Tag Archives: Ambiguous

353. TEOREMA (1968)

AKA Theorem

“I have just seen something absolutely disgusting! Pasolini’s latest film, Teorema. The man is mad!”–Maria Callas, soon before accepting the lead role in Pasolini’s Medea

DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Laura Betti, Massimo Girotti, Silvana Mangano, Andrés José Cruz Soublette, Anne Wiazemsky

PLOT: After an introduction in which a worker is interviewed about the factory his boss just gave him as a gift, we see a bourgeois family receive an invitation saying that a visitor will be coming soon. It turns out to be a handsome but unnamed young American man; every member of the family, and even the maid, fall in love with him, and he sleeps with each of them in turn. Another telegram arrives saying that the stranger has been called away, and after he departs the family falls apart.

Still from Teorema (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pier Paolo Pasolini originally planned Teorema as a play, but changed it to a screenplay because he believed there was not enough dialogue for it to work on the stage.
  • Despite Pasolini’s Marxism, the relatively liberal International Catholic Organization for Cinema awarded a jury prize to Teorema (as it had to his more conventional 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew). Pope Paul VI personally criticized the award, and it was withdrawn by the organization.
  • As happened with many of Pasolini’s films, Italian authorities challenged Teorema as obscene. As always, the Italian courts eventually cleared it for public screenings after a trial.
  • Pasolini later adopted Teorema into a novel (which has not, to our knowledge, been translated into English).
  • Composer Giorgio Battistelli adapted the movie into an opera in 1992.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The proletarian saint hovering over her village church. The father, naked on the slopes of Mt. Etna, screaming at the heavens, is a close runner-up. We reject the idea that a closeup of Terence Stamp’s crotch in tight white pants is the most important visual symbol in the film, although we can see how someone might come to that conclusion.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Manspreading Stamp; levitating saint; naked, screaming pop

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Simply stated but open to endless interpretation, Pasolini’s Teorema operates on a strange logic of its own, a kind of triangulated synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Jesus Christ. Any movie in which God appears as a bisexual pretty boy has something weird going for it.


British Blu-ray trailer for Teorema

COMMENTS: It’s a happy coincidence that Teorema—the most Continue reading 353. TEOREMA (1968)

CAPSULE: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991)

La double vie de Véronique

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Irène Jacob, Philippe Volter

PLOT: Stories from the lives of two women—Polish Weronika and French Veronique—who are both musicians, look identical, and share a vague psychic bond that is never explained.

Still from The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It tends too much to the “arthouse drama” side of the “weird arthouse drama” scale.

COMMENTS: Weronika and Veronique are only present together at one moment, when the French music teacher glimpses the Polish singer in a crowd. Yet, their lives are almost mirror images, or alternate histories. They share a metaphysical bond: Weronika burns herself on a stove as a child, and Veronique dimly senses her pain, and carries a fear of hot surfaces for her entire life. In the early going it can be difficult to tell which of them is which, although the plot makes it very clear who is the main character in the end.

There is no meaningful interaction between the two young women; in fact, it proceeds almost like two separate dramas placed alongside each other, concerning stories from the lives of two superficially similar characters. Small individual moments create more impact than the whole: Weronika singing rapturously as raindrops splash her upturned face, a Lenin statue carted away by truck (an earthbound mirror of La Dolce Vita‘s helicoptered Christ), a cathedral inverted in a handheld crystal ball. The first half focuses on the more likable of the pair, while the second half launches into a skewed love story involving a puppeteer. The incidents are related in the straightforward, mostly realistic way typical of Kieslowski and his arthouse cronies, with the bare mystery of the doppelgangers providing an unsettling subtext. The end result is a Rorschach test (inkblots are mirror images, after all).

Although I’m awarding The Double Life of Veronique a “recommended” rating, it’s a qualified one. Veronique‘s  technical qualities are exemplary: Slawomir Idziak’s lush cinematography, Zbigniew Presiner’s beautiful classical score, and Irene Jacob’s ravishing presence merge to create truly sensuous, quietly seductive film. But the enterprise is also overly enigmatic, in a way that’s not completely satisfying. It doesn’t deliver the surreal magic of a Persona, and as an intellectual exercise, even Blow-Up is easy to parse compared to Veronique. Is it a study of Europe’s East contra its West, or of how the author manipulates the personas of his characters? Scant evidence appears for any particular interpretation, but there’s a too much explication, and too few fireworks, to suggest a mindblowing irrational experience. The mix of mundane and off-center elements make for a movie that, while impressive, may not offer quite enough return per unit of attention it demands.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Kieslowski] takes us into a world that merges the most natural with the most surreal and inexplicable happenings. Some critics find the film too cryptic and baffling, since it offers many clues but no easy explanations. Double Life is his most lyrical and beautiful film to date, but it’s also his most mysterious, enigmatic, and elusive—by design.”–Emmanuel Levy, emmanuellevy.com

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tomash,” who mysteriously said, “this is the BIG movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

299. INNOCENCE (2004)

“A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent…”–William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Lea Bridarolli, , Helene de Fougerolles

PLOT: A coffin mysteriously arrives at a girl’s boarding school; inside is Iris, a six-year old girl, wearing only white panties. Six other girls open the coffin, introduce themselves, and dress the new arrival in the school uniform: all white, pleated skirts, braided ponytails, and color-coded ribbons in their hair identifying their rank by age. As Iris learns the rules of the school from her elders and is trained in dance, older girls hope that they will be “chosen” by the Headmistress during her annual visit so they can leave the grounds.

Still from Innocence (2004)

BACKGROUND:

    • “Inspired by” German writer Frank Wedekind’s 1903 novella “Mine-Haha: or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls”. The novella was made again in 2005 as The Fine Art of Love: Mine Ha-Ha.
    • Director Hadzihalilovic is the wife (and former editor/producer) of Gaspar Noé, to whom the film is dedicated. (Hadzihalilovic also collaborated with Noé on the screenplay to the Certified Weird Enter the Void).
    • In 2015 Hadzihalilovic completed Evolution, a sort of companion piece to Innocence set on an island where all the children are male.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The big moment comes early on: Iris’ mysterious arrival in a coffin.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Coffin cuties; butterfly sex studies; train to adulthood

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful, and troubling, metaphor for childhood.


Clip from Innocence

COMMENTS: Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s notion of Innocence is an odd Continue reading 299. INNOCENCE (2004)

276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

“I have no idea what that was about. Was it about alcoholism? Was it about corporate realities? Was it about sex? Was it about nothing?” –P.C. Clair

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, , , Bernie Casey

PLOT: In a desperate bid to mitigate a drought back on his home planet, a humanoid alien is sent to Earth: “The Planet of Water,” in his people’s language. Adopting the name Thomas Newton, he sets about establishing a technology company, World Enterprises, to fund his mission and design a vessel to allow his return. During his stay on Earth, the combined distractions of a young woman and alcohol (an even greater love) nearly break him, and he feels forced to hasten his decampment.

Still from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay was based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name.
  • The unfortunate mix of cocaine abuse and emotional detachment that overwhelmed Bowie during and after the filming meant that the actor/singer’s planned soundtrack for the film never came into fruition. John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas fame) was pulled in last minute to create the soundtrack before the premier.
  • Candy Clark played both Newton’s lover, Mary-Lou, and his wife on his home world. In a small turn for a third “role”, she appeared as Thomas Newton himself during a brief scene — exiting the World Trade Center—when Bowie himself was unavailable.
  • Wanting a “big name” for the lead, the movie’s backers were pushing for Robert Redford to play Newton. Fate–and budget restrictions—fortunately got in the way.
  • The U.S. distributor cut about twenty to thirty minutes out of the film, making it more confusing than the (already challenging) director’s cut, and leading to some bad initial reviews.
  • In 1987 the same story was adapted less successfully for a television movie starring the undistinguished Lewis Smith.
  • In 2015, in one of his last creative works, Bowie co-wrote “Lazarus,” a musical based on The Man Who Fell to Earth; one theater critic wrote that “What they have created makes perilously little sense,” but “it’s nearly impossible not to be persuaded and baffled and at least a little thrilled.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a David Bowie 1970s cult science-fiction movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, one expects to find a lot of shots that are “indelible.” However, the most memorable (and distressing) occurs when we find Thomas Newton in his media room. Beginning with a creepy stare and a rictus smile, he gazes at a bank of televisions all wired together to a remote on his viewing throne. His mania and desperation break through the audio-visual spasms pouring from the cathode ray screens as he begins shouting, “leave me alone!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Never enough televisions ; glitter-helmet assassins ; I see the past and it sees me

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Without David Bowie’s presence, this movie would still make the “Certified” cut— but much less readily. The ambiguity of the narrative, boldness of the visual style, and abstruseness of the soundscape all work together to form a solidly weird experience. David Bowie acts, as it were, like the prodigious amount of frosting on this weird layer cake. Depending upon your view, Bowie was very good at acting like someone who’s an alien— or maybe didn’t need to “act” at all.


Original trailer for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

COMMENTS: What would the people of Earth do with a space visitor? How would the traveler cope? When faced with an unrelenting Continue reading 276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

CAPSULE: OBSERVANCE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Sims-Dennett

FEATURING: Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King

PLOT: A man takes a job spying on a beautiful woman, for reasons unstated by his anonymous employer, from an abandoned building across from her apartment; it turns out All Is Not What It Seems.

Still from Observance (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s obvious that a lot of skill and love went into Observance‘s production, but it’s too slow at the start, and too confusing and emotionally inconclusive at the end, to merit inclusion among the best weird films of all time.

COMMENTS: The title is a clue that there’s more to Observance than a simple voyeuristic thriller—although what exactly the “more” is isn’t clear even by the end. It starts out like Rear Window, with a man spying on a woman’s life in which he is helpless to intervene, but slowly moves into The Shining territory as observer Parker’s sanity comes into question. Nothing of consequence happens on Day 1 of the observation—the target makes lasagna, Parker makes his bed—which should, perhaps, be a warning sign to the viewer. As the film progresses, things get weirder and spookier, but in small increments. The slow burn technique can be effective; I wish this one had started burning faster, though.

The dream sequences, which relate to the sort of generic family tragedy that always haunt the backstories of psychological horror protagonists, are the best parts, invoking symbols like a pricked finger dripping blood, dead rodents, and black bile (all features which recur in Parker’s squalid lodgings). Meanwhile, things get stranger in reality, too: the observer is viciously scalded by his shower, grows sickly, hallucinates… By the time the movie is halfway over, however, you’re still not sure whether it’s going to turn truly weird, or whether the script will pull out a perfectly logical (if supernatural) explanation for these events. Lovers of the weird need fear not; the ending plunges down a rabbit hole, never to resurface.

The technical aspects—cinematography and sound design—are excellent. The opening black-and-white shots of a churning tide pool underneath a craggy outcropping are like something an Australian Ansel Adams might have come up with, setting an appropriately ominous and lonesome mood. The acting is in the competent-to-good range: if anything, the script doesn’t give the actors enough to do to show off their talents. Observance comes close to being a very good movie; as it is, the dream sequences work in isolation as pieces of abstract art, but don’t inform the thin narrative, or make us care overly about the eventual fate of the characters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the picture draws on everyone from Cronenberg and early Polanski to Shane Carruth in the construction of its existential mystery. While in the end many viewers will find that mystery frustratingly unresolved, many will be moved enough to talk about it…”–John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

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: BLOW-UP (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Michelangelo Antonioni

FEATURING: , Vanessa Redgrave

PLOT: A hedonistic fashion photographer snaps some candid pictures of a couple in a park; when he looks at the negatives, he thinks he may have discovered evidence of a murder.

Still from Blow-up (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blow-Up is only subtly weird, and its oddness only becomes truly apparent at the end. This site’s readers have never, to my memory, suggested this movie for review; and yet, Antonioni’s ambiguous examination of London mods in existential free-fall is something of a canonical art film that must be touched upon in a comprehensive survey of weird films.

COMMENTS: Let me put Blow-Up in a personal context. When I first saw this movie in my early twenties, I despised it. I can’t find my original review, but in essence, my viewpoint was that making a deliberately boring movie in order to critique the boredom of modern life—capped by the director dangling a single point of interest in front of the audience, only to snatch it away—was a reprehensible bit of auteurial sadism. Over time, however, I have to admit that several moments from Blow-Up lingered in my memory for years, like snapshots, indicating that the movie can’t be as bad, or as boring, as I originally thought it was. Seeing it again after a couple of intervening decades, I find I tolerate its (significant) longeurs much better; and, although I’ll stop short of reassessing it as a must-see masterpiece, I do reluctantly find its intellectual ambiguities (eventually) involving.

To understand the experience of Blow-Up, it’s important to point out that, for most of this film, nothing of significance happens. But a few scenes pop. There are, basically, four such sequences (leaving aside the opening where a gaggle of rambunctious mimes rampage through the streets of London, which might have been forgotten had they not returned in the coda). After a first half of the movie that features David Hemmings doing nothing other than snapping photographs of emaciated models, making snotty comments, and considering buying a propeller, the first scene of actual interest occurs when the movie is more than halfway over, when he looks at a series of photographs he snapped in the park earlier in the day. He thinks he sees something that might be a clue to a murder. What really “pops” about this scene is the photographer’s sudden look of interest as he peers at the blown-up negatives; mostly, he has appeared as bored as the audience up until this point. The fact that this monumentally jaded character is suddenly roused by this discovery makes it seem extra-important to us; the look of fascination on his face says to us “something is finally happening, the movie is starting!”

Indeed, the movie is starting, but not in the way we expect. As he blows up the photos, scanning for them for clues, the photographer is distracted by the appearance of two aspiring models, who bed him. It’s a hot scene, but the memorable part is when post-coital Hemmings suddenly glances at the photographs hanging on the wall, catches a new detail, and brusquely dismisses the birds to resume his investigation. Blow-Up‘s rhythm now requires that the photographer vacillate between intense commitment to solving the mystery and distraction by sex, drugs and the rock and roll lifestyle, so as he tries to investigate the suspected murder and convince his fellow mods to become involved, he finds himself wandering into a bizarre Yardbirds concert with a zombie-like audience. The final “popping” scene is the much talked-about finale, where, after having failed to solve the mystery, Hemmings encounters the hip mimes from the opening again. They pantomime a tennis game and ask him to fetch an imaginary ball in a final game that suggests that the thing we are seeking can be found, but we must know how to look.

Focusing on those key scenes and discarding the chaff makes Blow-Up a stronger film; the background noise of the photographer’s meaningless, fashionable mod existence is the texture from which the few meaningful moments pop. Although many movies improve on a second viewing, I can’t think of any that do so as dramatically as Blow-Up. Unlike Hemmings, the second time around we know what we are looking for. There’s nothing terribly obscure in the film’s overall design and sensibility, only in the maddening details and the quest to make sense of them. Blow-up is a foundational text of cinema d’ennui.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Antonioni pulls a Marceau-like expressionist finale in this picture, one of those fancy finishes that seems to say so much (but what?) and reminds one of so many naïvely bad experimental films.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)