Tag Archives: Ambiguous

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)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE FALLING (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Carol Morley

FEATURING: Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Florence Pugh

PLOT: The students at an all-girls school experience a collective mass hysteria after one of their group unexpectedly passes away. But what is really causing this strange illness, and can its spell be broken?

Still from The Falling (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Falling is a symphony of opposites, a nauseating yet excessively beautiful film, one that simultaneously rejects and then accepts the extremes of female sexuality. Purposefully instilled with a sense of obscurity, it could be viewed as an extended analogy or a horror film without a monster, depending on how weird you want it to be.

COMMENTS: Following in the footsteps of more familiar New Weird British directors and , Carol Morely has crafted a film full of plausible deniability. Actions and reactions seem to offer explanations, before wrenching them away from you at the last moment. Like its recent predecessors, The Falling is impressive in that it can be so disturbing in direct opposition to its visual presentation: stark and quiet, empty but beautiful, each frame uncluttered, the pace perfectly languid. Not many films can find stability between intellectual stimulation and visceral distraction, but The Falling manages it more often than not, primarily due to its dedication to the autumnal, timeless setting and lack of any exposition.

This lack of exposition could be mistaken for general weirdness in any other film but, a lot like ’s Innocence (another brilliant film set in an all-girls school), The Falling isn’t obfuscating for the sake of obfuscation. Morley has written extensively on her obsession with mass hysteria among teenage girls (a more common occurrence than you would think) along with the total lack of explanation for these mysterious events. Seeing the phenomenon presented on screen is a chilling, confusing experience. It is also an immediately arresting concept, and Morley runs with it, from the humble beginnings of an eerie teenage friendship through to sexual awakening, identity issues, and even suggestions of witchcraft. Whilst there is never an overt explanation for the fainting spells, facial tics and personality changes that the girls go through, the sexual awakenings of many characters seem to be a starting point for their sudden transformations. At some points, the film is a satire of Catholicism’s fear of sexuality: the idea that if just one teenage girl were to become sexually active and pregnant then it would sweep through their ranks like an epidemic, stealing their individuality away from them and creating beings who act impulsively, flustered by their sexual desires. At other times, it’s character-driven, a study of youthful diversion and identity crisis for our young protagonist Lydia.

The films provocation would not be as powerful without the stirring performances of the girls that inhabit the pristine surroundings of the school. Maisie Williams, better known as “Game of Thrones”‘s Arya Stark, sheds her more famous character with immense maturity, willing her character forward despite challenging scenes of incest, abuse and supposed insanity. In fact, credit should go to Morley and all her actresses for working together to eek out impressively subtle performances, especially in a film with such difficult content. The constant musical dream-pop interludes are a little excessive and redundant, and the conclusion isn’t quite worth the set-up, but if this is the future of British film, we should have a lot to look forward to because of the continually expressive and experimental efforts that Morley should certainly be a part of in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are shades here of Joseph Losey and Ken Russell, albeit with a staunch feminist perspective. The storytelling may waver in conviction after a woozily riveting setup, but not enough to impede healthy domestic arthouse prospects…” – Guy Lodge, Variety

199. CAT SOUP (2001)

Nekojiru-so

“Many animators participated in the creation of Nekojiru-so, but I wonder how many of the animators fully understood the concept and manifested that understanding in the animation. When Yuasa and I explained things during animation meetings, we really didn’t understand it ourselves either.”–Tatsuo Satō, Cat Soup director, DVD commentary

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Tatsuo Satō

FEATURING: Not applicable (the film is animated with no dialogue)

PLOT: After nearly drowning in a bathtub, a young anthropomorphic cat sees his sick older sister being led away by a purple figure, follows it, and engages in a tug of war in which he recovers part of her body. He then returns home where he finds the sister still ill and convalescing, and gives her the part he recovered from the purple figure. She recovers from her sickness, and the pair embark on a series surreal adventures throughout the cartoon cosmos, although the sister is only half-alive until they eventually locate a mystical flower that restores her.

Still from Cat Soup (2001)
BACKGROUND:

  • Cat Soup is based on a series of manga by the artist Nekojiru (a pseudonym that actually translates as “cat soup”). Although Nekojiru’s stories were also dreamlike, they were more structured than this adaptation, and little of Cat Soup is taken directly from her works. Nekojiru committed suicide in 1998.
  • Technically, the Japanese title translates as something like “Cat Soup Flower.”
  • Director Tatsuo Satō specializes in television anime and has directed episodes of “Martian Successor Nadesico,” “Ninja Scroll: The Series,” and “Bodacious Space Pirates.”
  • Co-writer Masaaki Yuasa also produced and was the animation director; he has since directed his own feature (2004’s Mind Game) and several shorts and TV episodes, while continuing to work as an animator on other projects.
  • Because it was an OVA (“Original Video Animation” in anime parlance, meaning direct-to-DVD with no theatrical release), Cat Soup was not eligible to compete in many film festivals, although it did take honors at a few (including recognition as Fantasia’s Best Short Film of 2001).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Choosing a single image from Cat Soup, which is a 30-minute barrage of insane, enchanting, and frequently disturbing visions made by animators who had been freed from almost any constraints on what they were allowed to imagine, is a tall task. We selected a still from the scene which literally enacts the title. Making this “cat soup” involves dressing up in mouse dominatrix gear and chopping up the yummy kitties with a giant pair of scissors.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In some ways I envy the reviewer who was the first to get to Cat Soup and dub it “Hello Kitty on acid.” (Although I actually haven’t been able to track down the critic who first said that; perhaps the description is so obvious that everyone just assumes someone else came up with it before they did). I think a better description, perhaps, would be “Hello Kitty goes to Hell,” because the acidic hallucinations here all occur in the context of cat spirits wandering a weird world halfway between life and death, a place where God appears as a carnival magician and cuts planets in half and slurps their molten cores like soup. The brisk 30 minute runtime is the perfect length for this nearly plot-free pageant of morbid feline surrealism, which hits your surreal receptors hard, but doesn’t last so long you build up a tolerance to the insanity.


English-language DVD trailer for Cat Soup

COMMENTS: Cat Soup is a short feature that flummoxes even anime Continue reading 199. CAT SOUP (2001)

LIST CANDIDATE: PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Peter Weir

FEATURING: Margaret Nelson, Rachel Roberts, Anne Lambert, Martin Vaughan, John Jarrett, Helen Morse, Christine Schuler, Karen Robson

PLOT: The unexplained 1900 Valentine’s Day disappearance of four schoolgirls and a teacher haunts the residents and neighbors of an all-girl college in Australia.

Still from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s an subtle, indirect feature with a unique tone; the question is whether the diffuse symbolism and impudent refusal to explain its central event gets it from “curious” all the way to “weird.”

COMMENTS: “What we are or what we seem is but a dream, a dream in a dream,” says young Miranda, paraphrasing Poe in voiceover as we gaze at the lonely mountain of Hanging Rock rising out of the bush. We then see her wake. Is she having a premonition? (Later that morning, before she disappears, Miranda warns a school chum with a serious lesbian crush on her that she “won’t be here for very much longer.”) Don’t look for an answer to that question. Explanations do not come in Picnic at Hanging Rock; the movie is about its own lack of explanations. We naturally desire answers to life’s mysteries, but in Picnic‘s Victorian Australia, what is even more important is to maintain propriety. After four of her charges and one of her teachers disappear, the headmistress is most distressed when one of the girls returns with no memory of what happened to her. It’s worse than if none of them ever came back, because this sensational and mysterious restoration puts the story back on the front page of the papers and fans the public’s curiosity. Picnic throws out clues, or observations that have the general shape of clues, every now and then: scandalously, one of the girls who disappeared lost her corset! (The doctor confirms, to everyone’s relief, that the girl who returned was found “intact”).

What is the point of erecting a girls’ finishing school in the middle of the Outback, if not to provide a civilized outpost against the forces of sinful Nature? If Nature abducts a few of civilization’s foot-soldiers for Her own unknown purposes, then perhaps it is best not to know their fate; we should forget it, lest it turns out that something horrible has happened to compromise the girls’ honor. Still, people remain curious and prone to gossip, especially in the lower classes.  “There’s some questions got answers and some hasn’t,” advises an elderly gardener. “No,” objects his younger companion, “there’ll be a solution turn up directly, more’n likely.” But no solution comes. There is not even a central character in the story, only the central fact of the disappearance, around which subplots orbit. The movie is quiet, almost oppressively so, until finally the girls’ suppressed anxiety explodes: “tell us, tell us!” they cry. The teachers quickly quash the hysterical outburst. Emotions must be contained, propriety maintained, corsets tightened. If that means that nothing much appears to happen in the movie, then we still have freedom to dream. Picnic‘s gauzy meditation on sexual repression and loss can have a hypnotic effect on those susceptible to its mysterious moods, while others find it an inconclusive bore. Both sides have an argument, but in general, the good here outweighs the bland.

With its sunlight cinematography, period setting, and artistic ambition, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a natural acquisition for the Criterion Collection. Criterion’s edition collects numerous interviews with the principal cast and crew, but the extra of most interest to us is Weir’s 50-minute mini-feature Homesdale. This black comedy involves an insidiously authoritarian Australian resort where infamous murders are recreated over dinner, personalized subliminal messages are broadcast at night, and the talent show turns into a human sacrifice if you bomb. Tonally, Homesdale is a cross between and ; it’s well-acted and quite a bit weirder than Picnic, though not nearly as memorable. Seeing Homesale convinced Joan Lindsay, author of the original “Hanging Rock” novel, that Weir was the right man to handle the adaptation of her beloved work.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film of haunting mystery and buried sexual hysteria.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago-Sun Times (retrospective)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Simon,” who politely suggested it “might be worth a look.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

163. 3 WOMEN (1977)

“I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional, not narrative or intellectual, where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything but what they feel.”–Robert Altman (quoted in David Sterritt’s Criterion Collection essay)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Robert Fortier

PLOT: A young girl named Pinky begins working at a spa in California, where she eventually becomes roommates with her idol, Millie, who is a few years older. Millie believes herself to be popular, inviting people over for dinner parties and out on dates, but in reality nearly everyone avoids her except for Pinky. Then, after a near-fatal accident, Pinky undergoes a radical personality change…

Still from 3 Women (1977)
BACKGROUND:

  • Robert Altman conceived the picture after a dream he had while his wife was hospitalized: he dreamed the title of the film, the location, that it involved personality theft, and that it would star Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek.
  • 3 Women was made without a traditional screenplay. Instead, together with writer Patricia Resnick, Altman devised a 50 page treatment. The movie was then shot in sequence, with Altman writing out the next day’s scenes the night before, and the actors improvising much of the dialogue. Duvall wrote all of the diary entries herself.
  • The murals were painted by an otherwise nearly unknown hippie artist working under the name “Bodhi Wind.”
  • Duvall’s performance won her a Best Actress nod at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • The movie was not available on home video in any form until 2004 due to the distributors’ failure to negotiate rights for Gerald Busby’s avant-garde musical score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The paintings that decorate the swimming pool walls: strange creatures with scaly legs and baboon faces, engaged in bizarre, violent courting rituals. A male stands with his arms outstretched and his stout penis hanging proudly between his legs while females scatter, looking over their shoulders and baring their fangs at him. Shots of these two murals, which inside the movie’s reality are painted by Janice Rule’s character, occur over and over throughout the film, including over the opening and closing credits. Oddly enough, the shot most associated with 3 Women—the one that illustrates the DVD cover and accompanies most reviews—doesn’t even occur in the film. The photograph of Sissy Spacek entwined in Shelly Duval’s arms as they recline against a fresco depicting one simian lizard creature strangling another was a promotional photo. 3 Women is that kind of movie: the type that’s best represented by something lying outside of its own boundaries.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: 3 Women is based on an uneasy dream suffered by Robert Altman, and incredible performances by Sissy Spacek and (especially) Shelly Duvall turn it into a collaborative dream. Although most of the movie is naturalistic, with nothing happening that could not quite happen in our reality, there is nonetheless a dreadful sense of illusoriness, as if we’re seeing events through a gauze.


Original trailer for 3 Women

COMMENTS: Tucked away on the long stretch of nowhere between Persona (1966) and Lost Highway (1997) lies 3 Women, the 1970s iteration Continue reading 163. 3 WOMEN (1977)

READER RECOMMENDATION: JACK AND DIANE (2012)

Reader Recommendation by Jason Steadmon

DIRECTED BY: Bradley Rust Gray

FEATURING: , Riley Keough, , , Lou Taylor Pucci

PLOT: Somewhat immature Diane (Temple) meets and starts a relationship with the streetwise Jack (Keough) while also going through some strange blackouts and changes.

Still from Jack and Diane (2012)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: If you take the point of view that an analogy doesn’t make for weirdness, Jack & Diane may not immediately make the List. This movie, however, takes that analogy and leaves one to make one’s own mind up. Maybe Diane is turning into a creature in her blackouts – maybe not. It’s from this ambiguity that the movie derives its strangeness.

COMMENTS: Diane is a girl who has been getting nosebleeds lately, and those eventually lead to some scary blackouts, with her seeing a creature in the mirror in place of her own reflection. The idea that Diane may be going through some bodily change (cancer, maturation, exploration of her own sexuality, etc.) is a pure distillation of metaphor–except that it starts to have physical consequences for her lover Jack. Jack eventually gets jealous of Diane hanging around with her friends–Diane has a more fluid sexual nature as opposed to Jack’s straight-up lesbian orientation–even if she was willing to roll with the sometimes literal punches of the relationship. If this isn’t metaphorical, both Diane and Jack (and New York City) are in trouble, because one of them is turning into a very violent monster.

Diane’s other self is represented through some good old-fashioned prosthetic work by veteran effects artist Gabe Bartalos (the Leprechaun movies, most of ’s films). The impending coming of the Creature Diane is also represented in animation by the Brothers Quay in their characteristic and inimitable style. Bradley Rust Gray does good service to the iffy nature of the story and never beats you over the head with the creature. He is obviously bolstered by his experience with both independent and experimental film. As Diane, Juno Temple doesn’t necessarily break any new ground in the childlike yet sexually charged role–but does well with a part that seems written with her in mind. More astounding is Keough (Lisa Marie Presley’s daughter) as Jack, completely eschewing her normal glamorous looks to play the tomboyish role, and bringing depth to the character that one might not expect from someone who makes a regular living as a fashion model.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tonally, the film swings between whispery romance and ominous horror as it explores the dark side of love and lust, including an amusingly gory meditation on the notion that the person you think is your beloved might just rip your heart out.”–Sara Stewart, New York Post (contemporaneous)