DIRECTED BY: Carlos Atanes
FEATURING: Marina Gatell, Ana Mayo, Paco Moreno, Ardiana Ferrer, Ignasi Vidal
PLOT: On the night before the world is to be swallowed up by a black hole, a man discovers a world underneath his bed ruled by a chess-obsessed dominatrix queen.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Carlos Atanes is a defiantly, and proudly, surrealistic director, and his brief filmography (three features and dozens of bizarre shorts) already constitutes a body of weird work that could be worthy of recognition on this List. With its wardrobe of black leather and chrome dental restraints along with a powerful musical score that ranges from 40s show tunes to 80s synth pop, Maximum Shame is perhaps Atanes’ most ambitious and polished—not to mention weirdest—feature work.
COMMENTS: You have to love the tagline for Maximum Shame, which describes the movie as “an apocalyptic fetish horror musical chess sci-fi weird feature movie.” The surprising thing is that the film, which plays like a combination of “Alice in Wonderland” and the Orpheus legend staged by refugees from a leather bar in a deserted warehouse, largely lives up to that description. The words “apocalyptic,” fetish,” and “chess” define the three motifs that keep the film (somewhat) grounded. The story, such as it is, takes place as a black hole is encroaching on earth (or so we are told), and characters mention the total destruction of the world sometimes as an imminent cataclysm, and sometimes as a disaster that’s already come to pass. The film’s s&m/b&d fetishism is obvious from the costuming, most notably the deviant dental equipment used to keep slaves’ mouths perpetually splayed. (Although the Queen plays games of dominance and submission, there is no overt sexuality in the film—which, together with its alienating weirdness, makes it of only marginal interest to the bondage crowd). All of the characters have, or are given, the names of chess pieces, and talk of gambits and sacrificing rooks makes up a large part of the plot. “Horror” and “sci-fi” turn out to be the least accurate of the descriptors. The film does speak of black holes and invokes a theory of infinite parallel universes in a throwaway bid to explain the inexplicable existence of a decaying warehouse ruled by a roller-skating dominatrix under the protagonists’ bed, but, unlike Atanes’ previous feature Proxima, Shame is not hardcore (or even softcore) science fiction. As for horror, the overall feel of Maximum Shame is disquieting, and the male and female leads both find themselves in some sort of jeopardy, but the rules of the movie’s world are too fluid and arbitrary to create a relatable terror; characters are just as likely to break into a friendly song as they are to to tie you up, insert a ball gag in your mouth and imprison you in a cardboard box. Indeed, the film could almost as easily be called a “comedy” as a sci-fi or horror picture; there are as many absurdly funny moments as there are terrifying ones. As far as the “musical” designation, while the score by immensely talented newcomer Marc Álvarez is eclectic and impressive—I love the bit where he has a distant xylophone shadowing Ana Mayo’s words for emphasis—there are actually only two full-fledged production numbers in the film. Both pieces are wonderfully incongruous, like a Gilbert and Sullivan arias arising in the middle of a Cinema of Transgression atrocity. They’re also beautifully belted out (one actress is dubbed by professional soprano Dulcinea Juárez), but there’s little to no choreography to go along with the singing—if only the ghost of Busby Berkeley had been available to give these pieces the surrealistic staging they deserved! Of course, of the seven major tagline adjectives (we leave “feature” to one side as too obvious) “weird” is the superlative that fits the movie tighter than a slave girl’s latex corset. If the above description hasn’t made that abundantly clear, I’ll leave you with a teaser for the movie’s “Queen of Catalan Love” sequence, in which the Queen nearly has an orgasm while receiving a foot massage and channeling the lovely British model Eleanor James on her magic mirror, but becomes confused when the image begins eating handfuls of cooked spaghetti and trans-dimensionally dripping them from her mouth onto the cement floor while upbeat New Age music straight out of a tender montage from a 1984 romantic comedy plays in the background. The sequence is funny, erotic, and genuinely creepy all at the same time; it’s sort of the distilled essence of the shameless craziness that is Maximum Shame.
I do have one clear complaint about Maximum Shame, but it relates to the burn-to-order DVD, and not the film itself. Although the packaging is attractive, I encountered playback annoyances.
When I inserted the disc into my Blu-ray/DVD player, it began playing automatically and immediately without going to the usual title screen. When I brought up the DVD menu to see what I might have missed, I found a menu design with the movie title, but nothing that could be selected. I had to eject and re-insert the disc to resume play. When I tried to play the film on my personal computer with VLC media player, it consistently crashed. The program could be immediately restarted, but it defaulted to that dead-end menu screen. The movie could only be viewed by manually selecting “Title 1” from the software’s playback menu. On both machines, I could eventually play the movie, but the botched DVD architecture made it a hassle. It’s possible my disc was specifically defective, but I can say that there are no special features on the DVD—and not even any standard features like individual chapter stops. Since DVD-R’s can be changed on the fly, these problems may be addressed in the future. UPDATE: I’ve been informed the problems with the DVD-R are being looked into and should be corrected within a few days. UPDATE 2: I’ve been informed that the DVD architecture has been fixed.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Carlos Atanes has stuffed the allegorical envelope so full that very little in his down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy Maximum Shame remotely resembles anything that could be considered reality.”–Mike Everleth, BadLit.com (DVD)
DISCLOSURE: Screener copy provided for review by producer.