Tag Archives: French

144. HOLY MOTORS (2012)

“Weird… weird.. weird! He’s so weird!”–delighted fashion photographer at his first glimpse of Merde

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Kylie Minogue, ,

PLOT: A man wakes up and walks through a secret panel in his bedroom wall that leads him into a cinema. Next we meet “Mr. Oscar,”who drives around Paris in a limousine taking on nine “assignments” which require him to become an accordion player, a hitman, and fashion model-abducting leprechaun, among other personae. After Mr. Oscar’s night is over, his chauffeur drives the limo back to a huge car lot labeled “Holy Motors,” where hundreds of similar vehicles are stored.

Still from Holy Motors (2012)

BACKGROUND:

  • Holy Motors was Leos Carax’ first feature film since 1999’s Pola X.
  • Leos Carax is a pseudonym for Alexandre Oscar Dupont. In most of Carax’ other movies, Denis Lavant plays a lead character named “Alex.” Here he plays a character named “Mr. Oscar” (a name which is itself hidden inside the pseudonym leOS CARax).
  • The flower-eating leprechaun character, “Merde,” first appeared in Carax’ segment in the omnibus movie Tokyo! (2008).
  • The role of Mr. Oscar was specifically written for Lavant.
  • Carax originally wanted to credit Michel Piccoli (who is difficult to recognize under his makeup) under a pseudonym, but word of the actor’s involvement in the project was leaked.
  • Carax says he does not like to shoot on digital film, but did so because he found it made fundraising easier.
  • Holy Motors swept the Weirdest Actor (Denis Lavant), Weirdest Scene (the accordion intermission), and Weirdest Movie categories in our 2012 Weirdcademy Awards contest.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The character of Merde, the gimpy, gibbering, flower-eating subterranean leprechaun-creature, who was so unforgettable Carax recycled him from his segment in the triptych Tokyo!. For a single snapshot that captures Merde’s hard-to-define charm, we select the moment when he bites off a woman’s finger, then licks supermodel Eva Mendes, leaving a trail of blood on her armpit. Ever the professional, she never breaks her expression of sultry indifference.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Holy Motors is overwrought, pretentious, obscure, scatterbrained, confusing, and self-indulgent—all qualities that, when matched with talent, typically make for a great work of weird art. Prepare to be perplexed. You won’t, however, be bored.


Original trailer for Holy Motors

COMMENTS: Seen as a showcase for the chameleonic talents of Denis Lavant, Holy Motors is an unqualified masterpiece. Lavant officially plays Continue reading 144. HOLY MOTORS (2012)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

The Phantom of Liberty is now Certified Weird. Please visit the official entry.

Le Fantôme de la Liberté

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: There isn’t one! Numerous bizarre situations are briefly explored, but none are resolved. It’s the ultimate shaggy dog movie.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monks behaving badly are randomly exposed to exhibitionist sadomasochism. Two people are somehow the same person. A spider-fixated family find architecture pornographic. The dead make phone-calls from their coffins. People who feel no shame about sitting on lavatories together are embarrassed and disgusted by any mention of eating. Etc., etc., etc…

COMMENTS: As with the other two films (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire) in Buñuel’s very loose swansong trilogy, Phantom of Liberty gives us a sense of an artist tying up loose ends. In many ways Phantom is one of his most Surrealist movies, as if he was revisiting the glories of his youth one more time. And yet, it should be remembered that, although he is often described as a Surrealist filmmaker, Buñuel formally abandoned Surrealism in 1932, being forced to choose between active membership of the Spanish Communist Party, which regarded Surrealism as a decadent bourgeoise affectation, or belonging to a pretentious club that mucked about with art and pretended it mattered. Or maybe, like most other short-lived Surrealists, he simply couldn’t stand the movement’s awful, awful founder, André Breton. Since Buñuel was a control-freak himself, the latter explanation is perhaps the more probable.

Given his obvious intelligence and love of complex in-jokes and hidden meanings, it’s significant that in an interview recorded around this time, Buñuel says—very perceptively—that Surrealism triumphed on a superficial level, while utterly failing to change the world in any way that truly mattered. (In the same interview, he jokes about making a melodramatic but utterly insincere deathbed conversion to Catholicism just to wind up those of his friends who militated against religion in the most humorless way imaginable). Sure enough, The Phantom Of Liberty uses almost exactly the same dramatic structure as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“: the ultimate manifestation of unofficial Pop Surrealism. And yet, given the very short difference in time between the creation of Python and this film, and the implausibility of an initially marginal BBC series being sufficiently internationally famous for Buñuel to have already seen it in a language he understood, it has to be assumed that any similarities are purely coincidental.

And similarities there most certainly are! The episode in which a crazed sniper randomly kills numerous people (which was cut from early UK TV broadcasts on grounds of unacceptable nastiness) and then, having been found guilty, is unaccountably released with no consequences at all, and instantly becomes tremendously popular, is almost identical to a Python sketch aired the previous year. Plagiarism? I doubt it. Zeitgeist? Almost certainly. More significantly, the entire film follows the Python ethos of not wasting a good idea just because you can’t think of a punchline. Problem ending the scene? Forget it, and arbitrarily move on to something else!

As more than one critic has observed, Richard Linklater’s 1991 Slacker is remarkable for being the first film (or at any rate, the first film that anyone’s heard of) to use the technique invented by Buñuel 17 years previously. But actually they’re wrong. Richard Linklater shows us vignettes from the lives of various people who are going nowhere, then cuts away to somebody else because if we followed this particular non-story any longer it would become boring. Buñuel gives us glimpses into situations that have no rational explanation whatsoever, and abandons them because any punchline he could possibly provide would be an anticlimax. The title, insofar as it refers to anything, seems to invoke a spirit which pervades the movie without ever being in any way discernible to the characters or the audience—a direct reference to The Exterminating Angel, in which the Angel of Death is supposedly responsible for the inexplicable events without directly manifesting itself at any point in the film. The characters drift into completely random situations, every one of which involves a massive breach of social norms, or laws even more fundamental than that. And nobody notices a thing. The entire film could, if the title is taken literally, be said to document the progress of an invisible and otherwise totally undetectable entity that capriciously drifts around altering the nature of reality for reasons all its own. And that’s the spirit in which it should be viewed. Buñuel’s best film? No. Buñuels weirdest film? Definitely in the top three. Worth watching? Yes! Just don’t expect a satisfying sense of closure.

PS – In recent years certain scenes in this movie have been played out for real in the UK by radical Islamists with no understanding of irony, who used their democratic right to demonstrate to hold demonstrations against democracy. What a pity Buñuel didn’t live to see it! Though maybe he wouldn’t have been all that surprised.

PPS – Are there any other films featuring two Bond villains?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An uproarious summary of Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic concerns… a crazy, subversively funny film about convention-bound characters who have a hard time dealing with sexuality and freedom.”–Michael Scheinfeld, TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “viqman.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: NIGHT OF THE HUNTED (1980)

La nuit des traquées

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Vincent Gardère, Dominique Journet, Bernard Papineau

PLOT: A beautiful woman is imprisoned in an unofficial asylum housed in a skyscraper with dozens of patients; because they all suffer from short-term amnesia and can only remember events from the last few minutes, no one knows why they are there.

Still from Night of the Hunted (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jean Rollin. There’s not room for too many movies from this peculiar director on the List, and while Night of the Hunted is of oddball interest, it’s neither memorable enough not typical enough of the artsploitation auteur’s vampire-centric output to be the representative of his oeuvre.

COMMENTS: A woman has just been shot in a courtyard. A storm arises. We hear thunder rolling and a gale howls through the wind tunnel formed between two skyscrapers with an unnatural keening. We see shots of the brewing storm churning water in a fountain pool. Cut back to the dying woman. Her hair is gently rippling in a light breeze. It’s moments like these that make you wonder if the incongruities that continually crop up in Jean Rollin movies result from incompetence or sly surrealism. In Night of the Hunted the director latches on to an intriguing idea: a group of people suffering from a persistent form of short-term memory loss that leaves them unable to remember what happened two minutes ago. Imprisoned in a secret asylum on the top floor of a tall building hidden in plain sight in the middle of Paris, the lost souls shuffle around the halls and the communal room, unable to remember each other, their children’s names, or where their room is. Their situation is uniquely tragic, bearing an existential dimension that’s reminiscent of later classics like Memento and Cube, while their submission to the doctor and his assistant suggests an anti-authoritarian political fable. Rollin fashions surprisingly affecting dialogue out of  a conversation between two amnesiac women; doomed to be strangers forever, they make a desperate game out of trying to construct a shared past. And yet, there are so many problems with Night of the Hunted script, it’s almost hard to decide where to begin. The most obvious issue is Rollin’s insistence on inserting so many sex and nude scenes that the movie frequently turns from horror into soft porn. There is no doubt Rollin knows how to photograph a nude woman, but he doesn’t know how to gracefully integrate nude women into his stories. The movie’s porniness is at war with its artiness. In the opening, the beautiful amnesiac heroine, Elisabeth (Lahaie), has temporarily escaped captivity, together with a soon-forgotten companion—who is (inexplicably) naked. Robert (Gardère), a kindly motorist, picks her up and takes her—not to a hospital, or the police station—but to his bachelor pad. He’s lucked into a beautiful blonde with a blank mind who lives only for the present and doesn’t know any other man in the world exists but him. A five-minute sex scene (the kind where, no matter what new position the lovers try out, a potted plant always winds up between our eyes and their genitals) follows. The tender rutting completely breaks up any intellectual flow the story was developing. Furthermore, there’s really no way to spin this scenario other than that Robert is taking advantage of Elisabeth for an easy lay; yet, in the modern fairytale world of this movie, we’re supposed to view their love as pure. The gallant knight will spend the rest of the movie trying to rescue the forgetful princess from the tower where she’s been imprisoned. And the funny thing is, the movie works on an emotional level, despite its essential illogic and sleazy interludes. We feel for Elisabeth and her predicament. All the usual complaints against Rollin—his ignorance of or disregard for storytelling conventions, proper pacing, and logic—are on display here. But there are also sublime moments, such as when a dying redhead’s tresses slowly fall down a nearby drain like spilled blood, that make you think there is a genius buried somewhere in there. Rollin’s flaws are the flip side of his virtues, and largely reinforce them; that’s what make his movies unique, and uniquely weird.

Rollin liked the atmosphere created by two women making their way through the world in a daze, reminiscing about a past they may have invented, so much that he reused the idea in Two Orphan Vampires (there, the girls try to remember past lives instead of the past minute, but since they are immortal and their time scale is different, the effect is the same).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it possesses a wonderful and wonderfully disconcerting charm… In tandem with its bizarre storyline, the film offers a largely unique meditation on the importance and yet fictional nature of human memory.”–Gary D. Rhodes, Kinoeye  Vol. 2, Issue 7 (Apr 2002)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , , Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran,

PLOT: Six friends attempt to have dinner together, but repeatedly fail for increasingly bizarre reasons.

Still from Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A plot so simple it’s barely a plot at all starts out small and, through masterly use of the running gag, steadily builds throughout the film, getting more and more absurd until the apocalyptic finale. And if that’s not enough, there are numerous dream-sequences, sometimes nested inside one another, and not always clearly distinguishable from reality. Also, undead policemen!

COMMENTS: Leaving aside Un Chien Andalou, which will forever be in a class of its own, Discreet Charm might just be Buñuel’s masterpiece. The Academy Awards Committee certainly thought so when they gave it the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1973. No close-ups of razor-slashed eyeballs this time; this is a nice, gentle, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. Except that that description would be as misleading as taking the title literally. It’s true that there are no pianos full of dead donkeys, but we do get an electrified piano used as an instrument of torture, from which cockroaches stream as the convulsions of the screaming victim create impromptu musique concréte-–an act for which the policeman responsible is first murdered by outraged student radicals (offscreen), and then condemned to return as a gory apparition (onscreen) every Bloody Sergeant’s Day (June 14th, if you’re thinking of throwing a party). There’s definitely something unusual going on here!

So unusual that “whose subconscious are we in now?” is a very pertinent question, 38 years before it was asked in Inception. One particularly bizarre scene turns out to be only a dream, and the action picks up where it left off. But then it turns out that this too is a dream, and the character who dreamed the first dream is not only still dreaming, but dreaming that he’s somebody else! Confused yet? The visibly nervous professional movie critic in the useless featurette on the Region 2 DVD clearly was. He correctly points out that this is a dream within a dream. Not so tricky, since the film explicitly says so. What he seems to have missed is that the dream-within-a-dream is probably a continuation of the previous scene, in which implausible events take place, and characters who don’t appear in the rest of the movie behave very oddly. One of them entertains the assembled company by recounting a dream about his dead mother, which we see. So what he have here is almost certainly a dream within a dream within a dream…

Then again, other incredibly strange things occur which aren’t dreams at all. Or are they? There isn’t any sure way to decide which parts of this film are “real”, and ultimately it doesn’t matter: it’s fiction, so none of it’s real. Still, there’s obviously some strange kind of logic holding it all together, even if we aren’t told what it is. This is why, like , Luis Buñuel belongs on the A-list of weird film-makers. Throwing the rules out of the window is enough to make a movie “weird” in the sense of weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but to reach the next level, you need to replace what you threw out with something else. Buñuel understood this perfectly, and plays with it all the way through the film. A very distinctive object features in what turns out to be a dream, yet reappears in the scene that follows: a subtle clue that we’re still in the dream (there’s absolutely no way  wasn’t taking notes here). But another dream seems to be genuinely prophetic. And so on: a tangled web indeed!

Almost every joke follows the pattern of the main plot by starting off quite tamely, but turning out to have at least one more layer. The initial appearance of a saintly bishop results in his mild humiliation and all-round embarrassment, due to a silly and quickly resolved misunderstanding that wouldn’t be out of place in a Seventies sitcom. But just when you think Buñuel’s attitude to the church has mellowed with age, it turns out that the unsuspecting monsignor is being set up for a punchline which, when we finally get to it, is as dark as they come.

This film is not weird in the sense that watching it is an endurance test. This is mainstream weirdness with excellent production values. But don’t let that fool you: every single thing that happens here is as off-kilter as the attitudes of the main characters, who honestly believe that the lower classes are subhuman because they don’t know the correct way to drink a dry martini. Discreet Charm may or may not make the List, but it’s definitely on mine.

“Buñuel seems to have finally done away with plot and dedicated himself to filmmaking on the level of pure personal fantasy… We are all so accustomed to following the narrative threads in a movie that we want to make a movie make ‘sense,’ even if it doesn’t. But the greatest directors can carry us along breathlessly on the wings of their own imaginations, so that we don’t ask questions; we simply have an experience.”–Roger Ebert, Great Movies

CAPSULE: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

That Obscure Object of Desire has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments on this post are closed.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina

PLOT: A rich French businessman courts a beautiful young Spanish woman over the years, but although she sometimes professes to love him, she continually refuses to consummate the relationship.

Still from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Obscure Object is one of Buñuel’s best, but not one of his weirdest. If you merged the two actresses who inexplicably share the role of Conchita into one, you could almost mistake this parody of obsessive bourgeois eroticism for a normal comedy—almost.

COMMENTS: The “gimmick” of two actresses playing the object of desire is the high-concept highlight of That Obscure Object of Desire, but make no mistake: the casting was not a desperation move to salvage some sort of novelty value out of a dull script. Buñuel’s final film is one of his most tightly controlled and plotted movies, the work of a 77-year old master intent on putting the final punctuation on a distinguished career. The story is simple: prosperous, respectable, middle-aged Mathieu meets 18-year old serving girl Conchita and attempts, and fails, to seduce her. She leaves his service, but as the years go on he continues to encounter her, whether by chance or by design, and gradually he works his way closer and closer to her heart—but although she declares her love for him, she never surrenders her virtue. Buñuel and his totally committed trio of actors push the dramatic scenario further than you would think possible: the erotic tension builds and builds until surely, you think, something has to break. Either Conchita will give in or Mathieu will tire of being teased and rid himself of her forever. And yet, after each frustrating encounter, the bourgeois businessman comes back for more, and Conchita is willing to continue the dance. There are moments when rape seems inevitable, but that solution would wreck the game, so they push right to the brink before pulling back and resetting.

It’s not all unbearable erotic tension: Obscure Object is, at heart, a droll and absurd comedy, full of sophisticated, off-kilter jokes; even if you don’t always get them, you feel smarter for chuckling at them. Some gags are obvious: there’s a variation on the old “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!’ joke—this time, it’s in a martini. One night, Mathieu lures Conchita to his bedroom; Angelia Molina asks “can I change?” and goes into the bathroom to put on her nightgown; she emerges as Carole Bouquet. At other times the humor is more oblique and surreal, and we’re not sure what to make of it. Mathieu tells his story to traveling companions on a train; one is a dwarf, and a professor of psychology—but he only gives private lessons. A Spanish fortune teller carries a pig wrapped in a blanket like a baby. The movie is set in a Europe where terrorist bombings are a background fact of life; one of the revolutionary groups is named “the Revolutionary Army of Baby Jesus.”

This being a Buñuel film, there’s a constant subtle mockery of the unexamined values of the middle class. Mathieu casually tells the strangers in his train compartment how he essentially tries to purchase Conchita off her cash-strapped mother, and how he beats and humiliates the girl after he’s been sexually frustrated. Rather than being scandalized by the shameful confession, everyone takes his side, nods understandingly and comforts the respectable victim. Obscure Object is Buñuel’s attack on what he sees as the capitalist system of romance: men, the class with the capital, protect and provide for women, and in return they receive love and sex. This arrangement, based on inequality, can never satisfy either sex: men will remain emotionally frustrated because women only give in to them out of hardship, and the disenfranchised women use the only weapon at their disposal—their erotic power—to revenge themselves upon men. Just as the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie never get to eat, Mathieu never gets to… you know.

As for why two women play Conchita, it’s one of those deliberate Surrealist accidents that suggest interpretations that remain obscure. Do Bouquet and Molina represent two sides of the same woman, a divided personality, female duplicity? I lean to the reading that there are two women because Mathieu, the bourgeois man, can’t understand the “object” of his own desire; he no more notices that his love changes before his very eyes than he sees that the society around him is crumbling into anarchy.

According to co-writer and longtime Buñuel collaborator , the idea to cast two women in the role of Conchita occurred in an early draft of the script, but was discarded. When production began on the movie Buñuel was unhappy with the woman chosen to play Conchita (Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider) and came close to abandoning the project before resurrecting the idea of using dual actresses in the role.

The Criterion Collection lost the rights to Studio Canal’s Buñuel collection, and therefore the 2013 Blu-ray of That Obscure Object of Desire was released by Lions Gate (buy). It has different special features than the Criterion DVD, including interviews with both Bouquet and Molina.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Buñuel creates a vision of a world as logical as a theorem, as mysterious as a dream, and as funny as a vaudeville gag.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: AMELIE (2001)

Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mathieu Kassovitz, Dominique Pinon, Rufus

PLOT: An introverted and imaginative Parisian girl devotes herself to secretly helping those around her, but is it only because she’s afraid to go after love herself?

Still from Amelie (2011)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If Amélie makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies, it will thanks to the “sliding scale” rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to qualify. While Amélie has more than its share of literally magical moments, it’s a little hard to swallow that something this universally beloved could qualify as “weird.” Describing it, fans will often resort to such “weird-lite” adjectives as “peculiar/odd/quirky.” Still, it is a much-adored movie, and it may be a worthwhile addition to the List to represent the more whimsical side of the weird.

COMMENTS: Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, the two early 1990s collaborations between Jean-Pierre Jeunet and , were spicy-sweet concoctions. Each was at heart a romantic fantasy, whether the story was about lovers rescued from cannibals or fairy tale orphans adopted by circus strong men, but a note of piquant surrealism always added bite to the sentimental overtones. When the pair split, it became clear which one was the romantic and which the weirdo; without Caro’s dark humor grounding him, Jeunet was, for better or worse, set free to soar into the stratosphere of whimsy. So comes Amélie, a life-affirming trifle which is about twice as tickly and almost as substantial as the bubbles rising off a glass of Dom Perignon. In Audrey Tautou, Jeunet found the perfect actress to embody his pixie girl who secretly enters the lives of others to bring joy or justice. Tautou has huge, liquid brown eyes that look like cross between a six-year old girl’s and a puppy dog’s. She’s incredibly beautiful, but so cute and girlish that it’s impossible to lust after her; it’s almost impossible to think of her as a sexual creature at all. And for most of the movie, she isn’t; her amiable frigidity is the source of altruistic superpowers, and overcoming her lack of sexual selfishness constitutes her heroine’s journey. Amélie’s childhood background is delivered breezily, complete with animated crocodiles and suicidal pet fish. She grows up as a sheltered introvert with an imagination that brings her skies full of bunnies and teddy bears; as a new adult, she shyly enters into a squeaky clean movie version of Paris that comes dangerously close to kitsch (you half expect to see characters walking around in those berets and striped shirts actors wore in Benny Hill sketches to indicate they were tres French). Fortunately, there are interesting, conflicted people sitting around in cafés with thorny problems for her to solve, including rejected lovers, hypochondriac tobacconists, abandoned wives, and cruel street grocers. She secretly and shyly manipulates their lives, largely as a way of avoiding her own attraction to a man whose hobby is collecting pictures discarded at photo booths; she eventually succumbs to her desires, but putters about with oblique stratagems for meeting her beau that involve various disguises, puzzles and scavenger hunts as she delays her own happiness as long as possible. It may sound insufferably cute, like a diabolical plot by some French  to turn Americans into a bunch of Francophilic wimps, but it really is legitimately charming, grandly cinematic, and amusing. Wonderfully unreal, magical diversions abound, such as glowing hearts, talking photographs, and people spontaneously dissolving into puddles. The TV channel that’s beamed into Amélie’s Montparnasse flat features nothing but the bizarrest programming: one despondent night, she watches her own funeral parade on the tube. Frothy, funny, and French almost to a fault, it’s easy to see why this uplifting movie has won so many hearts over the years; the film is harder to resist than Tautou’s smile. Still, I note that, despite its overall exceptional quality, Amélie doesn’t feature that one tour de force scene, like the bedspring symphony in Delicatessen or the incredible teardrop sequence from City of Lost Children, to hang its hat on. Jeunet without Caro, to me, is like McCartney without Lennon; and although I appreciate Amélie for what it is, part of me will always think the script would have been punchier if one of Caro’s cannibal butchers has popped up to thin out the cast.

After they ended their partnership, Jeunet went on to unprecedented success with Amélie; his film school friend Marc Caro’s directorial career did not take off so well. After 1995’s City of Lost Children, Caro did not direct a solo feature until 2008’s sci-fi flop Dante o1. He has found work as an art director, however, including designing sets for ‘s spectacular Enter the Void, the third Certified Weird project he was involved in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…very peculiar but utterly captivating… it takes awhile to get used to the loopy sensibilities and biting, sometimes dark humor.”–Jeff Vice, Deseret News (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nobody,” who called it “a beautiful and unique movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SHEITAN (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Kim Chapiron

FEATURING: Olivier Barthelemy, ,

PLOT: Four young people agree to spend Christmas at the country home of a beautiful stranger they meet at a Paris club, but the oddball caretaker takes an intense and unhealthy interest in one of the crew.

Still from Sheitan (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The adjective “weird” pops up a couple of times in reviews describing Sheitan, but we suspect that the misusage must be due to a lack of exposure to the truly bizarre stuff. Up until Sheitan‘s final act, there’s little—other than Vincent Cassel’s oddball performance—to suggest this French slasher lies very far outside of the normal range of teens-in-a-cabin horror. Unusual direction and a strange finish nudge Sheitan just barely into the weird column, but not enough to compete with the big weird boys.

COMMENTS: Honestly, despite a gonzo performance by an uncomfortably peppy Vincent Cassel, a steamy male-male-female threesome, and a startling final image, the thing that sticks with me most about Sheitan is how hateful its protagonists are. The movie starts with the fours youngsters at Club Styx, where the most emblematically despicable of the lot, Bart, is chilling out with drunken resentment. He finally works up the courage to make a clumsy pass at an understandably disinterested chick, then starts verbally abusing her when she rejects him. He sucker punches a Prince Charming who steps in to defend the innocent girl’s honor, spits in a bouncer’s face, and gets a well-deserved bottle upside his head. This, ladies and gentlemen, is our antihero, and he doesn’t get much more pleasant from here on out. He dreams about taking advantage of a female friend while she sleeps, kicks a goat, and blames everyone around him for all the bad karma he brings on himself. Although his buddies are shallow, sex-obsessed petty thieves, their worst quality is that they willingly remain friends with Bart. Bart is so abhorrent that when the clearly deranged groundskeeper Joseph (Cassel) of the house at which the gang has decided to spend Christmas Eve immediately emerges as Bart’s nemesis, we enjoy it. The perpetually grinning Joseph (Cassel’s jaw must have hurt like hell when he left the set each night) makes ambiguously homosexual suggestions to Bart, while at the same time constantly forgetting the boy’s name. The annoyance Joseph breeds in le bagge de douche whets our appetite to see these kids finally get bumped off in grisly ways (but warning: the obnoxious cast survives for far too long). There’s no doubt that this reversal of our expected sympathies is deliberate, or that it has the disquieting effect of tempting us to root for the “evil” character. As an experiment playing with the audience’s feelings and expectations, Sheitan is successful; that does not, however, make it pleasant watching these nitwits. There is symbolism along the way: religion, from the Garden of Eden to the birth of Christ, is referenced frequently and sometimes cleverly. And the fact that each of the feral French twentysomethings is from a different ethnic background—an African, an Arab, an Asian and a native Gaul—seems somehow significant. On the movie’s plus ledger, Cassel is possessed and magnetic, Mesquida is a sexy revelation, and the hallucinatory ending leaves us with some lingeringly sick imagery. Still, the thing I will remember about the movie is it’s painful vision of odious, amoral youth with horrible taste in music. This movie really hates young people, which is cool and all—hey, we all want those damn kids to stay off our lawns—but Sheitan goes just a little too far.

Sheitan is sometimes considered part of the “New French Extremity” genre of transgressive horror, along with movies like ‘s self-mutilation feature In My Skin (2002), Alexandre Aja’s ultraviolent slasher Haute Tension (2003), and others. It’s Deliverance-style urbanites-at-the-mercy-of-peasants theme is reminiscent of the similarly unpleasant but far weirder NFE feature Calvaire (2004). Ultimately, Sheitan isn’t very “extreme”—you will see more blood in any typical Hollywood horror—but it shares the genre’s queasy pessimism about human nature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…deeply weird, art-housey, nerve-shredding French horror…”–David Mattin, BBC (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)