Tag Archives: Arthouse

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)

CAPSULE: ZAMA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucrecia Martel

FEATURING: Daniel Giménez Cacho

PLOT: A Spanish magistrate at an Amazonian outpost in Argentina longs for a transfer so he can return to his family.

Still from Zama (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subtly strange, but we prefer much more strangeness and less subtlety.

COMMENTS: Form follows theme in Zama, a movie about a man waiting for a transfer that never comes, in which the viewer waits for a reason to keep watching that never arrives. If one is looking for things to praise, the usual arthouse accoutrements easy enough to point out: the wild Amazonian locations, the widescreen cinematography that captures it, and Daniel Giménez Cacho’s performance as the weary, increasingly resigned magistrate. After that, I fear, you’re pretty much on your own.

Zama has many plot oddments but next to no plot. It may too effectively capture the feeling of being trapped in a stifling, dull job while wishing you were somewhere else. It’s a series of mostly middling anecdotes with little connection, vague developments that often mystify without involving. A young boy declares our hero Zama is “a god who was born old and can’t die.” Zama secretly courts a fellow official’s wife. Anachronistic Hawaiian exotica plays (admittedly, this sounds pretty cool). A black messenger repeatedly shows up with instructions for Zama; he doesn’t wear pants. Zama gets into a fight with a Spanish emissary for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The governor promises to write a letter requesting a transfer for the magistrate, but never gets around to it. A llama wanders onto the set and the actors ignore it and continue the scene. (This shot impressed many critics, maybe because they were eager to praise the film but couldn’t find much else going on to talk about.) We learn that Zama has a bastard son. The colonists play dice; a geode is offered to cover a bet, but Zama insists it’s worthless. Zama hears a minor character’s thoughts. Zama catches a fever and moves to a hovel. He betrays a friend, hoping to get a letter of recommendation. Things pick up a little at the very end when he grows a beard and joins an expedition to hunt down the outlaw Vicuña, whom he has spent the movie insisting is dead. Then Zama dies. I don’t know what to make of these events, but I’m not inspired to make the effort.

While other critics raved about Zama‘s anti-colonialist ethos and poetic aesthetic, I side with general audiences in thinking that this one is—to put it bluntly—boring. It would benefit from cutting thirty minutes off of its meandering front end. Perhaps the problem is that it’s too faithful an adaptation of its 1956 source novel—Zama‘s meditative pace seems like it would read better on the page than it plays onscreen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a patient, delicately strange film chronicling an increasingly impatient man and a destiny beyond his control.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)

353. TEOREMA (1968)

AKA Theorem

“I have just seen something absolutely disgusting! Pasolini’s latest film, Teorema. The man is mad!”–Maria Callas, soon before accepting the lead role in Pasolini’s Medea

DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Laura Betti, Massimo Girotti, Silvana Mangano, Andrés José Cruz Soublette, Anne Wiazemsky

PLOT: After an introduction in which a worker is interviewed about the factory his boss just gave him as a gift, we see a bourgeois family receive an invitation saying that a visitor will be coming soon. It turns out to be a handsome but unnamed young American man; every member of the family, and even the maid, fall in love with him, and he sleeps with each of them in turn. Another telegram arrives saying that the stranger has been called away, and after he departs the family falls apart.

Still from Teorema (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pier Paolo Pasolini originally planned Teorema as a play, but changed it to a screenplay because he believed there was not enough dialogue for it to work on the stage.
  • Despite Pasolini’s Marxism, the relatively liberal International Catholic Organization for Cinema awarded a jury prize to Teorema (as it had to his more conventional 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew). Pope Paul VI personally criticized the award, and it was withdrawn by the organization.
  • As happened with many of Pasolini’s films, Italian authorities challenged Teorema as obscene. As always, the Italian courts eventually cleared it for public screenings after a trial.
  • Pasolini later adopted Teorema into a novel (which has not, to our knowledge, been translated into English).
  • Composer Giorgio Battistelli adapted the movie into an opera in 1992.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The proletarian saint hovering over her village church. The father, naked on the slopes of Mt. Etna, screaming at the heavens, is a close runner-up. We reject the idea that a closeup of Terence Stamp’s crotch in tight white pants is the most important visual symbol in the film, although we can see how someone might come to that conclusion.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Manspreading Stamp; levitating saint; naked, screaming pop

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Simply stated but open to endless interpretation, Pasolini’s Teorema operates on a strange logic of its own, a kind of triangulated synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Jesus Christ. Any movie in which God appears as a bisexual pretty boy has something weird going for it.


British Blu-ray trailer for Teorema

COMMENTS: It’s a happy coincidence that Teorema—the most Continue reading 353. TEOREMA (1968)

352. SEVEN SERVANTS (1996)

“Whether you take the doughnut hole as a blank space or as an entity unto itself is a purely metaphysical question and does not affect the taste of the doughnut one bit.”–Haruki Murakami

DIRECTED BY: Daryush Shokof, Stefan Jonas

FEATURING: , Sonja Kirchberger

PLOT: Wealthy, elderly Archie is visited in his villa by a mysterious woman who sings an aria to him. Realizing that his death is near, he places an ad requesting young male servants. When the first of these arrives, he tells him he will earn ten thousand dollars if he inserts a finger in his ear and leave it there for ten days; he then hires three other men to plug up his other ear and each of his nostrils.

Still from Seven Servants (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Born in Iran but living in the U.S. and Europe, Daryush Shokof is a painter and experimental video artist. He co-wrote Seven Servants‘ script with his wife from a dream he had. This was his first feature film.
  • Shokof considered cinematographer Stephan Jonas’ contribution so important that the opening credits announce it is a film by “Daryush Shokof & Stefan Jonas.”
  • Anthony Quinn said that the finished project was ahead of its time, “a work for the 21st century,” and that release should be delayed. Although it played at two film festivals in 1996, Quinn, who was also an executive producer, decided to delay release after a timid reception. Soon after, the production company went bankrupt, so Seven Servants wasn’t screened again until 2009, and received a DVD release from Pathfinder Entertainment in the same year. Quinn died in 2001, which is why the film’s dedication speaks of him in the past tense.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nothing less than cinema icon Anthony Quinn surrounded by four shirtless young men of different ethnicities, each with a finger stuck in his ear or nostril, with the whole assembly undulating like a dancing octopus as fruit floats over their heads.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Death sings an aria; Quinn’s plugged orifices; floating fruit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: One of my favorite species of weird movies is the experiment in taking an absurd premise to its logical conclusion. Seven Servants starts in earnest when a man sticks his finger in Anthony Quinn’s ear and doesn’t let up until every last one of his apertures is closed. It’s end-of-life porn, a smooth jazz fantasy of death as an epicurean celebration of life.


Original trailer for Seven Servants

COMMENTS: So, what do you do if you’re an obscure Iranian expatriate artist and you have a dream about a dying man who hires Continue reading 352. SEVEN SERVANTS (1996)

CAPSULE: ALL YOU CAN EAT BUDDHA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Ian Lagarde

FEATURING: Ludovic Berthillot, Sylvio Arriola, Yaité Ruiz

PLOT: A vacationing gourmand stays on indefinitely at an all-inclusive resort, performs ambiguous miracles, and is treated as a messiah.

Stil lfrom All You Can Eat Buddha (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s one of those indie experiments that’s content to hang out in its own strange little surreal corner of the film world, but lacks the sense of purpose or urgency necessary to break into big time weird.

COMMENTS: Director Ian Lagarde is better known as a cinematographer (Vic + Flo Saw a Bear). That background shows in his eye for composition in his debut feature, which contrasts bright tropical travelogue footage of a Cuban resort with moody images from the surrounding ocean, with the film’s color palette growing increasingly shadowy as it progresses. He also finds a surprisingly charismatic lead in chubby Ludovic Berthillot, who, as Mike, looks like a melancholic Quebecois Curly Howard, yet somehow becomes believable as a mystical guru and sex god.

Unfortunately, that’s about all that can be said on a positive note for All You Can Eat Buddha, a surreal slog that’s ultimately less eventful than a day spent dozing and sunbathing at the beach. The credits play over a mini-symphony of crashing waves, whale calls, and discordant strings while a dark sea undulates with a ghostly negative image of Mike’s Buddhistically serene visage superimposed over it. This prologue promises a deep, somber, hypnotic energy, but the subsequent film is more somnolent than dreamy. The frumpy, solitary, and mysterious Mike arrives at the El Palacio, wanders around the beach speaking to no one, dines at the all-you-can-eat buffet, and decides to stay on. The film takes nearly twenty minutes to hit its first real plot point, although it’s a good ‘un: Mike rescues a grateful octopus caught in a net and the eight-legged sea beast grants him enlightenment. He then performs an ambiguous miracle or two, sleeps with a couple of lonely middle-aged women, and grows a small group of followers as he becomes a sort of anti-Buddha, renewing earthly desires rather than renouncing them. But then, like the viewer, the script loses interest in this plot line, and instead focuses on a “change of administration” in the hotel management (a political allegory?) that leads to the place deteriorating, as Mike’s body simultaneously falls apart. A sort-of subplot about a hotel maid and her son has no real resolution, and the movie limps to an ambiguous non-ending that’s neither a satisfactory convergence of themes nor a mystery that lingers; the film simply messes around for a while, then ends. A hard-eating hero, a telepathic octopus, beaches, a reference to Buddhism, adulation, and maybe some politics: it’s a puzzle movie, but one where the pieces all seem to come from different boxes.

All You Can Eat Buddha debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in late 2017, then shuffled off to video-on-demand and a freebie stint on Amazon Prime without ever stopping on physical media—an unfortunate trend that will prevent smaller films from having any sort of extended shelf life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film’s steep turn downward is eventually triggered by its shift from merely bizarre to flat-out abstract, as Lagarde’s script takes a turn akin to 2016’s disastrous High-Rise and becomes an unwatchable portrait of civilization coming undone.”–David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews (festival screening)