Tag Archives: Arthouse

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DECASIA (2002)

Also see Alfred Eaker’s take on Decasia

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Uncredited documentary subjects

PLOT: Scored to a disturbing minimalist composition, a parade of early 20th century images on decayed and damaged film stock march across the screen, forming hypnotic abstract landscapes.

Still from Decasia (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We avoided the hypnotic experimental documentary subgenre on our first pass through the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made, because this peculiar corner of art films normally wed an unusual (weird) form to commonplace (not-weird) subject matter. When it comes to honoring movies as Apocrypha, however, it’s harder to argue that formally groundbreaking movies like Koyaanisqatsi—and this one—can be excluded from being considered among the strangest things the mind of man has come up with.

COMMENTS: A boxer punches an amoeba. A man in a fez prays at a mummy’s tomb, in negative image. A lone airplane flies through the sky, almost perfectly centered in a wavering iris puncturing the darkness. Nuns and schoolchildren strobe in and out of existence. The screen is filled with nothing more than a billowing cloud. Abstract patterns whir by, almost looking as if they were drawn by hand—a butterfly here, a flower petal there—and fade away to reveal a shy geisha.

Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison scoured over what must have been thousands of hours of partially decayed stock footage to select the most wondrous and poetic images time accidentally created. A complete taxonomy of film damage is on display here. Images sometimes decay from the center outward, sometimes from the edges inward. Frequently, the film is warped so that abstract cracked lines obscure the underlying picture, but often the effects are more surprising. Individual stills might look like gibberish, but because each frame of film holds a slightly different piece of information about the whole, when the series is run through a projector, ghostly figures emerge. The visuals often resemble ‘s splatter-paint-on-the-celluloid experiments, except that the effects here have been created entirely by the natural degradation of cellulose.

Decasia‘s reliance on a minimalist classical music score obviously recalls ‘s time-lapse documentaries. But whereas Philip Glass’ work on the “Qatsi trilogy” of films was smooth and dreamy, Michael Gordon’s composition is dissonant and confrontational. Low strings create a ceaseless rhythm, while violins fall through microtonal scales in a long, slow decay. Horns enter the mix like distant alarms. Gordon specified that certain instruments in the Basel Sinfonetta be deliberately out of tune. In keeping with the theme of recycling, he used discarded car brake drums he found in a junkyard as an instrument, along with detuned pianos. His intent, he said, was to “make the orchestra sound like it was covered in cobwebs, with instruments that had been sitting for a hundred years, creaky and warped and deteriorated” The uncomfortable but still beautiful sounds divert our thoughts to the darker implications of the pictures dancing and disintegrating before our eyes. The music and the images exist in such a perfect, unconscious  symbiosis that it’s meaningless to wonder which came first.

Decasia is an authentically Surrealist documentary. The startling images have all been generated via a random process, with the interpretation up to the individual viewer. Everyone in these film clips is long dead, and soon the damaged images themselves will fade away to nothing. And yet, the experience is marvelous, not depressing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The unexpected thing is that its dying, in this shower of black-and-white psychedelia, is quite beautiful.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tadd.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HAGAZUSSA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lukas Feigelfeld

FEATURING: Aleksandra Cwen, Claudia Martini, Tanja Petrovsky, Celina Peter, Haymon Maria Buttinger

PLOT: An orphaned goatherd exacts revenge on her village before succumbing to her own dark fate.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The sensation left by this brooding contemplation on mystic solitude and the effects of cruelty renders it a far cry from typical supernatural horror. It is a stunning example of the genre of Eldritch Dread. For the briefest of moments I was on the fence about this movie’s viability as an Apocrypha candidate, but after some thought I can attest it is well within the scope of such an honor—though I’m relieved this came to our attention after the Canon had closed and the possibility of hundreds more films opened up.

COMMENTS: If the prospect of watching long, meditative shots and hearing only some few dozen lines of dialogue over the course of one-hundred minutes discourages you, perhaps you should stop reading right now. Lukas Feigelfeld’s debut Hagazussa begins on a lonely alp, runs its course on a lonely alp, and finishes abruptly on a lonely alp. Like the slow muffling of snowfall, the patient viewer will find the film’s subtle accumulations result in something profoundly rewarding.

From our opening glimpse, we can imagine the entire childhood of young Albrun (Celina Peter), living alone with her mother in a high-mountain cabin tending to a herd of goats. The few locals all fear Albrun’s mother (Claudia Martini), a fear that even Albrun develops when her mother is stricken physically, then mentally, by a grotesque disease. Grown up and now completely alone, the adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) keeps no company other than her own infant daughter, acquired by means unknown. She is surprised when a local peasant defends her against the taunts of some idle lads, and seems on the cusp of reaching out to the rest of humanity, when her naivety is betrayed.

Very rarely do I approve of films relying on “atmosphere” to carry them, but Hagazussa has the advantage of drawing its quiet intensity from a handful of sources. The unearthly quavering drone of MMMD (a cryptic duet whose music has been described as “Chamber Doom”) grabs your ear right from the start. The score is appropriately minimalistic, limited in tone as well as deployment, which heightens the effect of its eerie nature wonderfully. The harsh beauty of the mountain setting complements its sparseness. Scenes are typically covered in snow, or rain, or lake water, with long shots cutting between the extreme closeups of the characters.

Which brings me to Aleksandra Cwen. With such little dialogue and exposition, we rely on her to convey the sense, if not the exact nature, of what is going on, and her face and eyes do a marvelous job. This triangle of haunting sound, haunting backdrop, and such a haunting face carries the viewer through a fragile, minimalist narrative amazingly well.

Be advised, anyone who plans on streaming this through Amazon: there is no subtitle option, only closed captioning. In other words, you can either have no subtitles, or all the subtitles, with every musical, sound, and even non-sound1)Never before have I seen a notice spring up (and spring up so often) in closed captioning stating, “No Audio”; but then, Hagazussa has a lot more silence in it than most movies. cue brought to your attention alongside the dialogue. Despite having watched it with continual captions, Hagazussa still managed to enchant me with its measured disquietude.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If last year’s standout psychedelic genre piece ‘Mandy’ was lysergic cinema par excellence, this equally trippy (if otherwise very different) quasi-horror revenge tale offers a nightmare soaked in psilocybin, its every element queasily organic.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)

References   [ + ]

1. Never before have I seen a notice spring up (and spring up so often) in closed captioning stating, “No Audio”; but then, Hagazussa has a lot more silence in it than most movies.

CAPSULE: BATTLE IN HEAVEN (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Carlos Reygadas

FEATURING: Marcos Hernández, Anapola Mushkadiz, Bertha Ruiz

PLOT: A chauffeur falls in love with his boss’ daughter, who is secretly a prostitute, and confesses a terrible secret to her.

Still from Battle in Heaven (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Battle in Heaven really only gets “weird” in its final act; up until then, it qualifies more as “insufferable.”

COMMENTS: Battle in Heaven begins with a paunchy nude middle aged man standing against a blank background as an equally naked young woman kneels before him, her blonde dreadlocks bobbing ever so slightly. The camera pans teasingly, blocking the action for as long as possible as it slowly pans around to reveal the “money” shot.

Daring? Sure, especially for a Mexican film of the period. But like this shot, Battle in Heaven lacks any sort of discernible moral or purpose. The movie is technically accomplished, but as empty as the featureless room where the contextless oral sex takes place. The movie is not about sex—although there is a good deal of sex in it—or about the relationship between the two mismatched characters in the opening (which never becomes convincing). The best one might be able to say about it is that it’s about a man, Marcos, and his working class ennui—although the tragedy that follows is driven not so much by existential angst or sociopolitical oppression as by a series of perversely stupid choices.

Battle in Heaven is one of those self-important “quiet” films with lots of lingering shots of expressionless faces, where evoking boredom is seen as a brand of authenticity. There are long, drawn-out scenes of people we don’t particularly know or care about driving through Mexico City, talking on cell phones to characters we’ll never meet about nothing in particular. One can only imagine the director starting each scene by calling out “lights, camera, inaction!” And while that would normally be cause to assign a rating, the truth is that the technical qualities of Battle are too advanced for us to slam the film. Although most people in the audience will not care, the camerawork is excellent, featuring one 360 pan that abandons a lovemaking couple and travels outside their apartment window to survey the local neighborhood in a long unbroken shot before peeking back in to find them spent. There is no real purpose behind the virtuoso shot, but it will be appreciated by some. Even better is a scene where Marcos stops at a gas station which is blasting Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 over its loudspeakers (!); as the driver wanders towards the street, that music is overlaid with, then yields to, the sound of a parade where the marchers sing a patriotic anthem. That crossfade is the aural equivalent of the camera’s 360 pan. These moments remind us that Carlos Reygadas has real filmmaking talent—it’s just that this script has no direction.

As far as weirdness goes, there’s not much, up until Marcos starts masturbating while watching a futbol match (for some reason, Reygadas spares us the explicit details, although this seems to be exactly the kind of taboo he generally gets keyed up to commit to film). The protagonist then wanders off onto a hilltop, performs an unspeakable act, and joins a band of Catholic pilgrims in repentance. Some guys ring the cathedral bell that makes no sound, and then a bunch of soldiers take down and fold up a Mexican flag that’s as large as a house to signal the end of the film.

If watching a middle-aged man’s penis detumesce in real time is what you look for in a movie, then Battle in Heaven has got you covered. If you’re looking for any of the other things we normally seek out in movies—a story, an emotional connection, thought-provoking developments—then you may find it more of a hellish experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The pic’s strangeness becomes its strength, as it is aesthetically pleasing and then some, even if not completely satisfying in a rational narrative sense.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

(This movie was nominated for review by “Christoper.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PARIS IS US (2019)

Paris est à nous

DIRECTED BY: Elisabeth Vogler

FEATURING: Noémie Schmidt, Grégoire Isvarine, Marie Mottet, Lou Castel

PLOT: Anna does not go on her boyfriend’s flight that crashes; back in Paris, she becomes increasingly detached from herself and society.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alhough there are many Canonical titles that, it could be argued, are a bit incomprehensible, they also necessarily have some verve, panache, charming idiosyncrasy, or other stylistic or narrative merit. Paris Is Us is wanting for a purpose to complement its opacity. If you seek aimless ennui worth watching, check out Godard‘s early works instead.

COMMENTS: Two interesting things happened within minutes of each other when I began Paris Is Us. The first was a demonstration of the differences between dubbed dialogue and subtitled dialogue. (For reasons unknown, Netflix defaults to the English-language dub when available for its foreign fare.) The second was my cat hunting my pen as I waited patiently to find something worth writing down. That excitement out of the way (by correcting the audio to play the French-language track and by my cat nestling down to go to sleep next to me), I found myself trapped for the long-haul of a not-particularly-organized (and even less happy) spewing of montage.

Regular readers of my reviews know that this is the “plot” paragraph. There isn’t much more to say beyond the bare-bones description above. (And I’m probably repeating this ruse, now that I think of it.) The few minutes of dialogue in English perhaps skewered the whole viewing experience, as I couldn’t get the whole Frat-bro dialogue out of my mind while the (now) French-speaking twenty-somethings went on ad nauseum about: What if we’re all in a video-game? Isn’t there more to life than money? And can we even do anything about the state of this world that so drives us to European angst? Clattering around these musings were some specific lines that stood out, working at least as spoken in French (I shudder to think of the Frat Bro voice dub), like “I wanted it to create something so I could feel… alive” (in regards to hoping two planes might crash into each other overhead), and “We have something unique. We can’t throw it away” (said in the midst of one of the incessant fights between Anna and Greg).

I admit this is a really lazy review, but I only give the film-makers a qualified apology. Paris Is Us could have been tossed together by any freshman-level film students given cameras and a Parisian backdrop. The first act was long enough to make me dislike the protagonists; the second act stretched one obliquely conveyed tragedy across twenty-odd minutes; and the third act’s only saving grace was the random appearance of the only older character (Lou Castel), an ex-con on his way to visit his daughter’s grave. He has moved on with his life in the face of his double-tragedy, and the young ‘uns in the rest of the movie could do well to learn from his example. The administrator described this as “your oddest gamble” for Oscar week. It was a gamble. I have lost, but you needn’t do so.

Paris Is Us streams exclusively on Netflix (at least for the time being).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ce qui frappe immédiatement dans PARIS EST À NOUS, c’est son incroyable ambition esthétique. L’équipe du film prouve que la configuration de tournage imposée par son économie de moyen n’est absolument pas un frein à la qualité visuelle du métrage, bien au contraire.” –Aurélien, leblogducinema.com1)I’m keeping this quote in French because, like the movie, it sounds much more complex this way than it actually is.

“…a surreal slog in search of a plot.”–Joel Keller, Decider

References   [ + ]

1. I’m keeping this quote in French because, like the movie, it sounds much more complex this way than it actually is.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LET THE CORPSES TAN (2017)

Laissez bronzer les cadavres

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Michelangelo Marchese, Hervé Sogne, Dorylia Calmel, Marc Barbé

PLOT: After hitchhikers interrupt an otherwise precision gold heist, the thieves find themselves pinned down in a sex artist’s derelict haunt by an out-gunned but tenacious motorcycle cop.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: During the first half I felt inclined to write this one off as an overstylized Frenchy heist-Western. Then I realized two things: a rather strange undercurrent kept bobbing to the surface throughout, and “overstylized Frenchy heist-Westerns” are very few and far between.

COMMENTS: There must be an archetype to explain the character of Luce (Elina Löwensohn), a sex-goddess artiste fighting to her last smoky breath against law, society, and age. Her coastal hideaway reflects her mind: grandiose but crumbling, free but tortured, joyous but destructive. This setting is the anchor for machinations involving a gang of hard men, a scumbag lawyer, a drunken novelist, and two determined law enforcers. Let the Corpses Tan sets off a precision-rigged narrative bomb within the confines of an evil ant-farm.

At Luce’s dilapidated estate, a mountaintop retreat for various decadents, a gaggle of toughs has assembled to commit a daring robbery. The execution of Rhino’s (Stéphane Ferrara) plan goes like clockwork, with gunshots punctuating the passing of time. His young driver keeps the gas pedal to the floor, swerving the intricate route away from the armored car, now relieved of its 250 kilos of gold, as he nervously watches the clock. Up the hill, a burnt-out writer (Marc Barbé) attempts to sleep off his eternal hangover; on the road down the hill, the driver nearly crashes into a young woman. She is the nanny of the writer’s son, who has been brought with his mother to find the reclusive novelist. The few seconds the crooks could spare are taken up collecting the trio before zig-zagging back. The authorities are soon on the lookout for the missing persons and the missing gold. Before you can say “existentialist ennui,” two no-nonsense motorcycle cops ascend upon the villa and things start going very badly for everyone. Except Luce. She can’t get enough of this deadly violence and frantic backstabbing.

This movie feels wrenched from the 1970s, complete with vintage Ennio Morricone score, but reprocessed in a Cuisinart. Intertitles appear throughout, simultaneously grounding viewers with demarcations of the exact minute of the action while disorienting them by shunting between all the characters as they travel madly like ants around the ancient monastery in which the cops and robbers find themselves holed up. This motif is made explicit with a series of ant-covered aerial shots of the clutch of ruins. The resulting effect is a neo-pagan feel, itself established further with a series of flashbacks to the days when these grounds were used for some very personal performance art on the part of the endlessly drinking, smoking, and often-topless Luce. Flashbacks show the many explicit rites (lustful, shadowy acolytes and lactation-inducing bondage, among other things) that cemented Luce’s psyche to the very grounds the characters find themselves trapped upon.

Let the Corpses Tan is a gloriously explosive ratatouille-Western that immediately captures the viewer’s attention with hectic editing and smirking heartlessness. Assembling all the best elements from arthouse and grindhouse, Cattet and Forzani blast a Frenchy shot across cinema’s bow as they stand by, taking a drag on a cigarette. Watching it is akin to watching your philosophy seminar turn into a bullet-riddled hostage crisis.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a profoundly weird film but hypnotic nonetheless. – Mark Medley, Toronto Globe and Mail (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE WILD BOYS (2017)

Les garçons sauvages

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Mandico

FEATURING: Anaël Snoek, , , Elina Löwensohn,

PLOT: After raping and accidentally murdering their literature teacher, a pentad of miscreant boys is sent to sea for discipline, under the supervision of a flinty captain.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Wilds Boys is, in many ways, easy to dismiss as pretentious French arthouse fare. That said, it’s an occasionally unnerving bit of cinema that hovers strangely between too little coherency and too much exposition while maintaining a fearlessness that would be hard to find State-side. Of course, there are only three official slots currently left on the List

COMMENTS: To get a feel for the nature of this beast, it may be worth noting that this movie disappeared from Amazon Prime’s video library after I had added it to my watch list. iTunes proved itself the braver host, however, and I watched Mandico’s feature debut on my desktop instead of my widescreen television. That might have been for the best, as it created an intimacy that would have been lacking otherwise. And if nothing else, The Wild Boys is a very intimate movie—teeming with claustrophobia, dreamy violence, grit, and trans-female/trans-feminist sermonizing.

Five upper class boys get drunk, rape, and inadvertently murder their literature teacher, perhaps at the behest of “Trevor”, a sequin-bejeweled god-demon they all fear. During a dreamy trial, replete with a space-Expressionist prosecutor, cosmic background, and two near-nude man pillars, each lad provides unconvincing, doctored testimony. They are convicted, but kept at their respective estates until a suitable punishment can be determined. Enter the captain: gruff, bearded, and severe. With a young woman and a younger man on a rope in his entourage, he explains to the boys’ assembled parents that he has a fail-safe method for fixing their sons’ defiant, cruel, and rape-y behavior. He cannot, however, guarantee that all the boys will survive. Despite this, the parents approve of the plan, and the boys are sent off to sea. As warned, the boys do not survive their ordeal—as boys.

The film’s disorienting nature is on display right at the beginning: a wild boy, a self-inflicted head wound, Aleksey German-style camera, and lustful sailors. The dark fairy tale feel is augmented by the largely black and white photography and the choice of rounding the edges of our field of vision throughout. There is visual chaos, most troublingly during the rape scene. This violation looks like it could have come from straight from a nightmare—and immediately explains why The Wild Boys is unrated. Hereabouts, it would have gotten at least an “X” rating. (I was prompted to wonder, “Can showing teenage boys with erections be child pornography even if the boys are played by of-age[?] women with realistic prosthetics?”)

The director’s choice to veer into the direction he does—that, were the world populated exclusively by women, there’d be much less violence—is a little hackneyed. But at the same time he seems to undermine this thesis through the inclusion of murder of innocent sailors at the hands of “converts.” Mandico’s film is still worth a view for those curious about any of the “tags” below, as it is unlike any other dissection of those issues I’ve seen. As for its straight-up weird cred, here are some things to which I bore witness: captain’s map-tattooed member; open-faced uterus gun holster; cactus ambrosia-jizz plant. Yep.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“French director Bertrand Mandico turns the arthouse weirdness dial up to 11 with his erotically uninhibited and deeply bizarre feature debut set at the turn of the last century.”–Cath Clarke, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SUSPIRIA (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luca Guadagnino

FEATURING: Dakota Johnson, ,

PLOT: A coven of witches in Berlin in 1977 run a modern dance troupe.

Still from Suspiria (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s only room for one Suspiria on the List. That doesn’t mean you want to pass on this very different, and slightly weird, remake, however, if for no other reason than to see the classic story reimagined in a dramatically different style.

COMMENTS: Suspiria (2018) keeps the title, the notion of a coven of dancing witches, and some of the character names from ‘s Expressionist giallo classic—and really, that’s about it. Director Luca Guadagnino decided to spend his capital from the Oscar-nominated gay romance Call Me By Your Name on an unlikely remake of a 1970s cult Italian horror film. That was a strange enough choice, but then he promised to give us a Suspiria as it might have been made by German New-Wave director Rainer Fassbinder. (This odd choice prompted Owen Gliberman to snidely, but hilariously, wonder what’s next: “a remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ done in the style of ?”)

So, where the first film was an Expressionist fairy tale, Guadagnino makes the update into a realistic (if supernatural), character-driven drama. The innocent young ballet students of the original are now professional adult dancers. The main characters now have elaborate backstories: chief sacrificial victim Susie is a refugee from a repressive Mennonite upbringing, while the psychiatrist, the minor-est of characters in the original, is now is the secondary protagonist, an old man now haunted by his country’s Nazi past. The witches themselves are more detailed, with Tilda Swinton’s ghostly Madame Blanc a major presence, and the script even delves into internal coven politics. The story is now set in “a divided Berlin” in 1977 (the year of Suspiria‘s release), with the Cold War and the German Autumn terror playing in the background. And the implicitly feminist script even makes a shout out to the #metoo movement when the witches chastise the psychiatrist for “not believing” women.

If the original was a largely plotless, irrational spook show, then there is, if anything, too much plot and too much psychology at play in the remake. It’s not entirely clear how all of the themes, both personal and political, are intended to connect, but puzzling them out is one of the film’s pleasures. The many subplots make for a horror film that’s overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but when it’s at its best, it has moments of witchy intensity that match Argento. An early cringer sees a dancer mutilated in a mirrored room as she’s jerked about telekinetically like a marionette. The witches send genuinely spooky nightmares full of worms, organs and levitation to plague Susie. The performance of Madame Blanc’s postmodern “Volk,” with the dancers draped in blood-red ropes and a pentagram nonchalantly taped to the floor in plain view, captures your eyeballs. And the climax, when we finally see the ritual the witches have been building to all along, is full of spouting blood, nude contortionists, and diabolical betrayals, and is well worth the wait. This version likely won’t displace Argento’s masterpiece in horror fans’ hearts, but at least this arty take on Suspiria shows the proper way to do a remake—take general themes from the original and refashion them into something stylistically new.

I believe that this gynocentric film is one of those rare movies to meet the reverse-Bechdel test: there is no moment where two men have a conversation that is not about a woman.

The  cameo you assumed would be here is indeed here. Dakota Johnson, previously best known as the Shades of Grey chick, proves here that she can be a serious actress. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton deserves some Best Supporting Actress chatter for her performance, but will not receive it. On a related note, Best Makeup seems like a better shot for a nom.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a spectacularly strange affair, thrumming with wild blood and weird powers. It’s easily the classiest horror movie made in years, maybe ever…”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)