PLOT: Rinko is a shy and inhibited woman working as a counselor at a suicide hotline. One day, a photographer she previously helped sends her compromising photos of herself. The stalking turns into blackmail when he forces her to live out her erotic fantasies, which take on an increasingly hallucinatory character.
A Snake of June debuted at the 59th Venice International Film Festival (2002), where it won a special award (the Kinematrix Film Award, which does not appear to have been awarded before or since).
Tsukamoto and main actress Asuka Kurosawa were respectively awarded the Special Jury Award and Best Actress Award at 2003’s edition of Fantasporto (Porto International Film Festival).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The unusual garb of the erotic cabaret’s patrons, who sport funnel masks as they watch an equally offbeat performance.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Erotic drowning performance; corrugated pipe assault
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although modest by the director’s standards, A Snake of June stands out by all other measures of weirdness through its gradual abandonment of conventional narrative logic to indulge in surreal displays of interlacing horror, desire and sadism.
PLOT: A carefree medical student’s life is thrown into disarray when a painting falls from his wall, creating a peep-hole to the neighboring apartment where he witnesses a world of LSD-fueled rape and murder.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The oft-hyphenated phrase, “by-the-numbers”, springs to mind when thinking of this picture. Trying to be a Hitchcockian thriller, a drug morality tale, and (perhaps) a soft-core pornographic movie, Obsessions fails on all counts—with the only weird thing being that Martin Scorsese somehow let his name be associated with it.
COMMENTS: There is unfortunately little useful to say about this mish-mash of a Dutch film. The press release and DVD blurb hype it up as best they can, going so far to claim that Obsessions helped to jumpstart “auteur cinema in Holland.” That may well be true, but that’s something better explored by a film scholar (that is, some other film scholar). As it stands, all by itself, on its own, as a movie, it stands… kind of wobbly. Thinking back on it now, the only clever bit occurred during the plot setup in the opening credits.
A heavy, framed picture of a modified Van Gogh portrait (with super-imposed razor poking at the poor man’s ear) falls from the thin wall of Nils Janssen’s apartment, bringing with it a hunk of plaster and leaving behind a perfectly-sized peep-hole. Through this new portal, Nils (Dieter Geissler), an affable medical student, sees and hears strange doings across the way, finding that it’s not all scooters, cognac, and medical school in his trendy downtown world. His improbably attractive girlfriend Marina (Alexandra Stewart), a journalist for a fashion magazine with a sideline in pop-news, joins in his… “obsession” …and the two try to unravel a bizarre crime spree involving LSD, a series of addled young women, a fat drug-dealer with a lazy eye, a con posing as a US Army officer, and a masseuse who plies her trade with her feet. Before you can say “tight slacks,” things go south when the criminals discover they’re being spied upon.
Had this rambling plot been in the service of a pornographic endeavor (something the Netherlands didn’t shy away from in the 1960s), I’d feel more sympathetic to it. The amateurism of the acting, staging, and dialogue (not sure how involved Scorsese was in the writing; he was in his mid-20s at the time and only in town for another project) all smacks of high quality smut or low quality drama. For better or (more so) worse, Obsessions is the latter–and all the Hitchcock references and “gee-whiz!” camera tricks can’t change the fact that we travel through the film’s ninety minutes with a mix of incuriosity and relief at its brevity.
Pim de la Parra and his confrère Wim Verstappen went on to achieve notoriety a couple of years later with their full-blown adult feature, Blue Movie. Afterwards they cruised through the 1970s with a series of “mature” titles interspersed with the occasional drama and experimental film. While it seems P de la P could have pursued one direction or another after his late-60s crime-thriller, I’d wager that either genre isn’t any poorer for him having stepped away from it.
PLOT: A sexually repressed woman is blackmailed into living out her erotic fantasies by a stalker.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Done in a sleazier and more straightforward style, the script’s voyeuristic hook might have led us into “erotic thriller” territory, resulting in a film destined to play “Cinemax After Dark” at 2:30 AM. But Snake is a fever dream of outsider auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, who turns it into Belle de Jourby way of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s sometimes a little frustrating to follow, but there is no doubt Tsukamoto’s getting freaky, and not just in the bedroom.
COMMENTS: The first half of A Snake of June is fairly conventional (at least, by our standards). Mousy Rinko answers calls at a suicide hotline. Her husband, the older Shigehiko, is a salaryman with a cleaning fetish and little time for romance. Iguchi is a depressed photographer who only takes pictures of household objects: blenders, or waffle irons. When Iguchi calls Rinko and she talks him down off the metaphorical ledge, he decides to reward her by forcing her to live out her sexual fantasies: he stalks her, takes pictures of her masturbating, and then threatens to make them public if she doesn’t dress up in a microskirt with no underwear and wander through a busy marketplace. Although the scenario seems skeevy, it shows character development on Iguchi’s part—he’s shifted his interest from inert objects to people. He is stalking and manipulating the woman but he is not treating Rinko as an object—he fully acknowledges her humanity as he puts her through erotic exercises he genuinely believes will make her into the happier person she deserves to be.
The first half of the film is told from the perspective of Rinko, and, unlikely as the setup might be, it is presented in a straightforward fashion. Halfway through, the point-of-view shifts to hubby Shigehiko. The stalker arranges to have the neurotic husband drugged, and when he awakens he’s shown (or more likely hallucinates) an sado-erotic snuff cabaret exhibition where the performers are sealed inside tanks which slowly fill up with water, while a cone is strapped to his face, restricting his field of vision. That’s just the beginning of the new strangeness; in a third perspective shift, the narrative begins to focus on Iguchi, and we are treated to a brazen masturbation scene from Rinko (in the neverending Japanese rain, natch) and a violent confrontation between Iguchi and Shigehiko that includes an assault by a slithering phallic piece of corrugated PVC pipe (this comes from the director of Tetsuo, after all). In the end, wife and husband share a meal and make love as if none of the aforementioned weirdness ever happened. It probably never did.
Although we have tagged this movie with “black and white,” it should be noted that it the film is actually tinted a shade of blue-gray that suggests the perpetually overcast skies of Snake‘s rain-soaked Tokyo streets. Dividing the movie into a nearly conventional first half and a surreal second hemisphere that both advances and reconfigures the narrative is an interesting gambit. A Snake of June drags at times, and confuses frequently, but few who see it will forget it, or accuse it of playing it safe.
PLOT: A documentary about secret hobbies in which Austrians indulge their basements, including a man with a shrine to the Nazis, a woman who cradles creepy lifelike newborn dolls, and multiple S&M devotees.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we have often pointed out, due to their very nature—which requires them to be rooted in reality—documentaries have a much harder row to hoe if they aspire to weirdness. In the Basement tries to strangen things up, formally speaking, with cut-and-paste editing and awkward minimalist tableaux; it still doesn’t make it all the way to “weird,” though.
COMMENTS: In one of the opening scenes of In the Basement, a man (whom we never see again) silently watches as his pet python stalks a helpless bunny rabbit crowded into the corner of a plexiglass cage. My immediate thought was, there’s no healthy reason for him to be watching this. In the Basement is built around the idea of watching what you shouldn’t. It takes us into the private demesnes of a tuba-playing Nazi sympathizer, a woman obsessed with creepily realistic baby dolls, and a hairy man who cleans his mistress’ toilet with his tongue, among others. To add to the alienating feel, the editing seems purposeless, bouncing back and forth between the film’s subjects at random. To generate further discomfort, establishing shots are held for much longer than is necessary. The director scatters snapshot moments where the subjects stand posed stock-still and stare at the camera without expression at several points throughout the film. Sometimes these are the main characters, and other times they are people who did not make it into the film proper, like the middle aged women who stand arranged around a washing machine as it runs through a noisy rinse cycle. The carefully posed amateurs staring affectlessly at the camera from gray rooms invoke the absurdist spirit of Roy Andersson.
Rarely are the subjects asked to speak about themselves or their hobbies, with the noteworthy exception of a masochistic woman who, standing nude except for the thick ropes ritually wrapped around her, confesses the personal history that brought her into the subculture. It’s In the Basement‘s lone moment of obvious insight and humanity.
While it engenders a morbid fascination, there are some serious downsides to Basement. For a while, the documentary earns extra thrills just from the fact that you don’t know what new kink is going to be introduced next. But eventually it runs out of surprises. There aren’t enough weirdos willing to go onscreen, so director Seidl ends up filling up space with redundant S&M devotees (who probably get an extra kick of humiliation from being exposed to the public). The amount of time devoted to these six, plus the wince-inducing detail involved in their explicitly detailed torture sessions, makes you wonder if maybe Seidl should have abandoned Basement‘s ostensible thesis and just made a movie about the S&M lifestyle instead. More upsetting, however, is the revelation that some of the scenes were, basically, faked. Although Seidl’s M.O. lately has been blurring the line between fact and fiction, narrative and documentary, that technique doesn’t seem fruitful in this context. Does Basement say something about the contemporary Austrian soul, or is it just a carefully curated compendium of grotesques? Although I believe Seidl intended to make an artistic statement about social and psychological repression, in practice the movie plays more to the latter interpretation. When Jacopetti and Prosperi did this kind of thing, they did not drape it in obscuring Art.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s in more conventional observation and confessions to camera that the film really delivers its strange, melancholic universe.”–Lee Marshall, Screen International (contemporaneous)
FEATURING: Jack MacGowran, Jane Birkin, Iain Quarrier
PLOT: An absent-minded professor falls in love with the bohemian fashion model next door when he peeps through a hole in his apartment wall and spies her frolicking in a psychedelic wonderland.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got animated butterflies, women who dress like go-go dancers and men who dress like princes of candy kingdoms, and wall-to-wall hallucination sequences. In some ways, Wonderwall is the ultimate flower-power feature, with not much plot but lots of swirling colors and long-haired people being groovy. The main question is, is Wonderwall a pinnacle of paisley pop-art, or just overwrought hippie kitsch?
COMMENTS: Professor Collins is the kind of scientist who keeps his nose buried in a book when his eye isn’t glued to his microscope, until one day while he’s spending his evening recreationally observing blue-green algae he’s annoyed by the sounds of loud sitar music coming from the apartment next door. When he throws his alarm clock at the wall, his butterfly display case clatters down, revealing a peephole into the swinging pad. He trades the microscope eyepiece for the hole in the wall behind which willowy Jane Birkin sways in silhouette: suddenly, microbes are yesterday’s news. From that moment on he’s in love with the fashion model next door, whom he’s too shy to talk to, and addicted to spying on her pot-and-bisexual-love parties. He calls in sick to work and spends his rare non-peeping moments imagining himself dueling with the lady’s boyfriend with giant power drills, cigarettes, sticks of lipstick, and other phallic symbols.
No matter how much his nutty professor persona is meant to evoke a lovestruck outsider like Chaplin‘s Tramp, however, it’s hard to get behind this stalkerish guy, particularly when he sneaks into the model’s apartment and holds her hand while she’s knocked out from sleeping pills. Today, we view such obsessive behavior as a potential preludes to a front-page headline story about a socially maladjusted man hosting a secret sex dungeon underneath his floorboards. But the 60s were a more innocent age; rooting for a dirty old man with a good heart came naturally. Of course, since the professor represents the square establishment and Penny the freedom and vitality of youth culture, on the symbolic level the peeping is not so much creepage as pure lifestyle envy. The professor hallucinates a faceless mother in a wheelchair (sexual guilt) who nags him when his peeping threatens to get too libidinous, and he tears down a strangely avant-garde mural of the pieta to get space to drill more holes in the wall, representing the need to get beyond religion in able partake of the joys of voyeuristic bohemianism.
Still, you’re not watching for the outdated counterculture back-patting, but for the far-out visuals, of which there are a plenitude. Animated butterflies flitting against brightly-colored stockings. A psychedelic recreation of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Jane Birkin as a mermaid floating in a field of bacteria. Speaking of Birkin, she’s quite the visual attraction herself: luminous, lithe, comfortable in the nude, this long-haired vixen is the best argument for the sexual revolution anyone could come up with. She doesn’t speak on the movie, which is a good idea: it keeps her as Professor Collins’ mysterious unobtainable ideal. Her real-life story is not so idyllic, however, and we sometimes get non-fantasy glimpses of a woman struggling with a less-than-noble boyfriend who sees her as a status symbol and sexual plaything. In fact, the movie ends on an unexpected bummer that’s totally out of tone with the rest of the comic story; the sudden dose of pathos is a shock to the system. Overall, this pro-freak experiment in disorganized hedonism plays out like Czechoslovakia’s Daisies without the political or feminist subtexts. It’s a paisley time capsule that reeks not-so-subtly of pot smoke.
The Indian-rock score by George Harrison is not a classic but it is period-appropriate. While Cuban expatriate Guillermo Cabrera Infante (who, together with the director, had fled Castro’s Cuba during the missile crisis) completed the screenplay, Wonderwall‘s story is credited to Gerard Brach. Brach more famously wrote the scripts for Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers for his regular collaborator Roman Polanski. MacGowran also played the lead in Vampire Killers. Director Massot went on to make the music-video styled concert film The Song Remains the Same for Led Zeppelin.