Tag Archives: Provocative

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: THE IDIOTS (1998)

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Idioterne; AKA Dogma2: The Idiots

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bodil Jørgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing

PLOT: A Danish commune finds meaning and community by acting like “idiots” (i.e., pretending to be mentally disabled), especially in public).

Still from The Idiots (1998)

COMMENTS: As Karen dines alone at a restaurant, she observes a caretaker attempting to feed two adult males who keep wandering over to disturb the other diners, insistently saying “hi” and grabbing the napkins off the table. Unperturbed when Stoffer, one of these “idiots,” grabs her hand, she follows the group outside, and even joins them in the taxicab when Stoffer refuses to release his grip. She is intrigued to discover the performance was all a sham, and Stoffer is actually the intelligent leader of a small, cult-like commune who stage these performances in restaurants, factory tours, swimming pools, office board meetings, and the like.

Far from being offended, Karen is intrigued enough to join the group. The rest of the movie then follows their antics as individual members seek to unleash their “inner idiot” by “spazzing,” mostly in public, but also among themselves. Although the movie establishes dynamics between the characters, in the end, it’s a bit like watching an unscripted, non-comedic version of Jackass—or, in its grosser moments, like scaled-back versions of the Vienna Actionists’ scat orgy in Sweet Movie. Possible motivations for this behavior are hinted at—shocking the bourgeois, playing a game, returning to a state of innocence, mocking the handicapped, championing abnormality, participating in a ritualistic group therapy—but ultimately, the idiots’ reasons for their idiocy remain as inscrutably individual as their activities are indisputably idiotic.

The movie is only watchable in a geek-show sort of way—up until a brilliantly executed final spazz that suddenly supplies a retroactive emotional heft to the entire exercise. That climax exists in an ambiguous space somewhere between catharsis and comeuppance, and raises the stakes of the questions that have been festering in our minds about these idiots. Is elective idiocy an insincere affectation, an emotional affliction, or a form of transcendence? Like their director, the idiots may be addicted to making people uncomfortable, but there is also a genuine sadness at the core of the exercise—at least, for some of the participants.

The Idiots is a Dogma 95 film; that is to say, it (aspirationally) follows the rules laid out in the Dogme 95 manifesto intended to revitalize cinema by de-emphasizing production values and returning to the roots of drama. Dogma films were intended to have no non-diegetic music (a rule von Trier violates in the very first scene), to be shot entirely on location, to use only natural light and handheld cameras, etc.: essentially, every story was to be filmed as if it was being captured by a television news crew. Despite co-founding the short-lived movement with Thomas Vinterberg, The Idiots was von Trier’s only Dogma movie. His next film, Dancer in the Dark, was a magical realist musical that was almost as far away from the Dogma credo as imaginable, while still remaining in the limits of the art-house film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This director, in other words, is replaying the guerrilla-theater spirit of the ’60s, but with the cleansing psychodramatic mysticism of a digital-age Ingmar Bergman.”–Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: HAPPINESS (1998)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dylan Baker, , Cynthia Stevenson, , , , Louise Lasser

PLOT: An examination of the lives of three sisters, their extended families, and their neighbors reveals an elaborate network of secrets, sickness, perversion, and chronic unhappiness.

Still from Happiness (1998)

COMMENTS: Happiness presents a challenge to reviewers, but as difficult as is to write about, it’s not half as hard as it is to watch. Filled with reference to rape and pedophilia, along with near-constant mental cruelty and depression, the movie is one long trigger warning. Happiness doesn’t hold back; it always “goes there.” Side characters who initially seem like they might be oases of sanity and kindness turn out to be just as rotten inside as the principals. It is, technically, a black comedy, but the few grim jokes only highlight the nightmarishness of the character’s existence. The ironies only start with the title, a main character named “Joy,” and a soundtrack of schmaltzy soft-rock including Barry Manilow, Air Supply, and a version of “You Light Up My Life” performed by a Russian cabbie on the make. This is one dark movie.

With those warnings out of the way, the “must see” rating is warranted, for those with just a little bit of courage. Happiness is masterfully manipulative, totally assured in its execution, and totally ruthless in its worldview. The script is wicked and nuanced, the actors expert in nailing the difficult tone. It is a triumph of fearless cynicism; and yet, while it clearly hates its characters, it also oddly empathizes with them. They are allowed to feel guilt, suffering for their sins, while simultaneously being powerless to change their own destructive behaviors. This makes the movie as sad as it is scathing.

Happiness‘ alchemical majesty comes from successfully mixing strong emotions that should be incompatible. It’s not just the paring of comedy with dark situations. In truth, the movie isn’t all that funny, although it has a couple of conventional comedy moments (such as the psychiatrist zoning out while his patient complains that people find him boring, or Joy becoming a “scab” at an ESL program). Happiness‘ brand of bone-dry humor is really a precursor to contemporary anti-comedy, exemplified by an exchange between sisters Helen (Boyle) and Joy (Adams) that could be the movie’s comic manifesto. After Joy makes an innocent comment that Helen thinks is stupid, the elder sister bursts out in mock laughter, then consoles the younger: “Don’t worry,” she hisses, “I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing with you.” Her sister’s confused response: “But I’m not laughing.”

Even more than its juxtaposition of humor and horror, the film succeeds by mixing its meanness with sorrow: Dylan Baker’s climactic tear-stained confession is simultaneously bone-chilling and heartrending. (The performances are uniformly excellent, but it seems odd that standout Baker never landed another major role: playing a child molester must be career suicide in Hollywood.) Happiness is, as noted, a very sad movie.

Is it a weird movie? I’d say no, although it is a unique one. Its unflinchingly downbeat, relentlessly derisive tone puts it well outside of mainstream entertainment. To the extent that we might claim it for the weird, it’s only due to its often exaggerated nature. Scenes play as the tiniest bit unreal: Bill’s conversations with his pre-adolescent son are perverted parodies of “Leave it to Beaver” chats. Catty conversations between the sisters are franker and more biting than they would be in reality. Horrible things are said in deadpan, and received with ambiguous expressions suggesting a mixture of alarm and bamboozlement. Detached artifice is pierced by real human emotion. That is not, in my mind, enough to get Happiness all the way to “weird” (though it certainly passes the “offbeat” marker); but at least I can see what the movie’s proponents are talking about.

Strangely, although it’s remembered by everyone who saw it and critically acclaimed, at the present time Happiness is nearly unobtainable. No streamer seems brave enough to take it on, the DVD has gone out of print, and it has never been issued on Blu-ray. I wouldn’t expect this sad situation to last forever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… funny, sad, sincere, ugly, tough, weird, occasionally horrifying.”–Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Magazine, 2016 reassessment

(This movie was nominated for review by “CheapSwillBill” who commented “A list of weird movies that doesn’t mention Happiness? That’s weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LEMORA: A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL (1973)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Richard Blackburn

FEATURING: Lesley Taplin, Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, William Whitton

PLOT: An innocent tween-age girl navigates a nightmare vision of post-Prohibition America in a search of her long-lost father, running into danger at every turn.

Still from Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Lemora is a movie that will remind you of Night of the Hunter (1955) and Return to Oz (1985),  in exactly equal measure. It takes the formula of an innocent child wandering in not-quite-tamed roadside Americana and turns it into “Goldilocks and the Zombie Apocalypse.” By the time we get to the title character, the uncomfortable psychosexual tones are no longer just a subtext, and we’re still not done sliding down the pit of creepy childhood fears.

COMMENTS: Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is often touted as “a fairy tale for adults,” and that devotion to this theme makes it too difficult to treat fairly and yet far too close to an unqualified masterpiece to just ignore. First we have to yell [TRIGGER WARNING] because there’s sex stuff, and it involves minors. We don’t mean “barely underage jailbait,” we’re talking thirteen! Remember how Labyrinth (1986) plays on the idea of Sarah being a woman-child heckled by a grown fantasy ruler? Take that, subtract two years, change “goblin king” to “lesbian vampire queen,” and you’re in the right neighborhood. Second, we have to hedge a minor [SPOILER] tag in here, because while the movie is coy with revealing its ultimate genre tags, and every review of it screams “lesbian” and “vampire” in the opening paragraph, this movie is in a completely different universe from the Jess Franco style one would normally expect given those keywords. You will not be titillated. You will squirm with discomfort at the squirrely games this movie plays with your psyche.

Lila Lee (the late Cheryl Smith) is a 13-year-old church choir girl famous in her small town for her gospel singing. Surreally innocent in her golden hair braids and Christian upbringing, she is a foster ward of the church, raised by the Reverend Meuller [sic] (played by director Blackburn) because her real father is a 1940’s style gangster on the lam for murder. The Reverend isn’t shy about touting her ascension to grace from such unsavory beginnings in his sermons, delivered to a peculiarly all-female congregation. But we barely have this backstory established when Lila gets a letter from a correspondent named “Lemora,” with news of her father. He is supposedly on his deathbed and ready to reconcile with Lila before slipping away, bidding her to come visit and cautioning her to come alone. Lila packs a suitcase and heads out the door post-haste, destination “Asteroth.” If you’ve brushed up on your demonology, you can take that as foreshadowing.

Lila is scarcely on the road before we’re confronted with the seedy Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LEMORA: A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL (1973)

CAPSULE: CANIBA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel

FEATURING: Issei Sagawa, Jun Sagawa

PLOT: Confessed cannibal Issei Sagawa monologues to the camera, his face often out of focus, and talks to his caretaker brother, who is revealed to be almost as deranged.

Still from Caniba (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Caniba would make a list of the most disturbing movies ever made—easily. Its subject is a weirdo par excellence—in fact, he may be the world’s strangest living monster—and the film takes an experimental, offbeat approach to depicting him. Yet everything shown here is tragically real, and the effect goes beyond “weird” into “despairing.”

COMMENTS: Issei Sagawa, an intelligent but shy Japanese man studying French in Paris, killed and ate a female classmate in 1981. He spent five years in a mental institution in France and then was deported to Japan where, due to quirks of the judicial system, he was freed. Since then he has lived a marginalized existence, making a meager living off his infamy. He is now weakened by a stroke and holed up in a dingy apartment, cared for by his brother.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, Harvard-based anthropologist filmmakers, chose to follow up their arthouse hit Leviathan (an uncontroversial documentary about commercial fishermen in the North Atlantic) with this perverted provocation about Sagawa. Most of the movie is out-of-focus shots of the ailing cannibal, closeups of his twisted, trembling hands or his blank face as he delivers halting, unhinged monologues (“I know I’m crazy,” he confesses). When he talks at all, he speaks as if he’s in a trance, gathering the strength to push out each phrase, about five or six words per minute, with long pauses in between. We also meet his caretaker brother Jun, who eventually reveals some shocking fetishes of his own—leading one to wonder whether there is a genetic curse on the Sagawa clan, or whether Jun was driven mad by knowledge of his brother’s crimes. Old black-and-white home movies of the two show what look like happy, normal children.  Back in the present, we have a very odd pixilated porn sequence starring Sagawa, inserted without any context, followed by a tour through the manga he drew celebrating his crime. Jun is both fascinated and disturbed by the graphic drawings of the girl’s corpse and his brother’s erection when faced with it. “I can’t stomach this anymore,” he says, but continues turning the pages. Issei, distant as always, seems embarrassed, if anything, reluctant to answer the questions his brother poses. For the final scene, they bring in a prostitute (or groupie?) dressed as a sexy nurse to read the cannibal a bedtime story about zombies, then take the invalid demon out for a wheelchair stroll around the neighborhood. The end.

I am glad someone documented these two twisted specimens of humanity with minimal editorializing, but the result is no fun whatsoever, and offers no insight to their pathologies, making it a very difficult watch on multiple levels. It’s of interest to sick thrill seekers and serious students of abnormal psychology. You should know this movie exists. God help you if you watch it. There is no guarantee it will get a commercial release. The film seems destined to remain forever underground, where it probably belongs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weirdo documentary…  strange and unpleasant…”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews