Tag Archives: Philosophical

CAPSULE: ANATOMY OF HELL (2004)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi, voice of Catherine Breillat

PLOT: A woman pays a gay man to observe her intimate moments for four nights.

Still from Anatomy of Hell (2004)

COMMENTS: Sartre said Hell is other people. Catherine Breillat says Hell is other people’s bodies; or, more specifically, other genders’ bodies; or, when you get right down to it, women’s bodies.

A Woman goes to a gay disco and slits her wrists in the bathroom. She’s rescued by a gay Man, who takes her to a clinic to be stitched up. The Woman proposes to pay him to “watch her when she’s unwatchable.” He goes to her house for four nights, pours himself a few fingers of Jack Daniels to help him make it through the night, and they talk while she lies naked and exposed. “They fragility of female flesh inspires disgust or brutality,” he muses. “The veils [men] adorn us with anticipate our shrouds,” the Woman proclaims. (The conversation is not intended to be naturalistic; it’s a staged Platonic dialogue with a poetic overlay). While never verbally expressing anything but disgust for the Woman, the Man is drawn to experiment intimately with her body (including scenes involving garden tools, and worse). Then the arrangement ends. He is moved, and, in what may be a fantasy sequence, commits an act of brutality. That’s it; it’s partially successful conversion therapy.

Siffredi, a pornographic actor best known for his recurring “Buttman” character, turns out to be a surprisingly capable actor—although his moods are restricted to disgust and melancholy, both simmering. Casar is beautiful as she lounges around naked, but her role could be played by almost any beautiful nude actress. Although she shows more range than Siffredi, as any actress might, she has trouble putting across dialogue like “in intercourse, the act isn’t what matters, but its meaning.” Casar’s body double is anatomically correct. Breillat herself dubs the thoughts for both parties.  And that’s it for the acting—which is a problem, in what’s basically a character-driven two-hander (explicit though it is, it’s so anti-erotic that could never make the grade as a one-hander).

On release, Anatomy of Hell received a lot of understandable criticism for its overly-simplistic brand of radical gender philosophy. Taken literally, the film argues (explicitly and didactically, despite the poetic trappings) that men are disgusted by women’s bodies and instinctively long to damage them—and that this misogyny is even more pronounced in gay men. That’s not a position I would want to defend in a Ph.D. thesis. But while that literal reading is both ridiculous and offensive, there is another layer to the film that is hopeful. Despite his disgust at The Woman’s body, The Man is eventually seduced by it. And after the job is done, he finds himself changed by the experience: “I experienced total intimacy with her. And I don’t even know her name.” Radical posturing aside, Anatomy of Hell at least partly celebrates the alchemy of shared human bodies: that point when carnal disgust is overcome and physical commingling becomes a spiritual experience. Look past words to the magic of bodies, this wordy picture whispers. Though mercifully short, Anatomy of Hell is a hard watch, composed of dull, pseudo-profound dialogues broken by shock sequences designed to reinforce its putative thesis that female bodies are disgusting. It’s not recommended, but—if you can bypass the untenable literal reading its characters propose—this erotic experiment is more thought-provoking than its detractors suggest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“But sometimes [Breillat] is just plain goofy, as in ‘Anatomy of Hell,’ which plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka, who asked for more Breillat reviews and stated that Anatomy of Hell was “especially worth looking at, because of its rejection of a traditional plot.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SYMBIOSPYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE (1968)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: William Greaves

FEATURING: William Greaves, Don Fellows, Patricia Ree Gilbert

PLOT: Director William Greaves hires two actors to perform a short melodramatic dialogue in Central Park, then has another camera crew film his process of directing them, while yet another crew films the second crew.

Still from SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: Take One (1968)

COMMENTS:If you ever wished a movie consisted of all behind-the-scenes footage and no real content, here you go. William Greaves’ conceit is to repeatedly film a one-scene stage test for a feature that he never intended to make. As he guides the actors through their melodramatic line readings, a camera crew films his direction; a second camera crew films the first. They also film anything that happens on set, whether it be a crowd of gawkers, a homeless veteran who wanders out of the woods, or a policeman checking to see if they have permits to film in Central Park. Greaves wears the same distinctive green mesh shirt through the entire shoot, making it appear as if all the action takes place on a single day. Every now and then, the movie switches to split screens to show the crew and actors activities from different angles, and funky jazz (from Miles Davis’ classic “In a Silent Way” album) punctuates the action. If the act of observing a thing changes it, as the physicists say, then what does the act of observing oneself observing oneself do?

All this sounds like it could be unbearably self-conscious art exercise from stoned hippies, but it’s unexpectedly fascinating. It’s the “coup” staged by the crew, who take it upon themselves to film their own spirited private discussions where they wonder what the hell Greaves is up to, and why he seems to be playing at being incompetent, that ignites the film.  In 1968, they’re not a crew of jaded postmodernists: they sincerely discusses questions of reflexivity and artificiality versus reality, and try to find deeper meaning in the lines which they insist are drivel. They aren’t defensively ironic, as the tone would be were such a project made today; they are unafraid of seeming pretentious. This layer of revolt is essential to the film, supplying conflict and texture. And the viewer never knows if Greaves instigated (or even partly scripted) the crew’s spirited bull sessions, or simply lucked out when they took it upon itself to supply what becomes the most interesting part of the film. You wonder if Greaves is pulling some kind of Andy Kaufman-styled cinematic prank.

Shot in 1968, this movie was not exhibited until 1971, but slowly grew its legend through rare festival and museum screenings, gaining a series of influential champions among fellow filmmakers. This movement culminates in Symbiospsychotaxipalsm: Take 2 1/2, a sequel released in 2005 with the backing fans of and , which is included on the Criterion Collection disc. As far from a standalone feature as is possible to imagine, 2 1/2 starts with 30 minutes of unused footage from the first movie featuring two of the actors , then, after some reflections from the director and crew about the project, fast-forwards the story to see what has happened to these characters 35 years later (answer: they are still doing screen tests, and Greaves is still filming everything). The sequel is a worthwhile supplement, but mostly it serves to highlight the lightning-in-a-bottle success of the original. Youth has faded and the magic can only be remembered, not recreated.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a movie-within-a-movie at a time when most of the meta-cinematic action was coming from Andy Warhol and Jean-Luc Godard. But Greaves goes one better. He’s doing Godard doing Cassavetes.”–Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe (2006 revival)

(This movie was nominated for review by Russa03. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MOBY DOC (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rob Gordon Bralver

FEATURING: Moby,

PLOT: A wandering, essay-style autobiographical documentary by musician Moby, who discusses his career, his alcoholism, and his veganism in a series of sketches that range from comic to philosophical.

Still from Moby Doc (2021)

COMMENTS: “I know we’ve been in a fairly conventional narrative for a while, but now we’re going to go back to being weird,” sings Moby, accompanying himself on banjo, at about the twenty minute mark. We then see him dressed as a Buddhist monk, walking down an L.A. street striking a bowl with a rod while a group in white robes and animal masks follows him. Alternating typical documentary techniques with weirdo tableaux is the method here, but while there is plenty of rambunctious imagination to the sketches, this isn’t quite the “surrealist biographical documentary” it’s pitched as. Moby Doc is not surrealist, although it contains the fleetingly surreal imagery you’d catch in any modern music video. It is, more accurately, a “collagist biographical documentary,” a story that moves logically and chronologically through Moby’s life and career, but proceeds by stitching together scraps of information cast in different styles and textures. Thus, we have Moby monologues, comic psychodramas where miscast New York actors play Moby’s parents, appreciations from David Lynch, career-spanning concert footage, staged therapy sessions, humorous one-way telephone conversations, space shuttle footage, grandiose shots of Moby standing alone atop a majestic mesa, animated bits, a -esque gag where Moby talks to Death, and a tribute to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” video.

As someone with a casual acquaintance with Moby—a few tracks from “Play,”  downloaded on mp3 a decade after they were recorded, have made it into my rotation, and I knew virtually nothing of the artist behind them—I think this documentary may play better for people like me than for longtime fans. Rabid followers have heard all these stories before (the musician has already published two memoirs), and there’s not much new music here. The quirky presentation, tailored to a cultured rather than a mass audience, means it serves well as an introduction to those of us with a marginal interest in the musician. Well aware that he is aging out of dance floor relevance, Moby seeks to rebrand himself as an elder statesman and Serious Artist: thus, the recent concert footage of orchestral arrangements of his electronica hits.

As candid as Moby is about his hedonistic excesses—the middle section of the film is peppered with unflattering AA-styled confessions, some involving poop—critics point out that parts of his history are whitewashed or ignored (a scandal involving goes unmentioned). Such spin is to be expected in a self-funded vanity project. The bigger issue is how you respond to the narcissist paradox at the film’s core, which may determine how well you like the film (and, by extension, how well you like Moby). He begins the film by announcing he intends to explore nothing less than “the why of everything,” but then, naturally, proceeds to explore nothing more than the why of Moby. He realizes that he is addicted to fame, confessing how bad reviews and “kill yourself” troll comments wound him, and reveals that he aggrandizes his image in order to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. He wants to share universal wisdom—much of it genuine—-with the viewer, but he has enough self-awareness to realize that this mission will inevitably make him look pompous. He compensates with little self-deprecating jokes: when he talks about his music as a form of self-healing, he cuts to a reaction shot of his fake therapist stifling a yawn.

So Moby Doc ultimately becomes a lavish, 90-minute, million dollar humble brag. This could understandably rub some people the wrong way. But I relate to Moby’s dilemma: everyone has something to teach others, everyone has valuable life-lessons to share, but how can we do this without looking presumptuous and egotistical? Comic irony is the go-to strategy, and Moby deploys it as well as he can. So instead of being a recitation of rock-n-roll clichés about an artist seduced by fame, money, and pleasures of the flesh who goes through some shit and comes out the other end rededicated to his Art, Moby Doc is an obfuscational comedy: Pink Floyd the Wall with a sense of humor. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s probably as much profundity as a man who’s lifelong passion is to make music for teenagers to shake their asses to can hope to produce.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a self-portrait, an acid flashback, a therapy session, a rumination, and a surrealist music-video package all rolled into one.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

14*. THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)

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RecommendedBeware

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Julia Ormond, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey, Frank Egerton

PLOT: A passion-play performed in 17th-century Florence tells the story of a child born to a geriatric woman. The old woman’s daughter claims to be the child’s virgin mother and makes brisk business selling the “miraculous” infant’s blessings, while the local bishop’s son suspiciously observes her. Meanwhile, the local nobles in the audience interact with the onstage proceedings.

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was partially inspired by an uproar surrounding an advertising campaign that featured a newborn baby still attached to its umbilical cord. Greenaway was perplexed by the public’s reaction, and set out to create an unflinching depiction of the actual evils of murder and rape.
  • The Catholic Church revoked permission for the film crew to shoot in the Cologne Cathedral after Greenaway’s previous film, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover, aired on German television two days before shooting was to begin.
  • The Baby of Mâcon premiered at Cannes, but was seldom seen after that. Although it booked some dates in Europe, no North American distributor would agree to take on the film due to its subject matter. To this day it has still not been released on physical media in Region 1/A, although it finally became available for streaming in the 2020s.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is a perennial challenge to choose one image from a Greenaway picture; he regards film as a visual medium, not a tool to adapt literature. The shot of the bored young aristocrat, Cosimo de Medici, knocking over the two-hundred-and-eighth pin, signifying the end to the erstwhile virgin’s gang-rape, best merges Greenaway’s sense of mise-en-scène, his disgust for authority, and his undercurrent of odd humor.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Body secretion auction; death by gang-rape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fusing the most ornate costumes this side of the Baroque era with organized religion at its worst, The Baby of Mâcon is a lushly beautiful, sickening indictment of a fistful of humanity’s evils. Stylized stage performances integrate increasingly seamlessly with the side-chatter of (comparatively) modern viewers’ commentary who concurrently desire to take part in the make-believe. Greenaway moves his actors and their audience around each other with an expertise matched only by the growing moral horror developing onscreen.


Short clip from The Baby of Mâcon

COMMENTS: As the audience for The Baby of Mâcon, we bear witness to its iniquities. As witnesses, we bear responsibility: responsibility for the fraudulence of the baby’s aunt when she alleges she’s Continue reading 14*. THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY (1977)

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DIRECTED BY: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

FEATURING: André Heller, Peter Kern, Heinz Schubert, Hellmut Lange, narrated by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

PLOT: Hitler’s youth, rise, fall, and aftermath are all explored via inter-related vignettes, monologues, stage props, and puppets.

Still from Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Syberberg’s epic is a documentary with an impossible task: capturing the full scope and legacy of the 20th-century’s most dangerous maniac. Eschewing the standard “narrated historical footage interspersed with talking heads,” the film instead aims to recreate the febrile mindset inspired by Adolf Hitler by dabbling in surrealism, cosmic imagery, mundane detail, historical cinematic allusions, and ironic counterpoint. There are also puppet facsimiles of all the Reich’s leading men.

COMMENTS: This film from Germany is, on the surface, very simple. It has no elaborate special effects. Its main set is a theater strewn with props. It uses widely available historic footage and broadcasts. It states from the start that its mission is impossible. The events leading up to Hitler’s rise, and the fallout from his catastrophic machinations, cannot be recreated in any conventional way. So Syberberg takes advantage of both his limited budget (some half-a-million dollars) and his task’s inherent difficulties to craft a reverie that fuses cosmic grandeur with the tedium of minutiae. In doing so, he has created not so much a documentary of events as a dreamscape that lands the viewer face to face with the 20th century’s greatest evil.

A ring master invites the viewer to the forthcoming spectacle, encouraging us to take part at home. Barking through a megaphone, he promises outlandish sights and sounds. Entertainment, through sketch, monologue, and marionettes, awaits. Vintage radio broadcasts blast breathtaking news of conquest and hate, while a young girl clad in a celluloid headdress wanders amidst symbolic props and across idyllic rear-projected landscapes. Academics chime in, typically directly at the camera, other times in conversation with a carved wooden Führer. Various actors play various iterations of Himmler. Hitler’s valet leads us on of his bunker and explains the Führer’s exasperating disinclination to wear the correct shoes. A likeness of Doctor Caligari presents his own side-show of esoteric relics, from the historical spear that stabbed Jesus Christ to the bottle of Hitler’s semen—not the real thing, mind you, as that has been preserved in a capsule frozen in an alpine glacier and protected by elite guards. For over seven hours, Syberberg builds a mindscape from snippets of Wagner, snatches of Goethe, and reams of autobiographical testimony from those closest to the Führer.

There is a climactic scene of sorts, involving a conversation between a scholar and the little Hitler perched upon his knee. The academic argues that, despite all Hitler’s ambitions, and with all the idiotic mistakes he made (for example, rallying against the Jews instead of co-opting them), he failed. During Hitler’s lengthy rejoinder, in which he expounds upon the reality he established even upon his death, the academic removes coat after coat from the doll, taking its garb backward further and further along Hitler’s historical sartorial path. This contrast of contemporary and future with historical delving is Syberberg’s primary tool. Despite virtually all the facts available to us—the thousands of hours of film, the unending radio transmissions, the millions of words written by observers from all sides—there is a disconnect, as if the catalyst is missing. There was a time before Hitler, there was a time after Hitler.

By the end, I was well and truly transported. Watching Hitler: a Film from Germany is, despite the bare-bones production, a transcendental experience. Each of the four acts is the length of any one standard feature film, but Syberberg had his hooks in me—so much so that I watched it all in one sitting. The art-house speeches, effective in their matter-of-fact tones and melancholy delivery; the fusion of man and doll when the Reich’s ministers expound on their greatness; the conventional drama of the scenes that still subvert with their dissonant aural cues or ironic back-projection; this all adds up to a heady experience that should be mandatory viewing for any student of history, contemporary politics, psychology, or cinema. Hitler: a Film from Germany deftly and thoroughly examines how one man’s dream of destroying the world order succeeded despite his own downfall.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To present Hitler in multiple guises and from many perspectives, Syberberg draws on disparate stylistic sources: Wagner, Méliès, Brechtian distancing techniques, homosexual baroque, puppet theater. This eclecticism is the mark of an extremely self-conscious, erudite, avid artist, whose choice of stylistic materials (blending high art and kitsch) is not as arbitrary as it might seem. Syberberg’s film is, precisely, Surrealist in its eclecticism.” -Susan Sontag, The New York Review (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GENIUS PARTY (2007)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Hideki Futamura, Yuji Fukuyama, Shoji Kawamori, Shinji Kimura, , Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Various voice actors

PLOT: Six short animated films from different directors associated with Japan’s Studio 4ºC.

COMMENTS: There’s no better way to enjoy the Christmas/Saint Stephen’s/Saint John’s/Holy Innocent’s holiday run than to nestle back with coffee and cartoons, so I kicked up my heels and dove deep into a very fine collection of anime wonderments (as well as a mixed metaphor). Each entry in this 2007 anthology gets its own paragraph.

“Shanghai Dragon” – dir. by Shoji Kawamori

Somehow the fate of humanity rests in the snot-covered hands of 5-year-old Gonglong when a mysterious, magical piece of chalk is crash-delivered to his schoolyard. “Shanghai Dragon” playfully riffs on the Terminator premise, showcasing the likely whimsicality if mankind’s savior were a very, very young boy. Kawamori’s short is, in a way, straight-up action anime, including a cybernetically enhanced, cigar-smoking badass; killer robots; hundreds of explosions; and a giant AI-controlled dog robot. But it’s also one of the cutest cartoons I have ever seen.

“Deathtic 4” – dir.  Shinji Kimura

Four young school friends plot to save a (live) frog that was somehow transported to their (zombie) planet by the hazardous Uzu-Uzu weather event. While “Shanghai Dragon” was cute, “Deathtic 4” (presumably the planet’s name) is one of the ickier cartoons I’ve seen—but it still immolated me in a fire-wall of charm. The quartet inhabits a sicklier variant of ‘s “Halloween Town“, and are all losers (despite three of them claiming “super powers”). The Zombie Police discover the living froggy, they sound the alarm–via a detachable siren nose that turns out to be one of those “moooo” canisters. The lads then flee toward the MASSIVE cyclone, Uzu-Uzu, with a plan ripped from a Garbage Pail Kids’ E.T.

“Doorbell” – dir. by Yuji Fukuyama

Fukuyama’s short is by far and away the most cryptic of the bunch, but that isn’t what made it my least favorite—or maybe it is. My suspicion is the director is attempting a philosophical exercise concerning infinite realities, all variants centered around one focal point: in “Doorbell”s case, that of a young man whose versions of himself keep splitting off and cutting him off from future paths. Neat, and pleasantly understated—and as such, feels a little out of place here.

“Limit Cycle” – dir. by Hideki Futamura

Playing like a cyber-theological TED talk, Futamura’s short lacks narrative and characters, but is the most fascinating entry. Its layered visuals, which combine classic animation, computer animation along with symbolic numbers, images, and math, are lush and hypnotic—prompting me to sorely regret my lack of fluency in Japanese, as my eyes had to stay anchored to the persistent subtitles to have any grasp of what was going on. Beautiful to behold while raising many profound philosophical points.

“Happy Machine” – dir. by Masaaki Yuasa

Humanistic allegory meets wacky animation in this short. The story begins with a happy infant (whimsical mobile above his bed, toys lining shelves, loving mother approaching to feed him) whose reality is sucked away, forcing him on a strange journey through a wasteland. Animation itself is deconstructed as its artifice collapses along with the infant’s home—and that’s just one of the dozen or so dissections of life, etc., that Yuasa performs with his singular ‘tooning style.

“Baby Blue” – dir. by Shinichiro Watanabe

Boy is going to be moving away from his school–and his girl-crush–and so suggests that he and she cut class and head out. To anywhere. Those seeking a melancholic musing on maturation may find this quite satisfying. While it lacks the temporal/scientific/divine themes of its fellow entries, I wasn’t unhappy about its inclusion, particularly the scene where the boy busts out a grenade (acquired, against the odds, in a wholly believable manner) to fend off a gaggle of ’50s throwback goons.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the average level of quality is staggeringly high… If you have any love for animation as a medium of art, I cannot recommend this collection enough.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead,” who described it as “pretty weird. It’s a series of mind-blowing anime shorts, specially the short ‘Happy Machine.'” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

CAPSULE: A PURE FORMALITY (1994)

Una pura formalità

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DIRECTED BY: Giuseppe Tornatore

FEATURING: Gérard Depardieu, Roman Polanski

PLOT: Apprehended during a downpour in the middle of the countryside, a famous writer is challenged to explain his whereabouts that evening by the station’s resident inspector, a great fan of the author’s work.

COMMENTS: “When I tell this story, no one will believe me. How can a place this absurd exist?”

Though technically an Italian movie—an Italian wrote and directed it, the ancillary actors are all Italian, as is the entire film crew—there are few movies I’ve seen that feel more “French” than Tornatore’s A Pure Formality. Of course, having Gérard Depardieu, a Frenchman’s Frenchman, as the lead does quite a lot to lend it Gallic bonafides. But beyond that primary anchor are the secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary anchors, all of them latching the film squarely in the great ocean of French cinema. Had you told me that this was Jean Cocteau‘s final film (though he would have been 104 at the time), I might well have believed you.

The story concerns a disillusioned, alcoholic, end-of-his-tether novelist—the second French anchor—named Onoff (Gérard Depardieu), who is found in a frazzled (and drenched) state by the local gendarmes in the French (naturally) countryside. Hostile and unable to produce identity papers, he is taken back to the water-logged police station to await “the Inspector” (a genteel, but commanding, Roman Polanski). Upon the Inspector’s arrival, a strange dialogue ensues, replete with literary quotations and oblique philosophizing—anchor the third. As the late night turns into early morning, their conversation continues, teetering between truth and lies, and becoming increasingly existential in tone as the station gets wetter and wetter.

As this is a psychological thriller, there is a monumental twist near the end; this being a French crime thriller, that twist has monumentally philosophical overtones (the fourth anchor). But throughout the often fraught interrogation occur absurd comedic moments. The police station seems to inhabit some timeless liminal space existing indefinably in an era pieced together from the 1950s through the present. During their talks—which are a real pleasure to witness, as Dépardieu is at the top of his game, and Polanski shows that he should really act more often—the ceiling’s leaks grow in number and intensity. Around the midway point, all the officers, helped by Onoff, literally bail out the station and vainly try to mop up the floodwaters with towels. Meanwhile, a metaphor skitters around the floor in the form of a white mouse, whose fate is alluded to by the baited trap found in a cabinet whose door keeps opening mysteriously.

Whether or not all this artful playfulness works for you hinges on the ending, about which I can say no more. But presuming you appreciate a bit of theatricality (this is, effectively, a two-man stage show) accompanied by an Ennio Morricone score, then A Pure Formality is one of the tastiest slices of crimembert cheese you could hope for1.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the end of the film, amid reminders of Kafka and Beckett, we learn the answer to the strange night’s interrogation. Some members of the audience will have guessed it. Others will have feared it. Few will find it worth the wait.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)