What can I say? I understand Lars von Trier. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there at the Cannes film festival… I sympathise with him, yes, a little bit.
When von Trier announced that he felt sympathy for Hitler, the grandees of the Cannes film festival responded by declaring him persona non grata. While much can be said of von Trier’s history of provocation, I believe that von Trier’s real mistake lay in expressing sympathy for Hitler rather than empathy. Indeed, while empathy involves understanding why someone does what they do and ‘feeling their pain’, sympathy means also seeing that person in a positive light. The slipperiness of these two concepts and their tendency to bleed into one another poses something of a challenge for writers because empathy and sympathy are quite different concepts. We should be able to understand why someone did something without seeing those actions as in any way acceptable.
Humans can be a surprisingly forgiving bunch and the more we understand another person, the more likely we are to see their actions as justified even if we do not necessarily agree with them. Because of this quirk in human nature, there is a tendency for unlikeable characters to wither beneath the glare of sustained psychological scrutiny, meaning that the more you explore a character’s back story and explain their motivations, the more likely it is that an unsympathetic bastard will turn into a big misunderstood puppy. One could even argue that our tendency to automatically feel sympathy for the characters with whom we empathise accounts for the rise of psychopaths as anti-heroes. Indeed, by labelling a character as a psychopath, writers are making it clear that we ought not to feel much sympathy for them. Consider, for example the difference between character such as Dexter Morgan from Dexter and Vic Mackey from the Shield: Both are stone-cold killers who do not flinch from using horrific violence when it suits them. However, because Dexter has the label ‘psychopath’ attached to him, the character can never be completely sympathetic and so maintains his edge. Conversely, Vic Mackey is just a corrupt cop and, over the series, his actions take on a logic of their own that shifts the character from morally dysfunctional anti-hero to Dirty Harry-style crusader with a private sense of morality. Tellingly, when The Shield ended, Mackey’s future as an office drone was played for its pathos… we were supposed to feel sorry for a man denied access to the streets.
Based upon John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980), Erick Zonca’s Julia can be seen as an attempt to solve this unintentional drift from empathy to sympathy. Telling the story of a selfish, unpleasant and manipulative alcoholic who kidnaps a child, the film works very hard at humanising its protagonist whilst retaining the opinion that she is a wretched human who is undeserving of either our sympathy or forgiveness. While the experiment is not entirely successful and the film does eventually collapse into something approaching sympathy for its protagonist, the move towards a more sympathetic portrayal is marked by a parallel drift away from character-based drama and towards a more genre-friendly approach to storytelling, thus begging the question as to whether we are more forgiving of genre characters than we are of real people.