Tag Archives: Pyschological Thriller

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)

CAPSULE: OPEN YOUR EYES (1997)

Abre los Ojos

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Amenábar

FEATURING: Eduardo Noriega, , Chete Lera, , Fele Martínez, Gérard Barray

PLOT: A playboy’s life is destroyed when his good looks are destroyed in an accident—although his court-appointed psychiatrist, defending him on a murder charge, insists that his face was perfectly reconstructed and it’s all in his imagination.

Still from Open Your Eyes (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Why won’t the dreamlike psychological thriller Open Your Eyes make the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made? Simply because of the film’s ending, where the characters sit down and, with almost airtight logic, explain away every mysterious event that has been going on through a combination of exposition and flashbacks—at one point even using a visual aid.

COMMENTS: It almost goes without saying that Open Your Eyes, the original Spanish psychothriller, is superior to Vanilla Sky, the 2001 remake with . Not that I count myself among the detractors of the Hollywood version—other than the unfortunate turn by the usually reliable Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original but with a then-inadequate grasp of the English language, and a few too many pop singles, it’s quite competent. But you owe it to yourself to see the darker, stripped-down original first.

Eduardo Noriega plays Cesar, a handsome, womanizing one-percenter who has everything any guy could ever want: money, leisure time, good looks, and a new plaything in his bed every night. He sees it all taken from him after his face is mutilated in an automobile accident, brought about (indirectly) through his own past philandering—ironically, on the morning after he meets a woman who could be the One who makes him settle down for good. At least, that’s the tale as related to Cesar’s court-appointed psychiatrist from the prison cell where he languishes, awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend. But his story doesn’t add up. For one thing, Cesar, hiding behind a mask, insists that his face is still disfigured, while his psychiatrist tells him it’s been reconstructed. He is also losing his mind, convinced that the woman he is accused of killing was an impostor. Not only that, but he is having vivid dreams that he (and therefore, the audience) can’t immediately distinguish from reality, including one in which he wakes up in a Madrid that has been completely depopulated (a scene memorably re-staged with in an eerily empty Times Square in Vanilla Sky). And to top it all off he has another, fragmentary, set of dreams, which are almost completely obscured; these are visualized onscreen through a hazy filter that makes the action look almost rotoscoped. The psychiatrist’s investigation will eventually unveil the real explanation behind Cesar’s condition.

In the “puzzle movie” genre, Open Your Eyes is a classic, one of the most successful at building up an ontological enigma, then explaining it away with an ingenious (if highly speculative) plot device. The closedness of the narrative solution, however, works against the movie’s weirdness—the movie’s cryptic tension is too fully released, leaving us nothing more to ponder. Still, Open Your Eyes this is highly recommended for those who prefer their mysteries to be completely resolved at the end. And if the hallucination scenes had been just a little more harrowing and fantastical (a la Jacob’s Ladder or Dark City), Open Your Eyes might have squeaked onto the List—or into a rating, at the very least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…unlikely to satisfy those who insist on linear storytelling and pat endings. But in its deliberately vexing way, ‘Open Your Eyes’ is a film with enough intellectual meat on its stylish bones to give more adventurous moviegoers something to chew on afterward.”–Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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