Monday, August 24, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 8: Death by Extremes

A few years ago I was watching a realistic French drama about two sisters and their no-more-than-usually overbearing parents. The girls dealt with pressure concerning their body image and sexuality and they faced a number of true-to-life challenges. Then the film ended with the unceremonious but brutal murder of one of the girls and her mother and the rape of the remaining sister. Welcome to New French Extremity. At the turn of this new century of ours, a number of French directors decided that they were going to leave no stone unturned where violence and sexuality were concerned. Their films would be practically unwatchable when the clothes came off or someone decided to get violent. Read enough of these and you'll see that violence as a thing doesn't bother me so much, it's the character of the violence that makes my veins pop out. Violence towards women specifically, I have no stomach for that when it's pointedly hateful, even if its to make a point. Well, in the films of the New French Extremists (a term coined by James Quandt to describe the works of many directors, sometimes limited to one film in their canon as with Claire Denis), the pendulum swings both ways and so both men and women are subject to some pretty heinous treatment at the hands of lovers and enemies alike, until the line is blurred to the point that no one is innocent. And if that sounds unpleasant, that's because it is; even when I like some of these films I have a hard time getting through them and finding one whose message is worth its medium is rare indeed. If a coming-of-age drama ends in homicide and rape, just how do you think a film about sexual violence is going to end?

by Gaspar Noé

The events of the film are, for some reason, shown backwards. I'm going to guess that its because Gaspar Noé wants us to examine how the night went and that the simplest of things led to its outcome. So, here's how we see it. First two men, one thin the other fat and in his underwear (the ubiquitous Phillippe Nahon, who like star Vincent Cassel, was in Mathieu Kassovitz' excellent La Haine). They talk about how time ruins everything, cause that's the moral. Then we see a guy called Marcus (Cassel) get wheeled out of a gay bar called Rectum on a gurney. A man called Pierre is put in handcuffs while the police shout homophobic things at the two of them. We then go backwards in time about fifteen minutes; first we get a whiplash inducing tour of Rectum, where we see the sex acts of the men while a drone-like soundtrack plays and the lowlight gives way to bursts of nightmarish red where we glimpse the occasional hint of something illicit. Then Marcus shows up with a nervous Pierre in tow looking for a guy with the nickname The Tapeworm, so you can guess how seriously everyone takes him. He finds someone who may or may not be the guy and picks a fight with him, which Marcus loses in about fifteen seconds. The guy who might be the tapeworm starts to try to rape Marcus, but Pierre beats the man with a fire extinguisher until his face is not really a face at all (it's pretty unendurable to watch). Then we go back and see Pierre and Marcus looking for the club in a taxi that they steal.

We then see that the reason the two men are after someone called the tapeworm is because two imposing guys take Marcus and Pierre on a tour of a street filled with prostitutes. They find a hermaphrodite called Guillermo who, at knife point, tells them she saw a guy called the Tapeworm do 'it'. We learn what 'it' is when we go back a few minutes more and see a woman being wheeled into an ambulance. Marcus loses it because the woman is his wife, Alex (Monica Bellucci, whose beauty is almost implausible, to the point that she looks like a special effect); they tell him that she was raped and is now in a coma. Then the two imposing guys find him and say they found a purse near the scene of the crime with Guillermo's ID in it. Then we see Alex get attacked in a tunnel just trying to cross the street. Some guy sees that Guillermo is not strictly a woman and flips out and grabs Alex instead and rapes her at knife point and then beats her nearly to death. We see all of this in one nine minute tracking shot. I don't often look away from movie screens, but I did and I'm not in the least ashamed to admit it. We then see her leaving a party because Marcus's behavior embarrasses her. Then we see Marcus, Pierre and Alex on the subway headed for the party. Then we see Marcus and Alex relaxing at home. Then we see Alex by herself in a park where children play. Then the words "Time Ruins Everything" display after an obnoxious strobe light takes over the screen. This happens because we saw a 2001: A Space Odyssey poster on Alex's wall and because apparently Gaspar Noé thinks he's Stanley Kubrick. He's best he's Jeunet by way of some reverse-Kenneth Anger, with a 99th of the creativity and none of his love for people.

That is the whole film and the moral is simple: see that every little action we perform has major consequences, or maybe everything's random. Noé also seems to say that something nice in the morning will suck at night. I think that that's kinda childish, but then, maybe he just means to say that all good things have to end. But really my question is what moral could possibly be worth nine fucking minutes of watching a woman get raped at knife-point? None, that's what. I don't give a good goddamn if you've discovered the meaning of life, I'll pass if it means watching a woman get raped in real time. I know it's a film, I know it's not real, and I also know that this happens every day but that doesn't mean I want to see that or any approximation of it on screen because though I do come to arthouse cinema (especially a film like this which screams "Look how fucking meaningful I am!", which is pretty bold considering the notion that rape really sucks has been in films since 1929 when Alfred Hitchcock made Blackmail! about precisely that, which is why this movie makes me extra furious. This film is shot entirely from the pornographic male gaze and yet thinks it's message can weather its misogyny; to contrast one vision of a naked heroine with another as high and low points of existence isn't what I'd call progressive, even if it makes artistic sense. Just what did Noé think he was accomplishing?) expecting to be taught a lesson in humanity or at the very least filmmaking, I do not think that just because you can does not mean you should. And I don't think that his using the sexual habits of gay men as a point of vulgarity quite in this way is really acceptable either. It gets treated with the same, if not more, otherness and contempt than the rape and homosexuals are treated like deviants. And maybe Noé is just commenting on how we perceive sexuality. If so, maybe he should given some indication he doesn't identify with is presentation of homosexuals because I have no reason not to think he believes everything he put on the screen.
The best I can say for this film is that it's well directed. Not as well directed as 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I didn't even really like) or Delicatessen or most art films, but Noé does some interesting things with the camera and though the decision to go backwards was kind of interesting, it was not unique nor totally necessary. The pre-rape afterglow between Bellucci and Cassel is gorgeously shot and feels real and acts as a foil to the harsher subject matter. But you know what...he could have said all this and more without being a repugnant prat. So any compliment I could pay his direction is moot because I disagree with his ideas 100%. It's possible to comment on something without sinking as low as you're subject matter but in this game of Name That Taboo....Now Break It that french directors started playing, it's really hard to want to go looking for the meaning in something so grotesque, especially if it involves rape at knife point, or as in the next film, toothpoint. 

Trouble Every Day
by Claire Denis

The story of Trouble Every Day is told in fragmented interactions and incidents so if you're not vigilant you'll probably fall behind. The oddly captivating Coré (Béatrice Dalle, who've seen previously in À l'intérieur, and who we'll see again in Time of the Wolf) flags down a truck driver with her eyes. A little later, Dr. Léo Semeneau (Alex Descas, a favorite of Jim Jarmusch, look for him in Coffee & Cigarettes and The Limits of Control), a man we'll later learn is her husband, shows up and finds the man dead and Coré covered in his blood. He doesn't seem horrified as you or might if we happened upon the same thing. His resigned reaction to it signifies to me that he's used to this sort of thing. The next morning before heading off to work he hands her pills, which she throws away the second his back is turned. When he leaves for work, she pulls a jigsaw from under the bed and cuts her way out of her locked bedroom. Elsewhere American newlyweds Shane and June Brown arrive in Paris for their honeymoon, or so it seems. Shane keeps having flashes of poor June making eyes at him while covered in blood. When he admits to her later that he has to meet with some clinicians, one gets the sense that perhaps Paris was not chosen as the location of their honeymoon simply for the beautiful architecture and romantic dining options.

Across town Coré is at it again; Léo, after discovering a house full of sawdust, a missing car and a missing wife, goes looking for her in the usual spot and has to bury another guy. Meanwhile Shane goes looking for Léo in his old place of work but is met with a bunch of vague bullshit from his old colleagues who seem to know that the American can only be up to no good. He gets an address from a lab tech who meets him in private and heads for Léo's house. We're told in flashback that he and Coré once had an affair while Léo was conducting some research involving plants and people. That's where they met and while it seems reasonable that Shane just wants to see Coré again, I sense something more sinister is afoot. I should also mention that Shane isn't the only one interested in getting into Léo's house. Two kids have been casing the place, convinced that all the chemistry in the basement is about making meth, not a cure for his wife's insanity. One of them finds Coré and tears off the boards her husband nailed up to keep her indoors and the two begin making love, at which point everything becomes clear. Coré can't just have sex with someone, you see. Somethings gone wrong in her head and now she cannot be satisfied unless she eats some of her bedmate. What do you think the odds are that Shane may be also have this same malady and that in order to make love to his wife, he has to cure it? What do you think's going to happen when the former lovers reunite?

I feel kind of embarrassed for both me and Claire Denis that the first thing that came to mind while watching this was "This is kinda like Cannibal Apocalypse..." And while I love a good John Saxon movie and I appreciate a movie that can pay tribute in a quiet, scientific way (I'm looking at you Quentin Tarentino), I don't think this was the effect Denis was going for. Trouble Every Day is slow and told in broken pieces, the effect is that if you weren't an ace at mad science in movies, you'll probably have some questions by the time the word "Fin" rolls around. I rather like the plot (and unlike the Antonio Margheriti film it most resembles, it's satisfying rather than a mishmash of a bunch of prior cannibal film elements) and the sort of sleepwalking pace (though as a friend pointed out, the music, by melodramatic lounge act Tindersticks, is just awful. It plays like film noir, which would be fine if the action were fast-paced but its not, so this achingly slow music just calls attention to how slow everything else is) but I part company with Denis on a few issues. First is the extent to which we see the combination of cannibalism and intercourse; actually make that everything. I don't need to see Vincent Gallo biting that poor woman's urethra and I don't need to see him masturbate (you don't quite the eyeful that you do in Gallo's film The Brown Bunny, but you do get a pretty good view of his fake semen. What's with this guy and his penis?). Also, how do we go from one guy dead in Coré's bed to a wall coated in viscera? Not that it isn't a cool image and all...And my biggest complaint is that there's no conclusion. I want to see how Shane and his wife live now that Shane's embraced his wild side. I want to know what Léo does with all this attention brought on by Shane and his wife. I want to know how June copes with Shane's disease. I want to know the things that Denis is less interested in. This being a film of extremes, she was more interested in hinting at plot points and showing us blood and semen, which is interesting coming from a female perspective. It's all interesting, but I have questions that a mosaic of AB negative can't answer.

Other than getting by mostly on implication, the film suffers from unattractive cinematography and a plot a little more conventional than it seems at first. Denis plays a game of reveals, seeing how little she can give away while the imagery becomes more immediate and violent. The film is not (with the exception of that music) self-important or laden with messages, it simply asks how far some of us will go to feel pleasure. It's not love, as the silly slogan implies, it's just about pleasure. Shane and his wife could and have theoretically gotten on fine without sex (in fact, that begs the question: had they had sex at all before getting married?) but Shane is after flesh, in both senses of the word. In fact that he knowingly married someone he liked makes him a pretty big asshole because he knows he has a tremendous mental issue to work out and she's going to necessarily get caught in the middle of it. In that regard, the disease can be likened to AIDS or any other degenerative STD, in that to sleep with the carrier means death. Of course, that sort of both oversimplifies and gives more credit to a cannibal film than perhaps it deserves. It's a strange film and it's combination of hazy detachment from the story and very uncomfortable, violent sexuality makes for an unconventional take on age-old subject matter. Not the best thing I've ever seen, but it's interest to me as a film goes a long way toward making up for its more repulsive scenes. 

You can make a point with extremes, it just becomes harder to take it seriously and so critics are far less willing to go looking for meaning....perhaps that's why the film recieved such poor treatment on DVD. Regardless, I use this as a counterpoint to Irréversible because though I had a hard time getting through both films without letting my eyes wander off the screen, Trouble Every Day manages to maintain its credibility by approaching sexuality and violence from a fantastic point-of-view. Cannibalism is not quite the horrendous crime that rape is (especially when it's fictitious), which means I can distance myself from the things on the screen a little better, which is important for me. I can't support a film like Irréversible and don't encourage anyone else to on moral grounds. I don't go to films because I need a reminder how dangerous it is for women to walk the streets and neither does anyone else. Women get lessons in subjugation from films like Transformers 2, I don't think art films need to take such an aggressive tack. I understand the need to challenge an audience but why should it have to be dangerous to walk into the cinema?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 7: Death By Cribbing

One of the interesting and pleasant things about French cinema is that so many of its stars wind up cross-polinating other countries' movies. France has been lending money and talent to foreign countries for years. Thus it's not at all surprising to see how many European movies wind up in French because not only does so much French cash go into their movies but the people who're going to wind up watching it are primarily going to be French. The French have long been sympathetic towards other culture's need to produce films even if domestic audiences don't give a damn about their output. Hence why it's not at all surprising to see the similarities between Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz' Calvaire from Belgium and Dominik Moll's French thriller With A Friend Like Harry. Both are simple enough, made on modest budgets, borrow stylistically from Hitchcock, have Laurent Lucas in the lead and both are in French. Their differences are of course, many, and it's a comfort to know that French movies can stray perilously close to one another and still offer two different kinds of fright.

With A Friend Like Harry
by Dominik Moll

Michel, his wife Claire, and their three cute but noisy little girls are headed to their vacation house. They stop at a roadside stand (which, let's just be clear is always how home invasion films start) and while Michel washes his face in the bathroom, a large man with an eerie smile starts staring at him. After a moment he introduces himself as an old high school chum called Harry Ballestero. When Michel greets his revelation with perplexity, Harry recalls a lot of very specific incidents that should jog his memory, like when they collided during a sporting event and Harry lost a tooth, but nothing doing. Harry also says that he met Michel's father, who did His dental work at his home office. Michel concedes that he forgets things often and so they walk to the parking lot and Michel introduces his new-old chum to his family. Harry introduces Michel and his family to his improbably attractive fiance and then suggests that he buy everyone dinner. Vacation plans what they are, Michel and Claire are forced to decline but they'd be more than happy to host Harry and his fiance at their home for the night after they're nicely brow-beaten into offering as much. A few hours later they're sitting down to dinner.

Harry wastes no time revealing personal information that seems designed to both embarass the shit out of Michel in front of his wife and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the two went to school together. He recites some poetry that Michel published in their high school arts magazine, talks about a story he wrote and only showed to friends, and then name-drops a girl they both had sex with. Thoroughly wierded out, Michel and Claire retire to bed. The next day Claire goes to buy medicine for Iris, their youngest, and her car breaks down. Harry insists on coming along and once the vehicle's been towed he drives Claire to a car dealership and buys her a gaudy new SUV. As his fiance puts it Harry's motto is "a solution for everything". So when Michel's nagging parents show up and practically give him an anxiety attack, Harry leaves at high speeds, furious. That night he goes to Michel's parents house and tells them that Michel is in trouble and that if they want to help him, they'd better come quickly. It comes as no surprise whatsoever when he runs them off the road into a ravine. Their deaths bring about some consequences beside the obvious. First, Michel's slovenly brother shows up and he seems poised to be prove just as problematic as his parents, which Harry picks up on immediately. Next, Michel, in rifling through his parents' things finds the poem and the short story that Harry recited at dinner. Didn't Harry say he'd been to his parents' home to have his dental work done? Isn't there a very real possibility that Harry is just some obsessive psychopath who poses a threat to Michel's loved ones?

You can almost always tell a film that owes a debt to the master of suspense when describing the 'plot' means neccesarily describing everything that happens. You cannot simply say "he must thwart the villain and save the girl" because the hero will undoubtedly go through so many twists and turns in the road that by the end, it becomes completely for them to have acted the way they did. Alfred Hitchcock used to get a lot of mileage out of making ordinary people do extraordinary things because of the extraordinary circumstances. So his movies would often become strings of events that build on the seriocity of the situation. He did this on major studio money but you don't need it to make a convincing Hitchcockian thriller. Hence, today's films. With A Friend Like Harry looks and sounds great but I can't picture it having cost the usual arm and a leg that an equivalent stateside thriller would. The thing I like best about it is that it hedges its bets on no-names like Laurent Lucas and Sergi López, who are both excellent. Everyone is a force, a mood, more than just a character. López, who you might know as the villain from Pan's Labyrinth, is pretty excellent because his menace lies in his apparent inability to break a sweat. He's always calm, the perfect foil to Lucas' mess of a doubting husband. And though both of the women give great performances, all you need to do is look at them and you can intimate their meaning to Michel. He looks at Mathilde Seinger's (Emmanuelle's sister) Claire and all his doubts and worries come out, even though he loves her. He looks at Sophie Guillemin, Harry's fiance, and the allure of a better life is given curvy personification. That's the backbone, the one sentence synopsis as it were, of this movie.

That's not to sell it's other elements short, but when you get down to it, this is a very simple film. Not a horror film per se, nor is it the black comedy that it gets so often written off as. It's in between somewhere and it has some real heft to it at times (when Harry drives off after being embarrassed at dinner being one such moment). Shades of Georges Sluizer's The Vanishing rear their head in the conclusion at which point Moll proves himself just as dark and manipulative a director as Hitchcock. He manages to give the audience exactly what they want without the repercussions they expect. The strength of this film, as in so many aged thrillers, is that we watch a man with morals slowly become corrupted in order to fight for the status quo that his mild manner has afforded him. In this case, we watch a rather ordinary thriller with its usual arc and ups and downs giving us insight into the enigmatic nice-guy villain but instead of letting the nice guy slide on self-defence we see him succeed with an uncharacteristic act of bravery that is at once understandable but way too evil because it falls right in line with the advice Harry's been giving him the whole film. So basically Harry would kill to help Michel, who he's obsessed with for some reason, and Michel winds up doing something just as vile in order to get Harry to stop helping him. He fights for the middle class life that he earned rather than accept the privilege that Harry offers him, which is bold and cowardly at the same time of both Michel and of Dominik Moll. Moll's insistence that everyone's content to be poor isn't exactly Horatio Algier, but it's not unreasonable, I suppose but I would have liked an ending that required more than one kind of bravery from our lead. If the whole story had the morally compromised immediacy of the conclusion, this would have been a much more interesting film, but it's still pretty good.

by Fabrice Du Welz
Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas again) is a lounge singer at an old folks home. He does one last show before hitting the road for a christmas gig miles away but before he can go, one of the old women he performs for finds him when he's alone and confesses that she has erotic designs on him. He skirts the awkward encounter curtly and leaves her wallowing in regret (she hands him a bunch of nude photos before he can get clear of her). He doesn't get far on the road before a rain storm starts and his van breaks down. He walks down a path through the woods and thanks to a confused young man called Boris (who's out in the storm looking for his lost dog) finds an inn, whose slightly strange innkeeper Bartel agrees to take him in and tow the van and fix it the following day. Did I say slightly strange? Ok, the man is fucking crazy, it just takes the few days that Stevens spendss in his company to find out just how off-the-deep-end the man truly is.

The next day Stevens has plenty of time to kill as Bartel says he'll need the whole day to fix the van. Bartel also tells his guest to stay away from the village, as they don't take kindly to 'artists', whatever the fuck that means. Stevens encounters Boris again who still claims to be looking for a lost dog. I'm thinking that dog never existed, what do you think? After talking to Boris for a minute, he stumbles upon an old barn and finds a gaggle of enormous men crowded around the youngest of them as he tries to have sex with a sluggish-looking pig. Why Stevens doesn't go running at high speeds screaming at high volumes is quite beyond me. When Bartel tells him over dinner that he needs some parts delivered to him to fix the van, we get the feeling that no one in this hellhole much cares if Marc Stevens ever sings in front of a crowd of horny old ladies ever again. That night, Bartel, between babbling incessantly and crying over his estranged wife, learns that Stevens is a singer. Not only does that mean that they're both 'artists' as Bartel was once a stand-up comedian (I'll believe that when I see it) but it also means that Bartel wants a display. His wife, who now quite understandably left him, used to sing. Stevens quietly delivers a few lines of an old song and it clearly does something to Bartel's head. The next morning the van's been destroyed and Bartel clubs Marc in the head when he asks questions, puts him in some of his wife's old clothes and drags him into the middle of the woods. He has an easy enough time escaping at first, but when Bartel goes into the village to say "keep off the lounge singer, he's mine", it has the opposite of its intended effect meaning that even if Stevens does manage to get out of Bartel's grasp, there's a group of very demented villagers who I'm sure prefer Stevens to a barn animal.

Directors in the 21st century, no matter how microscopic a budget they work on, have the benefit of technology on their side. That means that even a film like Calvaire or The Ordeal, whose greatest expense was either Laurent Lucas or character actor Philippe Nahon, can look amazing. The film's look fits its creepy backwoods subject matter perfectly and its one of the many tricks that Fabrice Du Welz has up his sleeve. First are the performances. Lucas was already good at looking confused and stressed (see above) and Philippe Nahon, who plays the head villager as well as the villain in Haute Tension, Brotherhood of the Wolf and a bit part in Irréversible, and his crowd need only stand up to look menacing but Du Welz gets a little more out of them than they might otherwise have given. He gives three dimensions to even the film's creepiest fringe characters so that though you're unnerved, you can almost always see their side of things. Sympathy, even if it is a dancing, alienating sympathy, isn't always found in a film of this character so it was kind of nice to see that it wasn't Marc Stevens superhero battling the dregs of Walloon as these films so often turn into. It was the even-handedness of its descent into the mire that makes this a lot of fun.

The only real problem is that a film like this has but two possible outcomes and only so many ways to kill time before our director lets us know which we'll be receiving. That's where the Hitchcock comes in. There's a Psycho-style dialogue between Bartel and Stevens (modeled off the discussion Marion Crane has with Norman Bates over dinner about stuffing birds). Then there are the reveals, which are Psycho-esque, as well; in fact Bartel does all but stab Stevens in the shower. Dressing him up in Bartel's wifes clothing is sort of a reverse-Psycho, which again, is a nice inversion of our expectations of this sort of thing. These fun little inserts of Du Welz' heroes make this a very interesting outing, and though I dearly love weird little traipsing-through-the-woods movies, I also know that there is only so much you can do once you're in the woods. There's almost necessarily a paucity of action after a certain point and that doesn't derail the film, it just means the film is only so exciting. Like Ils, there's nothing wrong with it, I just want a little more than a film like this can give me. But note again that though both Moll and Du Welz were inspired heavily by Hitchcock, that both made movies with simple enough premises, that both put Laurent Lucas in approximately the same kind of role, that overbearing psychopaths are the villain, that they take place primarily in out-of-the-way places, Calvaire and With A Friend Like Harry are as different as night and day. A little talent goes a long way.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 6: Guilt By Association

The 90s were a dormant period for major French talent. Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda and their peers from the Nouvelle Vague movement slacked off a bit and so it was up to a new generation of French filmmakers to step up and make their mark with audacious takes on modern life. Claire Denis, Luc Besson, Olivier Assayas and Mathieu Kassovitz picked up the punk filmmaking slack and kept their country on the artistic map. Some of these new guys proved once again that genres cannot contain directors. Our next films were made by Belgians and Germans but one of them's in French and they're very much in the vein of French movies (neither could exist without Godard's Breathless). So forgive me for veering off course but these films are important so here we go.

Man Bites Dog
by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel & Benoît Poelvoorde

Filmmakers Rémy and André have found the perfect subject for a documentary, a serial killer named Ben. Ben loves his family, dates a charming girl who plays the flute, and is a charismatic amiable fellow in his everyday life. He blows off steam by raping women and killing people with a gun. Every so often (like the drummers in Spinal Tap) the sound guy accidentally gets shot and Rémy says, over whiskey, that they're making the film in his memory. As the film progresses, the filmmakers get more and more involved with his crimes and instead of just filming Ben's murders they actually help him kill people. When the police catch Ben and he breaks out, he comes to Rémy and André for help, cementing their participation in his crimes.

Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde are all as good at acting as they are at filmmaking. Man Bites Dog is a mixture of truly horrific imagery and some of the funniest cinematic in-jokes I've ever heard. It features some truly harrowing killings. The sound design, jump-cuts and grainy black and white film stock add to the real-life terror that the filmmakers induce. Ben likes killing children and women most of all, so if you're in the mood to laugh, I'd suggest another dark comedy. There's one scene in particular, where the whole crew participates in a rape at gunpoint that is just ghastly. Perhaps it's their willingness to go to the absolute darkest recesses of the human mind that also makes them capable of some pretty excellent genre gags.

Between innocent people being raped and murdered we get to see the ins and outs of serial killing, which is where the humour comes in. Ben throws his bodies in a quarry for the majority of the film until one day he realizes that the bodies have started piling up; he sends Rémy, André and the current sound guy into the quarry to cover up the bodies, shouting at them like they're cleaning up the living room before mom gets home. At a birthday party Ben accidentally shoots an uncle while everyone's drunk, which is funnier than it sounds and then there's the sound guy monologues. Ok, so I realize that none of these are quite as funny in the telling as they are when you watch them, but take my word for it, these guys know how to tell a film-specific joke. My only problem is that it's so dark even with the comic asides but everyone does such a good job playing their part that I let it slide. A little respite from the darkness is all you need, because when you don't get a little rest, the result is too harrowing for words...

Funny Games
by Michael Haneke

Again, not French, but really really like French. They're the founders of post-modern cinema as we know it and Michael Haneke is a European master who has worked in French so I'm bending my rules and reviewing the film. Georg, his wife Anna and son Schorschi arrive at their vacation home and watch their neighbors talk to two well-dressed young men. A little later those two men show up and brow beat their way into the kitchen and then with little more than one of Georg's golf clubs they take the family and the audience hostage. It becomes clear that though this is a harrowing home-invasion film it also knows it's one. There's a moment just before Anna finds her dead dog where the leader of the two young men turns to the camera and winks at you the viewer. Haneke then proceeds to mess with you by having his two handsome young professionals mess with the family to the point that people get killed but makes it seem like you asked for all this violence. He pulls a rather nice trick by basically saying that by the end of the film whatever emotions you have are the ones you're supposed to have. Because the film isn't about poor Ulrich Mühe, who you'll recognize from The Lives of Others, and his family getting tortured it's about media violence and the way so many directors are content to let people die for your 'entertainment'. We know this because the television is on constantly, and because the two young professionals talk to the audience and at one point actually rewind the film to change the course of events. So, yes, if you're watching this because you heard it was a thriller and you don't get it, you're going to be bummed because people die and John Zorn's Naked City is played frequently; it's all supposed to make you suffer. If you get that this is not a narrative film but punishment for accepting violence in films as the norm, then you just might learn something.....but you'll still be pretty unhappy.

The first thing you'll learn is that Michael Haneke is a genius but he's a cruel genius. Like Pasolini and Nagisa Oshima, he was on the outside of genre films because he was smarter than all his peers who were making genre films or dramatic pieces which at best hinted at the material in his films and at worst making the violent dross he was condemning in Funny Games. And Michael Haneke has always had an advantage; his first movie is about a boy who watches violent movies and then murders a girl while he films it. You see what I mean? But just imagine how unpopular that makes him among other filmmakers. Imagine someone like Kazuo Kamizu or Uwe Boll coming into contact with this film. If they didn't think the violence was awesome and miss the point, they'd get furious because Michael Haneke was at once calling them out and being just as violent as the thing he's pissing at. And what's best is that his actual films, his proper dramatic pieces that don't wink at the audience, are all brilliantly understated. Starting with The Piano Teacher he made and continues to make a string of quiet movies about the human spirit that do not by any means rub their moral in your face. Funny Games was a statement, an essay, whereas something like Time of the Wolf was a film. Michael Haneke is capable of making both things superbly and making most other directors seem like fools; whether or not he means to is irrelevant but he does. So no, you won't like Funny Games but you're not supposed to. If you like it as a straight-up film, get out more often you're too dark for you're own good; if you like its message but the thought of seeing it again makes you curl up in a fetal position, well I can't say you're really any better off but at least there's nothing wrong with you. I love what Haneke has to say but I never want to see this knife wound of a movie ever again.

Haneke actually remade Funny Games a few years ago with Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as Georg and Anna and Michael Pitt as the lead creep. Don't worry about comparing them, they're the same film. The only reason he made it was so that those of us who fear subtitles might stumble upon it and soak up the message, that's it. It doesn't matter if one's better, it matters that you get his point: that media violence is pointless and people like Eli Roth and James Wan ought to maybe not treat women like cattle that are there to be slaughtered. That's why people who say they hated the remake just confuse me. It's the same film with the same message. It's an essay reprinted in a different language, how was there room for you to hate it? If Michael Haneke had filmed himself telling you the moral of the story in German and English and then had you watch them both, could you say which was better or worse? It's the message that matters, not the language you say it in. So while I hated watching Funny Games I give it an a decent grade because of what it has to say and how well it says it, not because I liked hearing it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 5: Death By American Flag

A while back when I took a look at the Alien series I accidentally left out the fourth film. I feel like it was accidental, that so many years without having seen it just forced it from my mind as I was so caught up in the original three and their merits. Maybe it was because I was kind of embarrassed to look at the black mark on the franchise and on the career of its director and stars. It proves an age old truth that an independent with vision plus studio money, science fiction and a deadline equals the worst work of their career but that's no consolation for just how bad this movie is. Filled with uncharacteristic set-pieces that die-hards consider sacrilegious and more comic misfires than you can shake a stick at, the only thing I can say in this film's defense is that its director made sure that the film was interesting to look at more often than not. Not even a cast of hardened character actors could save this dreck. But it put me in mind of the other times that a French director was put in charge of a big deal American movie with actors who don't share a first language. The result are always kind of the same: some miscalculations that make it difficult, but not impossible, to enjoy.

Alien: Resurrection
by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Just when you thought it was over, some scientists have cloned Ellen Ripley, hero of the last three Alien films in the hopes of extracting that queen she had in her stomach when she leapt to her death at the end of Alien³. I know, I know, that queen came from a planet somewhere, why not just find that planet? Cause if Sigourney Weaver wasn't in this movie absolutely no one would have seen it and 20th Century Fox sure as shit wouldn't have paid for it. So they've brought her back and started breeding aliens and then...they keep her around for some reason. Then some people show up at the big ship where they're cloning people because it's also a military ship on top of a science that doesn't make any sense....if this is still the company...then wouldn't it just be private security contractors not the military...and whose military? Earth? Space? So then a salvage crew that are actually smugglers land because their lead guy, Elgyn, wants to steal from them (not that it matters). Then predictably the aliens break loose and Ripley and the remaining salvage crew, an evil scientist, a soldier, and a guy with an embryo in his chest all have to get to the crew's ship and leave. Then some other stuff happens that really doesn't matter in the slightest and the most likable people get killed and then they get to earth and it's over. Oh and then there's that alien that's supposed to be part human that actually just looks like a ghost as drawn by Todd McFarlane.

What a fucking mess. I blame that fucking Joss Whedon. He's the guy who created both the terrible Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie and the terrible television series based on his stupid movie. Then in his downtime he wrote Titan A.E. (which was stupid) and Firefly/Serenity. Alien: Resurrection was a run-through for Firefly and Serenity as its template is identical: a motley crew of space traveling gunslingers with secrets. I hate this movie almost as much as I hate all the other stuff he does. To think that this movie, the fourth in a series that I love, is a dress rehearsal for his stupid ass pet project is really kind of insulting. His writing is always the same, we follow a bunch of people who are either high schoolers who talk like thirty year olds or thirty year olds who talk like high schoolers and the result is always the same: I don't like or care about any of them because they're types not people. Who cares what happens to character types? I don't. Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn't quite know enough about that kind of writing to make it self-referential or post-modern. This was his first film without Marc Caro, so he had to do everything himself. The dialogue is played mostly straight, which is at odds with Whedon's writing. Jeunet was too concerned with the colour scheme and the production design to try and read into a very juvenile American style of writing. He didn't even think to make the most of the character actors he'd been given. Ron Perlman and Dan Hedaya can be good and Dominique Pinon is almost always good (this is his only english role that I know of). In fact, everybody can be good, but they're not here. Leland Orser, Raymond Cruz, Michael Wincott and Brad Dourif are all competent, but Jeunet didn't know how to direct them. Winona Ryder is at her very worst and everything that made Ellen Ripley a likable character before is missing. In short this was a fusion of styles that didn't work and the performances are one of the many casualties that resulted.

Alien: Resurrection was also one of those unfortunate films that tried to make use of CG before they had mastered that so while the aliens look better than they did in the Alien³, they don't look much better. In fact in close-up they're the worst yet. Jeunet gave them personal touches that just made them look kinda lizardy and goofy. He also added a lot of yellowish gore and slimy blood effects so when the movie isn't compositionally repulsive, it's also physically repulsive. All I can say is that it's an action film and as a 12 year old boy I enjoyed the action sequences...that's about it. It's anti-charismatic and uncomfortable and just kind of sad that they let Joss Whedon turn such an amazing series into a faux-hard-boiled gooey abortion. Sometimes better gore effects can be applied to an old formula and a decent time can be had. Case in point:

The Hills Have Eyes
by Alexandre Aja

Granted a remake and a sequel are two different ballgames but I think that Aja spoke the language of horror movies and so was able to make a better film than Jeunet could in similar circumstances. Also, the difference between Aja's Haute Tension and Aja's The Hill Have Eyes is the difference between pie and cobbler, one's just a little messier. Ok, so, the story is basically the same as Wes Craven's excellent original except the politics come out guns blazing because Aja and subtlety don't get along. The Carter family pulls in at a rest stop on their way to their vacation spot and meet a shifty old guy who'd seconds earlier finished screaming at a young girl called Ruby. Big Bob, the head of the family, is played by Ted Levine so he's an imposing ex-cop jagoff; his wife Ethel is the sort of religious mother that no one pays attention to anymore. Bobby and Brenda are the youngest kids so they bicker a lot. Their older sister Lynn and her husband Doug Bukowski (you gotta be fucking kidding me? That's the name of your left leaning 20 something?) have a daughter, Catherine, and they don't exactly gel with the rest of the family. The Carters leave with some supplies and raised eyebrows at the old man's behavior. All in all, everyone's a little miserable and they get much more miserable when someone pulls up a home made spike strip and strands them in the middle of the desert with no spare tire. Bob and Doug go looking for help in different directions; Doug comes back empty handed a little while later and Bob heads to the service station. He shows up in time to findthe old man trying to kill himself. Before he can get a straight answer someone shows up, kills him properly, brains Big Bob and drags him into a mineshaft.

The Carters get their asses beat when the as-yet-unseen villains distract everyone by tying Bob to a cactus and lighting him on fire. While the men investigate, a bunch of mutants board their RV and rape and kill the women. Only Brenda, Doug, Bobby and one of their german shepherds are left to exact their revenge, which is part Rube Goldberg, part Rambo and a lot of gore and get back baby Catherine from the mutant's clutches. People get axed and shot and ripped to pieces and punched in the face and attacked by dogs and whipped with spike strips and thrown off rocks and stabbed with Americans flags (again with the subtlety). This movie is super intense once it gets going, but as the story was already intense before Aja got ahold of it, all he's really responsible for is the color scheme and the degree to which we're subject to splattering heads and particularly awful stabbings. The acting is adequate (I like Aaron Stanford the best, but he's really no better or worse than anyone else, he just gets the most dirty and I like my action heroes covered in grime; plus, he saves a baby) and the cinematography is David Finchery. The mutants look like real mutants instead of the low budget Dennis Hopper types we got in the original but with a bigger budget comes little charm. The original was like the low budget desert horror film and its charm came from its subverting the need for a budget by showing how evil people can get without effects or really even much make-up. This one's more about how gross people can look before they get bludgeoned to death because that's what Alexandre Aja does well. That and pointing fingers at American imperialism, but not quite correctly. Aja makes Big Bob's politics seem outdated and silly and so Doug Kerouac-Sartre is the hero and his murdering a mutant with an American flag is supposed to be symbolic of America. The only problem with that is that there wouldn't be mutants in the first place if the US government hadn't used the south west as target practice in the 40s and 50s for big cancer-giving missiles. So....America's guilty, I get that, and I'm not saying I disagree, but what part of American culture are you trying to critique because the villains are only villains because they got bombed....doesn't that kind of make them like the vietcong? Maybe I'm reading too much into this....
I don't know, this wasn't a huge disappointment or anything and as remakes go I had fun, but I knew the story already so the only thing they could have done differently was the gore, really, because that's how Hollywood operates. If like most productions of Shakespeare they'd totally revamped it and set in the early 19th century or something, that would have been cool, but it is what it is. So what I've learned from these two films is that when you put a French director in charge of an American franchise you get a moody, icky film that is riveting but disingenuously American. They don't get American acting or politics so they fake it - if they didn't, their films would be a little easier to sit through. Or if they'd simply stuck with making films in France, which Jeunet blessedly has. Of course if all the new European directors had just kept making films in thier home language and mother tongue, we wouldn't have half the American horror films we have today; how's that for a Catch-22?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 4: Death By Cleaver

French films have pretty much always had a learning curve in style. Starting in the 60s, French filmmakers took post-modernism to its apex and by the time 1975 rolled around there wasn't much left to be done before advances in cinematography and special effects could allow the country's artists to once again come to forefront of audacious directing. After the death of François Truffaut, France's greatest directors went largely unnoticed during the 80s, making films either too simple or too confrontational for foreign audiences. France got its flagship director in the post-Brazil era in the form of Jean-Pierre Jeunet who quickly won just about everyone's heart as he conquered the fantasy and quirky comedy genres simultaneously. After his films made a mark on the world at large, some of Europe's most clever directors began coming out of the woodwork. I can't say for certain that the world's sudden interest in the Michel Hanekes and Christophe Ganses of the world was due to Jeunet's sudden appearance on the scene, but it does kinda seem that way. I defy you to think of a French film with a more vocal stateside following than Jeunet's Amelie or someone whose imagination could have inspired the confidence of the bosses at 20th Century Fox that they would put him in charge of one of their most important franchises (the results were tragic but I digress). Jeunet brought America's attention back to French filmmaking after their dormancy during the 80s and has since become the most important export for mainstream audiences who can tolerate subtitles and this was where it all began.

by Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro

It's a hot, sweaty, post-apocalyptic Parisian night; food is short, animals are nearly extinct and tensions are running high. A butcher sharpens his carving knife near a vent while a nervous looking man a few floors above him listens in. It's almost as if the butcher is taunting the man above with his sharpening. Sensing impending disaster, the nervous looking man covers himself in rubbish and hides in a trash can. When the trash collectors come and he gets hoisted through the air, the man thinks himself safe but when the lid is pulled off and the deranged butcher is there holding the lid and his knife his relief quickly vanishes. The desperate nature of our setting becomes clear the next day when a building's worth of tenants line up to get a week's worth of meat from the butcher with grim impatience. The butcher is also the landlord and everyone knows that they'll pay rent and keep quiet lest they end up on a scale wrapped in cheese cloth. When a short man called Louison arrives to take a job as the building handyman the butcher, whose name is Clapet, smiles with piggish delight; the ad that Clapet put in the paper put me in mind of the one Mr. Burns places before heading to Ape Island (nerds, I shouldn't need to explain what that's from). Everyone else in the building seems similarly delighted at the man's arrival except Clapet's daughter Julie who watches him unpack with sad eyes; I don't think I need to tell you what a building full of hungry cynics led by a mean-eyed butcher plans to do with our hapless handyman.

Louison is a funny little man who delights in making his neighbors and their children laugh, not that anyone feels particularly like laughing; before taking the job Louison made his living as a clown whose partner, a now-deceased monkey, was his only real friend. Julie finds him charming enough to invite him over for dinner and then tries to reason with her father about the man's fate. Clapet has heard this song from her before it seems as he tells her what he must do is for her and everyone else's good. Her attachment to Louison has greater consequences that reigniting a feud with her dad; the postman, who is in on Clapet's scheme and shares his conservative social-Darwinist belief system, harbours a crush for Julie and her affections for the Louison are just one more reason the ex-clown should sleep with one eye open, not that our optimistic hero senses any danger. Julie, seeing misfortune in the near future, contacts an underground resistance group living in the sewers and offers the vast stores of food her father has been squirreling away in exchange for bringing Louison to safety. How much would you like to wager that some comic mishaps are going to throw a monkeywrench in everybody's plan?

Ok, I'll come clean, this isn't strictly a horror film. Ok, it's not a horror film in anything but its cannibalistic premise, which is even dealt with in such an underhanded way that you forget that so monstrous an act is really motivating all these silly characters. I know that a website with the word Zombie in the url and a bunch of Dawn of the Dead stills ought to stick to the fright but this is dystopian sci-fi (of a darkly comic nature), a subgenre I love almost as much as the zombie film and it just so happens to be better and more imaginitive than its peers. I also like doing clever mash-ups of existing styles and genres in my reviews; to that end, this film could be thought of as Soylent Green meets The Triplets of Belleville or Children of Men meets Eating Raoul. And it's not for nothing that I brought up Brazil in the preamble. Jeunet and co-director Marc Caro clearly owe a debt to that film: A madcap adventure where a girl helps an awkward optimist escape the clutches of a conspiracy with the help of a be-goggled underground organization? That’s Brazil alright. Interestingly Gilliam himself was hard at work on his another influential dystopian film when Delicatessen hit theatres in France; that film, 12 Monkeys, also paid homage to classic sci-fi and became one of the more influential films of the nineties. And really I can think of no film more deserving of its audience; it's not scary but it is witty, inventive, unique and endearing rising above the confines of all of its genres and though you know you're safe with these characters it's still fun getting caught up in their story.
The story of Delicatessen is fun and wild and chances are you'll love it; If you're an American you might raise your eyebrows at scenes like the rhythmic apartment. The trailer for Delicatessen was like the Alien trailer of black comedy; it was wordless and probably drove home a lot of anti-French-film sentiment. The preview showed one scene in its entirety that goes like this: Clapet and his long-suffering mistress have sex on a bed with squeaky springs creating a rhythm that is joined by the daily activities of the other tenants (two brothers make children's toys in their shop, Louison paints his ceiling with repetitive brushstrokes, Julie bows her cello, etc.) and the impromptu song grows louder until Clapet finishes his raucous lovemaking. That was all Americans saw before the film hit the nine theatres near NYU that it ever got to, so just imagine what they thought. That scene, while certainly smirk-inducing, is a bit too off-topic for me to just write off to stylishness. Tangents like that, which would make children happy if they'd been allowed to watch this film, draw me out of the film proper as they've nothing to do with the plot. It's almost like Jeunet had too little confidence in his storytelling to leave it to the simple act of playing it straight. There are gaps in the film's logic which would be fine in less capable hands but I've seen all of Jeunet's later work and trust him more than most to deliver a smooth story. Really though I think that the reason the film comes out so disjointed is because the film wasn't made for major studio cash. Delicatessen accounts for its low budget first off by looking amazing and secondly by going on those quirky tangents. The scene where Louison and Julie charm each other by playing cello and saw side-by-side serves no real narrative purpose, nor does the rhythmic apartment, the frogman or even the bits with the Troglodists, really. They exist mainly to show the flare our auteurs had for using film to sing songs as well as tell stories if that makes sense, which is impressive but not especially productive when I'm looking for dystopia. The film could have come to its conclusion just as noisily without those bits but they do make for a more humanistic and distinctive film so of course I'll happily look the other way. Luckily the few quibbles I have are nothing compared to everything Jeunet and co-director Marc Caro do right. Accept that you won't be scared but you will be entertained by something maybe a little childish and well...

Caro and Jeunet split this film right down the middle, Caro handling the environment and Jeunet the actors, which makes for a nearly perfect balance of elements. Jeunet loves quirky characters and rarely has any problem bringing them to life with compassion and humour and Caro is a brilliant designer. Between Caro's knack for strange surroundings, Jeunet's ability to bring out the weird in people and then-unknown cinematographer Darius Khondji's stunning golden-hued pastel pallette, Delicatessen is a feast for the eyes (Sorry, I had to! Don't hurt me!). Delicatessen is one of the few dystopian films with a sense of humour (and not the creepy Charlton Heston kind, either) and rather fittingly launched good many careers not the least of which was Dominique Pinon, Jeunet's only consistent player. You'd know him if you saw him, he's got very sepcific features and could more than easily play a villain but never gets the chance, but he's easy to root for so it's ok. It was also the first film to feature Jean-Pierre Jeunet's trademark look. You can pretty much always look at any frame from his films, see that colour like the sun's just gone down nearby, and know that Jeunet was the man standing a few feet behind the camera. This is logical given that it's his first feature but not many directors arrive on the scene with their style cleary defined. Sometimes the French are just better at this than anyone else. Oh and I do find it rather fitting that the first major dystopian film to come from France had such a strong gastronomic theme, igniting and confronting many of the assumptions about French culture while trouncing the competition.Remember that the majority English language sci-fi films of the day probably had either Rutger Hauer or Christopher Lambert in a starring role if they weren't most unwelcome sequels to existing films (Jeunet soon found himself caught in that noisy machine but left to his own devices he was a dynamo at sci-fi). With crap like Nemesis and Demolition Man hitting theatres every week and success in the genre sci-fi quickly becoming directly proportionate to how much money was spent on futuristic set design that needed to look both advanced and dilapidated at once, seeing Delicatessen was like hearing Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It In People for the first time. Seeing that someone put as much, if not more, effort into clever sound design as they did into choreographing action scenes was like discovering the artform's potential for greatness anew; that the film takes place in a leaky mostly wooden apartment building instead of a garish futuristic prison was also a pretty big selling point for me. Jeunet and Caro couldn't have picked better elements to combine in a decade where Universal Soldier and Freejack were both greenlit by major studios. It is the cure, the antithesis to sci-fi in the 1990s and even if it weren't half as charming I'd still give it flying colours for its audacity. Luckily, Delicatessen is a pretty remarkable film even out of context.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Leave Le France! Chapter 3: Death By Saw

A little while ago, France became the place for nasty little David Fincher-esque shockers, paying lip-service to giallos and slashers alike. One proto-slasher in particular, Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, seems to be the influence de jour. Though these movies are a little more like Mario Bava films (or even Sergio Martino films) in their structure, vileness and color they share Tobe's knack for harrowing and creative violence. Tobe didn't quite have the resources to produce something as lurid as Shock or Blood and Black Lace, even if his movie was much better and much more inventive than anything Bava ever touched. These new school guys, however, have the resources to make something as nasty and claustrophobic as Texas Chainsaw and as thoughtfully designed as Opera. The quality is about halfway between that of the differing source materials, making up for logical inconsistencies with stylish onslaughts of crowd-pleasing violence, but I'd still take Texas Chainsaw anyday. I will say this, both of these films are better than The Devil's Rejects.

Haute Tension
By Alexandre Aja

Haute Tension or High Tension starts in a car, like 90% of home invasion horror films. Marie is going to meet her friend Alexia's family in their country house. This includes her mother, father and little brother Tommy. They settle in, have dinner and for no other reason than Alexandre Aja thought it was cool, we watch Marie masturbate. Then a man in a creepy old truck shows up. He kills Alexia's father when he comes to the door by taking his head off using a bookshelf and the railing on the stairs. Then he goes upstairs stabs her mother to death. Little Tommy is shot trying to escape and then the old man makes off with Alexia tied up in the back of the truck. Marie stows away, apparently unseen by the ancient murderer. The man makes a quick stop at a gas station and Marie sees her opening. She and the killer play cat-and-mouse in the gas station (the attendant is killed with an ax) and the old man leaves before she can sneak back inside the cargo. She calls the police, but they don't seem too anxious to help, so she tears off after him in the gas clerk's muscle car while a Muse song plays for no other reason than Alexandre Aja thought it was cool. She flips her car over not two minutes after the chase begins and then things take a weird turn. Marie takes a piece of wood with barbed wire wrapped around it and stops the killer, but then she chases after Alex with a big circular saw (again, Alexandre Aja thought it was cool) and then we have one of those identity switcheroos so popular in thrillers. This film's international title was originally Switchblade Romance, for no other reason than Alexandre Aja thought it was cool, as there's a noticeable paucity of both switchblades and romance.

Like Eli Roth and Quentin Tarentino before him, Alexandre Aja is a film geek and he wants you to know how many films he's seen. He's seen Torso, he's seen The Shining, he's seen Texas Chainsaw, he's seen Halloween, he's seen Zombie, he's seen Maniac, he's seen Blue Velvet, he's seen 'em all. Does that make his film better? Tough to say. If he didn't have all these visual quotes, he probably wouldn't have half the things he wanted to say. That means his movie depended on all the other films he's seen in a Tarentino-esque way, in a way that makes me think he didn't have a story so much as a laundry list of films to crib from. The story is so thin (which I'll gladly write off to Aja not having any money) that I feel like the film is made of influences, rather than being propped up by them. It doesn't matter where your enjoyment of the film is concerned which is directly proportional to how much you like tension punctuated by gruesome death.

And that's all there is to it really. Unlike À l'intérieur, the film gives you a reason to care about the characters, just not the ones that live past the 15 minute mark. So because we know that Marie has a friend that she's looking out for (or so we are led to believe) it becomes easy to root for her. The switcheroo kinda takes the fun out of the tension we just sat through, but I guess Aja was just looking for a change in the usual formula (actually, that we don't get more needless sex than we get is something I'd like to thank our auteur for. One of the few things that Aja eschews that his masters were prone to include was the usual pre-marital sex that precedes most deaths by dismemberment in a film of this variety. Of course, you take out the sex and you make this film about violence for violence's sake, which isn't really anything I feel great about, either).

They did the whole "or so you thought!" ending in that film Identity (which makes it too much like a courtroom thriller for my tastes) and it bugged me then, too. Can't we ever just watch some real shit happen to people. It's like some existential test, like it's important that we consider that perhaps nothing is real and that it's all in our minds. The French are some dark fellows, alright, which brings me to….

By Xavier Gens
All throughout À l'intérieur people make reference to the 'violence in the streets' as there's some unseen riot going on somewhere in France at the time. I like to think that their talking about the riot that starts this film. Yasmine and her brother Sami have gotten mixed up with Yasmine's ex-boyfriend Alex and two of his thuggish friends, Tom and Farid, who are at the heart of the riots. Every synopsis I've ever read says that they're looting during the riots, but I really don't see it like that. Or anyway, Xavier Gens doesn't make it seem like that. Yasmine's pregnant, so I suspect that she was after an abortion on the wrong side of town when the riots broke out. Either that or they were just protesting with everyone else. I'll come back to the confusion in a minute. Regardless of the why, they're being followed by the police who shoot Sami, mortally wounding him. Tom and Farid flee the city while Yasmine and Alex drop Sami off at the hospital. Tom and Farid stop at a little B&B by the border.

Things go great at first, cause one of them gets laid, but things take a nasty turn when we figure out that the inn is run by a bunch of incestuous Nazis. Tom and Farid receive one of the many deaths the film has in store for them. In most films, teenagers are there to get killed. In Frontière(s) they're there to get brutally murdered over and over and over again. I swear everyone in this film has nine lives. Anyway, it comes out shortly enough that everyone at the inn is a fucking lunatic. When Alex and Yasmine show up expecting to meet up with Tom and Farid and instead find themselves chained up in a pig pen while a burly fellow tells them about the birth of the new master race, it comes as more than a small shock. Would you bet that the baby inside Yasmin's stomach might prove a valuable commodity to a closet Obersturmfuhrer with a pig farm, a shit-ton of firearms and family of freaks at his command?

After that the film becomes approximately a series of very nasty murders and half-murders. People are shot, table-sawed, blown-up, stabbed, cooked alive, meat-hooked and basically mistreated all night and into the day. There's a Texas Chainsaw style dinner, a pit of incestuous rat babies, and a completely ludicrous bunker (if something ever cried David Fincher, it's that bunker) beneath the hotel. In fact, if I could pick a word for all this sorted violence it would have to be just that, ludicrous. It's a little Looney Tunes-esque in the way it refuses to simply be rid of some characters. They get chewed up, spat out, and they’re back again for more. You see the set up, go "Oh, really? That old gag?" then someone falls on the saw, or they lock the oven doors or whatever stunt that Bugs Bunny did better. And if it weren't so off-the-wall it would be a much harder film to watch. When I watched this the first time I started to suspect that I'd become nearly oblivious to movie violence. The character of the violence is really all that can be played with anymore and because this has a bit of a darkly comic character it was easier to take in than say Suspiria or The Last House on the Left. That aside, there is an awful lot of violence, so, if you have a sense of humour about that then by all means dive in. If you like a little plot with your violence, you may do to look elsewhere.

And before die-hards get all up in arms, yes I know about the left-wing subtext. I know that the riots are caused by a right-wing election, I know the nazis are meant to be a counterpoint in society, I know Yasmine wants an abortion to spare being raised in a society of fascism, and oh how ironic that is, I know all that! That's also how I know that Yasmine and Alex weren't just looting, they were doing something left-wingy, I'm just not sure what. But I don't see that someone who puts so much time and effort setting up that tablesaw gag can really then be taken all that seriously. This isn't a political film; sure, it starts as one, and there are some asides of a political nature, but what it really is a much better French Saw film. If you'd like a lesson on how to make a political horror film, watch Ken Russell's The Devils, or less subtly Joe Dante's Homecoming or John Carpenter's They Live. Whatever else may be said of them, they keep their politics constantly at hand; they don't bring it up when it suits them. This is a film about people being butchered creatively. As that, a slate-grey film about zany homicide, I liked it, but that's what it is.
I think there's definitely something to the simple foreignness of foreign movies to increase your enjoyment of them, if you follow me. To see the French play with Texas Chainsaw is almost always more satisfying than watching Americans do it because they come from a different perspective. They have an effortless style, if no couth, and can appeal to youths and adults in a way that teenage butchery of stateside origins cannot. They've long been leaps and bounds ahead of the majority where film is concerned and it wasn't long after Aja's debut that American horror films took on the simultaneous sheen and grit of their European cousins. It's worth mentioning that the majority of the major studio horror remakes of the last decade were done by Europeans. Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), Dennis Iliades (The Last House on the Left), Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th), Martin Weisz (The Hills Have Eyes 2), Olivier Herschbiegel (The Invasion), Eric Valette (One Missed Call) and Jaume Collett-Serra (House of Wax) are all working inside the American studio system. Gens was almost immediately imported to direct the movie Hitman based on the video game of the same name. They all made better films back home and none of those films needed a remake, but there you have it. I think it sort of funny to think that in order to remake classic genre films, they look to people who thoughtfully synthesized them. Not satisfied with paying tribute, they seek to utilize the influence of said films into box-office numbers by turning them into name brands. Violence begets violence, and for the best in violence, Americans look to France, but only to reproduce horror, not to create new horror. Studios are like the family in Frontière(s), they can’t make their own children in the image of their ideal, so they must use outsiders to do it for them.