10 of Cinema's Most Notoriously Incomprehensible Classics

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All the hand-wringing of late about how difficult The Tree of Life is to follow has got us thinking about some other films over the history of cinema that have stirred similar debate. These are the films that invariably end up getting talked about at parties, where you overhear someone saying, “Oh, Mulholland Drive? That made no sense!” and just can’t help getting involved in the argument. Here’s our pick of ten of the best — plus a snappy one-liner you can use to nip any such discussions in the bud.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The gold standard for confusing films, and also for the idea that a film doesn’t need to have a coherent narrative to be powerful and compelling viewing. 2001 has been confusing audiences for the last 43 years, and remains the subject of much bewildered discussion among people who’ve seen it for the first time. And after all this time, quite what’s going on during the film’s crazily tripped-out ending sequence is still very much open for debate.

Ruin the discussion by saying: “HAL is just a metaphor for the government, man!”

Mulholland Drive (2001)

It’s a case of “Pick your favorite David Lynch film” here, really, but since Mulholland Drive is probably the one Lynch film people who were freaked out by Blue Velvet have seen in the last two decades, it’s this — rather than Lost Highway or Inland Empire — that’s most likely to be the subject of bewildered discussion by mystified moviegoers. Curiously enough, it’s also perhaps the easiest of Lynch’s films to find a coherent explanation for — that the first half of the narrative is basically a fantasy, dreamed up to escape the unpleasant reality that unfolds as the film progresses. Of course, being a David Lynch film, it’s wrapped up in layers of metaphor and visual strangeness. But still. It makes sense. Unlike Inland Empire, which is just crazy.

Ruin the discussion by saying: “You mean you don’t realize it’s a simple fable about the pitfalls of Hollywood?”

Donnie Darko (2001)

A modern sci-fi mind-bender par excellence, Donnie Darko reveals just enough information to intrigue the audience, and no more. The result is a plot that’s pretty much impossible to understand first time around — but unlike some of the other films on this list, it’s also engaging and fascinating enough to demand repeated viewing. There are some truly crazy theories out there about it, mind — none more so than the stuff you’ll find here.

Ruin the discussion by saying: “No, listen, the engine went into a parallel universe and needs to come back before the world ends! It’s really simple!” (Or by putting on the director’s cut of the film, in which Richard Kelly ruins the discussion all by himself.)

The Seventh Seal (1957)

A cheery one-and-a-half hours spent in the company of death, the Black Plague and a cosmic chess match, The Seventh Seal‘s biblical depiction of the apocalypse can be understood on a number of levels, but is generally read as an extended metaphor about the search for God and religious faith in a harsh and hostile world. There’s so much allegory and metaphysical musing tied up in The Seventh Seal that the plot is almost secondary — which is just as well, as playing chess with a white-faced man in a black robe isn’t really anyone’s idea of a good time.

Ruin the discussion by saying: “You have to admit — it was more fun when Bill and Ted played Twister with Death.”

Primer (2004)

Google “incomprehensible films,” and you’ll find this obscure $7,000 time-travelling extravaganza cropping up again and again. The premise is simple: two dudes invent a time machine. What transpires next gets awfully weird, though, mainly because you’re never sure of the chronology of what’s happened when. We won’t spoil anything for you, but put it this way — you’ll need to be taking careful notes to make sense of it all.

Ruin the discussion by saying: “Actually, there are several timelines on the internet.”

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

A simple premise — a man approaches a woman and insists that they’ve met before, but she claims not to remember their meeting — rendered into a surrealist masterpiece that still has the power to baffle and delight. Did the man and woman meet? Is he delusional? What does it all mean? Apparently, even director Alain Resnais and writer Alain Robbe-Grillet disagree about what actually goes on, so God knows how anyone else is meant to make sense of it, but that doesn’t stop you from wanting to try. It’s a measure of how seriously people take the conundrum of Last Year at Marienbad that the IMDb synopsis starts by referencing Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, and something called “M-Theory.”

Ruin the discussion by saying: “But what’s so hard to understand? She’s just pretending not to remember him because she doesn’t want to upset her husband!”

Solaris (1972)

An all-time Flavorpill favorite, this isn’t so much imcomprehensible as it is inscrutable. Andrei Tarkovsky’s vision of Stanislaw Lem’s novel echoes the mysterious planet of the title, a planet that seems to be sentient in some way that’s beyond human understanding. In the same way, the plot and chronology of Solaris are easy enough to follow — until the twist right at the end, anyway — but the narrative remains confusing for the simple reason that the characters are just as baffled as you are.

Ruin the discussion by saying: “If I were him, I would have just stayed there with her. She was hot.”

π (1998)

Mathematics is all around us — from the way a snail’s shell unfolds in a logarithmic spiral to the way that the number of petals on most flowers follows the Fibonacci sequence. This idea is taken to crazy, bewildering extremes in Darren Aronofsky’s debut film, which gives us a decidedly flaky protagonist and narrator who’s both a mathematical genius and a borderline paranoiac lunatic. As the film progresses, narrator discovers a number that somehow holds the key to something fundamental about the nature of the Torah, or God, or the stock market. Or something. The film gets harder and harder to follow as it goes further and further down the mathematical rabbit hole, but it’s a hell of an enjoyable ride.

Ruin the discussion by saying: “Actually, it’s all about a visual realization of Euler’s identity.”

Syndecdoche, New York (2008)

We’ll be honest, here — we hated this film. And we’re saying this as huge fans of all Charlie Kaufman’s previous work. As ever, Kaufman’s plot is unconventional and hard to follow, but that’s not a problem in itself — we’re all for grand cinematic gestures and metaphors and strange narratives. However, pretty much everything about Synecdoche, New York is both contrived and overblown, hugely ambitious but also ultimately pretentious and tiresome. Its narrative creaks under the weight of all the psychological allusions and multiple layers of meaning. Ultimately, it’s not so much that you find yourself disliking the protagonist — he’s not, after all, the most sympathetic character — but that you can’t bring yourself to care what happens to him, even if you could understand it.

Ruin the discussion by saying: “It’s really all about how Charlie Kaufman hates women. And himself.”

The Holy Mountain (1973)

God, tarot, dwarves, the zodiac, yoga, prosthetic breasts, a pile of burning money, and a hippopotamus… Honestly, only Alejandro Jodorowsky knows what The Holy Mountain is all about, and given that a shitload of acid apparently went into the production process, even that’s debatable. Fun fact: George Harrison was to appear in this film — the Beatles were all big Jodorowsky fans — but pulled out after discovering his role involved displaying his anus to the camera. Thank God.

Ruin the discussion by saying: “No, but seriously, what the fuck?”