“There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”
–William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice,” V., 1., 58-63
FEATURING: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla
PLOT: Soft-spoken János takes care of his uncle, an aging musician and music theorist, in a small Hungarian town. One day a modest circus, featuring only a stuffed whale and a mysterious freak known as “the Prince” as its attractions, comes to town. János is impressed by the majesty of the whale and sneaks in to see it one night, and overhears the Prince declaring “Terror is here!”
Andreas Werckmeister was a 17th century musical theorist who developed the “well temperament” (as in Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”), a tuning system that competed (and eventually lost out to) the more popular “equal temperament.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Whale’s massive dead eye, juxtaposed with tiny humans.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Drunks enact the Solar System; eye of the Whale; the Prince speaks
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Werckmeister Harmonies is a bleak and obliquely allegorical parable in which a Whale and a Prince bring a local apocalypse to a poor but peaceful Hungarian town. A political horror movie that creeps over you slowly, wrapping you in a fog of mysterious dread.
PLOT: A traveler accepts a mission to escort a dying sheik through a mountain pass, assisted by a mysterious younger man sent to help him by unknown benefactors.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Every year, a handful of slow-paced, low-budget surreal features (usually European, sometimes from emerging markets) screen at film festivals, and quickly disappear from view and memory. This is one of them. Ultra-minimalist and lacking much visual texture beyond the glorious landscapes, its obscure basis in Sufi mysticism makes Mimosas unique, but not enough to overcome its baggage.
COMMENTS: There are two worlds in Mimosas. In one, a caravan of horses makes its way through Morocco’s snow-capped Atlas mountains, seeking to bury a sheik’s body in his homeland. These characters could have stepped out of an apocryphal chapter of the Old Testament or the Quran. The other is a modern world of junky taxis idling in a desert town, where scores of drivers jostle for rare fares. The mediator between these two worlds is young Shakib, a junior driver who we first see mocked by his fellow workers for messing up the details of the story of Iblis and Adam (when corrected, he responds, “let me finish my story, and interpret it as you want”). To his foreman’s amazement, Shakib is selected for a job; which, unaccountably, is to guide two roguish companions of the sheik on the quest to find his home town—no one knows exactly where it’s located—and put him at rest among his fathers.
Though Shakib may be inexperienced as a guide, he has one crucial trait: an unshakable faith, which shames the increasingly reluctant Ahmed into persevering through the rocks and snow, despite the fact that the city they are seeking seems to have vanished from all maps. Most of the movie is nothing more than a small team walking through the scenic landscape, with Shakib pressing Ahmed for his lack of faith; but the ending goes full-wacko, with the two worlds colliding, and Shakhib and Ahmed undertaking a new quest that crosses barriers of time and space.
With chapter titles taken from Sufi prayer positions and not a hint of blasphemy, there is little reason to doubt that the film’s attitude towards religion is sincere, which makes it more interesting. It has the shape of a religious parable, although the meaning is opaque. The Islamic influence makes it novel and exotic and gives the film a cultural leg up on similar projects; the unique perspective made it more intriguing to me than the superficially similar spiritual wilderness journey depicted in the The Ornithologist. Although it’s not a faith we Westerners generally associate with narrative subversion, there may be a future for Muslim surrealism.
Footage from the filming of Mimosas can be seen in Ben Rivers’ The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, which stars director Oliver Laxe as a director who abandons the project he is filming (which is, in fact, Mimosas). Mimosas won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s not currently on DVD, but you can find it for digital rental at distributor Grasshopper Film‘s site.
“We wanted to create a space that felt alien, but in the knowledge that you’re limited by the fact that you’re doing it using human imagination… So then you’re kind of in dream space, or nightmare… You’re trying to get to places that are more felt than thought.”–Jonathan Glazer
PLOT: An alien comes to Earth and assumes the form of a human woman. She drives around Scotland in a van, picking up unattached single men with no families and taking them back to her lair, where she performs a bizarre ritual that eventually consumes them. After an encounter with a deformed man, she decides to go rogue and flees to the countryside, pursued by an overseer on a motorcycle.
The movie was in development for more than a decade.
Many of the scenes were filmed documentary style, with Johansson (unrecognizable in a wig with sunglasses) walking around Scottish streets and shopping malls. Some of the men who entered the van were not actors, but were being filmed without their knowledge. It’s been reported that the team shot over 270 hours of total footage.
FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Lea Bridarolli, Marion Cotillard, 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.
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.
PLOT: A young musician dies and comes back as a ghost, moving back to his house and silently observing his wife’s grief.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A melancholy meditation on man’s ephermerality, A Ghost Story‘s weirdness goes beyond its guy-in-a-sheet gimmick, but not far enough beyond to reach the realms of one of the all-time weirdest.
COMMENTS: Though modest in countenance, A Ghost Story is filled with formal audacity underneath its blank exterior. It’s got an Academy-Award winning actor who’s silent and hidden under a sheet for 90% of his performance; a constricted 4:3 aspect ratio with rounded corners, to evoke the feeling of a picture frame; and shots that go on for so long that Andrei Tarkovsky would be tapping his finger on his armrest impatiently. (Not really, but you get the idea). And yet, what easily might have become a purgatorial ordeal emerges as a moving and thought-provoking experiment.
The plot is so simple it’s almost a wisp. The unnamed main character dies, wakes up in the morgue in a sheet, returns to the house where he and his wife lived, and watches her as she silently grieves (and grief-eats a pie). This sounds dull, and if the movie stayed in this rut, it would be. But, although Affleck doesn’t speak and barely moves, doing little more than turning his head or shrugging his shoulders, A Ghost Story finds ways to create narrative dynamism. There is a flashback or two, and a seemingly minor incident from the pre-mortem opening is fleshed out over the length of the movie. Affleck’s ghost engages in a bit of minor poltergeistism when distressed. In one of the film’s most poignant bits, which would almost be considered a running gag if it weren’t so sad, Affleck’s ghost spies another bedsheeted figure in the house next door, and they communicate in the terse language of the dead (translated to us in subtitles). The ghost experiences time differently than we do, and we gradually become accustomed to the rhythm of his eternal observation as time moves on without him. A new tenant in his house (musician Will Oldham) gives a speech about the vanity of human existence. And the ghost persists, chained to the plot of land where his house stands and inevitably once stood, waiting for a release from his sentence. The movie plays with the idea of eternity in a philosophical sense that may be new to audiences, but which makes it ripe for post-viewing discussion.
A Ghost Story is definitely not a horror movie (unless you consider it an extremely subtle existential horror). It definitely is a philosophical/poetic drama about the psychology of grief and the nature of time, and it carries an implicit message about appreciating the now. It is, dare I say, haunting—at least, if you’re the type of attuned spiritualist who can see the ghosts around us.
PLOT: A young woman hired to house-sit in the oldest residence in Manhattan discovers evidence of an occult history, and her grip on reality immediately begins to unravel.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:Darling effectively captures a violent descent into madness, with filmic techniques that heighten the lead character’s insanity. But there’s not much that’s actively unusual about it, and the film’s most notable plot elements hearken back to earlier, superior movies.
COMMENTS: One person, alone. Only the sights and sounds as company. At what point does detachment make way for dementia? When does sanity start to break down? The idea of the lone individual doing battle with both oppressive solitude and personal demons is a hallmark of storytelling, whether in literature (Robinson Crusoe, The Shining), on the small screen (Doctor Who’s “Heaven Sent,” The Twilight Zone pilot “Where Is Everybody?”), and certainly in the movies (Cast Away, 127 Hours, Buried). So the near-solo effort that is Lauren Ashley Carter’s performance has a healthy precedent. But in this particular instance, one film looms over Darling like a mighty monolith: Repulsion. That’s bad news for Darling, because other than a reduction in the cast and an increase in the level of hinted-at gore, the new film is barely a gloss on its predecessor.
The film’s entire modus operandi is to minimize any of the elements that would serve to explain, justify, or add any depth to our heroine’s plight. She has no name (the credits offer “Darling,” but it still sounds more like Sean Young’s term of irritated affection). We have no sense of her past or history, until a very late reveal. Her wardrobe seems to consist of two dresses and a nightgown (with a soupçon of gratuitous nudity for good measure). She has virtually no interaction with others, save for one character who establishes the premise and another to serve as a target for her unleashed rage. With no clear wants or needs, nothing that marks her as an individual, your guess as to what drives her descent into madness is as good as anyone else’s; she’s a tabula rasa protagonist. Even the elegant black-and-white photography saps any color from Darling’s existence.
With that void at the center, all that’s left is the scare factor. We know that shock value is the movie’s raison d’etre right from the title card, which abruptly jumps from gentle piano music to a horror-saturated, Herrmann-esque stabbing cue that slams into the film like a speeding truck. From this point forward, Darling (and, accordingly, the audience) is assaulted by shock jump cuts, sudden surprising noises, and disturbing images. And to be fair, they work just about every time. But they’re a reminder of Alfred Hitchcock’s explanation of the difference between the shock of a bomb going off versus the suspense of waiting on that bomb. There’s no suspense in Darling. The main character’s fate is clear from the outset, and we’re just waiting for it to arrive.
The screenplay plays lip service to the idea of an explanation. A crumb of backstory about past occurrences in the house, a piece of jewelry in a blasphemous setting, and most notoriously a hint of sexual assault in our heroine’s past: these are the clues we have to help us answer the question of whether Darling is driven mad by her surroundings or brings the crazy with her. Carter throws herself into the role, walking the line between victim and aggressor, but ultimately, we can’t know what motivates her because the film doesn’t care. The scares are all that matters. It’s not so much a story as it is a haunted house.
Mickey Keating is a gifted filmmaker. He likes to use Kubrick framing, and plays with long takes, slow pans, and implied violence as much as explicit. He spices things up with jump cuts, inserts, blackouts, and every sound trick in the book. He even manages to extract shock value from moments that should be free of surprise, such as when a policeman inspects a bag whose contents are well-known to us. But he happens to be working with Keating the screenwriter, who has crafted a scare-delivery system rather than a story. That’s why the memory of Repulsion proves so damaging to any assessment of Darling: when you can get the same tale told with greater depth, adding more “gotcha” moments feels like a poor trade-off.
PLOT: Soldiers struck with an inexplicable sleeping sickness are housed at an old school, and a housewife volunteer develops an empathic bond with one young victim, which may involve entering his dreams.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fans of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who mercifully nicknamed himself “Joe” for the benefit of Western audiences) know exactly what to expect from his latest experiment in dream cinema: long takes, quiet moods, the blurring of the line between the real and unreal, and mundane dramatics that subtly slip into the surreal. Cemetery will please those he’s already won over, but his Palme d’Or winning breakthrough Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives makes for a better representative of his sleepy, spiritually weird style. We wouldn’t rule out adding another of Joe’s movies to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies down the road, but it will need to venture farther into the bizarre than Cemetery does.
COMMENTS: With four minutes of nearly silent establishing shots—showing sleeping soldiers being shipped by the truckload to the makeshift hospital, and our limping protagonist making her way up the wooden planks of the porch on her way to volunteer duty—Weerasethakul throws down the gauntlet to viewers’s attention spans. This introduction is followed by an initial half-hour that seems composed mostly of long and medium shots of young men sleeping, with middle-aged women quietly sitting by their bedsides watching over them, and a lunch break to introduce the fact that one of them has psychic abilities. (We also, for reasons only Joe could explain, watch a man poop in the woods).
The movie, set in a leafy Thai jungle and scored to the hum of insects and distant rumbling backhoes, lulls us into a peaceful mood. We might be forgiven for wondering if we have fallen asleep ourselves and are dreaming when things start to change. Does the soldier Jen watches over, Itt, briefly wake up and take a meal with her? Maybe, maybe not, but surely two dead princess don’t visit her at a picnic table at the dinosaur park to share fruit and explain a possible origin of the sleeping sickness. And we might doubt that the psychic licks Jen’s deformed leg as a form of therapy. And when amoebas appear drifting among the clouds in the sky, you can be absolutely sure it’s a dream.
Cemetery of Splendor never goes anywhere, so there’s nothing to wrap up. The soldiers, and their caretakers, simply sleep and dream on, and at some point Weerasethakul decides to turn the camera off. A paradoxical offering from a Valium-toned auteur, Cemetery of Splendor is simultaneously minor and profound, inconclusive and whole. It’s a film you’re proud to have seen, but in no rush to watch again.
For those not yet ready to wake up, the 2016 Strand DVD includes a “making of” featurette and deleted scenes.
PLOT: Upon arriving at a school for the deaf, a teenage boy is quickly recruited into a vicious gang that conducts petty crimes, including prostituting two female students.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although a Ukrainian juvenile delinquent movie told entirely in untranslated sign language is far off the average person’s radar, the straightforward subject matter isn’t weird enough for the List. The Tribe is more of a formal novelty than anything.
COMMENTS: First there was Deafula, and now The Tribe. That’s where sign language cinema begins and ends. The Tribe is not made for deaf audiences, however—Ukrainian sign language is not completely intelligible to signers of other nationalities—nor is it about the experience of being deaf. Being able to read sign language would frustrate the intentional alienation effect and impede the film’s experiment in non-verbal storytelling. With patience, you can follow everything that happens in this archetypal gangster rise-and-fall tale: our (essentially) nameless protagonist (the credits call him Sergey) is forcibly recruited into the local syndicate, proves his worth in a series of trials, rises on the ladder, and comes into conflict with his superiors. The details of what the deaf characters are actually saying to each other, and the few narrative mysteries that pop up, are cleverly divulged through context or cleaned up by later revelations, no differently than they would be in a spoken language feature. The complete removal of dialogue takes silent film one step further, and enforces a dogmatic minimalism on the picture. Language, you realize, only provides detail, and here the details have been stripped away. The rest of the film’s style—bleak sets, absence of music, extremely long takes—reinforce the starkness.
The long takes, although well-executed, are the film’s biggest drawback, in that Slaboshpytskyi habitually keeps the camera running far longer than necessary—sometimes on scenes that are themselves unnecessary. Sergey’s introduction to the school includes a long ceremonial ritual where students give flowers to their teachers and several minutes of unintelligible (to us) lecturing (in one of only two scenes set in the classroom); this far more than satisfies our need to orient ourselves in a school setting. Finding a room for that first night is a similarly drawn out process, as sleeping arrangements seem to be unassigned, then later there are scenes of two girls getting passport photos and waiting in line to see a government functionary…. Although the length of each of these scenes reinforces the movie’s ponderous rhythm, by the end, the 130-minute running time becomes problematic. It’s axiomatic in writing that you include nothing unnecessary in the finished work, and there are entire scenes here that could have been easily cut. I’m not including the scenes of brutal violence and cruelty (which are justified by the milieu), of near-explicit sex (less justified), or of a real-time back alley medical procedure, in that assessment. These “strong” scenes provide a nihilistic artsploitation sensibility that will turn off many, but supply the film’s primary appeal for some.
Even though understanding precisely what’s being said in sign language is not necessary to follow the plot, constantly seeing the characters communicating on the screen without knowing what they’re saying creates a level of frustration and anxiety in the viewer. It’s an inversion of the deaf person’s experience in the speaking world (although that fact is more of a footnote than the film’s raison d’être). The fact that the story can be followed at all—much less that it is at times gripping—is a testament to the director’s skill. It’s an artful gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless, and The Tribe is more of a great achievement than a great movie. Days later, I was still wrestling with whether I liked it or not, and whether (and to whom) I could recommend it—which is a sort of tribute, I think. Letterboxd user Brian Koukol nailed The Tribe‘s position in film history when he described it as “a merit badge for a cinephiles.” I’m not sure if the reward here is commensurate to the challenge involved, but you won’t forget the experience.
PLOT: A retired bricklayer from Cape Verde with a military background wanders through rooms and corridors in some kind of institution, taking visits from people from his past and mixing up flashbacks with present day reality.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The artistic value is high, but the story is so vague, insular and shadowy that, unless you’re an expatriate Cape Verdean intellectual or a careful follower of director Pedro Costa’s career, there’s not much to latch on to.
COMMENTS: After a slideshow of vintage stills of impoverished New Yorkers, Horse Money opens with Ventura (a non-actor playing a version of himself, who previously played what may be the same character in director Pedro Costa’s 2006 semi-documentary Colossal Youth) wandering, in red underwear, through dungeonlike stone corridors, which eventually turn into the blank industrial hallways of a nameless institution. The stone passages may be the crumbling pathways of his mind; Ventura may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or he may be dead and lost in a kind of purgatory. A doctor, or some other official, asks him his name and age; his answers are not always correct, or even responsive. He answers the question “Do you sleep well?” with “A big black bird came up on my roof.” In the hospital (if that’s what it is) he is visited by, or stumbles upon, people he has known throughout his life; some of whom may be dead. A woman from his past speaks only in a whisper and reads off records of births, deaths and marriages from a notary’s register; another visitor is revealed as an ex-friend with whom he got into a knife fight years ago. The climax (if such a word may be used for a film this quiet and subdued) is a long dialogue in an elevator between Ventura and a soldier in metallic green paint who stands statue-still and never moves his lips.
You will be confused. The confusion is purposeful; it enforces an atmosphere of dementia. The cinematography is dark, with shadows dominating nearly every frame, faces carefully lit so that their personalities emerge from a general murk. The anachronistic, boxy 4:3 aspect ratio induces a quiet claustrophobia. The movie’s overall feeling is resignation, and a sense of a character coming to grips with the fact that a hard, laborious life is slipping away. Ventura, whose hand shakes uncontrollably, is perfectly authentic in the role. He’s playing himself, mostly, but he’s also an everyman for his community of poor, working class immigrants, and he takes that responsibility seriously.
Horse Money is beautifully shot and dignifies its subject. It strives to be hypnotic, although too often it drifts from the merely dreamy towards deep, oblivious slumber. If the film makes it to DVD (not a home run proposition) fans of graceful, atmospheric minimalism will want to take a look; but even among weirdophiles, this is not a general interest movie.
PLOT: A Danish surveyor tracks his missing daughter into the wilderness.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This slow-paced movie turns weird by the end, but strangeness doesn’t even put in a cameo appearance until the last twenty minutes.
COMMENTS: While Jauja is set in a specific time and place, no one in the movie ever says what that time and place is; they simply inhabit it as their reality. The film’s “meaning,” similarly, is left vague. An explanation for the film’s title, on the other hand, is given in a text prologue: “Jauja” is a mythical paradise, the equivalent of El Dorado, a place ambitious explorers seek and never find. This, along with the colonial dress and a campfire tale about a soldier who was wandered into the wilderness and went mad, immediately brings to mind similar themes from Aguirre, the Wrath of God; although ultimately Alonso’s movie is more oblique and far more restrained than Herzog‘s Amazonian fever dream classic.
Although never specified, Jauja was actually shot in Argentina, and the film could serve as an advertisement for the Pampas Tourist Board. In its ability to capture the country’s strange landscapes— the standing pools of water flanked by mossy rocks, the fields of boulders, the mighty horizons—the film is an undisputed triumph. Jauja is shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the expected widescreen, with the corners quaintly rounded so that the screen recalls a picture frame. The natural color schemes, particularly the blue midnights and glowing dawns, look brilliantly unreal. Jauja may be too small and peculiar to compete for any major awards, but I doubt we will see superior cinematography in any film this year.
As desolate as Jauja‘s landscapes can be, for most of the running time the film’s plot is even more so. A scene that kicks off the movie’s second act illustrates how unnaturally deliberate the pacing is. Viggo Mortensen’s Danish captain discovers that his teenage daughter is missing from her tent; instead of immediately rushing off after her, he returns to his own tent and spends several minutes calmly examining his weapons and dressing in his formal military uniform. Although not much time is actually lost in the formal procedure, the scene conveys the exact opposite of urgency. In the movie’s middle section, minute after minute goes by with no words spoken; we simply watch Mortensen stumble across the craggy landscape, growing increasingly weaker. (We also watch him sleep). Eventually, he encounters a shaggy dog and follows it back to a cave where he has a very strange encounter with an old woman (which I will not spoil). Things get even weirder for the ending epilogue, a time-bending journey to another world where the film’s earlier motifs—dogs, a toy solider—are recast in a dreamlike fashion.
Many critics compare Alonso’s latest film to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, for obvious reasons. Although Jauja shares Tarkovsky’s meticulous use of time and strangeness, the Russian master’s films always win out because they end on profound emotional resonances; the Stalker weeping in despair, Kris Kelvin’s decision to play along with Solaris’ delusion. As well-made and thoughtful as it is, Jauga‘s heart is simple—the love of a father for his daughter—and does not approach the emotional intricacies of Tarkovsky. Of course, few do; but Jauja shows you what Tarkovsky may have looked like without his complex understanding of the human soul.