Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Friday, December 14, 2018

Isles of Löwensohn: THE WILD BOYS, LET THE CORPSES TAN


Funny that after decades of seeing her only hither or yon, I find Elina Löwensohn in two new movies (en français), which I happened to watch, back-to-back on two consecutive nights, by surreal detour-taking auteurs, both with her cast as a semi-insane ruler of a gorgeous but desolate and remote location, watching over scenes of death and sex with a haughty glee and owning her masculine side, if you will, with cigar and psychopomp swagger. In THE WILD BOYS and LET THEIR CORPSES TAN--startling auteurial exercises that draw kinky sexual imagery from the darndest of places--we find this Romanian-American actress (just one year older than me, she's handling it way better) sure can swing a wild dick, if you'll pardon my French. Both from last year but just getting here (to America!) now (via streaming), both are shot in blazing Super-16mm celluloid, are ravishingly beautiful and daring to the core.


What are the odds I'd see these movies back-to-back, not knowing Löwensohn was in either one, after not seeing hide nor hair of since her small role in The Forbidden Room (and before that, Nadja), where she looked, frankly, like a different person - she was still 'gamin'-esque in Room, but here she's surrendered even late inning Delpy/Huppert-style hotness in favor of a stogie and a laugh throaty enough to choke the communism out of Lionel Stander, wagging her sun-browned body around like a picayune general bounding over piles of enemy corpses, breasts bared with the 'who cares?' haughtiness that marks European women as the superior to all other genders and continents. She's rocking punk rock bangs and a stare that could freeze the blood of a drowsy kitten basking in the sun. Those breasts are young and full-still, as if eternal. Shall you not try to swing the same?


8 THE WILD BOYS
(Les garçons sauvages)
Dir Bertrand Mandico
***1/2

Surreal and strange in ways that mixes Clockwork Orange-Captains Courageous bad boy rehab adventures into erotic gender-bent deconstructions like Batailles' Story of the Eye and Angela Carter's Passion of a New Eve, it's the hardy tale of of a youth rehabilitation program cure taken by five over-privileged punks after they brutalize their literature teacher. Trevor, a voodoo-like spirit of violent destruction that wears a glittery skull mask and likes to run around as a dog (!), overtook them during a masked drunken performance art piece (reciting the opening three witches scene of Macbeth) while wearing terrifying maskies. After a brutal period at sea, collared to the ship and regularly choked to within an inch of their lives at the salty captain's whim, the wild boys wind up on a  mysterious island with sexually active vegetation, the ever-present smell of oysters and a strange hormonal magic, including the ability to slowly turn boys into girls (their penises drop off and are swept away in the uncaring surf, suddenly no more relevant than land crabs). Trees and rocks become giant asses and mocking breasts.


Soon joining forces with a mysterious lady (formerly male) doctor (Löwensohn) they start sexually devouring and killing randy sailors, committing high seas mutiny, and surrendering to the intoxicating touch and taste of the local plant life. Touching Lord of the Flies meets The Pink Lagoon kind of castaway weirdness, our Les garçons sauvages is really off in a field by itself, chasing horny phallic dragonflies, drinking manna-jaculate from phallic tubers, screwing between leafy legs, sleeping deep in the shrubbery, evoking everything from Naked Lunch to Matango its hallucinatory amok Friday-Crusoe wandering (and even Valhalla Rising if you're keeping score), it may well and goodly be conjured.. (The great twist though is that these boys were played by girls to begin with, and the freedom accorded these already free French actresses allows them to swagger in ways that are good to see.)

What does it all mean? You know damned well what it means. Read Batailles and Angela Carter and learn something about just how precarious your own sexuality... is. Words on a page can reorganize the molecular structure of your private parts. Read and get aroused in places you didn't even know were there, and suddenly buried infant memories sweep up onto the rocks. When French women put on male drag they swagger and wave their cocks around like they just strapped them on, and when they fall off, they behold their breasts like they just got their team colors. It's quite revealing when deconstructing the postures and posing of the Paris is Burning houses (with which it would make a wild double feature), all swivel-hipped sailors and grabby crotch-forward surrender --the way letting your unconscious anima/animus stretch out in drag brings all sorts of in-the-moment awareness and mojo. Shot in startling black and white with forays into surreal color, the spirit of experimental expressionism and psychosexual weirdness is alive and well with this new force of surreal grandeur Bertrand Mandico. Remember that name,  Bunuel, Jarman, Anger, my mamas, you can rest in peace at last (yes, Kenneth, I know you're still alive, but rest... there... there now).




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LET THE CORPSES TAN
(Laissez bronzer les cadavres)
Dirs. Helene Cattet's and Bruno Forzani
***

My expectations ran mighty high for this, Belgian couple Helene Cattet's and Bruno Forzani's third feature, being such a gigantic fan of their 2009 debut, Amer, and such a cautious admirer of their sophomore effort, The Strange Color of Her Body's Tears.  Turns out, while still suffused with their signature style (gorgeous 35mm photography, tastefully-recycled Ennio Morricone, lots of feverish close-ups of eyes, hands, knives, guns, mouths, wild clothing, associative editing) there's no room in a traditional crime thriller (adopted from a potboiler French novel) for the kind of psychosexual or post-structuralist departures that made their earlier work so delectably artsy. They did pick a nice locale, a remote mountaintop ruin overlooking the crashing Mediterranean surf, with such energetic rigor that you want to pack up and move there, even if they don't have air conditioning. Clear deep blue sky, blazing sun, but you can feel how cold it is in the shadows. It's an artist's retreat but now housing a gang of gold hijackers laying low. Run by a crazy artist (Elina Löwensohn, still smoking those stogies) and her has-been writer lover played by the indefatigable Marc Barbé (they were last paired together as killer and final girl/lady in the unrelentingly grim Sombre, so it's nice to see them all sun-baked and in cahoots). Stephane Ferrara is a guy named Rhino, but he's not the big bald bruiser you'd think was named Rhino --that guy's in the cold storage cave, screwing the roast lamb hanging there (that lamb gets pretty gross and shot up by the end of the film). At least I think that's true. Who can keep all these craggy faces straight?


Anyway, it's a perfect location. Who wouldn't want to shoot a movie there, or hide out after a crime, even without air conditioning, phone or electricity? Even the writer's wife comes there, uninvited, with her kid (stolen from her ex-husband who has sole custody) and a cute young maid. Complications! The crooks will have to kill everyone. And then two motorcycle cops show up. Oy, it's going to be a long afternoon. With its gradual existential dwindling and the idea of a remote location occupied solely by armed men and women angling after loot, comes visions of everything from Point Blank, For a Few Dollars More, and--a recent surreal discovery lurking nonchalantly in the ocean of Prime streaming Italian westerns, Matalo!), and as long as we focus on the gorgeous, well-thought out compositions and gorgeous cinematography, well why not? Let the sunshine and the night perpetrate and the cliche'd close-ups of ants representing the scattering crooks be minimal. Forzani and Cattet have such devotion to their startling compositions and deep colors that the big picture falls away. They cram in surreal details (it's supposed to be an artist's colony) like afterthoughts: when one man is shot the gold he's carrying is hit and explodes as if liquid, splashing all over him (art!), but aside from a very cool skull-headed hobby horse, and a painting Elina makes in the beginning by shooting paint pellets at a canvas and burning holes in it with her cigar, there's not much art on the scene after that. It all has to be made up on the spot by the filmmakers, leading to weirdly sexual or death driven tableaux (below) that may not add up to much beyond their own ephemerality.


In what are either fantasies or flashbacks, a young silhouetted anima figure (presumably Löwensohn's character in her younger artist muse days), stands over a group of men and pees on them and Morricone guitar stings bray; later she's tied to a cross and the cruel tight ropes over her breasts cause her breasts to lactate in great rivers down her body (evoking similar imagery with the lit teacher in the early portion of The Wild Boys); later still she jams her heel into the mouth of one of the men  intercut with the 'in the moment' use of a gun in the similar orifice, ala the 'dying primal scene reverie' images in Argento's Tenebrae. And yet, the synergy that made Amer so magnificently Antonioni-meets-Argento-esque (dialoguing with Lucretia Martel's paranoid soundscapes and Claire Denis' shadowy sexuality as well as Argento's psychosexual post-modernism) is all missing --so there's nothing resonant to hang the imagery together with. Aside from the snarky obviousness of "gold"-en showering, or the commerce/art compromise when gold coins become liquid gold paint, the two voices--the feminine avant garde experimental non-narrative and the masculine/Apollonian narrative--don't connect like one would hope. We end up admiring the lovely location, the photography, the range of styles, the great use of classic Italian film music, but eventually we lose any idea of who's who or why we should care. The reason those new wave crime movies worked back in the day was the cultural landscape was so different. Censorship and big budgets made mainstream fare so tedious and conventional that unusual angles, splurges of sex and giddy violence, the bad getting off free from their crimes, usual plots subverted, the crime was the style. Outlaw culture was born, leading directly from Breathless to Badlands. I'll definitely see Corpses again and hope my feelings change. But now I'm just confused. (Another weird connection - seeing this film the same year as the release of Other Side of the Wind, for Welles' artsy film-within-the-film sure has a lot in common. Shhh - but at least with Welles all the surrealism connected properly - you knew what it all meant even if what it meant wasn't clear. He kept it simple, allowing the style and symbolism to directly link.)

A  similar simplicity worked in Amer, a three-vignettes of sexual awakening in a girl's life told in three distinct retro styles. This allowed for true new wave energy, giving us the modernist frisson of not recognizing signifiers we find in the best of Antonioni. We didn't need a narrative in Amer because we saw the common thread through it all, as if all the movies made in Europe about woman's sexuality suddenly rearranged themselves into a completed puzzle. Amer didn't have to make sense, it was sense itself. Forzani and Cattet's sophomore effort, Strange Color of Her Body's Tear, was more like an exercise in bravura style, but with enough enticingly lovely symbols floating through it and such a gorgeous art nouveau hotel setting it didn't matter if the story got monotonous and incoherent. With Corpses though, what do we have? Bronzed Mediterranean forty-fifty-somethings lounging amidst the cloudless blazing blue sky and groovy ruins? Up close shots of eyes, guns and gross mouths stuffed with food and bad teeth? One is tempted to recall Hitchcock's line about how some directors make slices of life, while he makes slices of cake. What is Corpses a slice of? Can one really slice a slice?

I know for sure there was enough resonant material lying around this could have worked. Imagine the archetypal mythic resonance Tennessee Williams could do with a location like this --this crumbling Mount Olympus, this Catholic Ozymandias. Imagine the metatextual connections a Suzuki, Godard or Petri would make. Instead, what we come away with is a beautiful postcard that, if you stare at it long enough, starts to seem dirty.

Anyway, it's worth the trip just for the view.

And the balls.

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2 comments:

  1. Had a chance to watch "The Wild Boys" last night. After reading your write-up, in my head, I thought it might have a psychic connection to, well, Burroughs novel of the same name, but no, you were right, it's Angela Carter all the way. Burroughs did the gay thing but was never wide enough to bring in real gender issues at all.

    So it's Angela Carter all the way. It does "New Eve" better than an actual film adaptation of "New Eve" could.

    I have a copy of the blue ray coming now, because apparently, this page is where I get all my movie recommendations from at this point in my life.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well Harry, I'm flattered. And may I say, in all humility, you made the right choice. I'd still like to see a NEW EVE adaptation, if done with the right director (Assayas would be ideal).

    ReplyDelete

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