Tag Archives: French

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THEY CAME BACK [LES REVENANTS] (2004)

AKA The Returned

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DIRECTED BY: Robin Campillo

FEATURING: Géraldine Pailhas, Jonathan Zaccaï, Frédéric Pierrot, Victor Garrivier

PLOT: A small French town struggles to cope with the sudden appearance of thousands of people who have mysteriously returned after having died years ago; initial bureaucratic problems give way to uncertainty about the motives of the newly resurrected.

Still from They Came Back (2004)

COMMENTS: In a film with arresting imagery, there may be no scene more powerful than that which opens They Came Back: the once dead slowly making their way into town, clean and outwardly healthy and dressed in light pastels and creepy as all get out. It is a high concept made manifest: all those we have lost over the past decade, back in the world as if they’d never been gone. It’s a powerful notion, given strength through the haunting visuals, and it’s something the film will struggle to get back to for the length of its running time.

In contrast to the visceral scares of the many risen-dead flicks that have graced screens in recent decades, They Came Back is more interested in a looming atmosphere of dread. By all appearances, the dead look and behave normally, but everyone begins to notice that they are somehow… off. Indeed, the medical community issues repeated warnings that the resurrected are not quite right (and develop a drug to render them unconscious), and one doctor in particular takes an interest in strange late-night meetings the undead are holding. From the get-go, we’re distinctly aware that there is an unseen threat that no one can understand. But that mystery is only about half the tale.

Writer-director Campillo is equally concerned with how individuals cope with this unprecedented situation. There’s the town’s mayor, who can barely stand to look at his wife when she first beckons to him. Or a couple who have very different reactions to the reappearance of their 6-year-old son. Most prominent is Rachel, a bureaucrat who avoids her lost love Mathieu until he follows her home one day like a beloved puppy. All show a determination to pick up where they left off, but each seems filled with deep and rueful reservations.

This is where the movie’s struggle to balance an examination of people pushed to their limits with a straight-out horror film becomes most acute. There’s still juice in the sight of humans moving resolutely in sync, and in particular, a scene where the mayor is confronted by a group of returnees comes as close as any moment in the film to outright shock, and even then it is far more horrifying to contemplate its ideas than to look upon anything on the screen. The movie knows it has to build to something big, that it needs to throw in something momentous to justify the journey. But it’s just not that kind of movie.

And ultimately, that dictates the finale; it just sort of ends. The dead are gone again, and the living are left to reckon with the impact of what they’ve experienced. It’s nice that the film doesn’t feel pressured to manufacture something big, but it also feels like a cheat. If you’re going to offer a “what if” premise, you probably need to offer some suggestion as to what the “if” would be. As it stands, we have a mix of character study and sci-fi mystery that doesn’t ever fully invest in either.

Like many ideas that are promising but not fully explored, the notion behind They Came Back is solid enough to have returned from the dead itself. There seems to be agreement that a single film doesn’t have the space to explore the conflict and the characters with sufficient weight, and that TV might be a more effective platform. An attempt in 2007 to adapt the material to television in the US didn’t make it past its pilot, but a French series in 2012 was a substantial hit, and eventually the concept finally went stateside with a different Americanized version. Our fascination with the frustrating permanence of death is animating a lot of popular entertainment, so we surely can expect more takes on the idea to return at any time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an eerily elegant ghost story, all the more surreal for the realist mode of its telling… Campillo’s astonishing debut is as unnervingly oneiric as it is oddly moving.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (originally published in Film4)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who called it “creepy in an unusual way.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: TIME MASTERS [LES MAÎTRES DU TEMPS] (1982)

AKA The Masters of Time

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DIRECTED BY: René Laloux

FEATURING: Voices of , Michel Elias, Frédéric Legros, Yves-Marie Maurin, Monique Thierry

PLOT: A boy is marooned on an alien world, and a space mercenary encounters many obstacles in his rescue attempt.

Still from Time Masters (1982)

COMMENTS: Like the younger brother of an overachiever, Time Masters has to live up to a mighty pedigree. Director Rene Laloux is already enshrined in these halls for Fantastic Planet, another Stefan Wul adaptation renowned for its trippy visuals and detailed alien worlds. Add in that Laloux’s collaborator this time around is the famed artist Jean Giraud—better known as Moebius—and it’s only natural to assume that the result will hit similarly mind-blowing heights. Alas, the comparison does the newer film no favors. Hamstrung by a plot stretched too thin and production levels of sharply varying quality, Time Masters plays like the Filmation version of its predecessor.

The film’s production seems to be part of the problem. Originally conceived for television, satisfaction with early work convinced Laloux to expand it into a feature film. Unfortunately, the budget did not expand in proportion, and a large percentage of the movie was outsourced to animators in Hungary. (So many co-producers were brought in that it can legitimately be called a Franco-West German-Swiss-British-Hungarian production.) It’s not hard to figure out which parts of the film were animated where; the adventures of Piel on the surface of the untamed world of Perdide are charming and delicate, with the boy interacting with fascinating creatures both friendly and vicious. Meanwhile, the crew on its way to rescue him is flat and inert, completely incapable of demonstrating any emotion, let alone matching the tenor of the vocal performances. Time Masters becomes a tale of two films.

The story isn’t helping matters, as it betrays the effort that goes into delaying the central goal. Having received a subspace message that a small child is all alone on a dangerous planet and in need of rescue, the response of the would-be heroes is to take their sweet time. Stopping to pick up a sage advisor, they go for an extended swim. An attempted mutiny by a deposed royal leads to a suspense-free prison break. The threat of interference by space cops is met with the breathless excitement of a board meeting. (That’s not a metaphor. They all go into an auditorium and talk it out.) You can almost feel the screenwriters making the “stall for time” gesture.

Time Masters is not without its charms. In fact, the cuter the creature, the more interesting they seem to be. Piel and his planetary menagerie are sweet and occasionally even adorable, although they are far outdone by a pair of faceless gremlins named Yula and Jad who offer a running commentary on the foolishness of those around them. They are the Threepio and Artoo of the piece, but they bring more punch than most of the humans do at their most emotive.

Time Masters is commendable as something original, featuring some dramatic visuals and culminating in an ending that is certainly bold, even if it doesn’t really pay off the story in any meaningful way. But there just isn’t a whole lot that happens, and what does happen isn’t compelling enough to be more than a passing fancy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Not that the ending betrays what has gone before, as it is suitably trippy and lightly mind-bending in its way, it’s just that until that point there’s a feeling that the film is tiptoeing around anything that might seem to heavy – basically, it looks like a kids’ film… It weaves a spell if you’re indulgent enough of its whims, which include that headscratcher of a finale.”–Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

(This movie was nominated for review by Nickholas P Michell. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

Peau d’âne

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“…the confusion between the real and the marvelous… is the essence of enchantment.”–Jean-Louis Bory on Peau d’âne

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Demy

FEATURING: , , , Jacques Perrin

PLOT: The Blue King lives happily in a fairy tale castle with his beautiful wife, his beautiful daughter, and his magic donkey who shits treasure. When the Queen dies, she makes the King swear that he will only marry a woman more beautiful than she is; unfortunately, the only woman meeting that description is his daughter. Seeking to escape a coerced marriage to her father, the Princess consults her fairy godmother, who advises her to put on the donkey’s skin and flee the kingdom to live as a scullery maid.

Still from Donkey Skin (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, a Frenchman who collected and transcribed European folk tales a century before the Grimm Brothers embarked on their similar project. (An English translation of the original “Donkey Skin” can be found here.)
  • Previous French stage adaptations (and a silent film version) of the fairy tale rewrote the story to omit the incest theme entirely.
  • Jacques Demy had wanted to adapt the fairy tale as early as 1962, hoping to cast Brigitte Bardot and , but at the time he was not well-known enough to raise the budget he would have required.
  • This was the third musical Demy directed featuring Catherine Deneuve, following the massive international hits The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Although it received the least exposure of the three in the U.S., Peau d’âne was Demy’s biggest financial success in France.
  • The skin the Princess wears came from a real donkey, a fact Deneuve was unaware of during filming.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Divine Deneuve in donkey drag.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Coughing frogs; fairy godmother in a helicopter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Picking a fairy tale to adapt into an all-ages musical, Demy goes for the one with the incest-based plot.


Trailer for restoration of Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin) (in French)

COMMENTS: The musical was not a major force in French cinema Continue reading 31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LUX ÆTERNA (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Gaspar Noé

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: An art-house movie shoot is falling to pieces, with the director losing her cool, the lead receiving dreadful news from home, and the director of photography angling to take over the production.

Still from Lux Aeterna (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Noé continues his exploration of artistic collapse with a deep dive into the traumatic possibilities found within filmmaking. Iconoclastic quotations, chaotic social disintegration, and dizzying technicolor strobe effects do a quick hit-and-run on the viewer, leaving the brain addled and the eyeballs reeling from the flicker.

COMMENTS: “Fuck entertainment movies” is either a defiant stance against mass media or a pretentious defense of fringe cinema. Either way, it is a very Frenchy disposition—or at least a very Frenchy cinematic disposition. Just off dooming a dance troupe in the psychedelic horror experience, Climax, Gaspar Noé continues to follow his chaotic muse. In LUX ÆTERNA he takes on his own field, filmmaking, and drags his cast and the viewers along with him on a quick trip into nightmare in his pursuit of art.

Events begin calmly enough. After a brief Häxan-influenced opener, we find Charlotte, an actress, and Béatrice, the director, calmly chatting about witches. Sometimes in one shot, sometimes in two photograph-slide frames side-by-side. This camera trick continues regularly throughout, capturing the behind the scenes chaos of the production of God’s Craft. The camera slides fluidly to, from, around, and between various concurrent scenes of imminent collapse: the producer cannot believe this erstwhile actress is such a horrible director; the various leads wonder just what is going on after a five-hour wait; the director of photography (who, as he reminds us, has done camera work for Godard) is on the cusp of quitting, lingering only in the hope that he might replace the current director.

LUX ÆTERNA is one of those very “meta” meta-movies. It’s a movie about a making a movie, certainly—and that’s been done. But it is informed and influenced exclusively by films pertaining to cinematigraphicality (to coin a phrase). Yellow Veil felt it advisable to include four iconic short films on the Blu-ray release: Kenneth Anger‘s “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome,” which clearly inspired Noe’s stylistic chaos; Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s “La Ricotta,” a religious-comedic-(existentialist) romp about a meaningless death on the set of a Crucifixion film shoot; and “Ray Gun Virus” and “The Flicker”—two items that both explore, at length, strobing effects both aural and visual. This in mind, you should only approach LUX ÆTERNA if you’re willing to do some homework.

That line above probably sounded like a closer, but it’s not. Gaspar Noé’s purpose here is that, as an artist, and by extension an appreciator of art, one cannot stop. Climax covered much of the narrative and stylistic ground retread here, but it is through an artist’s pursuit of complete expression, of expression as close to one’s vision as possible, that all art continues, no matter humanity’s circumstances. As LUX ÆTERNA reaches its climax, a stroboscopic nightmare blinds the cast, crew, and hangers-on. The director melts into self pity; the lead actress reaches peaks of psychological ill-ease; but the cameraman, an old fellow with experience, is clued in to what it is that is happening. Freak misfortune has given this ill-fated a movie a chance to achieve greatness despite itself, to bottle that lightning that has eluded all the planning and practice. He keeps rolling as Charlotte writhes—at first in pain, then in ecstasy—and the strobing lights blast the crowd. Films, per Noé, are not about entertainment. They’re about snatching that divine spark and showing it off to the world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like all of Noé’s films [it] is as much overwhelming hallucinatory experience as straightforward narrative… this “dream-like movie”, shot metacinematically behind the scenes, exposes the ugliness of a set, and of society, while also finding room in its ultimate, flickering apocalypse for a peak moment of multi-hued rapture.”–Anton Bitel, Little White Lies (Blu-ray)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: AFTER BLUE (DIRTY PARADISE) (2021)

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Weirdest!
After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paula-Luna Breitenfelder, Elina Löwensohn, Agata Buzek,

PLOT: On the all-female planet “After Blue,” an ingenue digs up a woman in the sand, who turns out to be the monstrous killer “Kate Bush”; she is tasked with killing it, under the supervision of her hairdresser mother.

Still from After Blue (Dirty Paradise) (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It may have its rough edges, but every post-apocalyptic sci-fi psychedelic lesbian acid western that comes down the pike gets automatic consideration as Apocrypha.

COMMENTS: Together with Katrín Ólafsdóttir, Bertrand Mandico has proposed a “Manifesto of Incoherence” for making films. If the notion of a set of rules designed to produce incoherence sounds a little, well, incoherent to you, then you’re not alone. After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is the kind of paradoxical work produced from a dogma of incoherence.

Incoherent, in Madnico’s sense, doesn’t necessarily mean inconsistent. The rules of the planet of After Blue may be insane, but the script adheres to them faithfully. There are no men on the planet because their hair grew inward, killing them. Shaving (of the neck and chest, with a glowing neon razor) is an important ritual for the women of After Blue; as a hairdresser, it’s part of Roxy’s mother’s regular duties. Outsider Kate Bush, by contrast, is known for her hairy arm. Is this making sense? Yes, and no. The shaving motif is a minor point, but it does illustrate how the world of After Blue operates according to its own dreamlike logic. The planet’s inhabitants, on the other hand, don’t always seem to act logically or consistently—at least not according to our understanding of human nature. Kate Bush promises to grant Roxy three hidden desires. In typical fairy tale fashion, these wishes rebound on the wisher; or maybe, her deepest desires Kate Bush grants are different than the wishes Roxy articulates. Or maybe Bush selfishly doesn’t grant them at all, but just does what she wanted to do anyway. It’s difficult to say. When you have a movie in which a blind manbot expels a goo-covered green marble through his nipple, normal behavioral rules may not apply.

The film’s surrealist assembly—part Barbarella, part live-action Fantastic Planet—is more consistent, providing the picture’s actual unity of purpose. We begins with shots of planets submerged in swirling rainbow nebulae, which dissolve into women’s faces as Roxy recites the history of the founding of After Blue to an unseen interrogator. Natural landscapes display After Blue’s strange geology and flora: penile crystals growing on the beach, giant fungi, coral growths, strange tentacled branches. Villages and other structures are built of stone in a ramshackle medieval style; despite the inhabitants’ professed disdain for high technology, they often feature neon lighting. Mandico shoots every scene through colored gels and filters: purples seem to be his go-to shade, but he cycles through oranges, greens, blues and yellows scene by scene. He also favors double exposures and other optical distortions. Oh, and the lithe women of his cast are frequently nude—and engage in a lot of flirtatious seduction, though no actual sex.

With such a lovingly created psychedelic playground to romp in, it’s a shame that Mandico gives his characters little of interest to do or say. After Blue is high on dialogue, low on action. The fairy tale quest structure mostly involves Roxy and her mother Zora traveling a lot, eventually encountering a mysterious character named Sternberg and her illicit cloned android (the only male on the planet). Sternberg seems vaguely threatening, but ultimately neither helps nor hinders our heroines. In fact, other than Kate Bush, the characters have little agency; the movie happens to them as they float through Mandico’s atmosphere. Zora trods through the film wearing a Navajo jacket and a constant expression of bewilderment, an emotion the audience can relate to. Since events on After Blue are self-contained, with no real relevance to concerns of the real world, the story begs for a dynamic and coherent self-contained presentation. Naming a character after an 80s cult songstress is not a strong enough joke to hold our interest for two hours. As it is, it’s like watching a beautiful surrealist slideshow; but your mind is likely to wander during the slow patches. This flaw makes it a missed opportunity for a crossover cult classic, but After Blue sports more than enough visual interest and general weirdness to make it a near-must-watch for this site’s readers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a fantasia perched somewhere between Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and the darkly surreal universe of William Burroughs’ books… there were moments when the fantasy locale Mandico conjures stopped giving me new things to look and marvel at, but the journey still crackles with a febrile excitement, a playfulness of moods and images that makes it easy to be lulled in all the bizarrerie.”–Leonardo Goi, The Film Stage (festival review)