But not everyone shared my enthusiasm for Weir's showy setpiece. A film-critic friend-of-the-family who had been rather influential in shaping my developing tastes loathed it. "It's so manipulative," she explained. "You know the whole way through that they're going to show the crash at the end. And then when they show it, it's completely overblown." Needless to say, I hadn't known that the entire picture was leading up to that one moment of revelation, so it had taken me quite by surprise. But, while I haven't revisited Weir's film in the 15-year interim and while I'm not particular fond of the term "manipulative" as a critical descriptor - all narrative film plays on its audience's expectations to one degree or another - this critic was quite shrewd in her identification and characterization of a particular mode of narrative structuring.
An increasingly common strategy in what I'll call, as a convenient short-hand, the middle-brow art film, the delayed revelation of past event is a highly problematic approach. This structuring device saves for the film's conclusion the full disclosure - either through dialogue or through visual reenactment - of a formative event in the characters' lives about which the audience knows some, but not all, the details. There are two variations to the approach: in one, which generally relies on dialog, the chief function is the imparting of a key piece of information to the audience. In the other, of which Fearless' ending stands as an example, and which relies wholly on reenactment, the audience already knows most of the factual details about the event and the filmmaker's aim is to wring emotion from the viewer by forcing him to experience the moment of tragedy along with the character.
Both approaches betray an unpleasant degree of arrogance on the filmmaker's part. "Here I've created a situation and a set of characters so fascinating," he seems to be saying, "that all I have to do is withhold this key bit of information and I can string the audience right along until my revelatory conclusion." In theory, such an approach can prove valid - after all, the delayed imparting of information forms the very crux of the mystery genre - but when taken, as it often is, for the structuring principle of an otherwise drab domestic drama, this approach seems less like an essential organizing strategy and more like a bit of haughty presumption about the audience's narrative needs. Ultimately condescending toward their perceived middle-brow viewers, these pictures' endings provide the art-film habitué with the same superficial payoff that the action movie fan gets from a much anticipated explosion or shoot-out, while allowing their supposedly more sophisticated viewers to partake of the simulacra of art. Flattering rather than challenging their audience, these films relieve the viewer of the troubling burden of ambiguity. "Here," they say, "don't worry. All will be revealed. And in a scene of great cinematic artistry, to boot."
While I didn't share the distaste of many of my colleagues for Julian Schnabel's 2007 art-house hit The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - I thought it created a coherent and compelling inner world for its paralyzed protagonist - for me, the ending nearly negated the film's numerous achievements. Rendered immobile after suffering a stroke and retaining movement only in his left eye, former playboy and fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby learns to "speak" by blinking his one working organ, eventually dictating a book through this unlikely mode of communication. Partaking of the same narrative strategy as Fearless, Schnabel defers his big dramatic payoff for the film's conclusion. Carefully skirting the circumstances of Bauby's paralysis, the film withholds any information until its final moments, when it offers a comprehensive reconstruction of the event. Schnabel's presentation of the incident is thankfully restrained, but his unwavering faith in the audience's essential curiosity regarding the full details of the paralysis is indicative of his troubling presumptions about his viewer's narrative expectations.
If Diving Bell stands as an archetypal example of the revelation by reenactment approach to delayed exposition, then a more recent film prefers to fill in its audience through dialog. Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long spends most of its running time dancing around the circumstances of its lead character, Juliette's (Kristin Scott Thomas), long ago killing of her 6-year old son for which, 15 years later, she has just been released from prison. Coming to stay with her sister and her family, she initially registers as icy and distant, but gradually warms to her surroundings and successfully builds a new life for herself. As Juliette becomes more acclimated to her post-imprisonment lifestyle, we learn more about her past and come to suspect that her crime must be tempered by extenuating circumstances. But we don't know for sure until the film's concluding sequence when Claudel satisfies the audience's final curiosity in an exchange that plays as a near-fatal misstep in what had been a mostly restrained bit of character-driven drama. Finally confronted by her sister about the exact details of the killing, the formerly self-possessed Juliette gives in to a bout of hysterical screaming (showing too the "range" of Oscar-hopeful Thomas' abilities) before explaining the painful and fatal disease that her son had been suffering from, thus recasting murder as generous act of euthanasia and obliterating our last doubts about her character.
But if Claudel miscalculates by withholding a bit of information that we've already suspected and that wasn't really too interesting to begin with and then revealing it in a moment of overheated revelation, he may betray a certain distrust of his viewer, but he's hardly alone in his approach. As I learned back in 1993 and I've been reminded every year since, when a filmmaker - whether low-brow genre director or art-house maven - has no respect for his audience, he falls back on certain strategies for making sure the viewer gets his point. Delayed revelation may be among the more insidious of these strategies, flattering the viewer even as it insults him, but it allows the filmmaker to have it both ways: he ensures himself that the audience doesn't miss a key bit of information and makes a virtue out of this spoonfeeding by tarting it up in sufficiently fancy dress. But don't confuse the simulacra with the real thing: any film deserving the name of art, whether a B-picture by Edgar Ulmer or a high-flown masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, demands that the viewer meet it squarely on its own precise terms.