LIST CANDIDATE: SITCOM (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Évelyne Dandry, , Adrien de Van, Lucia Sanchez

PLOT: The father of a bourgeois family brings home a white lab rat as a pet; taboos break and hilarity ensues as the rat has psychic (?) encounters with one family member after another.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I asked my Magic 8-Ball about the List prospects of this Metamorphosis-as-a-French-comedy-of-manners with spontaneous homosexual awareness, paraplegia-onset sadomasochism, a mysterious pet rat, and a steady stream of patrician epigrams: “Signs point to ‘Yes’.”

COMMENTS: The spirit of Luis Buñuel lives on with François Ozon’s ultra-French take on the family comedy, Sitcom. All the Buñuel boxes (or, “boîtes”, if I may) are checked down the line: upper-middle class family, domestic setting, the crumbling of norms. Playing like its titular genre, Sitcom relies heavily on its capacity for clever silliness, while subverting that self-same genre’s cliched “Family meets Challenge to finish with a Happy Ending.” The family here, however, careens immediately over the edge, the challenge comes in the form of a possibly paranormal rat, and the happy ending is ripped straight from ‘s long-forgotten “whimsical” period.

The unnamed father (François Marthouret) returns home one afternoon with a lab rat, adding a pet to his already very nuclear family. That evening a dinner party brings together the father, the mother (Évelyne Dandry), their son Nicolas (Adrien de Van), their daughter Sophie (Marina de Van), their Spanish maid María, and María’s Cameroonian husband, Abdu. Immediately beforehand, Nicolas has a moment alone with the rat, and at table he is restless until he announces out of the blue that he is homosexual. The mother recruits Abdu—a physical education teacher with experience counseling teenagers—to talk to her boy. As Abdu tries to work out his approach, he sees the rat, gets bitten by it, and then proceeds to help the son confirm his homosexuality in an altogether hands-on kind of way. In turn, each household member has his or her life-changing encounter with the rat.

While Sitcom is an ensemble piece, with each family member’s collapse and growth explored, the focus ends up, almost through omission, on the father. During his son’s discovery and embrace of homosexuality, his daughter’s failed suicide that turns her into both a paraplegic and a dyspeptic dominatrix, and his wife’s eventual seduction of the son, he remains impressively unflappable. When Sophie asks him if he knows about what happened between his wife and son, he remarks, “Of course”, adding, “I don’t think incest will solve the problems of Western Civilization, but your mother is an exceptional woman.” However, Sophie’s hopes of seducing her father are soon quashed when he admits he does not find her attractive. Having only aphoristic rejoinders to scandalous revelations, the father figure remains something of a cypher.

One hint is given during the opening dinner scene. The father delivers a monologue about the Ancient Greeks, musing, “Homosexuality was an institution with no shame.” Here’s a man who is quite probably gay himself, but he retreats into the trappings of bourgeois convention. And Ozon somehow litters other contemplative and tender moments throughout the zany norm-breaking silliness. Maria comforts Sophie’s much put-upon boyfriend in an NC-17+ kind of way in one scene, and things are kept impressively platonic as Nicolas washes his sister’s hair while talking about his encounter with their mother, both naked in the tub together. And so it goes. I’m not certain on the particulars of how I stumbled across this movie during college, but I saw it around the same time as Visitor Q. That’s appropriate, as I cannot think of two more feel-good family comedies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Francois Ozon’s absurd, outre “Sitcom” rips a page straight from the Luis Bunuel handbook of bourgeois contempt and writes a novella of relentless sociosexual ludicrousness brought to a Guignol head by the lab rat who’s moved in with the suburban family under siege… Ozon is seemingly attracted to our pop garbage, jamming a few sticks of Acme TNT in the structural silliness of our sitcoms and watching it go ‘boom.'” –Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

310. TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)

“…after I saw Twin Peaks—Fire Walk With Me at Cannes, David Lynch has disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different. And you know, I loved him. I loved him.”–Quentin Tarantino

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING, , Moira Kelly, Chris Isaak, Keifer Sutherland,

PLOT: The first thirty minutes cover the FBI investigation of the murder of Teresa Banks (an event referred to in the first season of “Twin Peaks”). The action then moves to the town of Twin Peaks, focusing on high school senior Laura Palmer, the beautiful homecoming queen who has a secret life as a cocaine addict and upscale prostitute. As her father begins acting strange and tensions inside her home grow, Laura goes to a “party” at a cabin in the woods, where tragedy strikes.

Still from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • ” is a massive franchise, covering two original televised seasons, this feature film, a revival series broadcast twenty-five years after cancellation, and even two novels by co-writer Mark Frost and a book version of “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” (credited to David Lynch’s daughter ). Our coverage is similarly scattered: read about the pilot here, the original series here, and the 2017 series here.
  • Lynch had originally planned for Laura Palmer’s murder to never be solved, so the television network’s decision to force the writers to reveal the killer or face cancellation in the second season was an outside force that changed the direction of the overall story.
  • Some of the actors in the TV series’ large cast either refused or were unable to reprise their roles for the feature film, the most significant of whom was (who played Laura’s best friend Donna). Boyle was replaced by Moira Kelly. Series co-creator Mark Frost also disagreed on the direction Lynch was taking the “Twin Peaks” story, and declined to participate in the movie.
  • Over 90 minutes of additional footage was shot, including appearances by characters from the series who didn’t make it into the final product.
  • Lynch originally hoped to make two sequels which would pick up where the television series ended, but Fire Walk With Me‘s disappointing box office ended those plans.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The angel in the Red Room (although the curtains suddenly turn purple for this scene). It’s one of those tender moments Lynch likes to put in to remind his viewers that, no matter how much evil and perversion he throws onto the screen, he still unironically believes in the ultimate power of goodness, love, and salvation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The blue rose; Southern Bowie on security cam; garmonbozia

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: “Twin Peaks” is an uneven franchise, ranging over a landscape that covers everything from soap opera to surrealism and quirky comedy to rustic perversion, and so it may be appropriate that Fire Walk With Me is an uneven movie. The feature film continuation of the story is packed with dream sequences, unexpected cameos, mystical characters, and bizarre symbolism (an Arm eating creamed corn?). It was a financial and critical flop whose unremittingly dark and obscuritan tone turned off both casual series fans and mainstream critics, but for better or worse, David Lynch defiantly tears his own way through the universe he dearly loves.


Original trailer for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

COMMENTS: Early on in Fire Walk with Me, a woman in a red fright Continue reading

292. VIVA LA MUERTE [LONG LIVE DEATH] (1971)

“I have heard this insensible and necrophilous oath, ‘¡Viva la Muerte!’, and I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent.”–Miguel de Unamuno

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Madhi Chaouch, Núria Espert, Ivan Henriques

PLOT: Fando is a boy growing up in Spain in the early days of the Franco regime, raised by his mother, about whom he has sexual fantasies. One day he discovers that his mother turned his father in to the authorities because of his “dangerous progressive” political views. In between fantasies, Fando decides to go searching for his father, but his quest is interrupted when he contracts tuberculosis.

Still from Viva la Muerte (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Like the father in Viva la Muerte, Arrabal’s own father was imprisoned by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War (one report claims it was for an assassination attempt). After five years he escaped from custody and was never seen again.
  • The title refers to a quote from the Fascist General Millan Astray: “Down with intelligence! Long live death!,” a line barked during a political debate with philosopher Miguel de Unamuno.
  • The movie is an adaptation of Arrabal’s 1959 novel “Baal Babylone” (which does not appear to have been translated out of the original French).
  • The sadomasochistic torture sketches first seen in the opening credits are by Arrabal’s fellow Panic movement member (for more on the Panic movement, see the background information section of I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fando’s papa, buried in the sand with only his head showing, and a quartet of riders fast approaching.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Incestuous S&M mourning; priest’s tasty balls; slaughterhouse frolic

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A howl of protest at the horrors of the Franco regime, as well as an autobiographical attempt to exorcise some serious mommy issues, Viva la Muerte uses surreal vignettes as a savage expression of personal outrage.


Original trailer for Viva le Muerte

COMMENTS: Fernando Arrabal’s Viva la Muerte is the kind of movie Continue reading

CAPSULE: THE WAR ZONE (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont, ,

PLOT: After moving to North Devon from London, Tom finds there’s little to do but wander the rainy countryside to avoid his family’s stifling cottage, until he discovers something dreadful is going on between his father and his sister.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Inarguably well made, it is also inarguably hard to watch. The War Zone plays a subtle game at the beginning, but the unrelenting melancholy mixed with something much, much worse isn’t weird so much as harrowing.

COMMENTS: For those who may have been wondering what a Lifetime movie directed by might be like, look no further than The War Zone. Tim Roth’s directorial debut (and, as of this review, only directorial effort) is unceasingly dreary and rainy right up to the point when it gets truly disturbing. An overcast aura permeates the movie—inside, outside, and tonally—soaking the characters and narrative with an altogether melancholy atmosphere that, like the rains of North Devon, never lets up.

Matching Devon’s somber disposition, young Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) mopes through the movie. A sullen teenager, he barely interacts with his seemingly pleasant family. When his mother (Tilda Swinton) goes into labor shortly after their move, the whole family takes a frantic trip to the not-so-nearby hospital. A car crash immediately followed by the miracle of birth seems to bring them closer together. However, Tom discovers that his older sister (Lara Belmont) and his father (Ray Winstone) may be continuing something inappropriate that began in London. Their cottage’s isolation and unpopulated countryside provide the two with opportunities to continue the tryst. Upon Tom’s suspicions being confirmed, things get even more awkward, and spiral into a nasty climax.

Bleak, bleak, and then some. Tom’s only escape from his life is bicycling around outdoors and spending time on the beach, invariably in the rain. He loves his sister, but hates her for what she’s doing. His sister hates herself. The father, given no name (like the mother), is an oddity. Until we know what’s going on, he seems an altogether swell guy—and even after the truth is revealed, Ray Winstone does us no favors by contriving a sympathetic performance. Shot by shot and muddled conversation by muddled conversation, Tim Roth puts misery on parade, never stopping for a break. This movie is dark stuff; straightforward, depressing dark stuff.

Having been among the few to catch this in theaters when it was released eighteen years ago, I remember it as being bleak; re-watching it the sensation was compounded by the DVD’s awkward display. Released as widescreen in the days of square televisions, my newer TV put a box around the film: its claustrophobia magnified by the black bars on all sides. And there’s some unhappy history involving its production and release. Ray Winstone nearly left shooting after having to perform a particularly wrenching scene. During the Toronto Film Festival screening, a man left shouting he couldn’t take it any more, and Tim Roth had to talk him down from pulling a fire alarm. The War Zone is very well shot, very well acted, and very well scored; this generally isn’t a problem, and isn’t one for this movie, per se. However, it does mean that anyone thinking of watching it needs to realize it will grab you forcibly and not let go until it slams the door in your face.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I generally have little patience for this brand of art-conscious dragginess, but Roth, there’s no denying, creates considerable suspense out of our desire to confront the forbidden.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

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

LIST CANDIDATE: WE ARE THE FLESH (2016)

Tenemos la Carne

DIRECTED BY: Emiliano Rocha Minter

FEATURING: Noé Hernández, María Evoli, Diego Gamaliel

PLOT: A teenage brother and sister find their way to the lair of a hermit, who seduces them into acting out increasingly depraved, increasingly hallucinatory scenarios.

Still from We Are the Flesh (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The overall project may seem to lack much purpose, but it’s intense and uncompromising—and weird—enough to merit a look.

COMMENTS: The new year is only a few weeks old, and already we have a contender for Weirdest Movie of 2017. A demonic hermit uses two disciples—one reluctant, one willing—to transform his habitat into a womblike space where he enacts bizarre, perverse fantasies eventually incorporating sadism, rape, orgies, murder, cannibalism, and more. As the ringmaster in this cavalcade of perversions, Noé Hernández is believably crazy. He looks like he stinks, and rants like a guy you’d cross the street to avoid meeting. He projects a very specific form of charisma: like a Mexican Manson, he has a gravity capable of capturing those irretrievably lost to themselves in his orbit. “People shy from certain thoughts. Their lives are a continuous distraction from their own perversion,” the wild-eyed messiah preaches to an improbably intrigued teenage girl, while flapping his arms like a bird in the void. “Solitude drags you, forces you to come face to face with your darkest fantasies. And when nothing happens, you stop being afraid of your most grotesque thoughts.”

With siblings and a perverted Svengali, the story goes exactly where you think it will; but, incest is only the beginning. Once they indulge that taboo, all the walls come crashing down—and the plot immediately hops onto whatever crazy train it can catch, going to places you can’t possibly predict. In fact, after the strangely beautiful incest montage, shot in psychedelic thermal imaging and scored to a romantic Spanish ballad, there can hardly be said to be a plot at all, only a series of deranged, escalating provocations. (One presumes that in Catholic Mexico, the movie’s blasphemous parody of Christ—both the resurrection and the Eucharist—is the most shocking element). On a literal level, you might try to explain it all as the result of an all-purpose drug the hermit keeps in an eyedropper, which is capable of producing intoxication, serving as an antidote to his own homebrewed poisons, and possibly preserving the brains of those he’s lobotomized. More likely, the hermit simply personifies  perverse desire, and the movie is a representation of the nightmare of a narcissistic world of pure desire without taboos or boundaries. The tumbling of moral walls allows the irrational to flood in.

As shock cinema goes, Flesh displays far more artistry than most. The lighting is extraordinary—purple-lit faces in front of glowing yellow portals that serve to block, rather than lead to, the opaque outside world. These touches elevate the minimalist set into a true dream space. The music is also well-deployed, with horror-standard rumblings alternating with ironically beautiful ballads and a Bach concerto. Flesh shows the imagination of , mixed with the despairing nihilism of , in a scenario reminiscent of Salo.

As for misgivings: I wonder if Flesh has enough substance to compensate us for its unpleasantness. Late in the film, it takes a stab at social relevance, with a subversive recital of the Mexican national anthem and a paradigm-shifting final scene. But these digressions come off as afterthoughts to a movie whose main interest is to indulge its own most grotesque thoughts. And there, I wonder if the film doesn’t pull its own perverse punch. A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex was deeply chilling because he made you feel the appeal and charm of evil; the hermit here does not. He’s too clearly insane, too cartoonish in his fleshy villainy. The ominous music and horror movie atmosphere also instruct you to be repulsed rather than aroused. Despite the madman’s advice, this movie does want you to be afraid of its most grotesque thoughts. But fans of extremity cinema will—pardon the pun—eat it up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“We Are The Flesh is a bizarrely arresting treat from an exciting new talent. It’s also just about the strangest film you’ll see this year.”–Michael Coldwell, Starburst (contemporaneous)