes a political “activism of affection,” del Río shows how the auteur director exposes the structural production and biopolitical organisation of poverty and oppression. (83) That is, the control of bare life and the maintenance of biopolitical inequality operate as the vile abstract logic of modern societies.  In the next chapter, “Physics of Violence, Folds of Pain,” readers are then asked to consider pain as an intensive/affective matter, rather than a presupposed psychological trait or qualified emotion courtesy of Fassbinder’s “performative machine” Alexanderplatz and Lynch’s perplexing Inland Empire. These masterworks are framed as films not just about life, but films that appear to have a dramatic life of their own. After exploring Fassbinder’s “ethological” work, Lynch’s notoriously baroque masterpiece is shown as advancing a new “ethics of subjectivity,” which unfolds in time, and thinks individuality as being superseded by multiplicity. (145) To explicate why, del Río synthesizes a Leibnizian monadic philosophy with a nomadic feminist ethics: the affinities between which are revealed by Inland Empire’s febrile depths and surfaces. In an inspired reading, the true nomadic and monadic subject of Lynch’s film is shown to be the lead actress Laura Dern, rather than the mutable and modulating fictional characters she plays. That is, for del Río, it essentially becomes Dern’s subjectivity that is called upon to schizophrenically and transversally envelop/enfold “a multiplicity of women’s affective states,” which “develops/unfolds the Oneness of women’s world through a process of serial becomings.” (144)

In my view, the “Ethology of Death” constitutes the book’s most thought-provoking chapter. As this zooms in on the “philosophical essay” films of the “aggressive filmmaker-philosopher” Takeshi Katano, who somewhat paradoxically, del Río argues, both is, and is not, a genre filmmaker. (182) On the one hand, Kitano is a director that has appropriately been described as creating a “genre solely for himself.” (167) While on the other, he is renowned for obsessively returning to the yakuza genre so that he can “address death head-on, with no need for narrative causality of psychological motivation, both of which he abhors.” (166) Kitano’s films do not tackle death at the level of “representation,” though, but instead force viewers to confront death directly as “an affective event.” (165) Del Río here finds great value (and black humour) in Kitano’s “overwhelming” or “exorbitant” “narcissism and its radical, potentially controversial, consequence” for eliminating the intrusion of the Other as a transcendental structure in his films. (174, 175, 177) Recall here that Kitano’s unique oeuvre toys with the plicated identities of Takeshi Kitano the star director and Beat Takeshi the star actor (who more-often-than-not dies in his films), in a way that is “marked by a paradoxical blend of narcissism and self-annihilation.” (184) This inimitable “otherlessnes” shows how Kitano’s film-thoughts preserve “an immediate and impersonal point of view that belongs to the film itself as a machine of creation, and to Kitano as the brain that facilitates its movement.” (177) Building on such ideas, del Río ends the chapter by pondering the fluid mediated nature of historical violence and film violence, using the triadic director/actor/star to open up and clinically diagnose this complex of forces. (169) The book concludes with “Extinction” and thinking through the relation between destruction and creation as it is thought by von Trier’s Melancholia: a film that escapes “the pitfalls of both humanism and nihilism” (198) while affectively fulfilling its own “program of ethological experimentation.” (208) This gesture rounds out an inspiring and thought-provoking book that should appeal to a broad readership (interested in global film, film philosophy, cine-ethics, extreme cinemas, and politics) and is fit for an era when critically interrogating the habitual ways in which we think, live, and act (as citizens and a species) has never been more important.

Additional References

Choi, Jinhee and Frey, Mattias, eds. (2014), Cine-Ethics: Ethical Dimensions of Film theory, Practice, and Spectatorship (London: Routledge).

Nagib, Lúcia (2016), World Cinema and the Ethics of Realism (London: Bloomsbury).

Sinnerbrink, Robert (2016), Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience Through Film (London: Routledge).