Tag Archives: Surrealism

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PLAYING WITH FIRE (1975)

Le jeu avec le feu

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DIRECTED BY: Alain Robbe-Grillet

FEATURING: Anicée Alvina, ,

PLOT: Carolina fails to be kidnapped by a sex-trafficking syndicate, but that does not stop her father from playing along with the crooks as an excuse to send his daughter to a curious health clinic.

Still from Playing with Fire (1975)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This bafflement features a hearty portion of stylistic and narrative eccentricities, but it might be imperfectly described as Jean-Luc Godard helming a Hostel movie while promised of a cash bonus for every tableau featuring a naked chick.

COMMENTS: Alain Robbe-Grillet indulges in a bold combination of erotica, thriller, and shaggy-dog story in Playing With Fire. The first half-hour alone is a cavalcade of coyly directed nonsense: a reminiscence about an erotic picture book; an exploding doll leaving a cats-paw burn mark; a fabricated cry for help on the back of an Arc de Triomphe postcard; a pair of goons with the graceful articulation of marionettes. And so on. There’s more than a touch of Godard in Playing With Fire, and a hearty portion of lian commentary. Considering the source, this is unsurprising. Robbe-Grillet’s greatest contribution to cinema was providing the screenplay for ‘ cryptic and beautiful chef d’œuvre, Last Year at Marienbad, but he had a long directorial career afterwards where he was left to his own mischievous devices.

The mischief begins with a voiceover by Georges Balthazar de Saxe (a stately Jean-Louis Trintignant, positively oozing “monied patriarch”) as the camera points at the household servants nominally acting out domestic tasks. The maid dusts a picture frame as an excuse to linger by the master’s door. The all-too-upright butler randomly passes a polishing cloth over nearby furniture, but is primarily focused on taking snap-shots. He sets the mantel timepiece to 4 o’clock. Why? Who can say. And more to the point, why is it that Carolina de Saxe (Anicée Alvina) failed to be kidnapped despite the considerable coordination efforts of a shadowy group of sex slavers?

I am convinced that Robbe-Grillet is playing with us—he practically admits as much in the title. There is a seeming precision to his efforts, but a tell-tale bit in the first act is heavy enough of a wink to discourage any serious lock-picking. After having been drugged in his garden by agents of the sinister syndicate, Georges de Saxe converses with his butler about the matter. There is an obvious shot of butler cocking his head toward the house, as if there were a sound. Moments later, the gesture is repeated, this time in response to an actual audio cue. This whole film is meta-charade.

The ensuing romp brings Carolina to a mental-clinic-cum-sex-dungeon, where the voyeurism motif established by the camera-clicky butler is cemented. The waif wanders a hallway arrayed with innumerable doorways with a photograph of each occupant. Inside, pukingly rich bourgeoisie enact pseudo-sadistic tableau featuring the young woman advertised on the exterior. Similarly, Playing With Fire is a showcase of our storyteller’s cinematic prowess, and wit. The nonsensical (“All men’s moustaches are fake”) mingles giddily with the sinister (threats of rape and bodily harm are scattered throughout the film like so much confetti). If you ignore the comedy, you’re left with an obtuse art-house Hostel morass. But the comedy and absurdism are real (so to speak), and it’s best to watch Playing With Fire as if not much on-screen actually happens—which is probably the point Alain Robbe-Grillet is trying to make.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weird madcap tale that benefits from gorgeous scenery and cinematography, experimental arthouse editing, and arousing sexual vignettes.” – Ken Kastenhuber, McBastard’s Mausoleum (Blu-ray box set)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BARDO, FALSE CHRONICLE OF A HANDFUL OF TRUTHS (2022)

Bardo, Falsa Crónica de unas Cuantas Verdades

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Íker Sánchez Solano, Ximena Lamadrid, Francisco Rubio

PLOT: A Mexican national film director receives an award in Los Angeles, causing him to reflect on his own artistic life and the Mexican immigrant/expatriate experience.

Still from Bard , a false chronicle of a handful of truths (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: No director can adopt 8 1/2‘s self-reflective template without risking charges of narcissism, pretentiousness, and plagiarism. Iñárritu changes ahead anyway, and proves that there are still unexplored territories in the subgenre—and that you can keep a slice of the audience’s attention, as long as you keep it weird.

COMMENTS: If Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truth‘s daunting title doesn’t scare you off, maybe the 200 minute (scaled back from the 222-minute version that met with a mix of indifference and mild hostility at its Venice premiere) runtime will. Whenever a director decides to pursue a semi-autobiographical project in a surreal style, and amasses an epic budget to realize his dream, red flags start going up: get ready to gaze at a navel not of your own choosing. For these reasons, I approached the prospect of previewing Bardo with trepidation. But I’m happy to report that the movie, while it lags at times and never finds a way out of its own desert, delivers the necessary audacious panache to justify its aspirations.

Bardo begins with a shadowy man flying (well, jumping so high that he might as well be flying) over an endless desert scrub brush, reminding us of Guido’s opening dream of artistic escape. Later, a passerby addresses Silverio, our director protagonist, as “maestro.” Backstage at a popular Mexican TV show, he must weave through a throng of strongmen, dwarf matadors, a white pony, and primping showgirls in pink fur, a scene as chaotic as any Fellini circus. A character critiques the director’s latest movie (or the one we’re watching?) as “pretentious and pointlessly oeneiric,” surfacing Silverio’s own internal doubts.  Silverio sneaks out of an obligation to face the press just like . Silverio’s friends and family show up in a dreamscape in the end as a brass band belts a march that could have been written by Nino Rota in a mariachi mood. There are probably more 8 1/2 references stuck in Bardo, and of course the entire structure of the film—the leaps backward and forward in time, the confusion between reality and fantasy, the reappearance of vanished past memories in the present—comes straight from the maestro’s playbook. Iñárritu  could not have ignored Fellini’s influence without appearing like a thief, so he wisely honors the spirit of his filmic ancestor with these respectful tributes.

Where Iñárritu departs from Fellini is in his explicit Mexicanness, and his explicit politics. Fellini’s films were always completely personal; if they helped define the world’s view of what an Italian  man was, that was simply because Fellini could not exist in a world without pasta and palazzi. He had little interest in the partisan issues of the day, however. Iñárritu is far more didactic in his approach: a completely realistic breakfast conversation between the director and his teenage son exposes the tension between Mexican Americans who primarily identify with their homeland and preserving its heritage, and those who prefer to assimilate and embrace the opportunities of their new home. At other times, the symbolism is broad and powerful: in a centerpiece of the story, Silverio climbs a mountain of corpses in downtown Los Angeles, only to find Hernán Cortés sitting on top: the conquistador bums a cigarette, and they discuss colonialism.

Bardo is about 50% personal and 50% political, and while not all of it works—which is almost inevitable in a work of this scope—almost every scene has a weird dream twist to it to catch your interest. Sometimes, Silverio speaks without moving his lips, to the annoyance of his family. When the director meets his father in a men’s room, his own body digitally shrinks to the size of an eight-year-old. And there’s a great—shall we say “spare”—rendition of ‘s “Let’s Dance” on a crowded dance floor. By casting some element magically off-center in every scene—and occasionally throwing a curve ball to surprise us with sequences that are completely realistic—Iñárritu builds a dreamlike portrait of a man, of a diaspora, and of the tension between the two.

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths streams exclusively on Netflix starting December 17.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The whole thing is supposed to run on a dream logic reminiscent of Jean Cocteau or Ingmar Bergman, but rather than immersive or contemplative it’s just confusing and weird.”–Jennifer Heaton, Alternative Lens (festival review)

CAPSULE: A WOUNDED FAWN (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Travis Stevens

FEATURING: Josh Ruben, Sarah Lind, Malin Barr

PLOT: A schizophrenic serial killer takes a date to his remote cabin, but things don’t quite go as he plans.

Still from A Wounded Fawn (2022)

COMMENTS: Despite some classical allusions (to the Erinyes, who are described in the opening in as much detail as is necessary), A Wounded Fawn begins its life looking like it will be a relatively straightforward thriller. In the prologue we see killer Bruce dispatch a victim and meet the Red Owl, the hallucinatory entity who prompts him to murder against his will. We then fast forward to meet protagonist Meredith, who has unwisely swiped right on Bruce, and after a dinner of tacos has even more unwisely agreed to an overnight date at his remote cabin. When she gets there, she seems to be hallucinating, too, as we encounter mysterious bumps and shadowy figures (disruptions which only intensify after she plays a vinyl single impishly titled “LSD.”) But at almost exactly the halfway point, a movie that looks like it’s about to become a cat-and-mouse game between predator and prey undergoes an unexpected detour into the utterly surreal.

When this horror movie promotes itself as “surreal,” it doesn’t use the term in the usual “we’re going to show you some WTF stuff, man” sense. Travis Steven’s imagery was explicitly modeled on the work of two modern Surrealist painters: Dorothea Tanning and Leonara Carrington (who also supplies the film’s epigraph). The Red Owl is strange enough, but other entities soon appear: a nude woman attached to a moving stovepipe, a cartoonish blood-red cross between Cthulu and a beetle with google eyes, a woman in a red-lipped volto mask with long auburn ringlets with snakes crawling across her head. Rarely has the spectacle of a man battling his inner demons been depicted so literally.

Bruce is an unusual case: a character who is simultaneously a charming sociopath and a functional schizophrenic. It’s a difficult tightrope that Ruben walks admirably, eliciting about as much sympathy as we can expect to feel for such a monster. Although most have interpreted the film as a feminist allegory about abusive partners (which is almost certainly the intention), there remains an open question as to whether Bruce’s homicidal tendencies are a result of an irresistible compulsion, or whether that’s just a convenient excuse for him to give in to his depraved fantasies. Of course, from the perspective of his victims, the question of free will is moot. The entire final act of the film is an extensive psychoanalysis where Bruce’s brain is literally picked. Be sure to stay tuned for the end credits, which are as unforgettably odd and audacious as any I’ve ever seen. If you like your horror on the surreal side, A Wounded Fawn is sure to scratch your festering itch.

A Wounded Fawn debuts exclusively on Shudder starting today (Dec. 5). Normally, Shudder exclusives will show up at other outlets after a few months; we’ll be sure to update you when that happens.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This movie came to get weird, tell you men aren’t that great, and send you back into the world an even stranger person.”–Sharai Bohannon, Dread Central (contemporaneous)