Tag Archives: Neil Jordan

CAPSULE: LOVE EXPRESS: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF WALERIAN BOROWCZYK (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Kuba Mikurda

FEATURING: , Noël Véry, , , Peter Bradshaw, Slavoj Zizek,

PLOT: A talking heads documentary about the rise and fall of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, who started out as an enfant terrible of Surrealism but ended up stereotyped and dismissed as a pornographer.

Still from Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (2018)

COMMENTS: A Polish expatriate working in his adopted France, Walerian Borowczyk began his career as an acclaimed Surrealist animator, working in both stop-motion and traditional forms. Over two decades, he produced almost two-dozen award-winning films featuring milk-drinking wigs (The House, 1958) and blue-bleeding angels (Angel’s Games, 1964). His live action debut, 1969’s dystopian parable Goto: The Island of Love, was highly anticipated and a critical success. His career took a sharp turn with Immoral Tales (1973), an arty erotic portmanteau film which was shocking for the time, but not especially surreal. Tales was a succès de scandale, but it lost Borowczyk some critical support; that erosion accelerated greatly with his followup film, the outrageous bestiality tale The Beast [La Bête] (1975). Banned all over the world, it is here that Borowczyk’s career begins to decline. He is pigeonholed, and producers only fund him if he agrees to film overtly erotic movies. Soon, he’s paired with softcore siren Sylvia Kristel for the flop The Streetwalker (1976), and his fortunes fall further. Borowczyk does manage to make a few more interesting and ambitious films in the late 70s and 80s (such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Osborne, 1981) but, in the public and the industry’s eyes, he’s just a pornographer. By 1987 he has fallen so low that he’s called on to helm Emmanuelle 5. But he’s disinterested in the project, and walks off set after he’s disrespected by top-billed scream queen Monique Gabrielle (according to the assistant director who actually completed the movie, she may have slapped him). He releases one more film, the arty Love Rites, but that’s it; Borowczyk disappears as a feature filmmaker at age 64.

The paragraph above contains all the essential information you’ll learn from Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk. There are a few juicy tidbits here and there, but the documentary is essentially an excuse for a parade of high profile cinephile fans—critic Peter Bradshaw, cinematographer Noël Véry, the always delightful Slavoj Zizek, and others—to say nice things about Borowczyk. Indeed, large parts of the movie are made in the YouTube-inspired “reaction video” genre, as directors Terry Gilliam and Neil Jordan watch clips from Borowoczyk films in real time (admittedly, Gilliam’s amused shock at The Beast‘s rape scene is priceless). It is interesting to see Lisbeth Hummel’s conflicted reminiscences about filming The Beast (unexpectedly, she seems more traumatized by the rose scene than the rape.) But overall, Love Express is merely an appreciation and celebration of Borowoczyk, as it pretty much was fated to be—because who’s going to dial up a Borowoczyk documentary other than someone who’s already a Borowoczyk fan? Pleasant enough, and, at a crisp 75 minutes, short enough to not outstay its welcome. Someday it will make a fine Blu-ray extra on a Borowoczyk  box set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A patchy primer to the magnificently weird career of the 20th century’s foremost animator/auteur/pornographer, Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (Love Express. Przypadek Waleriana Borowczyka) illuminates and frustrates in roughly equal measure.”–Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

 

342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

“I asked the actor playing the priest, a very nice actor, ‘Would you mind repeating those lines, but this time would you wear this alien fly head?'”–Neil Jordan, The Butcher Boy commentary track

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Sinéad O’Connor, Alan Boyle, Aisling O’Sullivan,

PLOT: In flashback, the grown-up Francie Brady describes his childhood in a poor Irish village: the son of a drunk and a depressed mother, he passes his days getting into mischief with his best (and only) friend, Joe. As his home life deteriorates, Francie increasingly blames his stuck-up neighbor Mrs. Nugent for his troubles. His escalating attacks on the poor woman result in him being sent first to a strict Catholic boarding school, then to a mental hospital, as he grows more violent and detached from reality.

Still from the Butcher Boy (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was based on Patrick McCabe’s stream-of-consciousness novel “The Butcher Boy.” McCabe co-wrote the adaptation with director Neil Jordan. The writer also appears in a small role as the town drunk.
  • The title comes from an old folk ballad (probably English in origin) that became popular in Ireland in the 1960s.
  • An uncredited Stephen Rea provides the narration as the adult Francie Brady.
  • One of Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll take any of the visitations from the glowing, foul-mouthed Virgin Mary, played with straight-faced seriousness by Sinéad O’Connor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy in a bonnet; Virgin Sinéad; ant-head aliens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With schizophrenic nostalgia, The Butcher Boy starts from an intense, uncompromising subjectivity and jumps down a rabbit hole of boyish delusion.


Original trailer for The Butcher Boy

COMMENTS: Shot on location in postcard-pretty County Monaghan with a cast of locals supplemented by stalwarts like Stephen Continue reading 342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

319. THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)

“The great majority of symbols in the dream are sex symbols.”–Sigmund Freud, “Symbolism in the Dream,” A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, Micha Bergese, Tusse Silberg,

PLOT: An adolescent girl lies in her bed, dreaming feverishly. In her dream, she lives in a medieval town menaced by wolves, with a grandmother who tells her frightful stories about werewolves and warns her to “stay on the path.” One day, she is traveling through the woods to her grandmother’s house, and she meets a dashing older man on the road…

Still from The Company of Wolves (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is based on Angela Carter’s three “Little Red Riding Hood”-inspired werewolf stories collected in “The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories.” In 1980 Carter adapted these stories into a radio play titled “The Company of Wolves,” which became the basis for her screenplay collaboration with director Neil Jordan. She published her version of the screenplay, which differs slightly from the filmed version (due to the fact that some sequences proved too costly to shoot) in the collection “The Curious Room.”
  • Jordan says that the stories-within-stories structure was inspired by The Saragossa Manuscript (1965).
  • Other than the wraparound sequences, the entire movie was filmed on a soundstage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie where men (repeatedly) turn into wolves, it’s surprising that the most startling image occurs in a quiet moment. Rosaleen climbs a tree, finds a stork’s nest, and finds a mirror and a vial of lipstick nestled alongside the eggs. She applies the lipstick, looks in the mirror, and the eggs crack open to reveal tiny human figurines.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Egg babies; wolves at a wedding; Angela Lansbury’s ceramic head

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An adolescent girl is lost in a fever dream inhabited by suave beast men and mysterious symbols that both frighten and thrill her. Angela Carter’s Freudian spin on fairy tales takes the sanitized version of Little Red Riding Hood and gives it fangs.

Original trailer for The Company of Wolves

COMMENTS: Werewolves are some of humanity’s oldest supernatural foils, mentioned in Petronius’ “Satyricon” in the first century Continue reading 319. THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)

The Company of Wolves has been officially promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner

PLOT: A young girl moves from the city to a big house in the country. Her dreams mirror her dissociation from her surroundings and family, and an examination of her development as a person (and as a girl becoming a woman) follows through increasingly odd studies of gender and of the notion of the werewolf.

Still from The Company of Wolves (1984)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Neil Jordan’s second film is co-written by the sadly deceased Angela Carter, and her literary tralents are on full display here in an extremely layered and artful examination of gender and sexuality set against traditional folk tales such as Red Riding Hood. Ostensibly a single narrative, Company of Wolves loses itself in stories within stories, all held together as one long dream sequence. This film is quite a feverish and nuanced experience that is a must for inclusion on the List.

COMMENTS: Angela Carter was a fine writer, and anyone who is a fan of the written as well as the cinematic weird who hasn’t yet discovered her would be advised to do so. Company of Wolves draws on the traditions of spoken word narrative and folktales seen through a modern lens. Its source material is Carter’s short story collection “The Bloody Chamber,” which she herself described as an attempt “not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.” What the viewer gets is a modern retelling of Red Riding Hood with all the sexual connotations not only intact but made explicit for a modern switched-on audience. More than just a straight fantasy and horror, The Company of Wolves is a study of the feminine psyche and its attitudes toward desire and familial responsibility, told through a rich narrative web. Perhaps the most indelible image is “the red wedding,” which gives “Game of Thrones” a run for it’s money in regards of worst end to a wedding possible. Grandma’s inevitable fate in this film takes a visually distinctive and surreal twist on the standard “what big teeth you have” story. One of Carter’s few forays into script writing, this film makes you wish her unique talents were more widely adapted for the big screen; furthermore, it showed Neil Jordan would be a talent to watch out for.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie has an uncanny, hypnotic force; we always know what is happening, but we rarely know why, or how it connects with anything else, or how we can escape from it, or why it seems to correspond so deeply with our guilts and fears. That is, of course, almost a definition of a nightmare.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BUTCHER BOY (1995)

DIRECTED BYNeil Jordan

FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Sean McGinley, Peter Gowen, Alan Boyle, Andrew Fullerton, Fiona Shaw, Aisling O’Sullivan, Stephen Rea, Sinéad O’Connor

PLOT: Against the backdrop of Cold War absurdity, a rebellious 1950’s Irish youth descends into a psychotic maelstrom upon the deaths of his dysfunctional parents and abandonment by his best friend.

Still from The Butcher Boy (1997)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  Based on the prize winning stream of consciousness novel by Pat McCabe, the movie flows like a grim fantasy regurgitated by a mescaline-intoxicated James Joyce. The combination of genres and mild-mannered, cavalier narrative of perversity and violence make The Butcher Boy a weird and wonderful, if unsettling viewing experience.

COMMENTS:  High production values and slick editing distinguish this utterly bizarre story about a cheerfully deluded boy’s descent into madness, mayhem and murder. The lighthearted presentation of repellent material makes for a heavy cinematic encounter that timid viewers will find unpleasant and unsettling.

Francie (Owens) is a slightly delinquent youth. His father (Rea) is a talented, but unrecognized musician—and an anti-social, violent alcoholic. His bipolar mother does her best to distract herself from the family’s depressing existence via a zealous plethora domestic rituals.

Despite his oddball, dysfunctional family life, Francie manages to hang on until his mother commits suicide. The tragedy triggers a series of frantic misfortunes that lead to an insidious and inevitable structural decay of the framework that Francie desperately needs for a normal maturation.

Lacking valid coping options, Francie immerses himself in a comic book-fueled world of fantasy, accentuated by typical boyish adventures and games. But the games become increasingly grim when misfortune and his own recklessness lead him ever further astray.

Beguiled by hallucinatory visions, Francie is off first to a Catholic reform school where he stabs a pedophile priest, then to a lunatic asylum where the staff jolts him with shock treatments and a fellow patient warns him of impending trepanation-style lobotomy. Concluding that the damning chain of unalterable events is rooted in a neighbor’s hatred, Francie finally plunges over the dam of reality. Maddened and desperate, he cascades away on the headwaters of a psychotic mission to compel salvation and resolution via maniacal revenge.

The Butcher Boy is a viewing experience steeped in incongruity. The plot is cinematically presented as a comedy. It is anything but. Grim, twisted, and gritty, the sequence of events that unfold are nothing to laugh at. The storybook Irish countrysides of Warrenpoint and Monaghan accent this foreboding tale, and clash with starkly seedy Dublin locations. Discordant hallucination sequences disrupt the balance of reality. The resulting contrast between subject matter and tempo results in an arty, but disturbing film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though the movie sometimes looks as if the authentic Irish wit, colour and blarney has been filtered through the sensibility of a Buñuel or Polanski, Jordan never allows the surreal/expressionist aspects to dominate.”–Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide

CAPSULE: ONDINE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Neil Jordan

FEATURING: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Stephen Rea

PLOT: An Irish fisherman scoops up a girl in his nets one day; is she actually a selkie?

Still from Ondine (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird (that’s not a spoiler; weird is an aesthetic choice, and the movie might not be weird even if Ondine is a selkie).

COMMENTS:  Neil Jordan has gone weird from time to time (The Company of Wolves, The Butcher Boy), but even when he’s not being totally bizarre he’s often at least provocative (The Crying Game).  It’s therefore strange to see him helm a movie that plays it so safe, that aims so squarely at a middlebrow arthouse crowd who only ask for picture postcard vistas and enough painfully dramatic soul-searching to make the happy ending seem well-earned.  Starting with the myth of the woman from the sea who falls in love with a mortal man, Ondine breathes in magic, but exhales mere quality.  The cinematography by Christopher Doyle captures the quaint beauty of an Irish fishing village and the majesty of the surrounding ocean (often shot on overcast days so that the sky and the sea share a uniform blue-gray tint).  Performances by the principals are also top notch.  As Syracuse, the on-the-wagon alcoholic subsistence fisherman with a sickly daughter, Colin Farrell projects ancient guilt and sadness: this bedraggled, sad-eyed ex-rake never looks more at home than when he’s in a confessional.  Polish beauty Alicja Bachleda has an otherworldly sensuality that serves her character well; she goes swimming in sun dresses, then lounges in the sun like a seal with the wet clothes clinging to her.  Young Alison Barry does fine in a role we’ve seen many times before: the sad outcast kid whose belief in magic teaches the adults in her life a thing or two about the power of hope.  As for the script, in its mechanics, it’s hard to criticize (though I would have killed off a different character).  Jordan’s writing provides proper character depth and ties up loose ends cleverly.  The film’s overall narrative strategy, on the other hand, isn’t as easy to cozy up to.  It starts as a slow but pleasant drama with the ambiguity about Ondine’s true nature driving the tale, then wanders around in some melodramatic side alleys before resolving itself with a thriller conclusion that drains the magic out of the film.  The film also has a technical issue: for Americans, at least, the dialogue can be hard to make out due to the authentic Irish brogues and low conversational sound levels.  Stephen Rea, in particular, is indecipherable when he hushes his voice; I couldn’t turn the sound up loud enough to make out what he was saying.  Overall, it’s easy to see how someone could be briefly charmed by Ondine, but it’s hard to imagine even the most romantic soul being enchanted by it.  It’s more of a movie to flirt with than to take home to bed.  It seems like the kind of classical, meditative, risk-free story older filmmakers tackle when they want to make sure they are being taken seriously as artists—but it’s that very self-seriousness that makes what emerges a minor work.

“Ondine” was a 1939 play by Jean Giraudoux about a water nymph who falls in love with a knight.  Tales of women from the sea falling in love with mortal men are a common motif in fairy tales.  The film Ondine adapts Celtic folklore about the selkie, a seal who can shed her skin to become a beautiful female and mate with mortal men.  The same legend formed the basis of John Sayles’ 1994 independent arthouse hit The Secret of Roan Innish.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…works best when it stays within the blurry in-between space separating the everyday world from that belonging to story-time flights of fancy.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)