Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part VI): Amer (2009) dir. Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani

Logline: A triptych of sex and death. In the first segment, Ana (Cassandra Forêt), a young girl, has strange and frightening encounters with her wraith-like grandmother on the eve of her grandfather's funeral. In the second segment, Ana (Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud), now an adolescent, savors the sensory delights of the world and the attention of men during a trip into town with her mother (Bianca Maria D'Amato). In the final segment, Ana (Marie Bos), now an adult herself, returns to her abandoned childhood home to confront her past and is instead confronted by a black-gloved killer brandishing a straight-razor.

Analysis: Amer is about the perils (and pleasures) of psychosexual development gone horribly awry. Freudian psychoanalytic theories have long been entwined with horror cinema on both sides of the Atlantic, but rarely so explicitly as they are in this Belgian-French thriller. The film dramatizes an extreme case of sexual repression, with our patient-- the young, adolescent, and finally middle-aged Ana-- confusing Eros and Thanatos during her latent stage of childhood development. To confuse, perhaps conflate sex and death at such a delicate period in one's life will create obvious issues later on. Thus, we watch as Ana grows up into a woman who simultaneously courts and resists sexual attention, as if the prospect of sex is akin to a primal threat of violence and a gateway to the ultimate sensual pleasure.

We witness the root of Ana's repression taking hold in the film's first segment, when Ana walks in on her parents having sex immediately before the family is to attend its decrepit patriarch's funeral. The film tells us that this is a key moment: Ana's eyes go wide, and glass cracks and breaks across the the image of her face as the lights illuminating the screen shift between vibrant primary and secondary colors. She sees her mother on her back in a fit of ecstasy, looking much like a corpse on a slab, or like the corpse of her grandfather in the other room. Her father's sexual thrusting looks like the mindless violence of a killer thrusting a knife. The damage is done.

Ana has this traumatic encounter after being chased around the house by her ghastly, witchy grandmother, who is perpetually veiled in black lace to conceal her horrific visage. For the child Ana, this elderly presence, with its extreme age, opaque habits, and proximity to death, exists as a personification of death itself, always in pursuit of us mortals from the day we're born. However, these feelings don't dissuade Ana from her attraction to the death that the elderly figures in her life represent. We see her recklessly spy on her grandmother's arcane activities, and she steals her dead grandfather's jewelry from his corpse (going so far as to use a crucifix to pry it from his rigor mortised hands). The threat and presence of death will continue to have an allure for Ana.

In the film's second section, we watch as Ana's mother recognizes a connection that Ana has already made: through her daughter, who has now grown into sexual maturity, she sees that she is being replaced by a younger copy of herself and thus becomes aware of her own mortality, recognizing (as Ana already does, in her own twisted fashion) that the price of sex (read: reproduction) is death. As the two women strut into town in their sundresses and consciously attract the gazes of the men they're passing by, each is acutely aware of the other's position in life. Ana sees her mother's graying temples and smugly smirks; her mother sees her daughter's budding sensuality and tries desperately to hold its hand like a mother would a small child, to prevent it from blossoming.

But, for Ana, her blossoming is a complicated life event. We notice as the wind blows onto her body and an ant crawls across her skin that Ana has become keenly aware of the sensual pleasures that the world now has to offer her. Thus, the sexual attention of the men she encounters on this trip into town is somewhat appealing, but it's also clearly threatening. As she walks, alone, past a large group of rugged and dangerous looking motorcyclists, we understand her to be pulling her windblown dress down out of both feigned modesty and a genuine sense of fear. She's intrigued by the pleasure these men have the potential to now offer her, but she's also cognizant (however rightly or wrongly) of the danger in embracing such sexual pleasures.

In the third section of the film, we learn that Ana's predicament has resulted in a frigid and apprehensive adulthood. She has forsaken sexual activity, imagining every male she encounters in her daily travels as a threat to her safety. We meet her as she is returning (for reasons unknown) to her family's abandoned villa, the site of her traumatic experience and the catalyst of her sexual repression. While there, wandering the villa's empty rooms and hallways, her psychological troubles come to a head as she is stalked by a masked, black-gloved madman who is attempting to violate her (in one way or another). Is this villain the rugged, dangerous-looking cab driver who drove her there? After all, he knows where she's staying and that she's staying there alone. Have Ana's fears of the men around her proven justly founded?

The reality of Ana's situation is more psychologically complex than baseless paranoia. The killer she encounters (who first attacks her while she's getting perhaps a little too comfortable with her own body in the bathtub) is no one but herself, projected outwardly into the world by her psyche as a separate entity. She lives in fear of her own desire for sexual pleasure, imagining this desire as a faceless, psychotic male waving around a phallic straight-razor. For Ana to express her sexuality in any form (by herself or with a friend) is to beckon the violent reaction of this other persona, who appears to have taken the place of her grandmother in her psyche as the primal figure of Death. While her mind primarily views this entity as something separate from herself and looking to punish her, she also opportunely uses the persona to punish others: when the cab driver eventually does show up at the villa (for purposes unknown but probably no good), Ana, adopting this persona, brutally carves him up with her razor. For all, the price of sex must be death. Ana is certain of this.

So certain is Ana of the correlation between sex and death, that she stabs her personified sexual desire in the gut to avoid confronting it, inadvertently causing her own death by gut wound. When we next see her, in the film's final images, she's on a slab in the mortuary, being delicately, perhaps sensually manipulated by the hands of an unseen mortician. Her expressions, in death, mirror those of her mother during sex, and the soundtrack is filled with low, ghostly sighs, as if she's actually responding to touch. In death, her confusion of Eros and Thanatos is reconciled if by nothing more than the fact that there's nothing to fear from the death that has already caught up to her. This isn't an unhappy ending: we discover that for Ana, the price of death is sex. And, as we see in the final frames before the credits roll, a little bit of much-needed postmortem physical attention has the ability to break down psychological barriers and animate the coldest and clammiest of souls.

Technical Merits: The technical merits of Amer should be immediately obvious to anyone with working senses. It's one of those "every frame deserves to be screencapped" pictures. Directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are practitioners of a high style, using sound and image to communicate their story and its themes without the use of exposition or dialogue. (The few small snippets of dialogue in the film's first segment don't serve as meaningful exceptions.) The technique the the pair employ switches frequently and with ease, like when transitioning from the first episode's Jan Svankmajer-style frenetic focus on abstracted actions and objects to the second segment's Spaghetti Western-inspired protracted dramatic tension. Amer's style is also a jumble of visual and aural associations from Italian fantasy-horrors of the 1970s: Cattet and Forzani's framing plucks exact shots from the work of Argento and Bava, and their soundtrack effectively repurposes the music of Stelvio Cipriani and Bruno Nicolai. Pilfer they might, but they pilfer from the greats.

Relevance: Despite the popular consensus that Cattet and Forzani's Amer is a blatant (if possibly egregious) homage to the Italian giallo thriller, the truth is that the film's homage extends to most areas of Italian exploitation cinema of the 1970s. Sure, the film's longest episode is given over completely to giallo elements and imagery, but signifiers throughout the remainder of the film call to our minds other genres, like the Argento-style supernatural horror film (as in all of the first episode), Leone-esque Spaghetti westerns (as in the incessant, tension-filled close-ups on eyes in the second episode), and poliziotteschi crime films (as in the use of several soundtrack selections recycled from genre classics).

Amer doesn't strive to be a flashy contemporary giallo; rather, it succeeds on its own merits by taking a recurrent giallo theme (the Freudian sex/death confusion), filtering it through the kaleidoscope of '70s Italian cinema in toto, and then translating it into French, creating a lurid and often dizzying demonstration of the artistry inherent in the era's diverse sights and sounds. In this sense, Amer could be seen as a celebration of others' work, and that it is, but its originality lies in its complex rearrangement and intensification of those cherry-picked motifs and visual/audial elements. In flaccid-- if more digestible-- terms, it's less of a Greatest Hits than it is a collection of recognizable but undeniably distinct (and weirdly alien) remixes. Thus, Amer is brain candy for any critically-minded viewer of Italian horror cinema, alternately numbing and igniting the synapses as it stalks its merry way across the cortex.

To grasp the subtlety of Cattet and Forzani's approach to their material in Amer, one need look no further than their follow-up feature, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears (2013), a study in cinematic excess and incoherence. Minus the Belgian duo's still obvious talent as visual filmmakers, their relentless experimental tendencies, and their expert use of genre soundtrack greats, their sophomore effort all too frequently resembles what Amer's detractors claimed that film was: a cluttered, pretentious film-school appropriation of the giallo. Put into juxtaposition with one another, Amer must now seem the more tasteful approach to lovers and haters all.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part V): Lake Mungo (2008) dir. Joel Anderson

Logline: After the accidental drowning of their teenage daughter (Alice, portrayed by Talia Zucker), the surviving members of the Palmer family have trouble sorting out their collective grief. Their problems are exacerbated by the alleged appearances of Alice's ghost in their home and abroad. This pseudo-documentary seeks to determine the existence of Alice's spectral afterlife and uncover the lingering mysteries of her corporeal days, long buried in the sands of Australia's dried-out Lake Mungo.

Analysis: When we see Alice Palmer in old photographs and video footage, those taken both before and after her untimely demise, we can't shake the feeling that we're looking at a ghost. Perhaps, as the film hints, she was always a ghost, in one sense of the term. We learn over the course of the film that she has encountered her own ghost, has dreamed of her later life as a ghost, and has taken actions that she will later take again as a ghost. Alice Palmer haunts Lake Mungo. The appropriateness of the film's title and its reference to New South Wales' famous dry lake is manifold. At the film's climax, Alice encounters a specter of her future at the dead lake, only to later die in the active waters of another, different lake. Later, she is seen haunting the lake she died in, and yet she was already haunting the dry Lake Mungo while she was alive. Lake Mungo itself materializes within the film as a phantasm, as a visual monument to a place both dead and curiously alive, lingering on as a palpable presence and vacation spot. The temporal circularity of Lake Mungo leaves the dry lake and Alice stuck somewhere between life and death, existence and nonexistence. Lake Mungo laments the tragedy of such a fate, and one way to read the film is as an ode to those sad souls like Alice who can anticipate their own ends through the troubling way they lead their lives. Alice is haunted by her own ghosts: the knowledge that her actions are leading her swiftly towards death and her resignation over the fact that no one can help her, not even those closest to her.

But I think there's a far grimmer reading to be dredged from the bottom of Lake Mungo, one derived not from Alice's personal demons but from the gross negligence of her family in recognizing her trouble before (and after) it was too late. The Palmers loved Alice, certainly, but it's clear they never really possessed any awareness of what was going on in her life. They're ignorant of her fear of death, her use of psychic counseling, and her bizarre sexual affair with the next-door neighbors. We're told of the chilly relationship between Alice and her mother, June (Rosie Traynor), who could never manage to give herself fully to her daughter. After Alice's death, each member of her small family attempts to grieve in a different way: Roy (David Pledger), her father, distracts himself with his work; Mathew (Martin Sharpe), her brother, inexplicably forges fake evidence of her ghost's presence in the family home; and June steadfastly clings to the hope that Alice might not be dead at all. With the exception of Roy (who is eager to forget Alice entirely), the family's expressions of grief are based in the logic of guilt. They don't want Alice to be gone from their lives entirely, because if she is that means they've failed her in some way, and that June's fear that Alice will have died not knowing how much they loved her is fact. Thus, the family colludes to keep Alice alive, in one form or another, until they feel absolved of their own guilt over not being able to help her during her existential depression, of which they were clueless.

It's the act of uncovering Alice's secrets in the year that follows her death that makes her family think they've finally put her spirit to rest. The film's most melancholy and heart-wrenching horror is that they're wrong. In their desire to move on with their lives, the Palmers were distracted by the superficial revelations about Alice's troubled life and were thus unable to see that her deeper problem was her inability to seek solace and assistance within her distant family unit. During the film's denouement, a masterful montage of separate psychic meditation sessions with mother and daughter conducted a year apart about an unknowingly shared dream, we learn that Alice has been trying to communicate to her family her continued existence, to no avail. In the end, her family abandons her, moves to a new house free of her association. But perhaps they had already abandoned her, back when she was alive, sobbing with fright at the foot of her parents' bed but unable to bring herself to awaken them. The film's conclusion leaves Alice's family ignorantly, blissfully sleeping on, and Alice herself haunting empty hallways, alone, in death as in life.

Technical Merits: The effectiveness of Lake Mungo's documentary approach to horror storytelling goes a long way towards lending legitimacy to the documentary/found footage horror subgenre. The film's documentary form suits the material, allowing us to glimpse Alice Palmer only through ghostly family videos and photographs, in which her vibrant life is captured in flat, lifeless celluloid and digital pixels. The documentary form allows writer/director Joel Anderson to keep Alice and her mystery at a distance from us, but it also enables him to slowly unravel a lot of the plot's big revelations in a way that feels organic to the constructed nature of a documentary, and which would probably feel cheap or unearned in a traditionally shot horror feature. Watching Lake Mungo, we're always aware that we're in the hands of a skilled documentarian who wishes to lead us gently from one mystery to the next, with the film's sheen of faux-reality making us feel (however fleetingly) like collaborators, following the leads placed before us. As if we're watching a segment on Unsolved Mysteries, and right before the commercial break we'll be flashed the phone number for the tip hotline.

Much of the film's success as a faux-documentary can be attributed to that fact that it's wonderfully shot and edited, with a keen awareness of the proper balance of static talking-head interviews, moody scenery and location shots, and amateur found footage. Like the best actual documentaries, the screen is subtly kinetic and layered, with the assembled images providing for the viewer a narrative beyond the information given through interview and observation. For the sticklers out there, you could easily (and cruelly) convince a fellow viewer that it was a real documentary (I have!), as it only very rarely stretches credibility or verisimilitude. (The only obvious flaw in this aspect of the film is the repeated occurrence of random folks around town discovering important-to-the-narrative images/figures/ghosts in their barely discernible amateur-recorded video footage. A bizarre, unnecessary form of crowdsourcing, we might say.)

Relevance: If the television series Twin Peaks (and its prequel film, Fire Walk with Me [1992]) had been filmed as a faux-documentary and lost all of its oddball humor, it would look a lot like Lake Mungo. Of course, there's no murder mystery acting as Lake Mungo's narrative backbone like in Twin Peaks, but otherwise the similarities are pertinent: a beautiful, locally adored teenage girl (also with the surname "Palmer." Imagine that...) dies tragically, her family's grief affects the whole town, a mystery (of a sort) is unraveled as the characters discover the seedy secret life of the dead girl, and eventually all gives way to a creepy, half-decipherable supernatural world. This affinity for the intrigue and narrative twists of Twin Peaks-inspired dead teen girl mysteries is actually a partial detriment to Lake Mungo, though not a fatal one. All of the focus placed upon Alice's secrets and hidden quasi-bad girl persona distract from what is, at its core, one of the most emotionally despondent horror films out there. The film drowns itself in sadness, and yet it's no less frightening for its embrace of that emotional tether. Lake Mungo is far from the first film to try to make us feel sympathy for a scary ghost, but it's one of the best at making us realize the crushing, inescapable humanity of those storied chain-rattlers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part IV): Calvaire (2004) dir. Fabrice Du Welz

a.k.a. The Ordeal

Logline: Heading to the south of the country to perform at a Christmas gala, corny traveling musician Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is stranded in the swampy Belgian countryside after his van breaks down. He stays the night at the defunct inn of a local proprietor (Jackie Berroyer), with his intention being to see a mechanic and continue on his journey the following morning. However, things don't go quite as planned, and Marc's mild annoyance at a prolonged stay at the inn quickly turns to abject horror when his deranged host reveals his true intentions.

Analysis: Despite its conventional horror movie trappings, the horror in Calvaire sprouts from a fear far more existential than that of being held prisoner by a madman in a remote area: it exploits the fear that we exist in other people's minds not as individual, autonomous beings, but as objects that can be manipulated and transformed to fit others' desires. Worse yet, the film implies that we're helpless to stop others from forcing this metamorphosis upon us. We are prisoners of others' characterizations of us. Marc, the film's protagonist, winds up in his bound and beleaguered position because his host, Bartel, decides that he faintly resembles his absent wife, Gloria. (The resemblance? They are both singers.) We know that Bartel understands that Marc is not Gloria, but we eventually learn that it makes no difference to him: Gloria was not so much a person to Bartel as she was an idea, and if he has to use Marc to occupy the place of that idea in his mind (and thus fill the void in his life), then so be it. Marc has no options other than to wear the dress and smile or to attempt (and fail) to escape.

The objectified relationship between Bartel and Marc is not an isolated incident within the film. Nearly every character treats Marc similarly. The old folks and nurses (including the ever-lovely Brigitte Lahaie) at the assisted living homes he performs at see him as a dashing lover who will sweep them away from the death and decrepitude coloring their lives. The violently perverted villagers of the town Marc's stranded in decide to agree with Bartel and thus also choose to see Marc as Gloria, who they are certain will fill their lives with love and carnal pleasures, as of old. Furthermore, this displacement and confusion of individual identity for self-serving purposes extends beyond Marc and his relationships with others, which we see in the villagers' use of livestock as proxies for human lovers and the man-child Bruno's insistence that a calf is his missing dog.

The titular ordeal that Marc faces is his struggle to accept and embrace that he is only what others want him to be. Thus, his ordeal (and the viewer's) ends in the film's final moments when he assumes his given role as Gloria and (in a truly horrifying flourish) demonstrates his sympathy for those who have objectified him. Marc learns that the role of an object is to provide selfless comfort and absolution for others. As implied by the moment halfway through his torture when Bartel literally nails Marc to a wooden crucifix in his barn, the objectified person is a martyr, dying for the sins, vices, mistakes, and emptiness of us all.

Technical Merits: So very drab. The impossibly cold earth-tones and wintry, overcast gloom of the film's interiors and exteriors encourage one to feel that if the film had been toned in sepia it would have resulted in a picture with little discernible difference from the actual final image. This drabness of the visuals is oppressive for the viewer, and rightfully so: we are invited to share in the ordeal and to feel the same slow, dreary restrictiveness (figurative and literal, of course) of the backwoods locations. 

Though director Fabrice Du Welz's films have become more overtly stylish in the last few years, Calvaire is marked by its near absence of style. All events, from the ordinary to the sickening, are filmed with the same flat disinterest by the camera. Violence is incidental; traumatic horror is routine. This anti-style reflects the senses-deadening weight of these characters' continued existence, in which objects and experiences blur into one another. The unremarkable cinematography also keeps the film's more surreal elements grounded in far-too-uncompromising reality. The only moments during which the film breaks this spell and implements a deliberate style are during the piano waltz that the villagers dance to in grotesque zombie-like fashion while gathered in the local bar (shades of Bela Tarr's Damnation [1988]) and the frenzied camera's whirlwind capturing of enthusiastic laughter and faces in closeup at the climax. The former, in limb-severing medium shots, awkwardly displays the villagers' equally as awkward attempts at feeling anything at all, while the latter dizzily demonstrates the intoxicating but ultimately deadly power of experiencing an actual emotion. These moments of style are brief and illustrative. Like its world, the film has little room or tolerance for enthusiasm.

Relevance: Calvaire is the second herald of what I called the mini-Belgian Horror Renaissance in my write-up of Left Bank (2008). However, its place in this contemplation of the past decade in horror cinema could just as easily belong to Du Welz's followup thriller, Vinyan (2008), an enigmatic tale of a couple who make the dangerous journey from Thailand to Myanmar in search of their possibly abducted child. Vinyan might even be the better film, but Calvaire is the one I have the most admiration for as a piece of horror filmmaking. It's rather stock horror set-up (man's car breaks down in woods, man stays at creepy rundown inn, man is made to suffer for this decision) is rather quickly subverted by far stranger narrative impulses, resulting in a film that could have been made by the hypothetical deformed offspring of Bela Tarr and Robert Aickman. Is it religious allegory? An unhinged love story? A waking nightmare? Whatever it is, it's far from typical. 

Plus, its refusal to linger on its implied acts of bodily torture and depravity makes it a quasi-torture porn film for the squeamish. In truth, the film hardly feels like an entry in that most abhorred of horror subgenres. It's impossible to recall another torture porn film that goes so far out of its way to avoid depicting on-screen gore as Calvaire does. Isn't sexually-charged splatter the whole point? But, then again, isn't it so much worse to imagine your captor and tormentor telling you how much he loves you before he goes to work tenderly on your flesh? In order to create those audience nightmares, there's no splatter necessary.