Tag Archives: French

CAPSULE: LOVE RITES (1987)

Cérémonie d’amour; AKA Queen of the Night

DIRECTED BY: Walerian Borowczyk

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A man pursues a prostitute he meets on a train into a web of sadomasochistic mystery.

Still from Love Rites (1987)

COMMENTS: If you’re visiting this site, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Walerian Borowczyk, the brilliant Polish animator turned art-house pornographer. Much has been made of his infamous fall from grace, which began with 1973’s unsettling and twisted Immoral Tales and hit a spectacular climax with 1975’s  The Beast [La Bête], a Baroque passion play of bestiality that flew in the face of all accepted standards of good taste, and left Borowczyk to wander the wilderness making low-budget schlock for the rest of his days.

Or so the story goes. I can’t speak for the rest of Borowczyk’s work after The Beast, but Love Rites, which turned out to be his last film, finds his eccentric brand of perversion still intact, just a bit mellowed by age. A middle-aged clothing buyer, Hugo (Mathieu Carrière) pursues a clandestine affair with Miriam (Marina Pierro), a mysterious prostitute whom he encounters on a subway. After a game of cat-and-mouse and a lengthy conversation about poetry and acting shouted across opposite sides of a train platform, the two lovers take refuge in a church before making their way to a secret boudoir for an afternoon of sexual domination and submission.

From that description, you might wonder about this movie’s weird credentials. Indeed, on the surface, this is little more than a stereotypical French erotic drama, with the first half of the film’s brief running time devoted to tedious intellectual monologues veering between philosophy, religion, and deadpan tales of past sexual abuse–all of which are apparently intended to be titillating overtures for the real action which is surely lurking just around the corner. After all, don’t forget that The Beast begins in much the same way, with a good 45 minutes devoted to a glorified period soap opera with occasional insinuations of a beastly secret that eventually pays off in a big way.

There’s a troubling development here though, away from the cinematic and towards the literary. Once we enter the boudoir of Miriam’s ominous “friend and mentor,” more and more of the action becomes relegated to a narrator—to the point that most of the juicy stuff that Borowczyk is famous for is hidden off-screen. With sophisticated relish, the narrator relates the sordid events taking place just out of view, as if reading from the works of the Marquis de Sade for an audience of horny aristocrats. The action is hidden from view with compositions designed just as tastefully as the narration is blunt and smutty, with visual motifs evoking cages, butterflies and birds. As the action builds into a fever dream of emasculation and perversion, the narration gradually diminishes, eventually disappearing completely as the film reaches its head-scratching denouement.

But while the film’s muted tone can be both frustrating and boring, there’s no denying that Love Rites is pure Borowczyk. Libertine perversion pervades the film, despite its attempts to hide these qualities from view. If Borowczyk’s intention was to deny the audience’s desire for easy erotic payoffs in lieu of something more esoteric, he succeeded. What’s happening out of view, in the margins, remains perpetually out of our grasp. Who is the unseen madame who demands that games of submission be played in her boudoir? What about the mute Cambodian slave who could appear at any second to carry out some inconceivable orgy of torture?

Alas, Borowczyk is not about to give us the answers to these questions, much like Miriam, who teases her male prey with promises of erotic fulfillment but then confounds her client’s expectations, eventually turning the tables and leaving poor Hugo with more questions than answers. For those who enjoy such esoteric mind games, Love Rites might be just what you’ve been looking for. And for Borowczyk historians, the new Blu-ray release from Kino-Lorber offers the uncut theatrical version as well as a shorter director’s cut that cuts some of the flack from the film’s first half (which is chock full of it). But if you’re new to Borowczyk, you might be better served by checking out his earlier, more infamous films, and then streaming this one as an epilogue.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an object lesson in creating a surrealist work of art. The 1987 film exhibits an exacting preoccupation with the specificities of places and objects, while at the same time remaining open to spontaneity.”–Budd Wilkins, Slant (Blu-ray)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TITANE (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon

PLOT: After a car accident, a young girl has a titanium plate installed in her head; she grows up to be a sexy car-show dancer obsessed with automobiles, and then things get strange.

Still from titane (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The weirdness Julia Ducournau conceived in her cannibal debut Raw is delivered in the biomechanical horror Titane.

COMMENTS: We recommend avoiding spoilers in this case; fortunately, the trailer appears as baffled by Titane‘s action as most viewers were when the final credits rolled. Titane‘s grounded-yet-bizarre story goes in at least two directions you wouldn’t expect. It’s fair to say that it thoroughly addresses body horror—of multiple flavors—but there are also episodes of black comedy and dangerous eroticism, followed by a segue into grief drama and a delusional love story; all the while, in the background, the consequences of an inexplicable and strange assignation grow to an illogical conclusion. The synopsis suggested in the pressbook—“TITANE: A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility”—may be as helpful as anything.

The two main performers rock. Agathe Rousselle comes out of nowhere, starting her feature film career with a bang. She starts as a seductive lingerie dancer with a violent side, then turns androgynous and mute. Vincent Lindon has one of those weathered faces that looks like it has absorbed a lifetime of beatings, physical and emotional. He’s as obsessed with his hyper-masculine physique as professional dancer Alexia is with her feminine curves; despite his impressive steroid-aided bulk, his inability to clear a high pull-up bar is the perfect illustration of the frustrated desire to conquer corporeality.

The cinematography and editing is top-notch. From the opening car-show debauchery to a homoerotic firefighter dance party, Ducournau shows an affinity for rave-type dance scenes, relishing the disorienting beauty of being lost in motion inside a beat. Arguably, the sound design is even better; there are moments where the sound of ripping flesh makes you cringe. The musical cues are well-chosen; this is perhaps the only film where you will see someone twerk to a cover of the bluegrass classic “Wayfaring Stranger.” All in all, Titane is a collection of incompatible parts that shouldn’t work, but somehow gear up to create a gruesome but movingly human head-scratcher nonpareil. After making two excellent movies, I’m convinced Ducournau has an unqualified masterpiece inside her somewhere, just about ready to tear itself out.

The fact that a horror movie as violent and transgressive as this one could win the Palme d’Or in 2021 suggests that Cannes has come a long way since it was scandalized and outraged by ‘s similarly-themed Crash (1996). What is it with the French and objectophilia at this moment in history? After this and Jumbo (2020), both of which incorporate motor oil as a bodily fluid, it’s like Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) had a French baby, and she’s all grown up now and ready to party.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Building a nightmarish dreamscape that Davids Lynch and Cronenberg would love, Ducournau puts Alexia on an increasingly weird journey… ‘Titane’ is so self-consciously transgressive and weird, that it’s difficult to discern who it’s for, besides fetishists, freak-flag fliers and fans of auteurism at its most hermetic and solipsistic.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021 CAPSULE: SATOSHI KON: THE ILLUSIONIST (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Pascal-Alex Vincent

FEATURING: Masashi Ando, , , Shozu Iizuka, Nobutaka Ike, , Taro Maki, Masao Maruyama, Masafumi Mima, Sadayuki Murai, Hiroyuki Okiura, , Aya Suzuki, Yasutaka Tsutsui, Masaaki Usada, , , , Rodney Rothman

PLOT: A documentary survey of the career of influential animator .

Still from Satoshi Kon, Illusionist (2020)

COMMENTS: It would be impossible to make a bad documentary about Satoshi Kon. So long as you have access to clips of Mima’s pink pop alter ego bouncing onstage, Chiyoko donning an astronaut’s helmet to take off for the moon, the homeless godfathers cradling an orphan, Lil’ Slugger brandishing his bent golden bat, and Paprika‘s parade of cellphone-headed schoolgirls, you can keep an audience enthralled.

Illusionist includes little archival material featuring the man himself. Kon shunned the spotlight, preferring to let his work speak for itself. Most of the talking heads who appear to tell stories about the auteur are respectful, if not worshipful. The only exceptions come from a couple of collaborators who found Kon difficult to work with because of his perfectionism: Mamoru Oshii relates that Kon was too headstrong to accept a secondary role as artist on the manga they worked on together, while an animator describes quitting after Kon insulted his work ethic (a decision he later regretted). But while a single interviewee calls him “nasty,” most describe Kon as “gentle.”

We learn next to nothing about Kon’s background or personal life. What was his childhood like? Was he married? But that’s OK. Not every artist lives a fascinating life outside of their work; some (most?) are just dedicated, hardworking craftsmen. I suspect Kon would approve of a documentary focused on the movies he put so much work into, rather than the man behind them. Structurally, Illusionist goes through Kon’s catalog in chronological order. Because, due to his tragic death at 46, Kon’s cinematic output only lasted for a decade—four feature films and the TV series “Paranoia Agent“—the documentary is able to take a deep dive into each individual work, sprinkling in background information from those who worked with Kon and appreciation and analysis from admirers. When a female collaborator questions why the protagonist in Perfect Blue has to suffer so much, Kon responds that when he writes women’s roles, he’s really writing about himself. We learn that Slaughterhouse Five influenced Millennium Actress due to the way the narrative jumped around in time while still telling a coherent story. Kon’s producer describes Tokyo Godfathers as an attempt to tell a lighter, more entertaining story that nevertheless explores the issue of marginalized Japanese—homeless people scratching out an existence in the midst of an economic miracle. A philosophy professor lectures his students on how “Paraonia Agent” predicts the alienation of cellphone society. Paprika, Kon’s final completed film and biggest hit, is the culmination of the themes of dreams, blurred realities and multiple identities that run throughout his films—themes which, according the the artist himself, he was about to put behind him before his life was cut short.

There isn’t much here that will come as a revelation to anyone who’s followed Kon’s career. The most notable rarities are brief peeks at the artist’s early manga work, and a more substantial look at the concept art for his final (unfinished) project, Dreaming Machine. But for Konophiles, this trip down memory lane, illustrated with some of his most startling and beautifully composed artwork, will be a welcome experience, a chance to relive these classics while expanding your understanding of them. Perhaps no other director has as high a batting average as Kon: in five outings, he never slumped once. Anyone who has yet to experience the treasure trove he left behind in his short career is in for a treat.  As Aronofsky puts it, any Kon film is “a full human meal.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Illusionist stresses Kon’s genius as a filmmaker and gentleness as a man. It argues for him as a visionary who plowed his own deep furrow through the anime industry, driven by a combination of talent, ambition, self-confidence, and the faith of allies. It does this well.”–Alex Doduk de Wit, Cartoon Brew–(festival screening)

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.)