Tag Archives: Arthouse

CAPSULE: LA CHIMERA (2023)

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La Chimera is currently available to purchase on VOD (more rental/streaming options available later).

DIRECTED BY: Alice Rohrwacher

FEATURING: Josh O’Connor, Carol Duarte,

PLOT: An Englishman in Italy with a mystical talent for discovering burial plots joins a group who traffic in ancient Etruscan artifacts while brooding over his lost love.

Still from La Chimera (2023)

COMMENTS: If nothing else, La Chimera‘s milieu is unique: a ragtag gang of modern tomb raiders, trading in a black market for Etruscan artifacts. We first meet Arthur (a slovenly, rakishly melancholy Josh O’Connor) in mid-dream, as he remembers the woman whose absence will lurk in the background of the rest of the picture like a ghost. Arthur, an Englishman who speaks passable Italian, has just been released from jail, and he soon reluctantly returns to his gang and their old racket: digging up ancient pottery for resale on the black market. They need Arthur because of his preternatural ability to locate old burial grounds, which he can do with a diving rod like he was dowsing for water. The crew is motivated by money, but Arthur, we are told, investigates the tombs because he believes he can find a legendary door that leads to the afterlife. Besides his crew, Arthur hangs out with Flora (Rosselini), an old friend who lives in a decaying villa. There he meets the oddly-named Italia (Duarte), a tone-deaf maid who shows an interest in the handsome brooding stranger. Will she be able to spark new life in him, or will he continue descending into graves?

La Chimera is a European-style drama, more focused on character than plot. It wanders about, in no hurry to get to the point, but rather allowing us to soak in the characters for 130 minutes. Rohrwacher enlivens the stroll with assays into multiple (not always congruent) styles, including a smattering of magical realist touches. She provides changes in film stocks, digital undercranking for comic montages, fourth wall breaks, a Felliniesque festival where the gang’s males dress in drag, an outlaw folk song about the “tombaroli” (grave robbers), and an affecting dream on a train where Arthur faces up to some supernatural ethical dilemmas. There is also a repeated vertical pan that always ends with O’Connor upside-down, to simulate the vertigo that accompanies a successful divination. But despite these touches, La Chimera hews close to the standard art-house drama formula. It is, to a large extent, a meditation on death; with tomb-raiding as a plot point, it would have to be. But it seems somewhat unsure as to what it wants to say on the topic. Arthur struggles with a death wish, which is something of an addiction for him, so perhaps it’s an ersatz cinematic take on Keats: “Ode on an Etruscan Urn.”

La Chimera has been receiving near universal praise from critics, as did Rohrwacher’s previous magical realist drama, Happy as Lazzaro. I must confess that the director hasn’t won me over yet, and I have difficulty figuring out what all the fuss is about. She’s a  craftswoman who wields cinematic techniques competently, but with no strong auteurial stamp. That’s not to say her films aren’t thoughtful and well put together; they just fail to stand out from the art-house pack.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strange, aesthetically gorgeous and profound, La Chimera is ultimately just as unknowable as the liminal space that it protagonist inhabits within it.”–Tanner Gordon, Spectrum Culture (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PIAFFE (2022)

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Piaffe can be rented or purchased on-demand.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Simone Bucio, Sebastian Rudolph, Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau

PLOT: A woman grows a horse tail when she accepts a job creating equine foley effects for an antidepressant commercial.

Still from Piaffe (2022)

COMMENTS: Rather than hiding the horse tail growing out of her backside, as one would expect, Eva cuts a hole in the rear of her pants so it can stick out. (This is likely a fetish for a very particular audience.) She’s grown the unnatural appendage during her obsessive observation of horse behavior, after being advised to “go out and look at some animals” so that she can imitate equine noises for an antidepressant commercial. The tail looks completely ridiculous: at least, until the film’s final twitching image.

But even aside from that  mutation, the world of Piaffe is strange. It’s not quite full-fledged surrealist piece, but it transgresses the boundaries of simple magical realism. Eva shares some sort of undefined workspace with a botanist who uses an antique rotating platform of dubious scientific value to study unfurling ferns. The company commissioning her foley work is helmed by an aggressively blond man with the worst bowl haircut seen onscreen in some time; his assistants are equally blond and sport equally bad haircuts, as if they’re all members of some weird horse-sound commissioning cult. The nurse at the mental hospital where her non-binary sibling Zara is checked in goes beyond Nurse Ratchet rude, into the realm of the aspiring dominatrix. The entire world seems set up to frustrate the shy girl, who is terrified of others. She might, it seems, benefit from a dose of Equili, the antidepressant whose advertisement she’s been scoring.

Eva finds the strength to emerge from her shell by carefully observing a horse, and even more so by finding the courage to approach the botanist. He opens her up with some b&d rose play—an erotic image with a unique sense of danger. Repeated, if less memorable, bondage sequences follow, before Eva rejects him mid-seduction, without expressing a reason. Perhaps the return of Zara from the hospital has something to do with it…

Piaffe describes a woman’s growing confidence, as she becomes a competent foley artist and a sexually mature being. This trans-adjacent film traffics in an uncomfortable blurring of sexual boundaries: between male and female, consensual and non-consensual, human and animal. There are meaningful connections and memorable scenes, and yet it often feels like an overstretched premise rather than a story. That may be due to the fact that it began its life as a 13-minute short called “Passage,” which starred the androgynous Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau as the foley artist. Pateau plays Zara in Piaffe, with a long horse-like mane but no visible tail. In Piaffe‘s liminal context, it seems only appropriate that they would shift from one character to another.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…ideologically abstract and beguilingly weird.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: LA CICATRICE INTÉRIEURE [THE INNER SCAR] (1972)

DIRECTED BY: Philippe Garrel

FEATURING: Nico, Pierre Clémenti, Philippe Garrel, Christian Aaron Boulogne

PLOT: A man leads a woman through the desert;  abandons her as she pleads for help;  a nude archer arrives; the woman travels with him as well, until she again cries out in despair.

Still from La Cicatrice Interieur [The Inner Scar] (1972)

COMMENTS: The woman sits alone in a desolate landscape. A man approaches, wearing a burnt umber suit that is somehow both 70s and Victorian. He pulls the woman to her feet. They walk, heading toward the horizon as we fade to black. Before we’ve had a chance to fade in on the new scene, we can hear her, sobbing and wailing that she can’t breathe. She keens like a toddler who has been denied dessert, and the silent man finally abandons her, trudging off… in what turns out to be a circle, ending up right back with his bereft traveling companion. She shrieks “I don’t need you!” and staggers off into the distance. 

So passes the first ten minutes of La cicatrice intérieure. There isn’t going to be all that much variation on the theme. A first-time viewer should gird their loins for a lot of walking, a lot of screaming, occasional appearances by fire, and several dramatic songs that might be at home in a Ren Faire, courtesy of Nico. It’s the kind of film that will devote five minutes to despairing cries of“There is no justice!” followed immediately by an extended tracking shot of sheep being herded down a dirt road.

The temptation is to view La cicatrice intérieure as some kind of allegory. No one has a name, no one engages in dialogue, none of this should be taken literally. The locations in Egypt, Iceland, and New Mexico are stunning, but the people are barely even characters, and there are almost no situations to speak of. (The film even starts to parody itself, as more than one lengthy pan across a dramatic vista suddenly reveals Nico, once more shattering the peace with her vocal despair like an inescapable buzzkill.) But it doesn’t really say much in an abstract sense, either. The fire, the sword, the giddy nude toddler lying on a fur amidst a field of ice… they’re metaphorical, but without actually representing anything. 

So what is the goal? The film seems to function in part as a kind of proto-music video for Nico, the German chanteuse best known for her collaboration with the Velvet Underground. This makes it all the more curious that she doesn’t get top billing. Here she is, the actor with the most screen time, the only one to make the journey from the beginning of the film to the end, the ostensible reason the film exists at all, and she’s listed second. Although in fairness, perhaps the top spot is meant as a reward for Clémenti, who shows up as the new male lead roughly halfway through the film and who spends the duration completely naked save for a quiver and bow (which go unused). Clémenti is mostly impassive, although he impressively does things unclothed like ride a horse or sail a boat off an icy coast, inspiring the thought, “That looks really uncomfortable.”

The few moments of speech may be a clue as to the directorial intent. Nico alternates between German and English, while Clémenti and an adolescent boy speak French. Garrel reportedly refused to permit subtitles, meaning the literal incomprehensibility of some of the dialogue is a feature, not a bug. Being opaque is the point. That seems to be an overriding philosophy in La cicatrice intérieure; if you’re going to complain about things not making sense, you’re not the right audience. In that case, you might want to take a walk.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… pretentious artsy indulgence at its worst.” – Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

(This movie was nominated for review by NGboo, who dubbed it one of “the most surreal and weirdest movies I’ve seen this year” back in 2011. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ASTRAKAN (2022)

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Astrakan can be rented on-demand.

DIRECTED BY: David Depesseville

FEATURING: Mirko Giannini, Jehnny Beth, Théo Costa-Marini, Lorine Delin, Bastien Bouillon

PLOT: An orphan boy struggles to adapt to life with his foster family.

Still from Astrakan (2022)

COMMENTS: We never would have picked Astrakan, a French drama about a foster child, for coverage on a weird movie site if we hadn’t read that the ending took a sever swerve into the surreal. I hereby inform the reader that, if you stick out 90 minutes of ultra-realism, you will be rewarded at the end with an intoxicated 10 minute digestif. That ending, an aggressive montage of sometimes disturbing and reconfigured memories, presumably distorted under sketchy amateur hypnosis, provides a dreamlike nightcap to a litany of childhood sorrows. If you are strictly searching for a weird movie, you may want to abstain; but if you enjoy solemn, impressionistic art-house dramas with a tart finish of strangeness, Astrakan may be for you.

Astarkan delivers its drama matter-of-factly, as a series of slice-of-life scenes that often omit key context. Like many child actors, Samuul (Mirko Giannini) underplays most of his scenes, which in this case fortuitously serves his character. His blank face and slow, deliberate movements mask his inner thoughts, appropriate for a script that withholds information and forces us to draw our own conclusions. Samuel is psychologically, and physically, constipated. He writes down secrets and buries them in hidden places. Samuel’s abuse is clearly signaled, but not extensively detailed; we aren’t privy to its severity, although at one point we know his foster mother fears that the bruises on his thigh may get him taken away by the state. That mom, played by Jehnny Beth with a troubled sense of economic reality struggling with maternal instinct, does grow attached to Samuel—but not quite attached enough to provide him the minimal protection he would need to thrive. But his foster parents do provide him with a home, gymnastics lessons, a ski trip, a bit of dear pocket money, and occasional scraps of tenderness—and who will take care of Samuel, if not them? The foster system is an imperfect compromise, but what is the alternative?

Astrakan was shot on film in rural France; the bright blue skies and verdant fields of its pastoral setting contrast with the troubled darkness of Samuel’s existence. In keeping with the hardcore realism, the story is told with no non-diegetic music, until Bach’s “Agnus Dei” (“lamb of God”) comes in at the finale. Although it’s not explained within the movie, the movie’s title comes from the pelts of an exotic breed of black sheep, which must be killed when young, before their wool loses its dark color.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Having established his skills and careful competence over 90-odd minutes, Depesseville then elects to showcase different facets of his talent in what amounts to an extended, dreamlike, impressionistic coda…”–Neil young, Screen Daily (festival screening)

CAPSULE: WILL-O’-THE-WISP (2022)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Mauro da Costa, André Cabral

PLOT: Concerned about the environment, the prince of Portugal chooses to become a volunteer fireman and falls in love with a co-worker.

Still from Will-o'-the-wisp (2022)

COMMENTS: There was a 1974 softcore sex spoof called 2069: A Sex Odyssey. Pretty hilarious title, huh? Will-o’-the-Wisp opens on almost the same joke, conspicuously setting its flash-forward prologue in 2069. This is not a promising opening for a supposedly serious art film.

A lot of the insubstantial Will-o’-the-Wisp comes off exactly as on-the-nose as that opening joke. Among the film’s incompatible parts is a general dedication to environmentalism (which motivates its protagonist to semi-abdicate his royal commission to volunteer as a firefighter). We know of Alfredo’s convictions because he interrupts family dinner to read Greta Thunberg’s 2019 U.N. speech off his phone, speaking directly to the camera. So when it comes time for a sex scene, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that it goes unambiguously explicit. The film contains a lot of hoses, and some actual hosing, but almost no firefighting—although Rodrigues shows, in a CPR-training scene, that he is perfectly capable of conveying eroticism indirectly. The finale features a singer substituting the word “falo” (phallus) for “fado” (folk song) in her dirge. Subtlety isn’t always a virtue, but with a project as wispy as this—even at 67 minutes, its plot feels stretched-out—a little could have gone a long way.

Will-o’-the-Wisp flits as lightly over its surrealism as it does every other element (with the exception of male full-frontal nudity, which, honestly, is the film’s major theme and raison d’être). Muscly, nude firemen re-enact various classical paintings (humorously), and the final funeral scene is suitably strange, with a pair of female mourners played by gossipy, ambiguously-gendered ladies. Perhaps most notably, the film is proffered as a “musical fantasia,” with pauses in the action for song-and-dances. The slim runtime only accomodates three numbers, however: an a capella ode to trees sung by schoolchildren, the closing funeral fado, and the centerpiece, an athletically choreographed fireman’s techno-ballet where the protagonist gets spun around like one of those twirling signs by his future lover.

The musical element makes Will-o’-the-Wisp resemble the queer absurdity of Rodrigues’ To Die Like a Man (2009) more than the ambitious surrealism of his Ornithologist. Wisp lacks the emotional heft of that 2009 effort, however, because it doesn’t spend enough time developing Alfredo and Alfonso’s characters into much more than romantic pawns playing their assigned roles. This phantasm of a film feels dashed-off, an under-budgeted pandemic-era project made to keep busy while waiting for something bigger to come down the pike. That said, other critics were more forgiving: 97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of publication, in fact. One would presume Wisp would also play well with a niche gay art-house audience, while lacking crossover potential. (I will point out that gay-friendly art-house patrons are the only ones likely to pick it for a screening, however; and, returning to the Tomatoes numbers, the paltry 32% audience score suggests that even they weren’t impressed. I suppose this is more of a critics’ movie: other critics, that is.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…hilarious and yet still heartfelt, extremely weird but wonderful…”–Lee Jutton, Film Inquiry (festival screening)