Tag Archives: Vincent Cassel

LIST CANDIDATE: TALE OF TALES (2015)

Il Racconto dei Racconti

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Toby Jones, , Bebe Cave

PLOT: Peace and harmony reign between three neighboring kingdoms, but all is not well with the countries’ monarchs: in her desire for an heir, the Queen of Longtrellis goes to extremes; trying to avoid marrying off his daughter, the King of Highhills accidentally dooms her to wed an ogre; and the King of Strongcliff attempts to woo an unseen (and unsightly) singer that won his heart.

Still from Tale of Tales (2015)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Director Matteo Garone weaves together three differently unsettling fairy tales with a sure hand and A-list actors. Sea monsters, giant fleas, and creepy albino twins are just a few of the wondrous sights to see in this medieval fantasy. The undercurrents of death, deformity, and violence make for an unsettling amalgam when coupled with picturesque castles and countrysides.

COMMENTS: An international cast, sumptuous European locales, familial conflict—yessir, Tale of Tales screams “Film Festival” and “Art House.” Fortunately for us, attributes like bloody murder, spontaneous gestation, and youth-bringing lactation also make it scream “weird”! Indeed, looking over some of the “Weirdest Search Terms” from my time here, I suspect at the very least that last one will notch 366 another visitor from the far corners of the web. Tale of Tales delivers a strong dose classic European fairy-tales without skimping on the grisly elements that made them such macabre stories.

Using three stories from Giambattista Basile’s early 17th-century collection of Neapolitan fairy-tales, director Matteo Garrone allows an unlikely group of fantasy characters to stumble toward their fates, occasionally stumbling into each other. The Queen of Longtrellis’ (Salma Hayek) husband is slain while killing a sea beast he hunted so that his wife could devour the monster’s heart—a solution, we are told, for the couple’s infertility. Attending the funeral is the kind-hearted King of Highhills (Toby Jones) together with his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave). We also meet the lusty lord of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel), appearing from beneath the skirts of two courtesans in his coach before arriving at the procession. Things bat back and forth between their tales throughout the movie, and needless to say, the roads these monarchs and their families take are a bit bumpy.

Judging the “weird” merits of a fantasy movie can be a challenge, for while unreal things necessarily go on, that is expected from the genre. However, the defense of my bold claim in the case of Tale of Tales is made easier because of the extremes the movie goes to with its material. The story of the Queen of Longtrellis alone cements things firmly in our realm of the weird. Not only did the Queen need to eat the serpent’s heart, but during the preparation thereof (by, as specified, a solitary virgin) the young cook becomes with child herself; both women are pregnant just one day before delivering, separately, identical albino twins. Disapproving of her own son, Elias[1], fraternizing (as it were) with the peasant’s son, Jonah[2], the Queen eventually makes a second Faustian bargain resulting in, to put it crudely, “Form of Bat!” …And on top of that there’s the mightily growing flea-pet of the King of Highhills and the sad tale of the two crones who accidentally steal the heart of the King of Strongcliff.

I’m generally skeptical of the “interlocking narrative” structure found in some films — I regard it as a poor excuse to cobble together what should have been multiple short ones. However, the tone in Tale of Tales is consistent throughout, and any potential disjointedness is mitigated both by the very smooth editing work and the presence of a troupe of carnival performers who appear at key points throughout the three narratives. And did I mention there’s ? Showing up barely in time for his own demise, I like how he can always be counted on to add a touch of pathos. Tale of Tales is a beautiful, weird movie that is a reassurance to fantasy genre fans everywhere.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There was already something wonderfully weird and carnivalesque about Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone’s past films… Now, the director has let his circus ringmaster’s instinct flower with the bold, barmy ‘Tale of Tales’… the sheer, obstinate oddness of ‘Tale of Tales’ sends crowd-pleasers like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Hobbit’ scuttling into the shadows of the forest in terror.”–Dave Calhoun, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

  1. “Elias” is a variant of “Elijah”, the prophet known, among other things, to be the harbinger of the End of Days; he twice fills this role vis-à-vis his own parents. []
  2. That a boy conceived by the consumption of the heart of a giant fish should be named “Jonah” is, in my view, more than a bit gratifying. []

CAPSULE: TRANCE (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Danny Boyle

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: After torture fails, gangsters hire a hypnotherapist to help their amnesiac comrade remember where he hid a stolen painting, but can they trust her not to play with the subject’s mind?

Still from Trance (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s watchable and a little weird (once the hallucinations finally start), but not as entrancing as it would need to be to make the List.

COMMENTS: Trance features a lot of twists and turns as it explores the corridors of memory, but ultimately this trippy guided imagery only leads to off-topic revelations, an action movie finale that could have fit in a Vin Diesel vehicle, and a smugly ambiguous postscript. If you’re highly suggestible, though, you may be able to relax and enjoy the trip through Simon’s tortured mind as he struggles to recall where he hid the stolen painting before petty gangster Franck loses patience and lets his thugs take a turn at more than his fingernails. The rough patches Trance encounters come solely from the script, not from the game cast, who do their best to sell the peculiar material. As another of Danny Boyle’s beleaguered, boyish (Boyle-ish?), in-over-his-head heroes, James McAvoy serves as an effective anchor. (Fifteen years ago this role would have gone to fellow baby-faced Scot ). Vincent Cassel, as always, embodies suave Continental decadence. But it’s Rosario Dawson as Elizabeth Lamb, the bored but sexy hypnotherapist, who steals the show, gradually overshadowing Simon to emerge as the movie’s central character. Brought in by Franck in a desperate attempt to recover Simon’s strangely repressed memory, she quickly, if subtly, asserts psychological control over the criminals. Tired of dealing with over-eaters and premature ejaculators, the doctor relishes her dangerous new assignment, and it’s not quite clear whether she’s in it more for the money or the thrills. Seizing control of the mission, she leads Simon (and occasionally the others) on a series of increasingly complicated guided hypnotherapy sessions; her subject always balks just before remembering the fatal hiding place, subconsciously terrified that if he gives up the information, he’ll be killed. As he is led deeper and deeper into the labyrinths of his mind, it becomes unclear where his trance state ends and reality resumes. Are sparks really flying between him and Dr. Lamb, or is it just transference? If he appears to get the upper hand on his captors, is it just a mental trick to get him to reveal the location? It’s a good, if somewhat hard to swallow, start for a psychothriller, and the film does keep you guessing through the early reels. But the plot ultimately doesn’t make much sense; it’s too contrived, and not just in the obvious sense that hypnotherapy has nowhere near this kind of mystical power. The story is also too concerned with misdirection, forgetting to find an emotional center; we have no real rooting interest among the characters. The trance sequences, which are for the most part meant to be indistinguishable from real life, seldom deliver the surreal payoffs that weirdophiles crave (although there is one excellent, startling image involving Vincent Cassel’s head that I unfortunately can’t describe it without ruining the surprise). Once the missing painting is finally found, there’s an empty feeling. Emerging from Trance, you feel like you’ve been to see a middle-of-the-road Vegas magician; you were entertained while the show was on, sure, but you’re already forgetting the tricks on the ride home.

If anything about the movie is hypnotic, it’s Dawson’s full-lipped sexuality. Fans of the actress’ vulva will definitely want to check Trance out; her pubic hair is a minor plot point.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anything goes, which may make all this great fun for the hallucinogenically inclined, but since nothing in these sequences has any lasting consequences, suspense is difficult to amplify… the film is under the mistaken impression that its unmoored trance sequences are compelling enough to justify their implausibility.”–Zachary Wigon, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

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.)