“Often when we go to the cinema we feel like we’re being taken for fools because things we have instantly understood are laboriously explained. Here it’s a little the other way round.”–Olivier Smolders
PLOT: A solitary entomologist works at a natural history museum in a world where it is only light for fifteen seconds a day. One day, he comes home to his empty apartment and discovers an African woman sleeping in his bed. She is ill and pregnant and eventually dies, leaving him to deal with the body.
Olivier Smolders was born in the Congo, which explains the source of the film’s African imagery.
A prolific short film maker, Nuit Noire is Smolders’ only feature film to date.
The movie received a very limited theatrical release even in its native Belgium, and did not appear in U.S. theaters (outside of a few film festivals) at all. Little has been written about Nuite Noir in the English language (an only a little more in French).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The African woman’s dead body turning into a pupae, then splitting open as a new life emerges.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: 15 seconds of sun; elephant in the alley; African corpse cocooning
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world of eternal midnight, with troubled dreams of dead children and troubling realities of sick foreign women who mysteriously show up in your bed, Nuit Noire manipulates time and concepts in ways that only film can. One woman changes into another, and then into another. This story could not take place in the light of day.
PLOT: God, who’s something of a jerk, lives in an inaccessible high-rise apartment in Brussels; rebelling from his authoritarian control, his 10-year old daughter hacks his computer and leaks humanity’s death dates, then goes to Earth to write a new Gospel.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the earlier days of this site, a movie like The Brand New Testament would easily have been shortlisted as a candidate. But with available slots on the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made shrinking, the field grows more competitive by the week. In a way, with two entries already on the List, Jaco Van Dormael is a victim of his own success—and this high-concept comedy is not as weird as Toto the Hero or Mr. Nobody, although the Catherine Deneuve bestiality subplot nearly puts him over the top one more time.
COMMENTS: Since nothing can come from Nothing, God seems to be an ontological necessity. Yet, our fatally flawed world of starving children, male nipples, and Kanye singles argues against the existence of a perfect, benevolent Supreme Being. There is one way to reconcile this seeming paradox, however. What if God exists, but He’s not a pure and loving spirit: in fact, he’s not only imperfect, but a mildly sadistic bastard? Such a God would perfectly accord the necessity for a First Cause with our experience of life on this planet as frequently annoying, sometimes torturous, and genuinely tragic—besides explaining the whole “made in His image” thing.
Jaco van Dormael takes this whimsical philosophical proposition as the basis for his fantasy The Brand New Testament, a congenially blasphemous lark that winkingly rewrites Christian theology to tweak human nature. This God—played with wicked gusto by a perpetually peeved Benoît Poelvoorde in a ratty bathrobe—is a petty tyrant who delights not only in crashing planes but in setting up universal laws of annoyance, such as the cosmic rule that toast must always fall to the floor jam side down. So intolerable is his reign of terror that his eldest son, J.C., ran away from home to slum around Earth, embarrassing his father with his hippie antics. (“The kid said a lot of stuff on the spur of the moment,” God explains to a scandalized priest). J.C.’s sister, Ea, is now set to follow big bro’s example, climbing down to Earth via a magical dryer duct to escape her Father’s wrath after she hacks his computer and leaks the death dates of all of humanity, freeing them to live their remaining days to the fullest. The girl then sets about recruiting six new apostles, each of whom comes with their own mini-story, dramatized in segments like “The Gospel According to the Sex Maniac.”
The Brand New Testament is sprawling and ambitious, but despite a plot that wanders wide, it centers itself with a consistently off-center wit. The more you know your Bible, the more you’ll laugh (“not at my right hand!” objects an angry God when Ea sits down to dinner). The scenario is so absurd, and the underlying message so humanistic, that only the most humorless Bible-thumper could take offense at Poelvoorde’s clearly farcical deity. Van Dormael slips surreal gags into the interstices of the already fantastic film: an ice-skating hand, a chanson-singing ghost fish, and Deneuve’s simian liaison. The ending is a feminist apocalypse where the patriarchal God is sent into exile and the universe rebooted with flowery skies, male pregnancies, and the return of the Cyclopes.
Belgian Van Dormael’s movies are similar to the solo work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, without a giant blockbuster hit like Amelie but with an oeuvre that, overall, has been both smarter and more consistent than that of the more famous Frenchman. With a small body of only five feature films full of philosophical ambition, wit, visual imagination, and thorough weirdness, he gets my vote for the world’s most underappreciated master filmmaker.
Despite having a role that’s no bigger than any of the other six apostles, Catherine Deneuve gets third billing. You can understand why. Her iconic presence dignifies the film, and her support for the project helped Van Dormael recover from the economic disaster of Mr. Nobody.
FEATURING: Klaus Tange, Birgit Yew, Anna D’Annunzio, Hans de Munter
PLOT: Dan Kristensen comes home from a business trip to find that his wife is missing. His investigation into her disappearance leads him down an intricate rabbit hole of murder, sex, scopophilia, demonic possession, and, especially, confusion, as he moves within the impossible spaces of his mysterious apartment building.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its influx of surreal imagery, bizarre plot twists, aggressive soundscapes, and grunge-decadence sets, the weirdness of The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is not in question. Its place on the List is hard to solidify, however, as its weirdness doesn’t quite compensate for the dragged-out pace, irrelevant script, and unnecessary repetition.
COMMENTS: Hurling images of kinky sex, paranormal apparitions, and violent attacks before the viewer’s eyes, all edited in quick-cut fashion: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is quite the experience. Its filmmakers seek to unsettle and disorient, and at that they are certainly successful. Just as the regular-Joe protagonist is thrust into this impossible situation, the audience is taken on a strange and terrible journey that makes very little sense, and frustrates more than it entertains. As a whole the film is very scattered, peppered with moments of brilliance between overwrought segments of confusion. Cattet and Forzani seem to have opened up a big book of experimental film techniques and just took a stab at every trick they happened upon. Some sequences are marvelous, including a dream wherein Dan becomes stuck in a time loop, meeting and killing multiple versions of himself over and over. Another shows an older woman losing her husband to a sinister force in the room above the bedroom, as she is left with nothing to do but listen to the strange noises coming through the ceiling. Still another is filmed in a sort of fuzzy black and white time-lapse, as a woman is chased by an unknown demonic figure. Other sequences feel completely pointless, as various asides and barely connected subplots and characters appear and disappear on a whim.
This film never allows its audience to find their footing, but it also never really rewards the more loyal viewer for sticking around til the end. It was at first engrossing for its emphatic—almost combative—illegibility, bullying its way through numerous red herring plot twists and presenting an extreme giallo-throwback aesthetic. The sets are beyond beautiful, with most of the action taking place within Dan’s apartment building, surrounded by Art Nouveau filigree and deep, heady color combinations. The sheer number of bizarre happenings and nontraditional cinematic techniques employed is honestly impressive, but the constant flood of ideas eventually becomes tiresome, especially as the story (a term I use loosely here) proves more and more cyclical. There’s little momentum, and little payoff for a film that stretches very thinly over its 102 minutes. It’s clear the film would have worked better as a short, where Cattet and Forzani could have packed in all of their artsy grindhouse weirdness without wearing out their welcome. But for diehard giallo fans, it’d definitely be worth it.
After being scolded by his transgendered mother, mumbling Lubbert goes out to the woods to visit his treasure trove of plastic bags filled with rotting objects. The darkly humorous plot only gets more bizarre from there.
FEATURING: Voices of Jessica Monceau, Adrien Larmande
PLOT: Figures leave the painting in which they reside and go searching for the Painter to find out why he left some of them incomplete.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s visually imaginative and ambitious, with a few hallucinatory moments, but the morally naïve allegory adds a kitschy feel that’s incompatible with the high art graphics. If the story had been sketched out with as much loving detail as the beautiful Impressionist-styled artwork, this might have been a masterpiece, rather than something that’s just nice to look at.
COMMENTS: True to its post-Impressionist inspirations, The Painting is visually stunning. Taking its cues from early Picasso, Gauguin, and (especially) the crazy geometries and color schemes of Matisse, this movie always looks like a canvas come to life. Standout scenes include a dreamlike sequence of a magical flower observing a captive figure with its glowing eye-like stigma, a raucous animated romp across the bridges of Venice during Carnivale, and moments where the characters push through the permeable burlap canvas to emerge in the “real” world. Storywise, however, there isn’t much to The Painting. There are three classes of painted figures in the movie; the fully colored-in Allduns (who consider themselves superior and oppress the “lesser” figures), the incomplete Halfies (who may be lacking nothing more than a corner of the hem of a dress to be complete), and the Sketchies (black and white figures whose shape has only been suggested). A forbidden Romeo n’ Juliet relationship between an aristocratic Alldun and a Halfie leads the characters to leave the painting in search of answers (and hopefully a dye job) from the Painter; they move across other canvases and eventually into the Painter’s studio (where animation mixes with live action). The plot is basic, with the scarcely developing characters simply moving from one CG environment to another. Allegorically, however, The Painting has grand ambitions. It wants to be both an existentialist take on the search for the Creator and a class parable about bigotry and oppression (it also reserves a few minutes to declare its basic anti-war sentiments). By tackling two huge themes, however, director Laguionie ensures that each only gets half-sketched. The idea of the creations searching for God is an appealing conceit, but ultimately the movie has nothing to say about that ultimate reality beyond “be responsible for your own fulfillment.” We’re not convinced that the Almighty Creator is very much like a mortal painter, and so the analogy can’t satisfy our own sense of the mystery of existence. As far as the class parable goes, it’s never clear what the divisions are supposed to represent. Are the differences between the Allduns, Halfies and Sketchies racial, economic, or cognitive? Maybe the Sketchies represent the physically or mentally handicapped, who are, in some offensive sense, “incomplete” creations? At any rate, the movie’s position that the Halfies and Sketchies should “complete” themselves strikes many commentators as ironic and unsatisfactory. Shouldn’t the Allduns learn, or be forced, to tolerate those who are different, rather than the inferior classes accepting that they are defective, and figuring out how to fix themselves? These questions won’t bother youngsters, who will absorb the valuable (if insipid) lessons about tolerance and self-reliance well enough. But the movie’s failure to complete the grand philosophical goals it sets for itself makes it much like a partially unfinished artwork. Still, the part that is painted looks awfully good, and that’s enough to make it worth looking at, if not thinking about.
The French animation studio Blue Spirit produces mostly children’s television programming, but they also worked on the brilliant The Secret of Kells.
“This is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen. I found it to be discomforting and just weird… This movie gives me the chills. However, I would watch it again just because it is so fascinatingly WEIRD.”–IMDB reviewer ethylester (June 2002)
DIRECTED BY: Henri Xhonneux
FEATURING: Voices of François Marthouret and Valérie Kling
PLOT: The dog-faced Marquis de Sade is imprisoned in the Bastille for blasphemy, where he entertains himself by writing pornographic novels and holding long conversations with his talking penis. Among the other prisoners is Justine, a pregnant cow who claims she was raped and is carrying the King’s child. The prison’s Confessor plots to hide the bastard heir by claiming De Sade is the father; meanwhile, outside the Bastille walls revolutionaries would like to free the political prisoners for their own purposes.
The historical Marquis de Sade was imprisoned at the Bastille, where he wrote the novel “The 120 Days of Sodom,” from 1784-1789. The Bastille was just one stop in a series of trips to prisons and insane asylums that dogged the aristocrat his entire life.
The two main female characters in Marquis, Justine and Juliette, are named after the title characters of two of de Sade’s most famous novels. Perverted scenes from the Marquis’ actual stories are recreated with the movie, using Claymation.
Little is known about director/co-writer Henri Xhonneux, who besides this film has only a few even more obscure credits to his name.
Artist/writer Roland Topor, of Fantastic Planet fame, was the better known co-scripter of Marquis. Topor also served as art director for the movie.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Surely it must be one of the many tender moments when the Marquis holds a heart-to-heart talk with his own member (named Colin), although there are so many of these dialogues that we will need to narrow down our search further. We’ll select the moment when Colin, lacerated from having pleasured himself inside a crack in the stone prison wall, stares weakly at the Marquis while wearing a little bloody bandage wrapped around his head like a nightcap, begging the writer to tell him a story so he can recover enough strength to fornicate with a cow.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Every character in the movie is based on a different animal and wears a animatronic masks that looks like it came out of a pile of designs Jim Henson rejected for Dark Crystal as “too creepy.” In between Machiavellian political machinations, these beasts have kinky sex with each other. The Marquis de Sade, a handsome canine, holds long conversations with his cute but prodigious member Colin, who has not only a mind but a face and voice of his own. As pornographic costume biopics recast as depraved satirical fables go, Marquis registers fairly high on the weirdometer.
PLOT: Five short stories (each approximately 20 minutes long): a dead soldier works for a shadow collector in the afterlife, an elderly composer struggles with his memories, a suicidal drug addict is pressed into watching the daughter of his estranged sister, two Afghani lads hope to grow up to play Buzkashi, and a Somali boy must decide between becoming a pirate or a fisherman.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the presence of the fantastical, steampunkish “Death of a Shadow” provides an excuse for us to review 2012’s crop of Oscar nominated live action shorts, none of the nominees are of sufficient strangeness to challenge for a spot on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. It’s still well worth your time to check out this slate of shorts if you get the chance.
COMMENTS: You might hope the Academy Awards would rename their “Best Short Film” category to “Best Realist Narrative Short Film” to reflect the fact that experimental, abstract, and surrealist films are not eligible to compete in the category (for boundary-pushing styles, you’ll have to rely on 366 Weird Movies Weirdest Short Film awards). The truth is that Academy probably considers the concepts of “narrative” and “realist” to be inherent in the definition of “Best.” When we think back over the most memorable and influential (post-silent era) short films of all time, titles like “Meshes of the Afternoon,” (1943), “La Jetee” (1962), and “Scorpio Rising” (1964) spring to mind. Naturally, none of these classics were acknowledged by the Academy, who instead consistently nominate competent but boring shorts that disappear into the mists of time. (Even 1956’s “The Red Balloon,” the sentimental story of the friendship between a boy and his helium-inflated buddy, was too “out there” for the squares at the Academy).
That’s why this year’s inclusion of “Death of a Shadow” is an encouraging departure: “Death” is still narrative and realist, but at least it’s magically realist. None of this year’s bundle of shorts innovate much or deviate from standard filmmaking techniques in any meaningful way. And, with the possible exception of “Henry,” none of them are really tuned in to the unique possibilities of the short format—they all look like stunted feature films, or standalone television episodes with artistic ambitions. This is not to say the assembly is bad—far from it, all of the films are of exceptionally high technical quality—but merely to point out that the Academy considers the short film category the minor leagues of feature filmmaking, a place where directors can demonstrate that they have the talent to someday helm a Hollywood movie.
We’ll tackle each of this year’s nominees in the order they appear in the program; by coincidence, the movie of most interest to our readers, “Death of a Shadow,” just happens to be first in the lineup. The premise verges on weird: after his death in WWI, a soldier goes to work for a mysterious shadow collector. He is given a camera he uses to snap photographs of people at the moment of their death, capturing a negative image of their spirit at the moment it leaves the body. Once he supplies the hobbyist with 10,000 postmortem shadows, the ghostly photographer will be allowed to return to the world of the living. He select his subjects from a giant database, half microfiche reader and half primitive punchcard computer. The film’s look is described as steampunk (although it’s not, technically); the in-story explanation for the retro-technology might be that the dead Continue reading CAPSULE: OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS (LIVE ACTION) (2012)→
FEATURING: John Rico, Joëlle Coeur, Lieva Lone, Patricia Hermenier
PLOT: A crew of “wreckers” rape and apparently kill two female shipwreck survivors, but the two
girls seek revenge with the help of the evil spirits who live in nearby ruins.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jean Rollin expands his narrow directorial palette slightly with The Demoniacs, moving away from his usual vampires and stepping out of his musty old castles for the fresh air of the seashore. The film doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from the usual Rollin romp, however, and despite the pirate spice the result in a fairly typical film that exhibits all the artsploitation auteur’s usual virtues (visuals and atmosphere) and vices (pacing and continuity).
COMMENTS: The Demoniacs explores a new aesthetic for Jean Rollin, one that I’d dub “beach Gothic”: there are scenes set in a ship cemetery, a battered girl in a nightgown crawling along the shoreline past a congregation of carefully arranged crabs, and a pirate’s tavern decorated with bat wings and death’s heads. The villains of the piece are a quartet of sinister salts called “wreckers” who scheme to lure ships onto the shallow reefs of their island home at night, then salvage the loot that washes up onshore. On the night this tale begins, the crew is rooting through their latest catch when two beautiful young blonde girls in pristine white nightgowns stride out of the sea, looking as if they’re walking on water. True to their corrupt natures, the pirates’ response to this eerie and angelic vision is to rape the two innocent survivors, brutally beat them, and leave them for dead. (The rape scene is overlong, and somehow seems even more unpleasant and perverted because the abuse is so badly choreographed). Whether the girls were killed or not remains ambiguous; later, the Captain sees visions of them in a drunken stupor and is convinced they’ve come back to haunt him, but a villager also spots the girls walking about. That sighting leads the wreckers to track the fugitives to a graveyard of shipwrecks—an amazing location, although the most suspenseful question arising in the chase is whether the busty female brigand’s impractical bodice will be able to contain her heaving bosoms during the ensuing three-way gal slap fight. The girls flee into the “cursed ruins” where even the wreckers fear to follow; there, they are met by an orange-haired female clown (!) who introduces the suddenly mute cuties to a sleeping evil who promises to give them a chance at revenge. This sets up a third act with a resolution that’s bewildering even by Rollin’s nonlinear standards. Along the way we get a psychic brothel proprietress, bloodless pigeon heads, and macabre background details like the cheerful noose that hangs over the Captain’s bed as a decoration. One of the film’s biggest assets is Joëlle Coeur as the wanton female wrecker; she’s one in a long line of remarkably beautiful and uninhibited leading ladies Rollin managed to dig up. She’s tempting, she’s perverse, and she’s hard to take your eyes off of whenever she’s onscreen.
After you’ve seen several of them, Rollin’s 1970s movies start to blur together; they become almost interchangeable, like hazy fragments from an uneasy night of nightmares, so that one’s preference for one over another is based on subtle and almost arbitrary criteria. I consider this one of his better efforts, but newcomers will take a while to adjust to the slow pace (it seems like the Captain even gropes his mistress in slow motion). Rollin’s vampire movies may be a better place to start, since the familiar bloodsucker lore provides the viewer with something of a safety net when logic leaves them hanging.
PLOT: A widow performs chores around her apartment and prostitutes herself in the afternoons.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its belabored 3+ hours (!) of a woman doing dull daily chores in long static real time takes, Jeanne Dielman is an example of how a movie can essentially swallow its own tail, achieving a level of surreality by emphasizing ordinariness and normality to an absurd degree. Like Andy Warhol’s “Sleep,” this deliberate experiment in extended boredom serves a purpose in the film universe; it’s just that that purpose isn’t to be watched by a normal human audience.
COMMENTS: When I read critics rave about Jeanne Dielman, I sometimes feel like I’m scanning reviews from the Bizarro World Times, dispatches from an alternate universe where up is down and audiences are enthralled by watching women shop for buttons and cook meatloaf for hours on end. (Vincent Canby’s claim that the frumped-up Delphine Seyrig “has never looked more beautiful” than in this film doesn’t help counter that impression that every review of the film was written on Opposite Day). It’s not that Akerman’s movie is a fraud or a failure. According to its experimental goal of exploring mundanity to its absolute limit, it’s a success, one that, for obvious reasons, other directors have rarely sought to repeat. But Jeanne Dielman is a formal exercise that no one other than a theoretician could love: we can’t bond with its affectless characters, its punishing three hour running time is a blunt weapon used to hammer home its hopeless message, and frankly, it’s just no fun. Watching this movie isn’t just taking your cultural vegetables, it’s gagging down a spoonful of cultural castor oil. Jeane Dielman‘s high artistic intent and ridiculous integrity of vision are too powerful to give the film a “beware” rating, but this is a movie that’s better read about than watched; heck, even Mlle. Dielman’s son would rather read than act in the movie. On its release the movie was adopted by feminists as a landmark statement on the crushing boredom of “women’s work,” but it’s not (and Akerman herself never claimed it was). That interpretation would require that the men and the working women in the movie—the son, the postal clerk, the waitress—were depicted as living lives of glamor compared to housefrau Jeanne. Rather, the film paints the entire adult world (or at least the “bourgeois” world) as morbidly dull: the only human beings shown enjoying any aspect of life in the film are children briefly seen running and playing in the street. The universal and almost unqualified praise for Akerman’s avant-garde oddity—which bludgeons the concept of “entertainment” with the same subtlety and affection as John Waters did for the concept of “taste” in Pink Flamingos—seems like it might make a great case study for a 20th century edition of “Extraordinary Aesthetic Delusions and the Madness of Critics.” For those who crave such things, a similar modern ennuiscape was sketched earlier, but with greater economy and magic, by Marco Ferreri in Dillinger is Dead.
After the marketing success of a line of toys based on Star Wars characters, figurines based on popular movies became huge sellers in the late 1970s and 1980s. Obviously not every toy company could afford to license a top-of-the-line property like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles posable action figure was almost certainly the most ill-advised attempt to cash in on the fad. I can still hear the radio spots created to coincide with the movie’s 1983 U.S. release: “Your Jeanne Dielman action figure makes coffee, entertains ‘gentleman callers,’ eats in stony silence, or just sits and stares at the wall, just like international screen icon Delphine Seyrig! For extra authenticity, the molded plastic face is incapable of expression. WARNING: to avoid risk of catatonia, toy should not be played with for more than three hours at a setting. Potato peeler and scissors sold separately.”