APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BUFFET FROID (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Blier

FEATURING: , Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet, ,

PLOT: A man in the Metro confesses his fantasies about killing strangers to a stranger; a surreal series of casual murders follows, most occurring over the course of a single long night.

Still from Buffet Froid (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This dreamlike and absurd black comedy about murder may be the most Buñuelian movie never made.1)The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).

COMMENTS: “Don’t you ever get odd ideas?”, young and unemployed Alphonse (Depardieu) asks a stranger in the Paris Metro. Director Bertrand Blier has plenty of odd ideas, most of them revolving around murder and his characters’ blasé reactions to the ultimate crime. It turns out Alphonse may, or may not, have killed the accountant he met in the subway—but no one seems to care. His wife merely throws his bloody switchblade in the dishwasher.  He goes to his new neighbor, who just happens to be a police inspector, to report the death, but the man is off duty and can’t be bothered. Another murderer shows up at his doorway and Alphonse invites him in for dinner and a glass of wine. Then, through a series of dreamlike coincidences, the inspector and the killer join Alphonse on a murder spree—if such a laid-back, stumbling affair can be called a “spree,” and if some of the mysterious killings qualify as “murder.”

For the most part, the film’s events occur over one long, endless night—with perhaps a nap or two—before a sunlit epilogue in the French countryside. Characters never show up unless they are needed as killers, victims, or witnesses—there are no extras waiting for trains in the Metro, the Paris streets are deserted, and even the skyscraper that houses Alphonse’s apartment is totally uninhabited except for him, his wife, and the newly-arrived Inspector. Alphonse, and the other characters, also complain about the cold—they never seem to be able to get warm. Perhaps they are feeling the chill of the grave?

Alphonse is the dreamer who has an inkling that he might be dreaming—he is the only one who (occasionally) wonders what’s going on, who finds it odd that no one seems to care that he might be a murderer. Everyone else accepts the ever-shifting social dynamics with the calm acceptance of someone living in a dream. The acting is utterly deadpan and droll. A man is tortured by being exposed to a string quintet. Alphonse mentions that he has nightmares that last all night where he is wanted for murder and chased by the police. Perversely, in the nightmare script that plays out, the police don’t hunt him, but abet his ambiguous crimes. Some of it is a black satire on modern alienation, but the surrealism of the scenario speaks to deeper fears—death is the only sure constant in this movie where caprice otherwise rules the night.

Buffet Froid flopped (commercially) on its release, wasn’t screened in the U.S. for seven years, and is barely distributed today. It is reportedly a cult film in France, but that doesn’t do much for the rest of us. I was able to find it on the free-streaming service Kanopy (which requires membership at a a participating public or university library—and the catalog my differ depending on your supplier).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A blackly surreal procession of amoral and/or illegal acts…  producing a cherishably Buñuelian depiction of the far-from-discreet crimes of the bourgeoisie.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who called it an “an absurd and deadpan comedy that gained a cult status here in France.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

References   [ + ]

1. The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).

CAPSULE: PIERCING (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Pesce

FEATURING: , , Laia Costa

PLOT: Reed has a good job, a loving wife, a cherished newborn daughter, hallucinations, and a (hopefully satiable) lust to kill; he checks into a hotel planning to get his bloodlust out of his system by murdering a call girl, but the woman who arrives may be more than a match for him.

Still from Piercing (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s slick and sick, but plays like a milder version of a film that already made the List.

COMMENTS: Piercing will play better if you’ve never seen Audition, but if you have seen the older film, you may find that the newer one suffers (hee hee) by comparison to its sadistic sister. Piercing is adapted from ‘s 1994 novel of the same name. The author reworked the same general sadomasochistic theme three years later for “Ôdishon.” In doing so, Murakami improved the scenario by making the male protagonist more sympathetic and the female antagonist more mysterious. That’s not to say Piercing is unworthy of your time, or that you will always know exactly where it’s heading, but Audition initiates should prepared for a little bit of a disappointment.

Director Nicolas Pesce explored similarly dark territory in his debut, The Eyes of My Mother, which he shot in rustic and minimalistic grayscale. Here, he goes for a much richer stylistic palette, with a Technicolor style showcasing deep reds and mahogany wood paneling. The opening, in fact, puts us in mind of Rear Window, with the camera panning over an artificial mosaic of skyscrapers, inside whose windows we can imagine individual dramas playing out. Hitchcock, of course, would never have added an infant girl who tells daddy “you know what you have to do” in a creepy baritone.

Pesce creates a genteel atmosphere—a world where men put on ties to meet call girls, hookers wear stocking and fur coats, everyone drinks their spirits on the rocks before getting down to business, and guys use embroidered silk handkerchiefs to douse their dates with choloroform. The soundtrack is a selection of smooth and sophisticated pop, including “The Girl from Impanema” and needle drops from classic gialli like Profondo Rosso; even the most cloying number, the mellow folk-rocker “Bluer than Blue,” is given the best possible treatment. The hotel room and apartment interiors all look like 60s penthouse bachelor pads, with sunken living rooms and dramatic wall-mounted half-moon sconces, very mid-century modern. All the elegant trappings of civilization, of course, only serve to disguise the depravity and barbarism squirming inside the characters’ souls.

Abbott and Wasikowski are perfectly cast. He is superficially suave, but constantly bumbling as he hides his guilty secret; Wasikowski, keeping her natural Australian accent, is a psychotic pixie dream girl who lets on very quickly that she’s not quite all there. They are a perfect match. In terms of gruesomeness, Pesce doesn’t go quite as far as would, but he is willing to go quite a ways, and you should find yourself squirming often. Abbott’s casual hallucinations—he constantly carries on conversations with people who encourage him to carry out his secret murderous plan—keep things interesting, and cast doubt on Wasikowski’s character. Is she really as depraved as he is, or is it just his projection of her as a willing victim/collaborator in his elaborate fantasy? A grotesque dream sequence (scored to the aforementioned soft-rock hit) also mirrors the surrealistic excursion of Audition, and although it is put in service of revealing backstory, there are still some tremendously eerie moments here, with a scorpion-bug monster scurrying from out of a toilet to harass our paralyzed protagonist.

For an evening of dangerous fun, refined sickos could do a lot worse than Piercing. Pesce reaffirms his talent while broadening his range. He’s come close to a breakthrough weird movie with his first two films; his next project is a remake of Ju-on [The Grudge], after which we’re hoping he will be able to come through with something that will really blow our socks off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie gains momentum as it indulges in hallucinogenic phantasmagoria.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE MAN WITH THE MAGIC BOX (2017)

Czlowiek z magicznym pudelkiem

DIRECTED BY: Bodo Kox

FEATURING: Piotr Polak, Olga Boladz, Sebastian Stankiewicz

PLOT: In Warsaw in the near future, an amnesiac man (whose memory may have been wiped by the government) goes to work as a janitor and falls in love with a superior, but the past inevitably catches up to him.

Still from The Man with the Magic Box (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has a record player that plays postcards, a radio that tunes itself to the self-hypnosis channel, and a government that’s possibly putting hallucinogenic drugs in the water supply, it’s not quite strange enough for us. It is well outside the boundaries of what an average person expects to find in a low budget dystopian sci-fi thriller, however.

COMMENTS: Specialty distributor Artsploitation fulfills a crucial film niche by taking chances on arty, low-budget genre fare from (mostly) outside the English-speaking world. I’m discovering a pattern, however: always skip their horror offerings, and take a flier on their weird fantasy or sci-fi offerings. You may find a hit or two. The Man with the Magic Box fits that general strategy, and although it’s not a breakout film for the distributor, it is an interesting one.

Magic Box takes place a mere 13 years in the future. Its dystopian aspirations echo Brazil and Blade Runner, it name checks Men in Black, and it pays direct homage to a scene in Fight Club, but despite all the tributes to his influences, Bodo Kox’s film does become its own thing. If you can swallow the big, implausible plot twist, your hundred minutes in Warsaw, 2030 will be well-spent.

This future society feels more advanced than a single decade forward in time; but at the same time it’s a cinematically familiar future, and one that’s anxious to create a deliberate link to Poland’s Communist past. At first, placing amnesiac Adam in a pre-WWII-era flat seems like a cost-cutting measure to save precious prop money that might be spent on futuristic doo-dads, but it turns out there is a purpose behind the setting—it allows Adam to find the titular “magic box.” The film alternates between scenes set in 2033 and in the past, with a few set entirely in the “superconsciousness” or in a virtual reality “Alice in Wonderland” themed park. The World of Tomorrow utilizes an antiseptic silver-blue metallic color scheme, while a grungy sepia-brown denotes the past. Secret police roam both landscapes. The future is full of cost-conscious innovations like cybernetic eyes, invisible cell phones, pets that resemble robotic vacuum cleaners, talking mailboxes, and limited Internet access, along with a few big effects like a terrorist attack that levels a skyscraper. The film uses its limited CGI budget with considerable economy to create a universe that feels fairly real.

Piotr Polak’s Adam is a bit of a blank slate. He’s an awkward weirdo, but he doesn’t attract too much attention because everyone in the future is a self-absorbed weirdo, oblivious to other people’s eccentricities. The closest thing Adam finds to a friend is Sebastian, the autistic janitor who trains him for his new minimum wage job and who lives in a closet. But it’s Adam’s fast-talking, model-skinny love interest Gloria (Olga Boladz), a hot-to-trot executive at the miscellaneous firm where Adam is sent to clean, who makes the biggest impression. She’s odd even by this world’s standards, addicted to slumming it with attractive custodians in a world where any interest in sex appears to be fairly taboo. And, she can really pull off an optical illusion hoop skirt. Gloria starts at the periphery but moves towards the center as the film progresses.

In true 1984 fashion, the apparatchiks of The Man in the Magic Box try to stamp out romantic love as the final obstacle to complete loyalty to the State. As previously mentioned, the film explicitly draws parallels between Communist Poland and the world of the near future it prophesies. The depressing implication is that totalitarianism is the natural state of Poland (and possibly of humanity), and any other system is a temporary aberration.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…stylish and eccentric, but… also disciplined and coherent…”-Ola Salwa, Cineuropa (festival screening)

CAPSULE: TERROR 5 (2016)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Sebastian Rotstein, Federico Rotstein

FEATURING: Walter Cornás, Lu Grasso, Gastón Cocchiarale, Arias Alban

PLOT: An anthology of horror stories in an Argentinian town told over a single night, involving revenge, zombie-like creatures, and snuff films.

Still from Terror 5 (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: What strangeness is to be found here can mostly be credited to shoddy construction.

COMMENTS: If you’re looking for something nice to say about Terror 5, then the camerawork isn’t bad. There’s a nice shot of a blue neon cross, whose glow becomes reflected in the luminous eyes of the “zombies” who spontaneously appear when the local mayor is cleared of corruption in a construction tragedy. And there’s nothing wrong with the acting; the players do the best they can to inject some life into the dull scenarios.

But the script! Ay! It all plays out in one Argentinian town in a single night, and the five plot strands—each of which is supposedly inspired by an urban legend—connect, somewhat. But none of them are well thought out or interesting in themselves. Nor is the overall architecture sound. While the movie cuts between four of the stories, the worst, a tale of students who take revenge on their teachers at night, plays out in its entirety right up front. Since there isn’t much to it—the characters all buy into the absurd conceit with little resistance, with no explanation of why the teachers don’t fight back and no tension or internal conflict to be found in the new student seduced into the cabal—it lowers expectations for the rest of the tales. One of the remaining plotlines is basically an extended sex scene with a senselessly brutal finale. Another involves two men in their cars, waiting patiently for a plot that never arrives; it’s largely a conversation over walkie-talkies, with another grisly out-of-nowhere ending. It makes almost no sense at all. (At one point one of the men says “I’m super confused,” and that’s before his pal starts talking about “the shower game” and parallel universes.) The introductory and climactic story involves the aforementioned non-zombies and makes a weak stab at a generic satire about political corruption. That leaves one episode of some interest: a booze-and-pot costume party at which a jerk dressed in KISS makeup dares the assembly to watch a snuff film and bullies a heavyset kid until he snaps. Due to some reasonably convincing acting from the greasepainted lout and his victim, it’s the best segment, but it’s still a yawner.

Each of the stories are ridiculous and poorly motivated, but they aren’t executed in a dreamlike or absurd fashion that might engage our interest. Instead, they’re played straight, as if they were really horror shorts. Although there is a mildly surreal aesthetic at work here in the unreal scenarios, what weirdness results is largely by accident rather than design.

The idea of making a hypertext horror is not a bad one, and the filmmakers don’t do anything especially obnoxious, but Terror 5 just plain fails on a storytelling level. With ruthless cutting, they might have salvaged a (still relatively lame) 30 minute short from this material. For sleaze film fans, it offers a smidgen of sex and nudity and a modicum of violence and gore. There’s very little terror, though, and even less sense.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Terror 5 is a movie that will turn viewers on and probably trip them out once they realize the almost certainly ominous object of their salacious contemplations…”–Misty Wallace, Cryptic Rock (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CLIMAX (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: About two dozen dancers, all of approximately equal importance

PLOT: A modern dance troupe goes crazy when someone spikes their rehearsal party sangria with a heavy dose of LSD.

Still from Climax (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Literal LSD trip movies don’t come along that often. Ones made with this much skill and care are even rarer. Climax is messy and flawed, but impossible (for us) to overlook. And Gaspar Noé is probably the only master of world cinema who regularly contributes trip reports to Erowid.

COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Climax, we watch interviews, presumably from the audition process, playing on a TV screen. Attractive young people are asked about their philosophy of life, their drug use, their greatest fear. We get to know them a little, but what might be more important are the names of the books and VHS tape boxes flanking the TV screen: Possession, “Un Chien Andalou,” Salo, Suspiria, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, Zombie. While none of these (except perhaps Suspiria) have much real thematic relationship to Climax, Gaspar Noé’s roll call of influences at least puts the well-traveled weirdophile on notice that they’ve bought the right ticket.

The movie is not one long, unrelieved freakout; it does build to a, well, Climax. After those preliminary interviews and some preliminary structural foolishness (the end titles play first, and the opening credits are delivered in the middle of the film), we start with a long, energetic, contortionist techno dance number, a real wower for fans of intricate choreography. (It must have been quite a challenge for the casting director to find top-notch professional dancers who were also capable of overacting to Noé’s demanding specifications). After they’re done rehearsing, the troupe choose to unwind by… dancing, but now lubricated by a punchbowl of sangria. At this point several of the dancers break off into pairs and we watch a series of conversations that further introduce us to the sprawling cast of characters. While everyone is bisexual and can think of few topics of conversation besides who wants to screw whom, it’s remarkable how efficiently this dialogue establishes a recognizable look and narrative hook for each of the dancers so that we seldom accidentally confuse them when the trip proper begins. It’s character differentiation more than character development, but it works very precisely in this context. Next up is another long dance scene, this one shot from above, as the dancers form a circle and each takes his or her turn freestyling in the center of the mob. After this diversion the party breaks apart and people start to notice that they’re feeling weird, leading them to wonder just what was in the sangria. When one dazed dancer suddenly starts urinating on the floor, they realize they’ve definitely been dosed, and paranoia starts to rise as the mob throw accusations at first one suspect, then another.

After the LSD kicks in the film adopts a Slacker strategy, with the camera following a single dancer around, watching the mini-drama as he or she copes with the situation, then peeling off to follow another. Sexual jealousies and suppressed perversions are, naturally, the main demons that the tripping hoofers battle, but there are also violent beatings, suicidal impulses, and a child wandering around the premises to be dealt with. Some simply succumb to the terror of being on an unknown, but high, dose of an intense pscyhotropic drug with no preparation. Each dancer gets a chance to freak out, with some spotlight solos. At the movie’s peak—which perhaps goes on uncomfortably long—everything is light in a hellish red with upside down and spinning cameras, as the party dissolves into an indistinct orgy of sex and violence. The denouement is grim, but we do actually find out who was responsible for all the carnage.

What does it all mean? The author offers us a couple of pretentious epigrams. “Love is a collective impossibility.” “Death is an extraordinary experience.” Not really helpful. More than anything, the drug trip is a convenient excuse for Noé to indulge in melodramatics that would otherwise be implausible. His characters howl, writhe, and piss themselves in animalistic degradation. It’s equally an excuse for him to indulge his melodramatic style. Is Climax a satire? Perhaps, since everyone is ultimately so unlikable, but if so it is a very dry and unfunny one. Is it a metaphor for our chaotic, backbiting modern times? Maybe. France is described as hell (specifically by the minority members of the troupe), and yet the titles announce (ironically?) that Climax is “a French film and proud of it.” I don’t think Noé commits himself to any particular interpretation; he’s simply interested in choreographing as much misanthropic excess as possible. With Climax, I’m more convinced than ever that Gaspar Noé has no idea what he wants to say with his art—but is nevertheless supremely confident about how he wants to say it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the nuttiest, trippiest dance party you’ll ever attend.”–Brian Truitt, USA Today (contemporaneous)