Tag Archives: French

CAPSULE: JUMBO (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Zoé Wittock

FEATURING: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Bastien Bouillon,

PLOT: A young woman falls in love with the newest attraction at the amusement park.

Still from Jumbo (2020)

COMMENTS: Do you believe “inanimate objects have a soul, which sticks to our soul”? Probably not; or of you do, you mean it in a way that’s not nearly so literal as Jeanne. Even Jeanne can’t express her romantic feelings about objects properly: “Have you ever felt something for an object? When you touch them, you might feel something. Understand some things.” Unspecific things, that are impossible to communicate to others.

The thing that Jeanne has feelings for is the Move-It, one of those amusement park whirlygigs, the latest model, with lots of swinging arms and flashing multicolored neon lights. The Move-It (or Jumbo, the pet name Jeanne gives it) apparently becomes aroused as Jeanne gently wipes its buttons with a cloth. Later, it will communicate with her; and after some thrilling conversations, they appear to be getting along, so they move to the next logical phase of their relationship. That is to say, Jeanne strips to her panties in a white void as Jumbo spatters her with, and then submerges her in, his greasy oil, in a sequence that calls to mind a sex-positive version of Under the Skin‘s black goo.

The choice is up to you as to whether you view this as magical realism—Jumbo really has a soul, and a libido—or the hallucinations of an unreliable narrator. The movie has relatively little to offer other than its novel premise and its money shot psychedelic sex scenes. The narrative is essentially a gussied-up coming out tale, with Jeanne slowly revealing her heart to her on-the-make boss, promiscuous mother, and mom’s new drifter boyfriend, most of whom meet her revelations with a mixture of concern and disgust and develop strategies to “fix” her. Machine sex aside, the story goes exactly where you expect it to.

Fortunately, Noémie Merlant is excellent. Through most of the film she is believably awkward around animates; half of the time, she’s verging on a panic attack. Her love scenes are, believe it or not, genuinely erotic. She’s so good that she sells you on her orgasmic abandonment within Jumbo’s metallic embrace, and make a lovers’ spat with a multi-ton hunk of creaking machinery come off as tragic rather than comic. Without Merlant’s performance, Zoé Wittock could not have pulled off this wild ride.

Objectophilia (people who are sexually attracted to inanimate objects) is a real thing; Jumbo was inspired by the story of a woman who “married” the Eiffel Tower. It’s so rare on the spectrum of human sexual behavior, however, that it might as well be Wittock’s invention. Jumbo is not a deep study of the psychological roots of objectophilia, nor is it intended to be. You won’t learn about the cause of the condition, which may result from neurological mis-wiring (it’s correlated with both autism and synesthesia). But understanding isn’t the point. At heart, Jumbo is a prosaic (if important) parable about tolerance and acceptance of those who deviate from the norm—harmless weirdos. That’s a message we can all get behind. The naked girl dripping with oil is just a bonus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s no sidestepping Jumbo‘s recognizable weirdness… Jumbo is a fireworks display of cinematic sensationalism that explodes with feeling, expression, and uniqueness that questions why anyone in their right mind would strive to be ‘normal’ by conventional standards.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (festival review)

CAPSULE: RAW (2016)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

PLOT: A vegetarian girl develops an insatiable craving for meat after she eats a rabbit kidney as part of a veterinary school hazing ritual.

Still from Raw (2016)

COMMENTS: As Justine, a veterinary whiz-kid, Garance Marillier seems to grow up before our eyes. She begins the film as a timid girl looking younger than her eighteen years, submissive to her parent’s cult-like adherence to a stern vegetarian creed (Mom raises holy hell when she finds a cafeteria worker has accidentally ladled a chunk of sausage into her daughters’ mashed potatoes). Later in the movie, after Justine has tasted organ meat and experienced college life, we see her gyrating drunkenly in front of a mirror in too much lipstick and a slutty dress, listening to a distaff rap about a gal who likes to “bang the dead.” A lot of people indulge in pleasures of the flesh when they go away to college, but Raw gets ridiculous.

Raw is rich with coming-of-age subtexts—sibling conflicts, youthful irresponsibility, conformity, social and intellectual insecurity, bullying, bodily changes, bulimia—all of them given an unnerving horror spin. Naturally, sex is the dominant subtext. Under peer pressure, Justine betrays her abstinence and, now conflicted, finds herself drawn towards her new carnal/carnivore nature, and the appetites and danger that comes with it.

The veterinary school setting allows Ducournau to include a lot of animalistic symbolism, which verges from the poetically frightening (a horse chained to a treadmill) to the disgusting (a cow rectum cleaned by hand). Raw‘s focus is on bodily functions—eating, puking, excreting, arousal—all of it serving to remind Justine that she, too, is an animal. There are even hints of bestiality, and at one point Justine roleplays as a dog.

Raw‘s story is told with more abstraction than is strictly necessary, making it into a somewhat dreamlike impression of the anxieties of experiencing adult freedom for the first time. The hazing rituals at veterinary college are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree: masked upperclassmen burst into freshman dorms like the secret police rounding up dissidents. The inductees are compliant, and a ritual that seems like victims being led to the gas chamber segues seamlessly into a kegger. The faculty allows students to attend class while soaked with blood. People react to severed fingers with less consternation that one might expect. A Lynchian old man playing with his dentures in the emergency room waiting area seems to be the only one in the movie who understand that something odd is going on. But you will notice. Raw is a thoroughly disturbing parable about discovering your own true nature.

After originally being released on a bare-bones DVD only, Shout! Factory gave Raw the deluxe Blu-ray treatment in 2021, complete with a director’s commentary track, interviews and Q&As, deleted scenes, and more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ll spare you the graphic details, which is more than this fearlessly bizarre film does, but ‘Raw’ takes on the politically incorrect subject of devouring females, and lends new meaning to giving someone the finger.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sam Smith. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KEEP AN EYE OUT [AU POSTE!] (2018)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Grégoire Ludig, , Marc Fraize

PLOT: A detective interviews a man who has discovered a corpse under not-very-suspicious circumstances.

Still from Keep an Eye Out (Au Poste) (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Quentin Dupieux’s effervescently surreal policier parody recalls vintage 70s cinema. And it’s actually pretty weird.

COMMENTS: The thing that strikes me about Keep an Eye Out is that it feels dashed off—effortlessly. It clocks in at just over an hour, it’s mostly dialogue-based, and it only features two major performers and only a handful of different sets. There are no special effects to speak of, and the most expensive and complicated scene is the opening, where a man is arrested for conducting a symphony orchestra in a field. The script is filled with digressions, but still feels tight. Ludig and Poelvoorde deliver absurd lines matter-of-factly, commenting on the hole in a detective’s torso or a man eating a whole oyster (shell and all) with nothing stronger than mild curiosity. They remain completely inside this world, never suggesting that they’re in on the joke. Everything seems to come easy to this movie.

This ease and emphasis on dialogue and subtly dreamlike situations puts me (and others) in mind of late (minus the social satire). There is a pleasing flow in the way the situation starts out offbeat, and keeps growing weirder and weirder. The interrogation of poor regular guy Fugain (Ludig, who only discovered the body and is obviously innocent of any crime) begins in medias res, with detective Buron (Poelvoorde) taking a break to schedule a social engagement over the phone while the hungry witness patiently waits to conclude the business so he can get dinner. Although the interrogation is odd, with Buron fixated on insignificant details and slowly typing up Fugain’s responses up in real time, things take a turn when the inspector asks his associate, a one-eyed policeman, to take over while he goes on (another) break. This leads to a  strange accident, which I won’t spoil except to say that it (potentially, at least) ups the movie’s stakes. Buron returns and the interrogation resumes, but we now see Fugain describing events in flashbacks—flashbacks which contain time paradoxes, because characters who could not have been on the scene show up and start interacting with his memories. Buron continues to be obstinately suspicious, while missing evidence of an actual crime that’s hiding in plain sight. But despite some suspense trappings, the script’s actually quite light and witty, and only loosely tethered to its police procedural structure.

Whereas Dupieux’s subsequent film, Deerskin (2019), is an examination of masculinity and an artistic self-reflection, Keep an Eye Out suggests no deeper themes beyond the desire to make you laugh. Rather than a symphony, the movie plays like a jazz solo, with Dupieux simply riffing on whatever crazy idea comes into his mind. The only off note comes at the very end, a reality shift that—once again—recalls Buñuel, but also suggests a writer admitting he has no way to end his story. Still, as a standalone bit, this “big reveal” actually works just fine. String together enough gags like that, and you could make a pretty entertaining movie out of it, actually.

Au Poste! was completed before Deerskin, but is being released in the U.S. a year later. Suddenly prolific director Dupieux already has two more in the pipeline: Mandibles (2020), a comedy about a giant fly, and the currently-in-production Incredible but True [Incroyable mais vrai].

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many of these poker-faced absurdities are quite funny, and a few are so inspired that Dupieux might have done better to run with one of them, rather than serving up a smorgasbord of disconnected weirdness… This filmmaker’s madness could use just a little more method.”–Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SEVEN WOMEN FOR SATAN (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Michel Lemoine

FEATURING: Michel Lemoine, Joëlle Coeur,

PLOT: French aristocrat Count Boris Zaroff is haunted by his decadent ancestors and resorts to murdering stray women for kicks.

Still from Seven Women for Satan (1976)

COMMENTS: Normally I jump on any Eurosleaze movie with “Satan” in the title, reasoning that if it has tits and horns, I’m bound to like it. Sadly, Seven Women for Satan is yet one more occasion where the infernal moniker is merely applied metaphorically. The French title of this movie is Les week-ends maléfiques du Comte Zaroff (The Evil Weekends of Count Zaroff), and, where English Wikipedia let me down, French Wikipedia translated to English tells me that another alternate title is Seven Women for a Sadist. Since IMDB is mum on the reason that this movie was banned in France, this same resource also explains the censors’ motives: “This film presents, under cover of an appeal to the strange and the surreal, a complete panoply of moments of sadism, cruelty, eroticism and even necrophilia which are not tempered neither by the least poetry, nor by humor. It can only be seen by adults.” There’s your review, ladies and gentlemen, goodnight!

In fact, I was counting, and it was not exactly seven women. Really, this movie is just a very loose translation of “The Most Dangerous Game,” except you replace the prey with naked women who aren’t given a remotely sporting chance. Count Boris Zaroff (Lemoine) lives an aristocratic life with his castle, cottage, butler, a handsome Great Dane, and his 1964 Peugeot 404 Coupé which handles off-road scenes most admirably. Zaroff is helplessly torn between his loneliness and homicidal urges that kick in about five seconds after he’s aroused by any female. His ancestor was actually the one hunting people for sport; our Zaroff tries to shake off that urge to randomly murder but, you know, “destiny” dude! That destiny is fortified by his manservant Karl (Howard Vernon), serving as the Svengali/Rasputin influence on poor ol’ Zaroff, who doesn’t want to date-rape hitchhikers and run them over; but he just can’t help himself, doggone it. Karl acts as the enabler for Zaroff’s habits, serving him women like dessert with the enticing line: “she is willing to submit to all that you might desire.” Zaroff, burping from the evening’s dinner, half-heartedly gropes a breast but laments that he just can’t do it tonight. He already hid one body today and he’s dog-tired, so Karl will save her for morning. It’s good to be the count!

Karl isn’t even the only negative vibe in Zaroff’s life. There’s also Anne (Joëlle Coeur), the ghost of his father’s mistress. She died under sketchy circumstances but still shows up for the occasional thunderstorm-lit ballroom dance with Zaroff. Then it turns out that the castle is still outfitted with a torture chamber, ready-made to fascinate guests who can’t resist playing with the deathtraps. In between all this, a march of fresh victims fall into Zaroff’s hands through sheer luck, and the movie dissolves into a hodge-podge of random erotic scenes, random death scenes, and random filler in between. It’s a pointless slog that somehow manages a dragging pace despite shifting gears every five minutes.

Reviewers invariably bring up Jess Franco, and well they should, because you will swear that surgeons sneaked into Franco’s bedroom and stole this whole thing from his brain while he slept. Unfortunately, with the disjointed pacing and characters who lack the survival instincts and common sense that God gave an alert stalk of celery, it will also remind you of Jerry Warren.

Since Seven Women for Satan is empty of substance, it’s a good thing that it’s so pretty to look at. If you enjoy watching the idyllic French countryside in all its spring glory, with crumbling medieval architecture and an occasional panicked woman running through it, then it’s a pleasant enough diversion. Every small lake has a convenient canoe tied to the shore in case a body needs emergency disposal. The dog, happily chomping leftovers from the dinner table or eagerly hunting down human prey, steals every scene he’s in. The soundtrack is relentless, so it’s a good thing that composer Guy Bonnet does his Euro-trashy best on squawking synthesizers and jazzy pianos. Hang in there and you’ll be rewarded with plenty of sexy eye-candy, such as a nymph contorting on a bed with a blue feather boa, which is apparently the best lover she’s ever had.

Final score: middle-of-the-road sleaze/horror which ranks as “interesting” at best, but not at all weird except for the stumbling, drunken pace. Seven Women for Satan is a movie with no reason to exist except as the cinematic equivalent of Grey Poupon flavor chewing gum. Check it off your Eurotrash bucket list and move along.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Lemoine conjures up and effectively exploits a weird, dream-like ambience right from the start of the film and manages to keep that vibe going up until it’s over. While we’re not treading and real new ground in this movie in terms of the story, there are plenty of quirky, interesting and exploitative elements and a thick atmosphere of weirdness that make it a pretty entertaining romp.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)