Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 2: Death By Pencil

The last year has been a good one for animation. Wall-E cleaned up at the academy awards, Coraline proved how effective and frightening something ostensibly made for kids can be, Waltz With Bashir proved that documentaries can be just as depressing when animated as when done straight, Up asked just how young is too young to know about female infertility and I was able to track down and watch Peur(s) Du Noir, the finest horror anthology in some time. Peur(s) Du Noir or Fear(s) of the Dark is to date one of the only scary animated films I've ever seen that had any intention of being so. It's an omnibus film with six unique takes on what scares us most (one of them actually addresses this question point blank) and some really do get to real nightmarish stuff. I'm no connoisseur of animation (and I'll say it now, I hate anime) but I really do think this one of the more imaginative forays into the rendered world.

Peur(s) Du Noir
by Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre Di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McQuire

First-time animator Blutch starts things off with easily the most unsettling of the bunch. A mad aristocrat goes walking with his four enormous hunting dogs. We see him pass a little boy, a group of poor workers and a beautiful dancer for each of whom he lets one dog free to do as they please. How does he plan to rid himself of the last? Pierre di Sciullo's animation runs the length of the film, popping up intermittently. It is a series of blobs and geometric shapes ever changing while voices explain what scares them most. It's not unlike the Sound Track from Fantasia, but without Deems Taylor asking patronizing questions. Charles Burns' next tale is a bit like Lucky McKee's Sick Girl. A young boy catches a strange insect in his youth but one day it escapes from its jar and he thinks it lost, but can't shake the feeling that it lives in his mattress. Years later, he invites a girl over to his apartment and after they spend the night together, she becomes obsessive. She never leaves, she's suspicious of his every move and becomes sexually aggressive. Think it has something to do with the mattress he never threw away and its squatter?

Marie Caillou's entry, like much of her work, fuses Japanese and French culture. A young Japanese girl is bullied at school and finds no respite in dreaming. Her nightmares are David Cronenberg-esque, full of humanoid horrors and animals given horrific new forms. Lorenzo Mattotti's is next and he wins the atmospheric prize. A young boy in an African village recounts an episode from his childhood when a friend went missing. Everyone blamed a monster they could not see or prove existed and the authorities went into a fury trying to catch it. The truth is logical but the story is fantastic. Richard McQuire's playful segment closes the film. A man walks in from a snowstorm into a seemingly abandoned house. There are no lights so he tries to maneuver his way about the place, finding remnants of the house's former inhabitants, scaring himself at every opportunity. Having had his fill of the place, he tries to leave, but he finds it harder than he anticipated.
Despite my greatest grievance, that it could have been scarier, I really enjoyed Peur(s) Du Noir. The structure felt a bit arbitrary as did the selection of animators, but I liked the end result. So, in descending order: Blutch's entry is hands down the most frightening. His style consists of crude pencil drawings which gives the story an unpredictable and troubling feel. There are no words spoken, just eyeball-only conversations before the release of a hound. The aristocrat's eyes are really frightening enough on their own, as are those of the boy the first dog murders. Blutch's segment more than account for the lack of fright in the others as it has everything I like about animation; darkness, violence and strangeness. The final segment, wherein the Aristocrat finds a mirror is perhaps the most satisfyingly creepy. The aristocrat does a devilish dance to celebrate his fooling the dogs, but not for very long; It makes the hair on my neck stand up. Pierre di Scullo's isn't really frightening at all, it's simply a series of lines. The stories aren't particular worrying, but as a transition they could have done worse I suppose. The film is about fear, after all, and this animation gets to the heart of the issue.
Charles Burns' story is rather uncomfortable (nudity on film is a tricky enough thing to do well but cartoon breasts almost always make me squirm because I feel like a teacher is about to come over and confiscate the paper they've been scribbled on and yell at John Lee, a classmate who used to make kids laugh with his drawings) as it deals explicitly with sex and all the ways it can be made terrifying. The story is not entirely original but I like the creepy ending so I give it a pass. Caillou's is the most at odds with the others and not just because it abandons the black-and-white color scheme in favour of turqoise-and-white. It's also done in mock-anime style, which almost put me off of it, but I love those nightmarish creatures the young girl encounters, so all is forgiven. And it's not real anime, anyway. Richard McQuire's has a playful, round sort of style like Burns' but his is a little more inventive. The whole thing is black, save for things that pass into incidental light, like a candle or a fireplace. His use of silence and darkness helps his thesis, which is that what we imagine is almost always worse than what's actually out there.

Lorenzo Mattotti's gets the highest grade from me. Its style is brilliant, a slate grey recreation of an imagined hysteria, the sort you'd expect of the tale Mattotti and writer Jerry Kramsky tell. I think it's no coincidence that it reminded me of many old folk tales, like that of Anansi the Spider or Quetzalcoatl. It gets to what makes tales like this so enchanting: their mystery. It isn't scary, per se, but its knee deep in noir. The beautiful landscapes and claustrophobic interiors are as gorgeous as they are evocative. Mattotti has a gift for story telling. He shows little but says so much. That his story is in the end not supernatural at all makes this all the more effective. He simply puts a frightening spin on modern life and let's implication follow us into our nightmares.
Often omnibus films are weighed down by the weakest link, but here everything flows rather nicely from one to the next and even the few weak spots simply leave you hungry for more of what's to comes. It is all rather dreamlike, much of it getting by on implication or refusing to comment on the unnerving images it serves up, which is perfect. The playfulness of many of the segments might under less special care have seemed too different from the horror to work but thanks to the intoxicating nature of the project I rather enjoyed myself.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 1: Death by Chance

I'm going to start my look at French horror with a lesson in existentialism. Did you know that life has no meaning, that it's cruel and savage and we should just give the fuck up? Hurry up and fucking kill yourself before someone picks you at random and dismembers all your friends and your family right before your eyes then murders you. Cause apparently David Moreau, Xavier Palud, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury all just figured that out and the best we can do is hope to die quickly. If they don't think that, how come their films are so soul-crushingly hopeless and grim, I ask you? Granted Ils (or Them) is a well made little thriller, but why oh why do the makes of the films below feel that really what we want to see is people dying for no reason. France must be the most nihilistic place on the planet, because though people like Bryan Bertino and Greg McLean don't have the sunniest outlooks, at least they offer some glimmer of hope that not everybody's going to get brutally murdered. Here are two very good reasons to get the hell out of France.

by David Moreau & Xavier Palud

Lucas and Clementine, like so many cinematic heroes before them, put a stopper in their affairs and head to the country for a vacation. Not long after they arrive, it becomes clear that someone (or ones) is watching them. The two lovers are really in for it tonight, you see; the same people watching them are already in the house and they mean them considerable harm. Should it come as comfort or a shock to learn that these relentless menaces are actually just a couple of teenagers that are also responsible for the murder of a mother and daughter we saw in the prologue and that if they don't get stopped, they'll probably just keep killing people? The kids chase Lucas and Clementine out of their house, into the woods and down into the sewers. Where will it end?

The plot is about as simple as they come and as "we have a camera, let's make a movie" excursions in horror go it is remarkably without flaws. It's representational in style and moves in real time when the kids show up to do their terrorizing. In fact, the only problem lies in it being completely unproblematic. It's realistic as all get out and its got some real kick in parts; the tension is really what carries it along, but after all that tension, I would have liked some relief (or some absolutely crazy explanation for things, something involving Satan or aliens). Alas, there is no relief. Like Funny Games without the post-modern commentary on movie violence, it has nothing but bad news. The randomness of the whole thing is part of some new filmmaking trend (present also in films like The Strangers and Eden Lake). I don't know if all every director in the genre had his or her heart broken at exactly the same time or some existentialist memo went floating around first-time director headquarters, but all at once the video rental stations in this country were inundated with films that seem to posit that we'll be lucky to die of natural causes.
I have no qualms about the film per se; it's virtually style free and has no moral but it scared me a few times. Those poor bastards in the director's chair got suckered into directing the American remake of The Eye, so it may be over for them, but we'll see. Maybe the cinematic gods we'll smile down on them and give them the chance to make another little film. And if those same gods exist, let's hope they give our next directors a severe case of Never-direct-another-fucking-thing-so-long-as-they-live-itis.

À l'intérieur
by Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury

Open on a terribly done CG baby that we'll see entirely too much of in this film and the mother's voice over. She says that nothing can take her baby away, then, just as she's finished that creepy bit of business, a car accident kills the thing in utero or so it would seem. We follow one of the crash's victims, Sarah, as she, a few months down the line on Christmas Eve, prepares for her holiday as a single mother. Her boyfriend died in the crash, you see. She goes to her ultra sound, meets her inexplicably disappointing mother, her father-figure editor, and then goes home. Just as she starts settling in, someone knocks on her door. The voice that asks to use her telephone should sound familiar. It claims that there's been an accident and that her boyfriend is dying. When Sarah refuses to let the woman in, claiming her husband is asleep, the voice shoots back a cool "No he's not. He's dead." That scares Sarah pretty badly, but not half as much as when the woman goes around to the back door and bangs on the glass. Sarah takes a picture of her and somehow manages to develop it before the police show up. Maybe someone can sort this out exactly, but developing a photograph takes usually about 5-10 minutes on average, and unless the police don't give a tinker's damn about their jobs, they'll be there in about two. This is the first of this film's many mistakes.

The police tell her that it's probably nothing but that they'll leave someone in the area just in case. Still riled up, Sarah calls her mother and her editor to tell them that something bad has happened. Before either person shows up, Sarah goes to bed. When she wakes up, the girl is on top of her with a pair of enormous metal scissors. The girl (who doesn't get a name) stabs her in the face and the stomach. Sarah throws the girl off and locks herself in the bathroom with a phone. Before she can get much into the reciever, the girl turns the fusebox off. Between different schemes to get into the bathroom (Sarah defends herself with broken mirror glass and a sewing needle alternately), the woman greets Sarah's editor at the door and convinces him that she is in fact Sarah's mother. That scheme goes south when Sarah's real mother shows up. The woman murders her editor and Sarah kills her mother whom she mistakes for the woman with the scissors. Then it's back to being locked in the bathroom.

Some cops make their rounds and figure out that the woman is not actually Sarah (no nine months of baby in her belly). The woman overpowers the one cop, kills him, steals his gun and then shoots the second (whose face literally explodes); that leaves one cop and a punk that he’s arrested as cavalry. The cop deputizes the thug (which would never happen) and enters the house with a hand-cannon and his gun. Thinking that the girl has escaped, they wrap up the wounds on Sarah's hands and then leave her to go switch the fusebox on again. What cop in the fucking world would leave a bleeding pregnant woman alone with a killer on the loose without calling for backup or an ambulance? Well Sergeant Fuckup gets his with a hand-cannon almost immediately after he gets to the fusebox and because the thug is handcuffed to him, he gets it right afterwards. Sarah walks downstairs and she and the mystery lady have it out, cutting each other to ribbons with household objects. Sergeant Fuckup wakes up and then gets killed again because he jeopardizes the baby; that's when we figure out who the woman with the scissors is. She was the other person in the car crash and she lost her baby. In her mind that means she's entitled to Sarah's baby. And just when you think this movie can't any grimmer, the woman cuts the baby out of Sarah's womb and holds it while they all die. Then god shows up and urges everyone to throw themselves into the nearest lake with an arm full of cinderblocks because seriously what on earth is the fucking point to a film like this?

I'm inclined to heap hyperbole on this nightmare, but it's really just the lowest trash I've seen in a couple of weeks. I watch so many awful films that to give it more credit than that is to undermine real dross like Entrails of a Beautiful Woman or Hostel which deserve your hard-earned contempt. À l'intérieur is plainly an exercise in gore effects with a lazy, logic-free script and a story no one gives a damn about. That's why I don't mind ruining the ending for you, because it comes after 90 plus minutes of torment both in the film and to your sensibilities. This isn't a horror film so much as an exercise in sickening tedium. It’s a movie for those wondering if France were capable of a film as nauseating as Saw or Cabin Fever. Every minute there's a new gross-out designed to make you look away. Someone new walks in, is bested by Ms. Jason Voorhees and falls onto the ludicrously large pile of bodies. Then she kills the thing she came for which makes her warped revenge was all for naught. Joe D'Amato made films that had one or two of these set-pieces, but never all right in a row and never in the same location. And you know what else? He let people live. I'd take something derivative and boring like Absurd or hedonistic like Trap Them and Kill Them over masochistic rubbish like this, anyday. Why would I want to watch a film made by people who seem to like the idea of stabbing a pregnant woman to death? What about a scissor-induced miscarriage sounds appealing, I ask you?

It's old news when a major film has nothing to say but when independent filmmakers produce staggering amounts of films with no moral compass, no thesis or really anything at all to say, that saddens me. I liked Ils but I'm not wild about it's empty philosophy and I hated À l'intérieur because it had no philosophy and focused entirely on gore that it couldn't even pull off convincingly. It's a film about violence made by people who've clearly never seen any in real life. These movies are remarkably unkind to humanity and so I don't get why they got made or that people should go out of their way to see them. Not when horror movies with something to say are out there waiting to be found. I get that life has no purpose, but that's why I watch films. I want more than nothing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Beauty And La Bête

Unless you're me, it's not everyday you run into a film that you really don't know how to react to. La Bête is one such film; originally one of a few rejected shorts shot for inclusion in Immoral Tales, La Bête is an astute criticism of aristocratic marriages of convenience but it's also of a style that answers questions you'd never dream of asking. It's a film for those wondering what it would look like if John Waters paid tribute to Poetic Realism, If Mario Landi had directed The Draughtman's Contract, if Frank Hennenlotter had written Barry Lyndon, if Brian Yuzna had produced Deep Throat, if Peter Greenaway remade Aswang, if Luis Buñuel had staged The Madness of King George or if Paul Morrissey and Rainer Werner Fassbender ever collaborated on a sex film. I mean it truly defies categorization. And of course everything I just said makes it sound like a more learned film than it actually is, but it is at the very least uniquely structured.

La Bête
by Walerian Borowczyk

The l'Esperance estate is about to collapse. Pierre, the head of the family, thinks he knows a way to save it. There's a clause written into someone's will or other that states that if Mathurin, the only man of marrying age in the l'Esperance stable, can be married and have his wedding officiated by a cardinal living at the vatican who's also in the family, he'll inherit enough cash to save the family name. Luckily some English women are in roughly the same boat. Lucy and Virginia Broadhurst arrive just in time for Mathurin to shave himself and look presentable at his wedding. Virginia is the executor of the Broadhurst estate and knows that marrying Lucy off is going to put her on easy street. So while Pierre tries to get his uncle Duc Rammendalo de Balo to get his brother the priest to come down from the Vatican to officiate this sham marriage, his daughter Clarisse tries to scrounge up some witnesses while she's not secretly screwing Ifany the butler. And whenever that's not going on, we see Mathurin repeatedly get cold feet and the cook get frustrated with the indignation he suffers at the hands of the l'Esperance family. And stranger than all this intrigue is the fact that its all an incredibly elaborate set-up to a bestial rape scene.

I can't say for certain which part was supposed to be used in Immoral Tales, but I'm gonna go with the beast going to town on Sirpa Lane. Lucy goes to bed horny and has visions of the late Romilda l'Esperance being chased and violated by a creature that looks like a werewolverine (needless to say, it possesses a big fakey rubber penis). At first she's terrified, in a bug-eyed Benny Hill sort of way, and flees it but soon she consents to coupling with it and Borowczyk turns up the sleaze. Not for the faint of heart, this. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he had in fact lifted this scene untouched from the editing room floor and then just shot the rest of the movie two years later. With the exception of Clarisse and Ifany's comically constant couplings, there's nothing remotely sexual about the rest of the film. In fact we don't actually see any women until just shy of the 15 minute mark. That's a strange way to make a film, because it means necessarily that the rest of the movie's tone isn't going to gel with the segment you've already done.

Even with the obvious taken for granted, La Bête is a bizarre film. At times halfway between some absurdist take on Renoir's Rules of the Game (the appearance of Marcel Dalio as Rammendalo does a lot to fuel the comparison) and a queerless La Cage Aux Folles, it hedges its bets on the success of its humour for the majority of its running time. People say the film is ahead of its time; it's not. Luis Buñuel had been making films of a much more biting nature than this for years, most of them having to do with the foibles of the religious upper class. The Pythons did this sort of thing every week when they were still on the air. Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie covered the same kind of stuff and was ten thousand times better. Not to mention that Peter Greenaway's stride would be hit in just a few years and make this film seem pornographic by comparison. And is. I mean, I know it's supposed to be a comment on society but I can't help but feel whatever intentions it had were cheapened by Borowczyk's style. Take for example the first scene where (in close-up, mind you) a male horse mounts a female horse and then licks her genitals. I don't care for films with horses at the best of times having seen Le Sang De Bêtes, so unless Mirando Otto is riding one into battle I'd just as soon not watch them up close. That, taken with the rape fantasy sequence just makes for a remarkably unsympathetic tone. What exactly are we to do with the images? Visual symmetry tells us that he equates the two scenes, but what exactly does that mean? Granted it could be that the horses have no choice but to be bred by human beings in captivity, and if Borowczyk had played the bestial coupling as rape through and through (and then showed her family telling her to keep the child that resulted) that might have worked. But by the end of the scene she enjoys the sex as much as the creature and willingly adds to it. That not only kills your metaphor, it's also pretty blindly misogynistic. Think about that; that one-ups Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs pretty soundly for misunderstanding the female mind, anyway.

The problem with infamy is that the discussion surrounding it is almost always one of a sort of subdued reverence. People are too busy saying "how strange!" or "how funny about that big rubber penis!" to call out Anatole Dauman and Borowczyk on sinking lower than their intended victims (nevermind that the two men were sending up one of my favorite movies of all time). Dauman would have sold Bare Behind Bars if it had some prestigious French director attached to it, so criticizing him hardly seems productive. And this film can't be seen as criticism because that scene with the creature is just as low as the aristocratic hypocrisy. Those scenes suffer from that sort of ecstatic sexuality I mentioned in my review of In the Realm of the Senses. Borowczyk refuses to cut away from the sex and it doesn't get any easier to watch. He also threw away the dream-like quality of Immoral Tales in favor of his absurdist political fable and for awhile the fast paced (if really dry) humour carries the movie but it stops dead for the rape scene and then the film just ends with its last minute revelation. A priest fills us in like the detective in a giallo for those too confused to understand what they've just seen. But that wasn't the point of the film, was it? The secret of the l'Esperance family was not what I was curious about, I just wanted to see the farcical wedding antics continue. The film moves from horses mating, absurdist comedy, awkward dinner party, rape scene, horror movie zinger, the end. Am I the only one who wanted more from this film? Am I the only one not satisfied with hateful weirdness? I know Borowczyk could have made a better film and certainly could have done more with the themes he brings up, but settled, like everyone else, for the bizarre.

This film bothers me much more than anything by Jesús Franco or someone from that world because Borowczyk knew what he was doing and still produced something so unsatisfying and stilted. This film has more responsibilities than something like A Virgin Among The Living Dead or Venus in Furs. When you're supposed to be making a satire, you have to follow through and not give in to what's easiest. To squander your talent and your intelligence is a crime.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The People Vs. Walerian Borowczyk

Anatole Dauman's search for seat-filler began probably sometime around 1970. Dauman and Argos films had been reliably packing in the crowds at art houses for most of the 60s but I feel like the paucity in memorable titles around the dawn of the 70s bearing the Argos name means that Dauman was beginning to think that money lay in other places than experimental filmmakers and concerned documentarians. He saw that the growing trend of pornography was sweeping the continent (the films of Just Jaeckin being the obvious example; his Emmanuelle remains the most financially successful French movie of all time as of this writing) and he sought to take a bite out of it. He was sneakier than most, you see, instead of just churning out smut with no tact, he went to Walerian Borowczyk and together they sort of skirted the whole business of being pigeonholed by making one of the most weird and pretentious skin flicks of the 70s. I guess no one could call you out on being artless (which was the resounding problem with most pornographic films) if you're movie was really artfully done but just happened to feature scads of naked women. Fellini had gotten away with it a number of times, after all, and the French were already notorious for their sexually adventurous art. I just kinda wished that Dauman and Borowczyk weren't filthy misogynists.

Immoral Tales
by Walerian Borowczyk

The film is told in four chapters, each containing a story where increasingly weird sexual fantasies play out, some based on real events. The first concerns a young man and his cousin. They ride to a secluded spot beach on their bikes and the young man starts to talk about tides and the moon and such, saying that something must happen at just the right moment. When he grabs her head and stuffs it in his groin, things become frighteningly clear. The next story...well, I won't lie, none of these can really be called stories, so much as they are glimpses into fifteen or twenty minutes of wandering semi-erotic strangeness. The next one has to do with a girl who's been violated (offscreen) by a tramp who needs to be cleansed of her wickedness. She gets locked up by a matronly type, but first chance, her urge to be cleansed in the eyes of god turns into lust and she spends the night pleasuring herself. Scenario three is eventually about countess Bathory, but first we follow a bunch of naked girls as they strip, pray, bathe and then after what seems like an eternity join the countess for an orgy. The fourth one is about the family Borgia having an incestuous orgy; this is intercut with Girolamo Savonarola (the Borgia family's strongest public opponent) delivering a sermon and then getting arrested.

If Borowczyk had approached any producer in the world and told them what I've just told you, I'd bet he'd have gotten laughed or hounded out of every office in Europe that didn't have the words "Flora Film" or "Eurocine" on the placard out front. My guess is he was a little slicker about synopsizing the film when he pitched it (either that or it was all Dauman's idea). Either way, when you look at it factually like, this is a pretty despicable film; look at it anyway and it's most certainly misogynistic. Immoral Tales is the sort of movie that Nagisa Oshima probably would have hated, as his In the Realm of the Senses is basically a comment on modern pornographic films. Every segment contains men taking advantage of women or of women engaging in truly demeaning sexual practices. In the Bathory segment, Borowczyk has her bath in blood, which was a requirement for any bit of fiction involving the countess (and it actually does look like blood for a bit, until you remember that blood doesn't foam) and then has one of the girls insert a pearl into her urethra. It's about as uncouth as it sounds and it, like many of Immoral Tales' set pieces, feeds misconceptions about women, the mythologizing of the debauchery of ancient times, and the idea that all french films are heedlessly trashy. They aren't and I can't really see the point in trying to sexualize incest, rape, statutory rape, religious punishment and sex slavery or even make them seem marginally appealing (oh and the fact that there is no male nudity, which is either because of standards at the time, or the squeamishness of the film's creators. Either way, it's wholly unbalanced). Not that these subjects hadn't been tackled before (Abel Gance did it as early as 1935 with his film Lucrezia Borgia) but that Borowczyk had Dauman and the clout of Argos films behind him meant that Immoral Tales was treated like an art film instead of pornography. The idea that the sexual content of the first segment would be appealing to some people, to the art and raincoat crowd alike, makes me sick.

That's not to say everyone lavished it with praise; it received as much criticism and obscenity complaints as anything. Immoral Tales was popular enough to warrant further collaboration between Dauman and Borowczyk. La Bête followed and cemented both men's place in film history; there's a black mark next to both names, sure, but I defy anyone who's seen La Bête to ever forget it. Of course, there's more than one reason why Borowczyk films were treated with respect, and that's because he really was an excellent director. That's the only reason I didn't entirely hate Immoral Tales. It's message and content? Sure, those are odious but Borowczyk's direction is actually really stunning. From the very start there's something dreamlike about the film; Borowczyk presents everything voyeuristically and refuses to comment on anything. We never get a word of inner monologue or a clue about anyone's feelings (it makes segment one extra repulsive, but I digress). Thus the film is a little like a realistic court painting from the 17th century, something by Rembrandt or Velázquez, say. It coolly floats around the action without commenting on it; he simply paints a picture of debauchery. It's really easy to get lost in the film as Borowczyk fills the screen with oceans of naked figures and Freudian images so that even when we're not watching something overly sexual, it still feels like we are and all of it drifts in and out of the frame.

I really really want to watch some of Borowcyzk's minor films in the hopes that I don't have to watch cavalcades of men taking advantage of women or of women willfully submitting to male fantasy because as direction goes, his is expert. So that is why, despite my hatred of the subject matter, I have to give this an actual grade instead of the usual Z that goes to pornographic film.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Scream of Passion

Following the release of In the Realm of the Senses, I get the feeling that Nagisa Oshima had so little left that he could have done and felt good about, but he and Anatole Dauman at Argos films had agreed that they'd make three films and he'd only delivered one. He'd made the definitive statement about pornography after a decade of incisive commentary on Japanese society, where else did he have to go? Well, he hadn't made a horror film yet. I use that word not unequivocally, as anyone involved with the film, Oshima included, will tell you that they don't think of it as a horror film. I'm a horror fan, I was raised on horror and I'd like to state that it is a horror film, it's just smarter and more beautiful than most horror films (thanks to its recent Criterion release, that beauty is all the more clear). It has something to say and it's almost bloodless, but its a horror film. Not only is it a horror film, it's a damn good one and it has some striking imagery that even after 30 years has not been bested or copied. Empire of Passion confirms my suspicion that dramatic/experimental filmmakers often make the best genre films.

Empire of Passion
by Nagisa Oshima
Seki and Gisaburo are an aging couple in Meiji era Japan. Gisaburo drives a rickshaw and Seki is a servant at a sake house and is incredibly popular among the few men in town. Seki is apparently almost 50 years old but looks no older than 30. One of her more persistent suitors is a young man 25 years her junior called Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji from In the Realm of the Senses, once again playing the doomed lover). Toyoji catches Seki unawares one night when they've both been drinking and seduces her (actually its more of a browbeating than a seduction). Seki feels flattered and enjoys herself enough to allow a repeat performance. Soon Toyoji feels jealous of the similarly jealous Gisaburo and makes some dastardly plans. He shaves Seki's pubic hair and convinces her that her husband will become wise to their affair and that the only way out is to strangle her long-suffering husband to death and hide his body.

Three years after their crime, a detective called Hotta shows up asking questions at the same time that Seki's daughter Shin gets old enough to wonder where her dad's been this whole time. Toyoji doesn't want anyone thinking he's a murderer, so he insists on keeping his and Seki's love a secret even longer. Seki wants to either confess or just live together in sin, either way the pressure would appear to be getting to her. How else would you explain the fact that her dead husband continues to appear to her when she's alone? The hauntings soon spread to Toyoji as well and between their rising guilt and Hotta's investigation, things don't look great for our lovers. When they start committing more murders to cover up for killing Gisaburo they know the end is near. They decide that the only solution lies in doing something with Gisaburo's body, which they left at the bottom of a well, but there's more down there than they think.

I watched Empire of Passion with two friends who, while used to the weird crap I always show them, are by no means hounds about this stuff. The one thing that we all seemed to agree on however was how gorgeous this movie was. Between Yoshio Miyajima's cinematography, Jusho Toda's production design and Oshima's framing, Empire of Passion is hands down one of the most artfully made fright films of all time. I think that approaching a story like this from his background, Oshima was much more concerned about the atmosphere than the actual hauntings that are ostensibly the point of a film like this. To be precise, what he was most taken with was the idea of love in such a time as late 19th century Japan. He had found the story of the affair in a book about the era by Nakamura Itoko. The book was actually the biography of an author who lived in that period and Itoko thought that such an emotional tangent (unheard of in that time period) would appeal to Oshima whose In the Realm of the Senses was still turning heads all over the world. The director was even more enchanted than Itoko could have imagined.
People often compare Passion to Senses, and it makes sense. Both are about lovers who can't really function in the outside world, but what drives them is completely different. Their love is sparked first by the notion of being caught by the husband and then they drift apart over the three years that Shin is away at school. It's only with the arrival of the detective and the prospect of being hanged do their feelings flare up again. He was more making a film about lust than anything else. By stacking the odds against our poor heroes, he was drawing them back to one another, just in an unbelievably cruel way. Weirder still is that each element on its own makes for an almost comically ineffective roadblock. Hotta, the police officer gives Donald Pleasance in Raw Meat stiff competition for strangest policemen in a 1970s horror film. He bounces around and shouts most of his questions and gets uncomfortably close to everyone; he's more bizarre than menacing. The character of the Young Master, who I gather is something like the landlord of the village, is also sort of funny. He thinks he knows that Toyoji is guilty because he's seen him dropping leaves into a well every fall day for three years, but when he might do something about it, he lamely threatens Toyoji and is bested in a fight, all in about 15 seconds. And then there's the ghost himself.

Oshima has gone on record as saying that the ghost in his movie is the "ghost of a farmer, not a samurai", which on top of mirroring peer and director Shohei Imamura's statement that he was a "country farmer" while Oshima was "a samurai," meant adjusting his haunting behavior dramatically. He shows up but just goes about his daily routine; He's caught between living and dying, and like Bruce Willis in The 6th Sense just wants to go on with his life. The movie's best scare comes in his second or third appearance. He finds Seki as she's walking home and offers her a ride on his rickshaw. When she refuses he just follows her home until she agrees to get in. She soon sees that he's not taking her home and so starts screaming to be let down. Not the most terrifying thing on paper but Oshima gives it a wonderfully ethereality. He tries to make sure that we are never certain whether or not the ghost is in the dreams or sub-conscious of Seki and Toyoji. Unlike most ghost stories, the ghost in Empire of Passion might just be there to remind the lovers of their guilt. And perversely, it is guilt that acts as the strongest pull towards each other. With that in mind I can't say I know precisely what the moral is supposed to be, but as horror devices go that's pretty ingenious. Incidentally, the sex in this film isn't the sex in In the Realm of the Senses by any stretch. It is used as a sort of weapon, which makes it just about as unpleasant and strange, but we don't see nearly what we do in Senses. Anatole Dauman pulled the plug on his and Oshima's next collaboration; he had wanted more hard core sex to sell and Oshima had done all he could with that.

But again I don't think it would work without its look. Gisaburo in his ghastly appearance is one of the most subtly creepy ghosts I've ever seen. I think it's that Miyajima's camera lets us feast on every wrinkle in his face for the few moments we get to glimpse it. It is really scary looking; the red eyes, the pale complexion, its insistence on doing nothing out of the ordinary. But if Oshima and Co. hadn't designed such a gorgeous backdrop for the actions to transpire over, the whole film would be incomplete. A cursory glance at the set design tells me that Oshima and Toda have seen Onibaba and Snake Woman's Curse, and Oshima being the cinephile he's reputed to be, I don't think its impossible to consider. They do, however, do a good enough job owning their work for me not to mind in the slightest. I can't state enough times that the look of Empire of Passion is stunning. I do like, too, that Oshima stuck to the Japanese horror tradition of placing most of the scares in jump-cut reveals, like on the rickshaw ride. It makes it feel more timeless and instills a feeling of paranoia. I would have liked more horrific elements but as a work of atmospherics, sexuality and tension, it's fantastic.
Before I finish, I'd like to just comment on the best device in the film: the well. Oshima frames a great deal of action from the bottom of the well where Gisaburo's body lays, changing with the season and the time of day. It's such a simple device but its so arresting and so stylized that I can't believe no one had thought of it before. Nagisa Oshima was a genius, a 'samurai' with a camera and Empire of Passion a brilliant film. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Japanese Screams and Cries and Moans and Whispers

Japanese Horror, whatever else may be said of it, is almost always more visually striking than horror from everywhere else on the planet, at least on its first circulation. Ringu and Ju-On, on top of being great films, looked decent before they were remade with more money for cinematography and production design. Interestingly, Japanese films tended to be much more interesting to look at when they were either big budget studio pictures (which is almost never the case with horror films), incredibly inventive low-budget sets or if the French co-funded the movie. Nagisa Oshima's Empire of Passion and In the Realm of the Senses were funded by the French, specifically by Argos films, a notorious arthouse production company. Before the 70s, Argos had produced some of the finest French films to date including Night and Fog, Mouchette, Masculin Féminin and La Jetée but by the 70s, peoples interest in French New Wave films had begun to wane; people wanted more than edgy editing and audacious narrative techniques so producer Anatole Dauman began looking elsewhere. Seeing as how it was the 70s, even art had taken a turn for the hyper-sexual and Argos found its next cash-cow in erotic art films - specifically La Bête by Walerian Borowczyk and In The Realm of The Senses. Both films opened the door for a look at standards and the great art vs. porn argument that rages even today. In order to really understand Empire of Passion, which is the film I want to talk about, you have to talk about In The Realm of the Senses and if you want to do that, it's best to look at two of Borowczyk's films, the other being Immoral Tales. And seeing as I want to start my look at French Horror films, I'll look at Borowczyk and those films he made for Argos as well. But first, Oshima.

In the Realm of the Senses
by Nagisa Oshima
Sada Abe is a servant in a house run by Kichizo Ishida and his wife. She is also a prostitute but she seems to know that this isn't her calling. When one of her fellow workers privately shows her Ishida and his wife having sex one morning (as they apparently do every morning) she becomes transfixed. She meets the master of the house later and he demands that they have sex. He's almost childlike in his conquest of the young Abe and of other women as well. Abe is shaken up by their first encounter and the second time they meet has acquired a sort of mania about pleasing him, she won't let him return to his wife until she has satisfied him. Not long after, he finds an out-of-the-way inn for them to meet in over weekends and starts lying to his wife about their meetings. Before long the traditional notions of power in a relationship have been reversed. Sada, who now only works as a prostitute, forbids Ishida from seeing his wife or sleeping with anyone else and their sexual arabesques become increasingly strange, anti-social and dangerous. She becomes suspicious of his every move and thought and begins threatening him with mutilation and death, but the tone of her threats never quite leaves the strata of sexuality. As they become more and more unfit for everyday life and more and more dependent on one another, the world moves on without them and they discover that life isn't anything they can or want to continue living.

Sada Abe and Kichizo Ishida were based on real people who spent six days in isolation simply making love to one another before Abe killed Ishida during sex (perhaps accidentally, though Oshima posits otherwise) and removed his penis with a knife - she was still carrying it when the police found her. That was in 1936 and their story was characteristic of the increasing repression that was commonplace in pre-war Japan. They dreamt of freedom and passion but society would not have them; they were alienated and so withdrew from the real world to live on fulfilled desire alone. They barely ate and hardly slept. This story just happened to be the perfect model for what Nagisa Oshima wished to achieve with film. He'd made a truly staggering amount of movies in the 60s, including Cruel Story of Youth, the movie that had kicked off what scholars call the Japanese New Wave. These were films that broke narrative and editing rules made by people who'd come from inside the studio system who couldn't abide by that system's rules. To be fair Japan's filmmakers have almost always been trailblazers and rulebreakers more so than just about any other country's directors. If you compare popular Japanese films to American movies of the same year the difference in style is simply flooring. Oshima even managed to break ground in pornographic film. In the Realm of the Senses is a challenging film and if you read up about obscenity, it's going to be something you know a lot about before you ever watch it but because Oshima was such a good filmmaker the experience of watching it is entirely unmarred by those expectations. He, like his characters, dreamt of a world free of constrictions and boundaries and then went about pursuing that dream.

Senses was a film surrounded by controversy from its very inception. When Oshima traveled to Paris in 1972 to promote his movie Dear Sister Summer, he met Anatole Dauman for the first time who suggested that they collaborate on something. Dauman's first suggestion was pornography. Oshima really liked the idea and his excitement carries over in the writing and direction (there's a tendency in poetry, literature and film for the first erotic works of the author to have a sort of childish perpetuality - everything is sexual, all the time. This is definitely the case with Oshima and Senses). He watched a number of popular erotic films of the time and really enjoyed them, in fact he didn't think his film could match up in anyway to the care shown in many of them. He read about Sada Abe and all of a sudden Dauman's suggestion and his fervor for pornographic thought suddenly had a vessel. Oshima liked the idea of a story that showed love in such an uncertain time (a theme he'd return to in Empire of Passion) and then went about making it as ecstatically sexual as he thought it deserved to be. As someone whose films had garnered plenty of black marks in the past, he knew making his vision come to life would be difficult, impossible if he stayed in the Japanese studio system. He took Dauman's money, shot his film in Daiei studios in Japan and then went back to France to edit; all this care would ensure that Senses would be known as a French film (though it's inextricably Japanese in content) and thus not subject to Japanese censorship, at least not initially. Dauman was happy because he had a sex film he could sell and he did clean up on Senses around the world, he just didn't seem to get what kind of film he had on his hands.

Paul Schrader once told me that Japan was a society of consensus; if they all can't agree on what to think about something, they just remain silent. When Schrader made Mishima in 1986 about the famed writer of the same name, the country had no formal opinion of him and so when it was brought up in polite conversation all the Japanese present would simply fall silent. It makes perfect sense then that In the Realm of the Senses was and remains banned in Japan. Cut versions exist, but there's no chance whatever of the film being shown with the more explicit sex acts untouched. So what do we in the rest of the world get to see that Japan doesn't? Well, real sex, for a start. Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, who play the leads, actually have sex on camera, oral and vaginal - we see Fuji's member as it's inserted in Matsuda's body. As usual, the director was one step ahead of the censors. Oshima was brought up on obscenity charges and to defend himself he basically explained what the hell the big deal was about sex on film. We call something pornographic when it features explicit sexuality coupled with nudity, yet, what the makers of the laws don't understand is that like anything else, pornographic films lose their power when they stop being forbidden. Swear words would cease to be taboo if we stopped treating them that way, but you still can't say 'fuck' on TV. In the Realm of the Senses is not an erotic film despite it featuring what would otherwise be called 'hard-core' sex. It's a movie about obsession and desperation, and despite the almost nonstop sex between its lead characters, what we see is never really enticing; it's sweaty, grim and claustrophobic. Abe is unbalanced and Ishida mentally arrested, which makes for a strange enough pairing when they're not in bed. When they're actually copulating their interactions are bizarre and unnatural. In fact if you removed the sex you'd have a far more unsettling film as their sexual release is really the only thing that can account for their behavior, without it you'd simply have unending tension which was truly brilliant on Oshima's part. He made a film that is uncensorable. Take the sex out and it makes no sense; not only that you've made it dangerous, pornographic. Behind the red tape is sex and anything forbidden is desired. Leave the sex in and the film is a complete depiction of desire gone awry, an unsexual sex film. That's why a film like this needed to be made, to show exactly where our fixation with sex had gotten us.

Oshima's direction is sort of difficult to pay attention to while you're watching it, so depraved and immediate is the sexual content, but once you're finished you understand what it was all about. He directs his leads wonderfully (Fuji is sort of like the Toshiro Mifune of the 1970s). Film critics like to latch onto the scene where Ishida walks in the opposite direction of a bunch of soldiers, but that happens exactly once so I don't care; it felt tacked on and unnecessary. No, you get how smart he was when he did things like the scenes where both members of the relationship have trysts with far older people. The film starts with Sada Abe pleasuring an old man in the street and then toward the end she insists that Ishida sleep with a septuagenarian geisha. The sex that the two have is unpleasantly close when it's with each other, but when it's with the older people, you get that Oshima wasn't just making porn. He shows aging bodies in less-than-erotic circumstances, but his characters treat the encounters no differently than anything else. He seems to be saying "if you like sex so much, why don't you like this?" He was looking at our expectations and norms and that's especially true of the conclusion. These two needed sex, it was all they had, and in the end it was their undoing. The conclusion is pretty unnerving in that, like everything else in the film, it's shown in that same pornographic (that is to say naked) kind of way. We see every detail of it, every second. It's pretty effective and seeing as Americans only counter-point at the time would have been I Spit On Your Grave, that makes this a pretty brave film as Oshima's thesis is nowhere near as malicious or exploitative. It's all out in the open for us to see, which doesn't make this erotic so much as uncomfortably accurate, documentary-esque even. It isn't romantic, because you get the sense that they don't love each other so much as they're held up by one another, they live through and because of each other. It isn't particularly thrilling, but it is hard not to want to see how it ends, even if you know the story of Sada Abe.
It's an anomaly, alright, a self-aware sex film thats not decadent or distasteful. While I didn't really enjoy every minute of the film, it's incredibly hard not to respect the film for what it has to say, which is why its grade is so high. I have to admit that many of my ideas about sex in films have been subsequently revised. Oshima must have understood how complete a statement this was, he only made four feature films since Senses after a decade of working almost nonstop. If you're aim is to examine sex and you make the definitive statement about it, where else can you go? After Salò, how many more films could Pier Pasolini have made if he hadn't been killed? Would Bill Hicks continued recording if he hadn't died? Like Hicks himself said: at some point you've said all that you can say.