Towards a More Proactive Viewership with Matthias Glasner's The Free Will

I picked up a copy of Matthias Glasner's The Free Will (2006) on almost a complete whim. I was intrigued by the seeming disproportion between the intimate-sounding, wholly character-driven subject matter and the epic running time, listed on the box as 163 minutes. An "intimate epic," if you will. Great, I thought. Why, you ask? Last year, I performed research for an advanced study of film kilometrique, a concept and a methodology chartered by early French filmmakers in 1917. It was called that because a film's length then was measured in footage and not time, thus the really long films ran for kilometers and kilometers. A great many of the kilometrique filmmakers were creators of French serials (e.g. Louis Feuillade and his 5½ hour Fantomas). The concept of film kilometrique (as opposed to the practice and method, which is a whole other ball of wax) involved the exploration of the film medium's practical techniques for storytelling and character-defining by using length, and often extreme length, to investigate the relatively "new-to-the-world" cinematic form of expression. "Uh huh," I hear you say, "what was the middle thing?" Okay, so basically, a lot of excessively lengthy movies were made by French filmmakers in the 1910's and 20's so that they could explore what meaning the length of their films had to the way they told stories -- and future filmmakers would capitalize on and continue this practice of making long movies to achieve the same results. Deep staging was often one of their most utilized tools. Often, running times of films and serials would be deliberately and often rather arbitrarily amped to accomodate their exploration(s).

I closely examined films made decades and decades after the inauguration of the film kilometrique experiment, like Chantal Akerman's masterpiece, and the undisputed textbook example of film kilometrique, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1978), various works by the "length-meister" himself Jacques Rivette (unfortunately I was of course unable to get my hands on a copy or a print of his legendary and rarely screened Out 1), various films from Warhol's "Empire period" and many others. Needless to say, this study took some definite time to execute in any real depth (hey, they're all pretty long movies, after all). So, when I saw that Glasner's The Free Will seemed to fit neatly into the "intimate epic" niche I had investigated in such depth, I decided to give the film a shot.

Within the first ten minutes, the most graphic, disturbing and unpleasant rape scene I have yet witnessed onscreen was playing out before me. Quite frankly, I was nearly traumatized by sitting there watching it and not doing anything. Hey, I know it's only a movie, but "proactivity" in this case is inevitable. I felt like I was being hit by an express train. It was followed, I might add, by the "scavenger" nearly mutilating his "prey". I was almost on the verge of turning the film off, because the filmmaker just seemed to be sadistically wallowing in the ugliness and the repulsiveness of the whole thing (and I never use the term "sadistically" lightly). And, in the great tradition of the good old kilometrique spirit, the scene is excruciatingly dragged out to considerable length. Eventually, the scene ended and, already weary and battle-scarred but still nonetheless intrigued as to what role the previous scene would ultimately assume in the film, I decided to press onward. It was soon after that I made the discovery. The filmmaker summons the audience to witness the horrible crime of a woman's rape and disfigurement, in gory detail, so that we the viewers must live with what we saw just as much as the character has to later live with what he has done to this chosen-at-random woman. To the casual viewer not ready to assume such a challenge, it becomes a question and a case of "Who the hell needs that? I got problems of my own!"

A great deal of people, for very good reason, would have (and have had) difficulty swallowing portrayals and depictions of such events on film. I honestly could not beg to differ. It is here that I make the assertion that it boils down to a question of audience responsibility to the material on display, which implies and entails a proactivity in our film-watching. The responsibility in the case of The Free Will, this "audience responsibility" to be proactive is every bit as equal to the filmmaker's responsibility to play such scenes as carefully and, most importantly, as motivatedly as is possible. So what of this question of audience responsibility? People most often do not like to work when they watch a movie. And on that note, The Free Will is decidedly not a film for everyone. You could most likely make that assumption from just reading my description of the rape scene.

Eventually, though, I did wind up greatly appreciating the experience of seeing the film, and can easily cite it as one of the most valid and vital recent examples of film kilometrique (all that jabber above in the first paragraph was not for naught, folks). We examine the rapist's incarceration and, upon his release, his latent deadly fear of the opposite sex...all in super-fine detail. The character is fleshed out and the filmmaker takes his time in sketching the issues, a patently strange sense of guilt for one, the character has developed following his own violent "acting out". Also, this is yet another example of a film shot on a shoestring, with gritty-feeling and often desaturated standard-def DV images. Quite anomalous, that...particularly in an age in which it seems that everything must look pretty, with supreme HD image-fidelity to boot. The cinematography, which certainly has its problems (i.e. my ongoing issue with underlighting which can be blamed on the facile exposure-latitude DV possesses), feels quite proportionate to the story being told. You see choices being made left and right, most of the time the right choices too, which stand as one of the film's great virtues.

In Jacques Rivette's Secret Defense (1998), which runs 170 minutes (for a story that would traditionally play out in just 90-100 minutes), Rivette uses the thriller genre as a foundation for exploring a character's evolution. In my opinion, Secret Defense is another cardinal work of film kilometrique. We follow the character, in real-time, on her way to murder someone. In one's surface estimation, nothing happens for the duration of fifteen minutes. No, instead, we are observing internal acting in the best sense of the term. Without words, the actor (and the filmmaker) are showing us what it is for an innocent to evolve into a not-so-innocent who has been cornered into committing a tremendous crime. Sandrine Bonnaire, who plays the lead in this film, takes us through the evolution as she switches from one Paris Metro train to another Paris Metro train and finally to a train en route to the country estate owned by her target. Just by the face and by Rivette's framing (toying with length and "dragging out scenes"), we gain a window into the character's internal landscape.

The Free Will does what Secret Defense does. In these finely observed moments, and often without words and with length and the long take as their friends, Glasner and Rivette respectively evoke the specificity of their characters' motivations and thoughts as they are happening...and we get to watch people in this cerebral netherplace. True, one might say that these films are at least occasionally mired in self-indulgence. I just do not choose to see it that way. Film kilometrique lives! So, all this boils down to responsibility. Are we willing to wager our comfortable film-watching m.o. for a more proactive form of media intake? What do you think? How blithely can you sacrifice your comfort-level to fully invest yourself in a filmmaker's chosen form, even if unpleasantries are part of the baggage?


  1. I have to say, as a professional playwright and performer, that it is largely the creator's responsibility as to what they wish to convey/inflict on the audience. And the audience has the right to reject it of its own free will. It is wishful thinking to feel the audience has a responsibility to a work of art/commerce/what have you. I feel they have a responsibility to me as a creative person, but is that the reality? And responsibility for what, exactly? To see my work? To pay me money? To throw things at me?

    As an audience member, I do feel a responsibility to give the artist the benefit of the doubt and watch their work. But not every artist, and not always all the way through. (I lasted 20 minutes into "The Dark Knight" and that was plenty.)

  2. I am not talking about an audience's responsibility to blithely accept what the artist chooses to inflict on them. I am talking about an audience's responsibility towards a more proactive viewership. Big difference!

  3. But how do you make the distinction? Do you ask the audience beforehand?