Tag Archives: Mystical

CAPSULE: À L’AVENTURE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Claude Brisseau

FEATURING: Carole Brana, Etienne Chicot

PLOT:  Sandrine, bored with sex and life in general, takes a year off from the rat race

Still from A L'aventure (2009)

and meets some libertines who explore the intersection of sex, hypnosis and religious ecstasy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This retro sex-drama only flirts with weirdness at the very end.  Considered as a conventional film, it’s neither profound, erotic, nor even very interesting.

COMMENTS: A post-revolutionary examination of the sexual revolution, À L’aventure feels like a talkier, less exotic Emmanuelle (1974).  The plot, involving a beautiful French woman who ditches restrictive monogamy and explores the limits of sexuality—including masturbation, S & M, group lesbian sex, and hypnosis-aided orgasm—seems torn out of a middlebrow softcore “art” film from the early 1970s.  Shout-outs to Freudian psychoanalysis, Indian maharishis, past-life regression therapy and other forms of esoteric knowledge confirm the initial impression that À L’aventure is the work of an aging hippie nostalgic for the days when sexual repression and conformity could be blamed for all society’s ills.  A celebration of that sort of lost naïveté could have made for a fun movie, but for Jean-Claude Brisseau, pleasure is a very serious and unfulfilling business.  The ecstasy seekers in À L’aventure rarely smile, and in fact spend most of the movie wearing dour, serious expressions and furrowed brows, as if they were attending a lecture on modern physics. And about half of the time they are, thanks to the presence of a part-time taxi driver and park bench philosopher who uses his screen time to explain the origins of the universe and the sociological significance of panties. The cinematography is beautiful when it focuses on the French countryside, and the sexual choreography can be arousing, but overall the project is off-puttingly pretentious.  Brisseau’s attitude towards women is subtly disquieting, as well.  In the erotic scenes men are marginalized and women fetishized; he prefers to film lesbian sex.  His obsession with the female orgasm is strange; he uses it as a symbol of unobtainable ecstasy, seeming to forget that about half his audience is capable of obtaining it.  On the surface, Brisseau appears to worship women, but there’s something in his attitude reminiscent of an 18th century European admiring the Noble Savage; he seems more interested in romanticizing female sexuality for his own ends than he is in exploring or understanding it.  In terms of its ideas, the film is confused and uncertain, but not entirely vapid.  The theme of freedom versus convention is treated more subtly than one might expect; at the end Sandrine’s sexual adventure leave her no more satisfied than when she set out, and there is a suggestion that the erotic/hypnotic experiments may have breached limits woman was not meant to transgress.  But in the end, the film’s fatal flaw is simple: it’s dull and talky, and the talk doesn’t lead anywhere enlightening.  Only an overeducated Frenchman could make sex this boring. 

À L’aventure is the third movie in a trilogy about female sexuality that began with Choses Secrètes (2002) and continued in Les Anges Exterminateurs (2006). After the first film, Brisseau was criminally charged with sexual harassment against two of his actresses, receiving a fine and a suspended sentence.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre, at times almost surreal, very sex-filled and captivating in it’s own degenerative way.”–Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver (DVD)

49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: A Serious Man has been promoted onto the List of 366 Best Weird Movies of all time after initially being placed in the “Borderline Weird” category.  For reference,  you can read the original borderline weird entry here.

“Even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm.”–dream dialogue from A Serious Man

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

FEATURING: Michael Stubargh, Aaron Wolff, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Fyvush Finkel

PLOT: A Serious Man opens in the indeterminate past with a Jewish couple entertaining a man who may or may not be a dybbuk (ghost) on a snowy night somewhere in Eastern Europe. In 1967, in suburban Minnesota, a Jewish physics professor suffers from an escalating series of problems including a failing marriage, bratty kids, students willing to do anything for a passing grade, financial troubles, and a ne’er-do-well, mildly insane brother. Seeking advice on a life that seems to be spinning out of control, he visits three rabbis, each of whom is less helpful than the last.

Still from A Serious Man (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • Though the film is not autobiographical, Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in suburban Minnesota roughly at the time the events of A Serious Man take place.
  • The core idea for the movie originated when the Coens considered making a short film about a boy who attends his bar mitzvah stoned. As the story expanded from that scene, the idea was originally to make the father and son’s stories of equal weight, but as the script evolved the story of the elder Gopnik assumed center stage.
  • The prologue is not an actual Jewish folktale. The Coens searched for an authentic legend to use but finally decided to create their own.
  • The movie makes extensive reference to quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, theories of modern physics which suggest that there are limitations on our ability to know basic reality.
  • The Coens’ script for A Serious Man was nominated for a Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscar. The film won “Best Screenplay” or equivalent awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review, and National Society of Film Critics.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The very last shot, which I can’t reveal here.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Superficially, A Serious Man is only mildly weird. There are a few dream sequences and multiple nonsense parables, but unlike the Coens’ definitely weird Barton Fink, this story of a suburban Jewish man beset by an improbably mounting set of real life woes contains no surrealistic fireworks (although there is a conspicuous surrealistic pillow).  On the other hand, A Serious Man has a skeletal undercurrent of ambiguity and disturbance running through it like a bone cancer; it feels weird at its core.  With a head-scratching prologue and epilogue bracketing a central fable about a goy’s teeth, the thoughtful and frequently brilliant A Serious Man earns its place on the List by mining the mysteries at the basis of existence.

Official trailer for A Serious Man

COMMENTS: A Serious Man is a retelling of that most fascinating parable in the Old Continue reading 49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

LIST CANDIDATE: DEAD MAN (1995)

NOTE: Dead Man has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Commenting is closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes. Please visit Dead Man‘s Certified Weird entry to comment on this film.

DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avatal, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT:  Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west, becomes a wanted man after he

Still from Dead Man (1995)

shoots a man in self defense, and, wounded, flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody who believes he is the poet William Blake.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEDead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, and one that comes about as achingly close to making the List on the first pass as is possible.  The quality of the movie is no obstacle to its making the List, but the weirdness, while there, is subtle and must be teased out by the viewer.  There is a mystical and dreamlike tinge to Blake’s journey into death, but the strangeness is almost entirely tonal; Jarmusch’s artiness aside, it’s possible to view the movie as a rather straightforward, if quirky, indie Western.

COMMENTSDead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Cleveland to a the western town of Machine to begin a new life.  We see him on the train playing solitaire or reading a booklet on beekeeping.  He looks up to survey at his fellow passengers, who meet his glance with indifference.  The train’s whistle blows as the scene fades to black, accompanied by twanging chords from Neil Young’s guitar (sounding like abstract, electrified snippets stolen from a Morricone score).  The scene repeats and fades back in again and again, each time with the traveler glancing around the compartment to find his companions slowly changing: their dress becomes more rustic, their hair longer and more unkempt; female passengers become less frequent, firearms more common; the indifference in their eyes turns into quiet hostility.

Dead Man tells the story of an innocent who becomes a refugee after being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It’s a standard story, but the way Jarmusch tells can be strange indeed.  This opening scene sets the rhythm for the movie: it proceeds in a series of slow pulses punctuated by fadeouts and anguished bursts from Young’s guitar, and it slowly shifts locale from the civilized to the wild.  The continual fading out and Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: DEAD MAN (1995)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: A Serious Man has been promoted from the “Borderline” category onto the List of the Weirdest movies of all time! This page is left up for archival purposes. Please view the full review for comments and expanded coverage!

fourandahalfstar

DIRECTED BY: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

FEATURING: Michael Stubargh, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Fyvush Finkel

PLOT: A putzy Jewish physics professor suffers from an escalating series of problems

Still from A Serious Man (2009)

including a failing marriage, bratty kids, students willing to do anything for a passing grade, financial troubles, and a ne’er-do-well, mildly insane brother.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  While the early leader for Weirdest Movie of 2009, A Serious Man won’t be eligible to be officially added to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time until it receives its DVD release and the film can be pored over meticulously by our team of critics.  Okay, to be honest, the home video release requirement is a way to buy time, while I let the Coens’ latest ferment in the back cellar of my consciousness.  The conundrum is that, superficially, this movie is not that weird; there are a few dream sequences and nonsense parables, but unlike the Coens definitely weird Barton Fink, this story of a suburban Jewish man beset by an improbably mounting set of real life woes contains no surrealistic fireworks (although there is a conspicuous surrealistic pillow).  On the other hand, this movie has a skeletal undercurrent of  ambiguity and disturbance running through it like a bone cancer; it feels weird at its core.  Also, the way it’s currently unsettling and outraging square moviegoers points to a powerfully different movie.

COMMENTSA Serious Man is a retelling of that most fascinating parable in the Old Testament, the Book of Job, as a postmodern absurdist comedy.  The ancient Job was a good and prosperous man; God allowed Satan to test his faith by wiping out his flocks, killing his children, and smiting him with boils.  The beleaguered Job, bothered by visits from three unhelpful friends who try to console him with off-base theological speculations, eventually despairs, but never doubts God’s existence or goodness.  His only plea is to understand his misfortune, to be able to ask God directly, “Why me?”  God, appearing in a whirlwind, bitchslaps Job for his audacity: “who are you to question me, the Author of the Universe?  It’s your job to obey and suffer in silence.”  (I’m paraphrasing here).  After this reproof, God restores Job’s riches and lets him have new Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

“In BEGOTTEN, a time is depicted that predates spoken language; communication is made on a sensory level.”–E. Elias Merhige

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: E. Elias Merhige

FEATURING: Actors from the experimental theater group Theater of Material

PLOT:  A man sitting in a chair disembowels himself with a straight razor.  A woman materializes from underneath his bloody robes, and impregnates herself with fluid taken from the dead body.  She gives birth to a convulsing, full grown man, and mother and son are then seized and tortured by four hooded figures bearing ceremonial implements.

Still from Begotten (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Each frame of film was painstakingly manipulated to create the distressed chiaroscuro universe of the movie.  According to the technical production notes, after the raw footage was shot, “…optimum exposure and filtration were determined, the footage was then re-photographed one frame at a time… it took over ten hours to re-photograph less than one minute of selected takes.”
  • It has been reported that the film was inspired by a near death experience the Merhige had after an automobile accident.
  • Critics from Time, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, and New York Newsday each named Begotten one of the ten best films of 1991.  Novelist and photographer Susan Sontag called it one of the ten best films of modern times.
  • After Begotten, Merhige went on to direct the music video “Cryptorchid” for Marilyn Manson (which reused footage from Begotten) before landing a major feature, Shadow of the Vampire (2000)–a horror film about the making of Nosferatu, starring Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck and John Malkovich as Murnau.
  • Begotten is intended as part of a trilogy of films.  A second film, Din of Celestial Birds, which deals with the idea of evolution rather than creation, has been released in a 14 minute version that is intended as a prologue to the second installment.
  • After its brief run in specialty arts theaters, including stints at the Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian, Begotten received a very limited video release, first on VHS and then on DVD.  Merhige explains that this is because he does not believe that these formats are truly capable of reproducing the look he intended for the film:

    There are so many arcane, deeply intentional uses of grain, light and dark in that film that it is closer to Rosicrucian manuscript on the origin of matter than it is to being a “movie”…. When I finished the film I never allowed it to be screened on video because of how delicately layered and important the image is in conveying the deeper mystery of what the film is “about”… this is why it is no longer available on DVD until I find a digital format that is capable of capturing the soul and intent of the film.  My experiments in BluRay have been promising.

     

  • Nevertheless, a (bootleg?) Begotten showed up again on DVD in 2018.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The painfully graphic image of “God disemboweling Himself” with a straight razor–shot in the grainy, high-contrast black and white–is not easily forgotten.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  A minimalist, mythic narrative of grotesque, ritualized suffering enshrouded in astonishing abstract avant-garde visuals and a hypnotic ambient soundtrack.  Love it, hate it, or admire the technique while criticizing the intent—everyone admits there is nothing else quite like it in our cinematic universe.

Original trailer for Begotten

COMMENTSBegotten is a difficult film to rate.  It does not set out to entertain, and it does not Continue reading 24. BEGOTTEN (1991)