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31 October 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:49pm

Crying cues, obligatory strings, and no release: when “moving” films fail to affect us

Comparing cinema’s latest tearjerker, The Light Between Oceans, with the controlled quirkiness of new film Further Beyond, is a lesson in how not to “move” audiences.

By Ryan Gilbey

“Moving” is one of the most overused words in the critical lexicon. I’m as guilty as anyone of reaching for it when the need arises to say that a film has produced in me a response that can’t be filed under happiness or excitement or fear.

It doesn’t tend to be as promiscuously misused by critics as that other M-word, “masterpiece”, which has fallen sharply in value to the point where it is now merely a synonym for “good”. Now that “masterpiece” appears by law on every movie poster, I think fondly of the days when one critic in particular was singled out as such a reliable and indiscriminate user of the word that a marquee outside a certain London cinema kept the quote “masterpiece”, attributed to his name and the newspaper he worked for, permanently on display. Only the title of the film to which it referred was altered each week.

If everything described as moving really were moving, we would all be emotional wrecks, tingling permanently with goosebumps, unable to find our way to the bus stop and the supermarket because of our moist eyes. We hear a lot about empathy fatigue, and how we have become inured to suffering, but to look at the way critics describe anything that has discernible emotional content, you would deduce that we are forever flopping on our chaises longues, the back of one hand pressed to a feverish forehead.

I had reason to consider this pantomime of emotional overload recently after seeing two dissimilar new films. One, The Light Between Oceans, puts all its considerable energies and resources into milking the tear ducts, sawing away at the heartstrings and stimulating the hairs on the back of the neck, while the other, Further Beyond, is constructed using storytelling devices that appear to work against the viewer emotionally engaging with the film.

I come not to review these films now but to muse on why the former left me resolutely unstirred, my cheeks conspicuously dry, while the latter, seemingly against the odds, reawakened prickles of feeling in my cold, dead heart.

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The Light Between Oceans, adapted by the director Derek Cianfrance from the novel by ML Stedman, concerns Tom (Michael Fassbender), a soldier who has recently returned from the First World War who takes a job as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of western Australia. He is single when he takes the post, but after an accelerated dalliance with a local woman, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who has proposed marriage before the end of their first picnic together, he has a wife. Following Isabel’s two miscarriages, a quirk of fate delivers the couple a baby that washes up in a rowing boat on their remote shore. They decide to raise the infant as their own.

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Cianfrance has shown himself to be adept at using unusual narrative structures to harness, withhold and dispense emotional content that might otherwise be teetering on the brink of melodrama. In Blue Valentine, he dealt out scenes from a disintegrating marriage in the wrong order; misery was jumbled up with euphoria. His less impressive follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines, used plot as a baton to be passed between three main characters, so the audience had to mentally readjust twice in the course of the movie. These seem like small matters, but what they do successfully is to arrest the full flow of the tumultuous emotions contained in the story, or divert it in peculiar ways.

The Light Between Oceans doesn’t have that release valve. It washes over us chronologically in an obliterating flood and there’s very little Cianfrance can do to contain or control it. So he gives in.

Though the score by Alexandre Desplat contains one surprising moment, when the plink-plonking of a piano being tuned onscreen merges into the actual soundtrack, it is for the most part plush and gushing. It is music that tells us how to feel. That tactic never works in real life. A person ordered to “cheer up” doesn’t suddenly see that the glass is half full, while only the most accomplished actors among us can cry to order.

So it’s curious that filmmakers still think a string section is all that’s required to herd our emotional responses in the desired direction. Neediness in comedy often works actively against the joke, and the same is true of melodrama. Beg us for tears and they are correspondingly unlikely to appear.

Cianfrance hasn’t made a bad film, just an indifferent one. His actors do not embarrass him. Fassbender in particular has perfected the knack of allowing us to glimpse a thought before it has become an action. When Tom realises Isabel is looking at him across the dinner table, there is a flicker on Fassbender’s face that can only be described as the impulse to convert joy into a facial expression – he has caught it in the instant before it becomes a fully-fledged smile.

If the movie feels ultimately as cold as the rocks around Tom’s lighthouse, it must be because every emotional response required from the audience has been mapped out in advance. Each beat of the story, each musical cue, has been set up to push specific buttons. The best manipulators disguise their devilry or make it joyous (Steven Spielberg, controlling and heightening our emotions like a conductor in ET the Extra Terrestrial being the obvious example). Cianfrance’s film is like a form pushed under our noses. On the dotted line at the bottom you can just make out the words: “Cry here.”

You couldn’t get further from that style than Further Beyond. The writer-director team of Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy also have a track record in experimental narrative structures (they made the otherworldly psychological dramas Helen and Mister John) and they push that tendency to its extreme in their new picture, which starts out as a film about wanting to make a film.

The ostensible subject is Ambrose O’Higgins (José Miguel Jiménez), an Irishman who became Governor of Chile in the eighteenth century. But tangled up with plans to make a biopic about him are ruminations on the difficulty of starting anything when the possibilities and options are limitless – the tyranny of the blank page, blank screen, blank life.

Two voiceover artists have been hired to read the script, and we see them sitting at their microphones, conversing with the off-screen directors. The narrators’ queries and doubts are built into the screenplay (“It’s a bit odd but I guess that’s what the directors want”, one of them reads obediently) as the film ranges freely in the manner of a visual essay over every subject that happens to take its fancy – from O’Higgins’ biographical details to Stanley Kubrick’s scrupulous search for the correct landscapes in Barry Lyndon to the life of Lawlor’s own late mother.

Every lunge toward the epic or sentimental is undercut neatly with a return to the nondescript room where the narration is being recorded, or some other reminder of the scaffolding that holds the film together.

These are precisely the sort of techniques that impede floods of emotion and allow us to receive it instead in controlled drops ­­– to consider our responses to the material, rather than being drowned by the filmmaker’s demands on us. The viewer requires breathing space in which his or her own feelings can rise to the surface; Lawlor and Molloy give us that by allowing their ideas and images to stimulate, confuse or perplex, whereas Cianfrance signals throughout his film exactly what he wants our reactions to be.

Quite unexpectedly, Further Beyond builds up an emotional weight, partly because the material is so poignant (it becomes a disquisition on the lies that films tell, and how they trick us into believing that the dead are alive) but also because of the manner in which that material is presented, without any special expectations of how we should react.

Yes, it’s moving. (That word again.) But it’s moving in both senses. It isn’t fixed. It changes shape as it goes along, which I think is crucial to its success. The Light Between Oceans is dead before it reaches our eyes and ears. Further Beyond is alive, intellectually and emotionally, and it expects its audience to be also.

The Light Between Oceans opens on 1 November. Further Beyond is on release and is also available on MUBI.