Saturday, October 10, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 18: The Inhuman Condition

I'm going to let you in on a secret: the 90s were a horrible time for culture. American culture, especially but the whole thing was very nearly a wash. The few successes (Radiohead, the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski (who we'll return to in just a moment), Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Michael Mann, edgier cartoons before Nickolodeon became repulsed by the very notion of 'edgy', Rage Against The Machine, Danny Boyle's first two movies) were only such because they had to work within 'the system' whatever it may have been at the time. It was terrible because largely success was just not on anyone's mind. Insultingly boring sitcoms ruled the airwaves while good TV shows (The Kingdom, Twin Peaks, Fishing With John) couldn't find backing for more than a season or two. Music was ruled by radio-ready tripe, rock became largely irrelevant and boy bands had more fandom than Kurt Cobain could have ever dreamed of killing himself over. The Pixies broke up, Ride broke up, My Bloody Valentine fell apart, Soundgarden broke up, Some Velvet Sidewalk broke up, Chapterhouse broke up; meanwhile people couldn't get enough of Oasis, and when grunge music died down the only thing we had to show for it was a culture ready to accept ultra-dramatic white boys like Creed, Linkin Park, Staind, Nickelback and P.O.D. who all become overnight fucking hitmakers. And film...Ye Gods! Titanic was considered the best picture of 1997 for fuck's sakes! Romantic comedies sold women on the idea of forced domesticity and they bought it en masse, Rob Schneider and Adam Sandler started their 'acting' careers and horror films reached unforeseen lows. It's telling that when you ask people to think of horror in the 90s, overwhelmingly what you hear is Scream and the wave of not-as-goods that followed. Slasher films arrived that would have made cynics like Joe D'Amato raise an eyebrow (incidentally, he bought it during the height of their popularity), late-in-the-game sequels and straight-to-video bores ate up precious shelf-space and there was almost no alternative. Even foreign countries, usually the place for "at least it's better than what we've got here" horror films, couldn't do much better than sub-Evil Dead horror comedies. There were rare exceptions, but the best horror for the most part lay outside the confines of the genre.

Baby Blood
by Alain Robak

In an opening that is way too similar to the sort of thing that used to open Roger Corman movies, a voice that you'll get tired of pretty much immediately, tells you his life story and how his desire is to be born a human being. The voice belongs to an alien parasite of some sort that rides in the body of a leopard from Africa to a French circus, where it then wanders into the womb of the ringleader's already pregnant wife. She flees in terror to a dank apartment building and her husband is only able to find her after a month of searching. She would have enough trepidation coming back to him simply because he's an abusive asshole, nevermind that she has the always-present voice of an alien organism in her belly giving her orders that only she can hear. The alien decides what's best for all involved is for Yanka, for that is the poor woman's name, to stab her husband to death and drink his blood. She can only really go through with half of her plan before she has to flee the apartment. The alien is also omniscient, maybe? The script is never clear about what all he can do, but he knows plenty more than he should considering he's stuck behind six inches of lady the whole film. We then move arbitrarily forward in time leading to the event of the creature's birth and stopping along the way to see all the murdering that Yanka has to do to keep her bundle of terror satisfied enough to refrain from giving her violent ulcerous fits. She kills people, sleeps with people, pretends that she wants to sleep with them so that she can then kill them and does a lot of blood drinking. The birth is not the end of the film, as it should have been if director Alain Robak had any sense but he does not and this film is more than enough proof of that point.

Baby Blood has almost no structure, it's just an assemblage of set-pieces that are just not clever enough to sustain a film that has a timeline built into it. Yanka is already a month or into her pregnancy when we begin, and that in and of itself, the helplessness of a mother and the very strict deadline of a birth at the end, should have been more than enough to build a story and generate tension but Robak and fellow writer Serge Cukier have no interest in that whatsoever. What they wanted to do was make Dead Alive before Dead Alive: a movie with only the most simple of plots that would allow them to ladle on the very obviously fake gore and gratingly awful 'humour'. Characterization is thrown out the window by the time Yanka's ready to give birth when the movie falls the fuck to pieces and can't decide how it wants to end. It feels largely like they were still writing it when they were filming the ending, such is its ramshackle, back-of-a-schoolbus, "and then this happens, and then this happens" feeling. They threw out an intriguing premise with a lot of potential in favor of a rather sordid gore comedy that fails on both accounts, the gore and the comedy. This is a movie whose idea of clever is to have a sign advertising its own sequel halfway through the movie. Way to remind me how trite your movie is!

The gore is plentiful to be sure but it is dreadfully executed. When people are stabbed to death and in Evil Dead fashion actress Emmanuelle Escourrou is splattered with buckets (I mean literally buckets) of blood, I found myself thinking a couple of things, not the least of which was, "Did they think this was funny?" It's not funny to simply have blood in such great quantities because the framing story is too grave to have bouts of slapstick interrupt it. Robak seems to forget that his heroine is an insecure pregnant woman with a timebomb in her belly. There are scenes that are direct quotes (read: stolen passages) from Sam Raimi's movies, as when the fellow leans into a car window to look at Yanka's baby and then his legs kick about as gallons of gore are launched over his feet. Yeah, I've seen that before, except it made sense in Sam Raimi's film because at no point are you asked to take it seriously. Baby Blood has the makings of a real story and it asks for your sympathy and then pulls cheap gags like that off, just after moments of actual concern where Yanka approaches what we're meant to believe is her death. Emmanuelle Escourrou does a remarkable job with no direction and at times does convey at least some of the sense of the inevitability of her death but the movie fails her spectacularly. Not only does her big moment get spoiled by a pair of comic relief ambulance drivers and a sub-Looney Tunes sight gag, she then has to walk around in a daze as the movie peters out beyond its and her character's life expectancy.

Worse still is that the only other people Escourrou interacts with are really slimy caricatures of cads. The men she seduces are all shiftless louts who do all they can to earn their horrid deaths, but who just don't work against Escourrou's tragic and determined femme fatale. There are rules ignored wholesale about tone and their scenes comes across with the same sensibility as if you put Robert Benigni and Helen Mirren in a road movie together. There's also something wildly exploitative about making Escourrou appear naked. She is after all supposed to be pregnant and Robak has her appear nude in scenes that are way-too-well-lit. It's not that she isn't good-looking, it's that I find myself repulsed by someone (Robak) who asks this much of his lead. She's supposed to be big with child and the script acknowledges as much and I really can't stand the thought of Robak explaining to his lead that she is supposed to be both 'fat' and naked. That sort of thing has all kinds of manipulative implications and it took me out of the movie on more than one occasion to simply marvel at how gross the whole idea is. He wants to exploit this most sensitive and harrowing time in a woman's life and still wants her to bring in horny guys by having her appear statically naked in too-bright interiors. So, morally as well as thematically, I found Baby Blood reprehensible. That's not to say that there aren't some good things in here; the stuff just before the birth does have depth to it, even if it is incongruous.
And really it's in that incongruity that lies the problem with the 90s; if there is depth it is hidden behind an abhorrent go-for-broke mentality. The few times that something did manage to balance those elements, truly excellent things happened, but they were so rare that they're now cult items. I like to think of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant as the ultimate example of strange elements forming a coherent and quite amazing whole. The reason Ferrara was able to fuse drugs, sex and murder with redemption, religious imagery with truly unappealing scenes of debauchery and bottom-feeding was because he offered almost no commentary. His direction is flawlessly understated and we simply see things, as much an observer as the camera and the film dares you to pass judgment on its damned 'hero'. To go from the buddy cop films and the coked-up 'glamour' of police procedural shows of the 1980s to something as unflinchingly ugly and brutal as Bad Lieutenant was pretty much unheard of and to find it at a time when Rosie O'Donnell was a bankable movie star is unbelievable. I imagine those happening upon the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor would probably have had the same reaction in an era of VH1 divas and one-hit wonder 'alternative' rock bands. Similarly when I found Sombre, our next film, it was, to borrow a phrase from H.P. Lovecraft, eldritch. Not only was the movie uncannily good, it was unassumingly presented yet completely satisfying, one of those rare films that to call it a horror film is to sell it short.

Sombre
by Phillipe Grandrieux
A car travels along a dark road somewhere in France. We do not see it's driver, know it's destination or where it came from. Children laugh at what we'll later see is a puppet show, which never got old in France even if we don't rely on something as simple to entertain kids in the states. A man, Jean, sits in a dark room with a prostitute, giving her directions stripped of anything resembling eroticism or pleasure. His directions are desperate and just when it seems he'll undress and join her, he leaps on top of her and chokes her to death. The scene has no music and is shot in such a way that her body and the murder are shown in fragments, dehumanizing her in the way that Jean must have in order to do something so ghastly. The pattern repeats: a car drives alongside a road, this time passing spectators of the Tour de France, children laugh at the puppet show and Jean murders another woman. This time, two important changes: a child finds the body of his victim and Jean is shown to be the man orchestrating the puppet show. He goes on something like a spree just after and in one day kills two women and looks on his way to a third when he spies a woman, Claire, sitting in her broken-down car on the side of the road. He offers assistance and at once there is something different about their interaction. There's an awkwardness, a sort of rigidity about his performance as a normal man that rings false, which means he's trying to be normal because he doesn't plan on killing Claire, at least not yet.

He offers her a ride to her destination, which is first an embarrassing stop at her sister Christine's day-job (a sort of live infomercial at a grocery store, which Claire has to act in) and a trying stop at a party at her mother's house. She leaves in a snit after an argument with Claire in tow and the three of them get hotel rooms in the nearest bit of city they find. Some very bizarre things follow. Claire can't sleep one night because of the loud music coming from a nightclub on the corner below. Jean, coincidentally, is in that very same club trolling for a victim; he finds two of them. They go back to Jean's car and while one of them strips in front of his headlights, he starts feeling up the other girl in the driver's seat. Just when it seems like he's going to kill her, Claire walks by and he stops. Neither speaks but Jean is mortified. The two women run off so he drives around alone, settling on a girl he finds on the side of the road instead. He drives to a beach and finds Christine swimming nude and when she tries to instigate a moonlit coupling he is resistant, asking instead if her sister is single. Not only is she single, says jilted Christine, she's a virgin. Back at the hotel Claire finds Jean's puppets and tries one of them, a wolf costume, on herself just as Jean comes back. The awkwardness of earlier in the evening returns, their roles reversed very subtly.

The next day Christine suggests they all go swimming at a lake just outside of town and as she's neither sensitive to Jean's attitude toward Claire nor privy to the incident in Jean's car from the night before. Christine, clearly feeling neglected and wanting to provoke from the stoic Jean, turns up the charm. And by charm I mean she takes her panties off and throws them at him from the water. It comes as little surprise when he throws her down on the wet sand and starts trying to have sex with her. When Claire finds them Jean sits by himself in the water and Christine is covered in sand and is hurt but not seriously. They try to get back to their car but Jean finds them first and essentially kidnaps them. He brings them back to his hotel room and fondles both of them in explicitly sexual ways but doesn't rape them. He locks Christine in the room and takes Claire with him to a dance somewhere, getting her stupid drunk before hand. Jean leaves her alone a minute and Claire meets two guys who invite them back to their place for a party. That may be the least appropriate way to describe what actually goes on. In total darkness they drink, eat, and try to screw each other while "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus plays in nearly its entirety. It's totally strange and disconcerting and when one of them tries to rape Claire, Jean intervenes only to get the shit kicked out of him. Claire escapes and puts Christine on a train home.
Claire does not, as you or I might, call the police. Something about Jean's behavior in the dark house, his defense of her and the way that she is continually drawn to him causes her instead to drive back to find him. She finds him on the side of the road and tries to submit to him but there's a problem with that. Jean clearly cannot have ordinary sexual encounters with women. All of his murders start as foreplay and instead of finishing the act he kills them by placing his fingers in the way of their breathing passage. It's a penetrative surrogate sex act in and of itself which means that somewhere in his history something permanently fucked up his concept of eros. So, now faced with someone who only wants to have sex with him in a normal way and rebukes his attempts to do it his way, he has only the act and can't face Claire when it's done. He takes her and throws her in the shotgun seat of the next passing car and screams at the woman behind the wheel to leave him there. Claire is hurt but can't see it as a total loss. Jean is not an ordinary person so this cannot be an ordinary rejection. She invents their life story and shares it with the woman in the car, lies about their having been married for years, having children and many small squabbles in the past. In essence the life that Jean cannot ever have because of his murderous sexual psychosis. I've rarely if ever seen a serial killer explored in such a way. In fact the only thing that identifies Jean out to be a classically evil figure is the wolf costume that Claire finds (her wearing it makes him nervous and later when she is in control, in essence, wearing the wolf costume again, his reaction is much the same. He can't stand to not be a predator or be confronted with the failings in his nature, nor can he cope with her preying on him). Some people will cheat you out of objective murders by showing their serial killers as children (Pieces, Prom Night, Rob Zombie's Halloween), which is sort of a poor man's psychology course that tries to explain away how gruesome the movie will soon become. Grandrieux shows him as honestly as possible and explores his mental state in a way that, to my mind, has never been equalled or even approached in a genre film. He's also smart enough not to promise a happy ending despite Claire's strong feelings.

Now, what I just described to you regarding Jean's motivation is, to be fair, mostly my opinion. Philipe Grandrieux's style is fragmentary and does not offer anything like commentary. In fact it is Grandrieux's flat refusal to give the audience anything other than his ultra stylized take on the actions in his screenplay. If he has conclusions, he keeps them to himself. So the film is nearly dream like in its conjuring of the overwhelmingly dark images of sex and murder and Jean and Claire's inability to communicate. It's a touch like a David Lynch film (Lost Highway without the industrial aesthetic and the brutality toned down...and it's really a more satisfying and interesting film) in its isolated images relating to a greater theme. Take the headlight striptease. Something similar happens in Blue Velvet but David Lynch doesn’t ask you to buy its realism, so much as he asks you to accept it as an exaggerated and grotesque play on the serenity associated with suburban life (especially in the 1950s). Sombre takes the same kind of thing, makes it both (necessarily) darker and believable, and then revels in every awful second of it. That Sombre has a narrative that it sticks to even as apparent non-sequitors assault you is to its credit, as often David Lynch's best imagery does not remain within the confines of his story, though they relate to a greater theme. Grandrieux is simply interested in the darkest times in his characters experiences. The look of the film certainly demonstrates that. The movie is brilliantly shot; Sabine Lacelin's photography is gorgeous, in fact gorgeous sometimes doesn't do it justice, like those scenes at the lake. And with the exception of those scenes, everything is incredibly dark. If a room is in darkness or something happens on the side of the road, it really is as dark as those places get. In one of my favorite devices, Jean's victims often appear in his headlights, suggesting a chase has taken place. When Claire tracks him down after putting Christine on the train, he is in her headlights and so she retains control over the situation that follows, which makes his inadequacy all the more painful for him. It's a subtle and really effective idea. There's a uniqueness about its lighting; how often do wooded scenes not look like they've got floodlights overhead illuminating the action? And though its commitment to reality occasionally makes the screen almost black, I loved it. It keeps up with the atmosphere in a believable and non-manufactured way.
There are motifs throughout that suggest David Lynch and Jean-Luc Godard but the one person whose work I kept finding myself reminded of was Krzysztof Kieslowski. Keislowski was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived and his films were unusually humane. He had the greatest sense of human behavior and emotional turmoil of any director before or after (Ingmar Bergman often approached it, Steve McQueen and Tomas Alfredson have since come close and of course Grandrieux does an amazing job). His best films were told in the same sort of discontinuous style and always had beautiful composition and photography. Sombre may then be thought of as the genre film Kieslowski never made. I'm being semi-facetious because in no way does Sombre follow anything like genre conventions; the point being that Kieslowski didn't make straight drama or comedy, he made honest human stories that transcended genre, place and time. Sombre is often as good (indeed better in some cases) as Kieslowski's work, which is about the highest praise I can think to give a movie. Grandrieux applies the same kind of intimacy of a movie like Bleu or The Decalogue to a character that most filmmakers couldn't bring themselves to sympathize with. It helps that the performances are all wonderful, from the bored sex workers to Jean's perfect ineloquence. There are wonderful moments that seem uniquely successful to Sombre, like the look on Christine’s face when she sees Jean after he attempts to rape her at the lake. That look is the definition of horror and Grandrieux lingers on it long enough to let us believe that she's staring at the most frightening thing in the world to her. We believe it not because of the overwrought musical score, or the Hitchcockian camera movements, or the Fucli-esque close-ups of his victim's eyes, or the shot of the serial killer himself, or any artifice whatsoever because there is none. We only get her reaction and it is priceless in execution and implication. Sombre is one of the only films that manages to straddle the divide between horror and art with no problem and it is beautifully haunting from start to finish.

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