Tag Archives: 2014

LIST CANDIDATE: LI’L QUINQUIN (2014)

P’tit Quinquin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bruno Dumont

FEATURING: Alane Delhaye, Bernard Pruvost, Philippe Jore, Lucy Caron

PLOT: A big city detective with facial tic disorder comes to a remote French beach village to investigate a bizarre double murder: parts of the victims were found inside the bodies of cows.

Still from Li'l Quinquin (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Bruno Dumont’s sprawling (206 minute) longform Gallic mystery is quirky and ominous in about equal measure, with an ambiguous non-conclusion that adds to the weirdness while also making the entire enterprise feel strangely incomplete.

COMMENTS: Because of its quirky dark humor and strange-outsider-in-a-stranger-town mystery plot, L’il Quinquin almost always dubbed “the French ‘Twin Peaks.'” Indeed, it shares many of that series’ strengths and weaknesses: absurd, dark humor; meandering subplots that can become more interesting than the main thread; fascinating rural eccentrics; a hint of the supernatural; and an unsatisfactory resolution.

That last part bears keeping in mind. Although L’il Quinquin is presented as a mystery, beginning with the macabre discovery of human body parts inside of cows, the murders are, most frustratingly, not solved at the end. This fact is in accord with the director’s wishes—he presents a world where evil is allowed to triumph, even to the extent of remaining anonymous—but, after such an amazing buildup, the anticlimax inevitably leaves a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste.

That disappointment won’t arrive until the very end, however, and there is much to savor up until then. We’ll start with the performance of Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a detective who looks like Albert Einstein with uncontrollable facial tics—his expression changes an average of two times per second. Pruvost projects a weird sort of competence, and serves as the film’s disapproving moral center, but shares the limelight with Alane Delhaye as the titular Quinquin, a mischievous “bad kid” who absorbs the town’s unreflective racism, but is redeemed by his innocence and his genuine love for a neighbor girl (Lucy Caron, whose penetrating stare recalls the blank intensity of Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom). There’s also an African Muslim boy who snaps when a popular white girl rejects him; a beautiful and talented young chanteuse who seems bound for the big city; Carpentier, Van der Weyden’s dim and nearly toothless second-in-command; Quinquin’s uncle, a speechless, nearly catatonic wreck just back from the institution, given to wandering around in circles; and dozens of other weirdos in brief bits (like the developmentally-disabled English man who throws dishes in a restaurant while the detective is giving a status report to his superior officer). Offbeat comic touches, often quite absurd, break up the serious dramatic sections: a pair of priests preside over an awkward funeral and giggle inappropriately; Quinquin is bedeviled by a costumed younger boy calling himself “Speedyman!” who shows up on his doorstep without explanation; a car careens down the street on two wheels. But in the midst of all this everyday madness, things grow ever darker, as secrets are uncovered and more and more bodies are found, leading the detective to his eventual, apparently final, conclusion: “l’enfer, ici” (“this is Hell, here”).

But for all L’il Quinquin‘s assets, it ends on little more than that involuntary eyebrow shrug by our detached detective. I appreciate an ambiguous ending, when well done, but the idea of a mystery that is never resolved, yet is wrapped up in a way that the audience will find emotionally satisfying, remains cinema’s elusive white whale.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a wonderfully weird and unexpectedly hilarious murder mystery.”–Scott Foundas, Variety (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE FEAR OF DARKNESS (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Fitchett

FEATURING: Penelope Mitchell, Maeve Dermody, Aaron Pederson

PLOT: A young psychologist treats the suspect in a bizarre murder case and confronts a dark supernatural force in the girl’s unconscious.

Still from The Fear of Darkness (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only weird aspect of this horror film is the supernatural force of darkness. Otherwise this follows the naturalist form of the crime psychological thriller.

COMMENTS: If you believe in string theory, then in some parallel universe this film got all of its elements right and rose above the mediocre offering here. It probably even won an Oscar. First off, the alternate universe screenwriters would have researched the particulars of psychology rather than the Googled armchair-shrink efforts on display here—especially the vague experimental practices employed by Dr. Sarah Faithful to elicit trauma and screaming from murder suspect Skye Williams. Faithful’s Dr./cop friend defends these practices to unnerved observers with a dismissive “I trust her, she knows what she’s doing”.

Secondly, the producers would’ve hired a competent director who doesn’t pander to the hackneyed jump-scares that we’ve all seen a million times before, and who has a vision for the film beyond perfunctory soap opera camera set-ups and dark corners where special effects lurk. The kind of director who would have lifted the performances of seemingly credible actors, and who doesn’t make a genuine talent like Aaron Pederson look like he’s a year out of acting school. Again, screenwriters who deliver non-perfunctory dialogue would have assisted everyone in this department.

Through this combination of clever screenwriting and solid direction, tension would have been built and the audience would care about either Faithful or William’s fates, so that the M. Night Shyamalan-like twist ending of invented identity would hit home and register as deeply in the minds of the audience as the darkness is said to exist in Skye’s mind. Sadly we have no way of viewing that phenomenal parallel universe version of The Fear of Darkness, we only have the sad, wholly unremarkable version that exists in ours. Save yourself from the theoretical angst of “what could have been” and seek genuine scares in films like The Exorcist or The Haunting in Connecticut, films that succeed on their own terms rather than relying on the necessity of an infinite multiverse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as sinister and surreal concepts earn increasingly frequent mentions, reminding audiences that all is not as it appears, the film relishes its foreseeable twists as much as it does its formulaic conventions.”–Sarah Ward, ArtsHub (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE TRIBE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi

FEATURING: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova

PLOT: Upon arriving at a school for the deaf, a teenage boy is quickly recruited into a vicious gang that conducts petty crimes, including prostituting two female students.

Still from The Tribe (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although a Ukrainian juvenile delinquent movie told entirely in untranslated sign language is far off the average person’s radar, the straightforward subject matter isn’t weird enough for the List. The Tribe is more of a formal novelty than anything.

COMMENTS: First there was Deafula, and now The Tribe. That’s where sign language cinema begins and ends. The Tribe is not made for deaf audiences, however—Ukrainian sign language is not completely intelligible to signers of other nationalities—nor is it about the experience of being deaf. Being able to read sign language would frustrate the intentional alienation effect and impede the film’s experiment in non-verbal storytelling.  With patience, you can follow everything that happens in this archetypal gangster rise-and-fall tale: our (essentially) nameless protagonist (the credits call him Sergey) is forcibly recruited into the local syndicate, proves his worth in a series of trials, rises on the ladder, and comes into conflict with his superiors. The details of what the deaf characters are actually saying to each other, and the few narrative mysteries that pop up, are cleverly divulged through context or cleaned up by later revelations, no differently than they would be in a spoken language feature. The complete removal of dialogue takes silent film one step further, and enforces a dogmatic minimalism on the picture. Language, you realize, only provides detail, and here the details have been stripped away. The rest of the film’s style—bleak sets, absence of music, extremely long takes—reinforce the starkness.

The long takes, although well-executed, are the film’s biggest drawback, in that Slaboshpytskyi habitually keeps the camera running far longer than necessary—sometimes on scenes that are themselves unnecessary. Sergey’s introduction to the school includes a long ceremonial ritual where students give flowers to their teachers and several minutes of unintelligible (to us) lecturing (in one of only two scenes set in the classroom); this far more than satisfies our need to orient ourselves in a school setting. Finding a room for that first night is a similarly drawn out process, as sleeping arrangements seem to be unassigned, then later there are scenes of two girls getting passport photos and waiting in line to see a government functionary…. Although the length of each of these scenes reinforces the movie’s ponderous rhythm, by the end, the 130-minute running time becomes problematic. It’s axiomatic in writing that you include nothing unnecessary in the finished work, and there are entire scenes here that could have been easily cut. I’m not including the scenes of brutal violence and cruelty (which are justified by the milieu), of near-explicit sex (less justified), or of a real-time back alley medical procedure, in that assessment. These “strong” scenes provide a nihilistic artsploitation sensibility that will turn off many, but supply the film’s primary appeal for some.

Even though understanding precisely what’s being said in sign language is not necessary to follow the plot, constantly seeing the characters communicating on the screen without knowing what they’re saying creates a level of frustration and anxiety in the viewer. It’s an inversion of the deaf person’s experience in the speaking world (although that fact is more of a footnote than the film’s raison d’être). The fact that the story can be followed at all—much less that it is at times gripping—is a testament to the director’s skill. It’s an artful gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless, and The Tribe is more of a great achievement than a great movie. Days later, I was still wrestling with whether I liked it or not, and whether (and to whom) I could recommend it—which is a sort of tribute, I think. Letterboxd user Brian Koukol nailed The Tribe‘s position in film history when he described it as “a merit badge for a cinephiles.” I’m not sure if the reward here is commensurate to the challenge involved, but you won’t forget the experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the use of sign language, deafness and silence itself adds several heady new ingredients to the base material, alchemically creating something rich, strange and very original.”–Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

CAPSULE: IN THE BASEMENT (2014)

Im Keller

DIRECTED BY: Ulrich Seidl

FEATURING: A cast of “ordinary” Austrians

PLOT: A documentary about secret hobbies in which Austrians indulge their basements, including a man with a shrine to the Nazis, a woman who cradles creepy lifelike newborn dolls, and multiple S&M devotees.

Still from In the Basement (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we have often pointed out, due to their very nature—which requires them to be rooted in reality—documentaries have a much harder row to hoe if they aspire to weirdness. In the Basement tries to strangen things up, formally speaking, with cut-and-paste editing and awkward minimalist tableaux; it still doesn’t make it all the way to “weird,” though.

COMMENTS: In one of the opening scenes of In the Basement, a man (whom we never see again) silently watches as his pet python stalks a helpless bunny rabbit crowded into the corner of a plexiglass cage. My immediate thought was, there’s no healthy reason for him to be watching this. In the Basement is built around the idea of watching what you shouldn’t. It takes us into the private demesnes of a tuba-playing Nazi sympathizer, a woman obsessed with creepily realistic baby dolls, and a hairy man who cleans his mistress’ toilet with his tongue, among others. To add to the alienating feel, the editing seems purposeless, bouncing back and forth between the film’s subjects at random. To generate further discomfort, establishing shots are held for much longer than is necessary. The director scatters snapshot moments where the subjects stand posed stock-still and stare at the camera without expression at several points throughout the film. Sometimes these are the main characters, and other times they are people who did not make it into the film proper, like the middle aged women who stand arranged around a washing machine as it runs through a noisy rinse cycle. The carefully posed amateurs staring affectlessly at the camera from gray rooms invoke the absurdist spirit of Roy Andersson.

Rarely are the subjects asked to speak about themselves or their hobbies, with the noteworthy exception of a masochistic woman who, standing nude except for the thick ropes ritually wrapped around her, confesses the personal history that brought her into the subculture. It’s In the Basement‘s lone moment of obvious insight and humanity.

While it engenders a morbid fascination, there are some serious downsides to Basement. For a while, the documentary earns extra thrills just from the fact that you don’t know what new kink is going to be introduced next. But eventually it runs out of surprises. There aren’t enough weirdos willing to go onscreen, so director Seidl ends up filling up space with redundant S&M devotees (who probably get an extra kick of humiliation from being exposed to the public). The amount of time devoted to these six, plus the wince-inducing detail involved in their explicitly detailed torture sessions, makes you wonder if maybe Seidl should have abandoned Basement‘s ostensible thesis and just made a movie about the S&M lifestyle instead. More upsetting, however, is the revelation that some of the scenes were, basically, faked. Although Seidl’s M.O. lately has been blurring the line between fact and fiction, narrative and documentary, that technique doesn’t seem fruitful in this context. Does Basement say something about the contemporary Austrian soul, or is it just a carefully curated compendium of grotesques? Although I believe Seidl intended to make an artistic statement about social and psychological repression, in practice the movie plays more to the latter interpretation. When did this kind of thing, they did not drape it in obscuring Art.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s in more conventional observation and confessions to camera that the film really delivers its strange, melancholic universe.”–Lee Marshall, Screen International (contemporaneous)