Et Tu, Bruno

The new film Bruno, along with Antichrist, extends the limits of artistic expression in the latterly commercial form of cinema - albeit arthouse or pseudo-documentary. Listening to a recent radio programme discussing Eliot's common pursuit, a la Leavis, of a moral base for a society, I came to reflect upon precisely the absence of such a ground, today, in Britain, in 2009. These films - hilarious or horrifying as they may be - achieve their effects against a backdrop that is post-humanist, as well as post-Christian. They may almost be even post-atheist, for atheism at least despairs at loss, or celebrates reason's triumph.

Instead, these are films of a generation, digitally modified, that has come to believe in absolutely nothing, for five minutes at a time, and which cares less and less, as reaction and feeling are thinned out - simply, there is too much to do and see to take anything too seriously, even life and death and the full moral struggle those poles represent. I've seen Bruno, and I feel it is a work of comic genius, if only because Sacha Baron Cohen's physical moves are so brilliant and risky. However, his attempt to mock Christians and hicks (basically due to their woeful homophobia) avoids the obvious hypocrisy at the hard core of the film, which is that almost all the jokes are themselves heavily based on gross-out homophobic stereotypes. More scandalously, the jokes at the expense of a human foetus, and the use of babies (in relation to crucifixion and the Holocaust) are beyond tasteless.

As for Von Trier, I won't see this film, because female genital mutilation is not something I particularly condone; nor do I want to see a blood-ejaculation. But others may well want to - and the risk, and challenge, for cinema, is - is it art or entertainment, or the glamour of evil, to show people a) what they desire; or b) what they fear? Film has near-immortal power to present images that can do incalculable good, or evil. Unfortunately, unlike atomic power, which generated a cadre of moral scientists who rebelled against the unleashed force, the art world of cinema has generated very few moral critics to resist and question the force of film. Horror, rescued from mockery by theory, now seeks to celebrate and study the mise-en-abime, and is a welcomed genre, so much so, that the torture-porn genre has entered the French film bloodstream.

European movies are now often either about brutal sexual murder or degradation, or feature harrowing scenes. The body is an apt site for interrogation of the moral - for the body is either the seat of the soul or mind, or it is, to be nihilistic, and to speak the language of the video game, a meat puppet. If the body is only meat, then we live in a world of unlimited pornographic potential, as de Sade anticipated. However, this potential has a limit of its own, for bodies, when used up, are discarded - one can transgress only so far until your meat is pulp. There will need to be a turn towards the limit again. Some control, some moral shaping, within art, lends beauty and even, yes, decency, to life. Art which descends to the level of the braying crowds, or the perverted private peeping booths, is not an art for humankind, but for the inhuman kind.

As a postscript, it should be added this is not a new issue. The Sunday Times Culture section features a story on Rupert Everett's celebration of Lord Byron, who in some ways is the original Antichrist figure. Byron, it is cheerily reported in this article "tried to buy a 12-year-old" child for sexual purposes, at one stage of his long sex-tourism jaunt. I don't wish to spoil the fun - after all, the Byronic hero is part of every aspect of rebel culture from Nirvana to Brando, but this man was a sexual predator. I am not sure that moral relativism should grant this poet total amnesty, since even in his times, it was considered wicked to buy children for sex. This is a troubling area to think through.

On Sunday, I had dinner with a missionary's daughter from Papua New Guinea, who discussed the practices of a tribe who killed and buried their firstborn child under their huts, for protection. Such magical thinking may be anthropologically intriguing, but should it be resisted, even punished? Can moral relativism finally forgive Byron, and send contemporary child-buyers to prison? Culture sends ambiguous, perplexing mixed messages, and poetry is not immune from these temptations, hazards, and responsibilities.