Illustration by Josephine Moir.

Some arthouse films that stand accused of being boring genuinely are, on a certain level: Béla Tarr’s black-and-white masterpiece The Turin Horse (2013) mesmerically, disquietingly so. Its ‘story’, such as it is, concerns an old man and his daughter, who live in a windswept stone cabin in the middle of nowhere. Their put-upon horse has stopped eating and refuses to pull a cart. Unstintingly long takes capture scenes of characters dressing and undressing, fetching water from the well, mucking out the stable, and eating baked potatoes with their bare hands. Occasionally, this routine drudgery is broken up by the arrival of intruders whose significance is hard to determine. Conditions, already bleak, just get worse; the dogged persistence of these characters in their chores might be inspiring, absurd, or both; hopes of revelation, epiphany, even simple explanation remain stubbornly unanswered. “You’re fed up?” these figures seem to say. “How do you think we feel?” 

This is a strange and potent film, and if you watch it closely, you’ll get something from it, though even long afterwards you might not be sure what. Any boredom it provokes is intensely involving. The framing is deliberate, and the camera never finds its way to casting the characters in a heroic light. Indoors, they are banalised by the rudimentary trappings of domesticity; outdoors, they are reduced to meaningless figures in a howling chaos, two more forlorn heirs of Sisyphus. The score, really just one instrumental piece played over and over again, turns everything sinister but identifies no particular threat. The film’s ambience is that of imminent apocalypse, which might be called the ambience of our age, but is surely just the ambience of a life lived under the shadow of death – that is, of any life at all. Everything that happens seems both meaningless and calamitously important. 

Even if the film aims at a sort of banality, there is another kind of boredom that Tarr surely didn’t want to arouse: the passive kind, that is, born of frustration with the film’s torpid pace, its opacity, its self-seriousness. I think this is easy enough to avoid, provided that you pay attention and give the thing a chance – meet it on its own terms, basically – but a film with that sort of expectation of viewers is swimming against the current in today’s moviegoing culture. As is now usual, UK cinemas in 2021 were glutted with all kinds of fidgety blockbusters, most of which seemed to assume an audience whose attention spans are so shrivelled that only a constant stream of loud noises and bright colours could keep them engaged. Films aren’t alone in this. From social media to sensationalist news outlets, much in today’s world seems to begin from the assumption that the things most likely to capture our interest are those that most earnestly solicit it, like a toddler that tugs on your arm and screams your name until you can’t focus on anything else. I don’t think we’re intrinsically less capable of sustained concentration, on the whole, than the generations that came before us. But much in our culture treats us that way, so it’s no wonder if some of us have started to believe it. 

The idea that interestingness is the result of a collaborative endeavour between the viewer and the film can appear perverse in such a climate. ‘Pretentious’ is a word that sometimes gets thrown about, as if any degree of indeterminacy or difficulty in a film were nothing but a pose, as if audiences were only capable of being entertained or ‘moved’, as if our constitutions were really so crude and the world so simple. But they aren’t; it isn’t. If something in a film is ambivalent, the viewer is usually being called upon to make a judgement, or to juggle a contradiction. Maybe it isn’t pretentious at all? Maybe you just lack the courage, for whatever reason, to assign it any depth? 

Few arthouse films are simply boring; most are just haughty. Stubbornly refusing to condescend to laziness or aesthetic low self-esteem, they demand viewers who pay them undivided attention, don’t ask for things they aren’t interested in providing, and are willing to dwell in puzzlement when the meanings they do offer are not transparently obvious. The Turin Horse is certainly an extreme example of this hauteur, but it’s arguable that most good art deserving of the name has this quality: a kind of self-sufficiency, to which we ideally respond as we would to a thing with a life of its own. In the same way, films like this ask us to make accommodations for them, like for a living person whose company we enjoy precisely because their attitudes and expectations are different from ours. To appreciate such films, you don’t need prodigious intelligence or intimate knowledge of the arthouse canon, just a willingness to look carefully, and to keep doing so even when you’re not quite sure what is going on, or why. If boredom, in other words, is a sign of failure on the part of the viewer, it seems to me a failure of attention, not of intellect.  

Perhaps haughty films have always been something of a minority interest. But it’s hard to deny that nowadays, when they might have more to offer than ever, such films are being crowded out of the market by reboots, sequels and adaptations that are seen as safe investments by production companies precisely because they take such pains not to alienate their audience. That seems to me a loss. Haughty films allow us to exercise abilities that our world calls upon more rarely today: sustained concentration, suspension of judgement, forbearance in the face of less-than-easy answers. In a busy and anxious age, The Turin Horse offers a merciful break from our always-on culture. It doesn’t necessarily grab your attention, but it is worthy of it (reverse this formula, incidentally, and you have an answer to why the experience of watching a Marvel film or scrolling through Instagram can be so exhausting yet so passive). Approach the film in this spirit, and your boredom may come to seem like a way of avoiding the more strenuous, but more rewarding attitude of patient watchfulness that it demands. Anyway, aren’t we often moved to seek out art by the suspicion that we and the world are more interesting than we know? The Turin Horse can confirm that suspicion. And only boring people get bored. 

Oscar Jelley

Oscar Jelley studies German and Philosophy at Christ Church.