There’s something very peculiar, if not a little distasteful even, about a person who would not only claim to enjoy films in the ‘bleak’ category but would go so far as to be able to list their favourite examples of such! For the noun ‘bleak’ implies exactly what you’ll get from such films: hopelessness, despair, nihilism, and awful and good people both in the grip of awful, awful circumstances, self-made or otherwise.
Who in the hell would enjoy films like these?
My perception of this is shaped by my experience as a film student when I was 17, 18 years old. It tended to be boys, of a similar age, who would talk excitedly about such bleak films. They’d usually swagger up to each other and to me and say such phrases like “have you seen this? It’s so grim!” with complete enthusiasm. I was probably as guilty of this as anyone. Not only that, but we would give each other recommendations on films that were even bleaker! From memory, the films we’d recommend would include things like Irreversible, the original I Spit On Your Grave, Baise Moi, Salo and Man Bites Dog. A cheerful collection of humanity’s abuses, then.
But bleak films, the best ones anyway, are usually different from the ‘dark for dark’s sake’ brigade. There might be violence but it’s not always the case. Moreover, such films are usually attempting to communicate a viewpoint or a take on the world, however unforgiving that view might be. There is meaning behind the bleakness, even if that meaning is to put out the emptiness behind the bleakness being represented.
Britain, for me, seems to have a particular line in bleak films that make them stand out against other bleak films from around the globe. Perhaps it’s because I’m British myself, but British bleak films really capture the drabness and emptiness of modern civilisation in a way I can identify with and recognise, something I don’t always connect with in bleak films from across European or world cinema. The familiarity of British society means that British bleak films hit harder for me.
What really captures me now about these films is the lengths or depths to which their creators will go to make their point. It is a kind of extremity of mind that is disciplined by the art of film craft. Yet, there are no punches pulled, no turning away from the horror that surrounds them. These films encounter their bleakness with heads unturned and eyes wide open. To face the awfulness of life with such openness is a gruelling, punishing way to live, of course, and will take its toll in harmful, withering and draining ways. It’s not surprising that the directors here, with possibly the exception of Alan Clarke, may have made challenging work with heavy themes since, but they couldn’t do so consistently. Hell, even Shane Meadows had to make Somers Town and Le Donk and Scor-zay-see before heading into the bleaker territory of This is England ‘86.
So, here are my favourite British Bleak Films. Hang on to something, though: this ride has a hell of a drop into the depths…