Cinéma vérité, Horror and The Importance of Performance

Posted on 20/03/2011


So we come this week to performance styles; something I’ve been looking forward to discussing for many a week now, ever since there was even a flutter of a hope that we may get the opportunity to discuss acting in cinema.


Being – kind of – a stage performer before I was ever a writer or had ambitions of being a film-maker (I am, by definition, a failed actor), I always have a lot to say about the acting in films; probably more than I have to say about any other individual aspect of a film. So there’s definitely a sense of glee in now being given free reign to have a prolonged yak about performance styles.


And I am going to use this golden opportunity to talk about a guilty pleasure of mine. A sub-genre that seems to inspire hate in people more readily than it does adrenaline or glee. A sub-genre that whenever I suggest we watch a film from it everyone groans and says “Hold on, I’ll go get my sea-sickness tablets” or “Fuck off, I can never even see what’s going on it those kinds of films!”


Cinéma vérité!


Yes, that’s right! The good ol’ shaky camera, pseudo-realistic, made-on-a-shoestring kind of film that imitates life (somewhat) and makes us nauseous with it’s camera work in the process.

Often, the unsung heroes of this genre are the actors; the actors imitating the people, and forced to do it in the most realistic way possible. Any glimpse of a performance and we’re out of the fantasy, so the acting must both be disciplined and incredibly natural.


Take a look at these stills. They are from, what I believe, are some of the most effective films of their genre (that and I have a soft-spot for pseudo-documentary film-making – massive This Is Spinal Tap fan)…


The Blair Witch Project (USA) - 1999

Norio (Japan) - 2005

Paranormal Activity (USA) - 2007

REC (Spain) - 2007

Lake Mungo (Australia) - 2008

I have massive crushes on all five of these films, and recommend that if you haven’t seen them and like your horror uncomfortably intimate and claustrophobic, you should seek them out (particularly REC, which is the first modern horror film I would recommend to anyone anymore).

But the reason I bring them up on the basis of performance elements is because film, almost by definition, is fantasy.

Film imitates real life, but it is not actually really life; it’s people pretending it is.  Whilst the acting is often very natural and close to what we know as normal behavior, we watch it from a distance, aware that it is acting. We sit on our couches eating Doritos watching Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie swan around Venice in The Tourist, aware that we are watching a film and knowing that we are watching two actors. That’s a combination of acting, shooting style, sound, score and so on.

To sum that argument up, Stanley Kubrick once said “In film, you don’t photograph the reality. You try and photograph the photograph of the reality”, and I can absolutely see what he means.


Which leads nicely into cinéma vérité.

In the case of cinéma vérité, and one of the reasons why it is so effective at immersing us and (at least in my case scaring the shit out of us), is because it is explicitly saying “This actually happened. Real people did this, this is an actual event. This is a record of the shit that went down and you’ve got nowhere else to look.” You could easily (and probably correctly) argue that is done largely through the way these films are executed, through their camera work and their low budgets. But I believe it is also done through the acting, which is always so disciplined, so focused and so “real” that the illusion of reality is never broken by the people acting on-screen.


I’ll use Noroi as my first example. Here’s the trailer:

Noroi was recommended to me by a friend, who also happens to be a massive fan of J-Horror, and this was recommended with the preface “This will scare the shit out of you”…

She was right. It did.

Noroi is set up as a documentary about a paranormal investigator (played beautifully by Jin Muraki) exploring a series of seemingly unrelated paranormal happenings, all of which end up being linked by a demon known as Kagutaba. I won’t give you too much, but the film is a combination of hand-held work following the investigator as he investigates, surveillance footage and pseudo Japanese TV excerpts. Director Kôji Shiraishi blends the styles wonderfully well, and (linking back to what we were talking about earlier) the acting across the board is varied and at times verging on unrealistic, but always outstanding. The language barrier also adds to the performances, as there is a sense of alienation that occurs in a viewer when we cannot understand what is being said. If English dialogue doesn’t sound real, it falls flat on it’s arse, but if a Japanese film contains bad dialogue (which is, by the way, doesn’t) I’m none the wiser.


You’ll notice, even in that trailer, unless things are particularly chaotic within a scene, that everything is being played with a sense of understatement and naturalism that’s even more acute than most Hollywood horror films. Nobodies wandering around the darkened house in their underwear, their eyes wide open as Michael Myers strides down the hallway after them, and John Williams’ score swells up in the background. The performances in a film like this must be convincing, and not even a shred of acting can be present, otherwise the very thin veil of reality is immediately removed and we’re left with a very chaotic, nauseatingly filmed movie.


Improvisation is obviously a good way of giving any film a sense of spontaneity. The Blair Witch Project is entirely improvised, and it maintains it’s sense of realism because of that.

Margaret and David review The Blair Witch Project

I’m a massive admirer of the restraint present in Blair Witch. It’s pacing, it’s craft, it’s sound design and it’s performances all make the film disconcertingly real, and do, as David says, seduce us into believing it is real. The performance styles here could very easily be called realism, but they can’t even really be called performances. They’re almost method – people simply existing in these awful circumstances, in the same way that we would.


If I could find suitable clips or reviews of the other films, I would, but I couldn’t anything appropriate.

In any event, I recommend anyone who either likes their horror or their acting go and seek out any of these films. They are all beautifully done, really creepy and remarkably well acted films.



Posted in: Semester 1