Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or larger

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, both 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), and are shot in blazing Super-16mm celluloid. Both are ravishingly beautiful and daring to the core. Mon dieu, the odds!


What are they, these odds, that I'd see these movies back-to-back, not knowing Löwensohn was in either one? The last time I saw her was in The Forbidden Room (and before that, Nadja), and she looked, frankly, like a different person, gamin-esque. Gone is that gamin! Löwensoh has surrendered even late-inning Delpy/Huppert-style mature Parisian 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 also rocking punk rock bangs and a stare that could freeze the blood of a drowsy kitten basking in the sun, or posing and shifting around on the rocks and beaches like a mix of Dick Miller and Warner Herzog. Yet 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 hearty tale of of a youth rehabilitation program cure taken by five over-privileged punks after 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) for their libertine and accommodating lit teacher. They tied her to a horse and did all sorts of nasty things, and Trevor is their only defense. Seen in color as a glittery jewel-studded skull on a prowling dog, a god of chaos and id-indulgence ever lurking in the fourth dimension, waiting for the smallest opening... He's alive in these boys. And something must be done.

The rehab the parents and school decide upon consists of a brutal period at sea, given rough treatment by a salty dog sea captain with a map tattooed on his penis (one of many we'll see, though they all seem rough, uncircumcised, abstracted, and apparently woven from burlap). Collared to the ship and regularly choked to within an inch of their lives at the salty captain's rope pulling whim, the boys gradually mellow out, the sea hardening their exteriors and the rough living snapping them out of their entitled sadistic funk.

But that's just the beginning of this bizarro odyssey. The destination of the ship is a mysterious island with sexually active vegetation (which the boys take relentless advantage of), the ever-present smell of oysters, and a strange hormonal magic in the air. The island even has the ability to slowly turn these rough trade speciments into girls (their penises drop off and are swept away in the uncaring surf, suddenly no more relevant than land crabs). Meanwhile trees and rocks become giant asses and mocking breasts. A mysterious lady (formerly male) doctor (Löwensohn) arrives to take them under her wing, and together 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, and evoking everything from Naked Lunch to Matango in its hallucinatory amok Robinson Crusoe wandering (and even Valhalla Rising if you're keeping score).


 The great twist though is that these boys were played by girls; and the freedom accorded these already free French actresses allows them to swagger in ways that are good to see. For the French woman, sexual aggression in men isn't, apparently, the existential threat and sociological outrage it is here in the US. In the French system, it's merely recognized as performance, a butch showing the girls-as-boys are all keen to embody, strutting and making lewd gestures and wave their cocks around like they just strapped them on. 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. It's twice as sexy as it should be, really, no  matter what your persuasion.

What does it all mean? Why don't you read some Batailles, Huysmanns and Angela Carter and learn something about just how precarious your own sexuality... is weirder and darker than you know. Words on a page can reorganize the molecular structure of your private parts! Read the wrong book and get aroused in places you didn't even know were there, and maybe weren't before you read it. Suddenly buried infant memories sweep up onto the rocks. Are the 'really' yours? Concepts like 'really' and 'yours' fade away when gender is surrendered to the lapping oyster-rich waves.

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! It's the name that says: hey Bunuel, Jarman, Anger, 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
**1/2

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 fervent admirer of their sophomore effort, The Strange Color of Her Body's Tears. Turns out, while this third feature is 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 make some anyway, but the result is that neither element quite gels.

The terrain though is lovely. Shot almost all outdoors, in and out of old church ruins being run as an artist enclave high on a hill overlooking the crashing Mediterranean surf: clear deep blue sky, blazing sun --you can feel how hot the stones are where the sun hits them; you can feel how cold it is in the shade. 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 Sombre). 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 old man 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 brings 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!).  As long as we focus on the sublime compositions and gorgeous cinematography, well why not? Let the sunshine and the night perpetrate and the cliche'd close-ups of ants crawling on an arial photo of the ruins pass with only mild groans. Ask not when homage becomes cliche!

Forzani and Cattet have such devotion to their startling compositions and deep colors that the big picture falls away. They cram in surreal details 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. 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 as the Morricone guitar stings bray. In another she's tied to a cross; cruel tight ropes over her breasts cause them 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 paranoia and Claire Denis' butch sexuality as well as Argento's psychosexual post-modernism) is all missing. Aside from the snarky obviousness of "gold"-en showering, or the commerce/art compromise when gold coins become liquid gold paint, the twin voices--the feminine avant garde experimental non-narrative and the masculine/Apollonian narrative so indicative of the Cattet/Forzani union in the past--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 whether any of them get the gold or not.

The reason those new wave crime movies worked back in the day was their pro-crime attack on cultural norms of the time. 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, was fresh and new. The usual plots were subverted, even meaningless, 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 as of now, I'm just left confused by the plot and disappointed by the mismatched symbolic asides.

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 is the Cattet-Forzani film I was hoping for. Welles keeps all the surrealism connects properly - you know what it all means even if what it means isn't clear. He keeps it simple, allowing the style and symbolism to directly link.

A similar simplicity worked in Amer: three-vignettes of sexual awakening in a girl's life, told in three distinct retro styles, allowed for true new wave energy, giving us the modernist frisson of slip-sliding 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. Forzani and Cattet's sophomore effort, Strange Color of Her Body's Tear, on the other hand, 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 make slice of a slice?

I know for sure there was enough resonant material lying around unused that it 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, Rivette or Petri would make, packing the artist colony with weird metatextual art. 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.

Of 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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