Thursday, March 31, 2011

Monsters (2010)

When I finished watching Monsters (2010) and was about to turn off the television at the credits, I noticed that its director, Gareth Edwards, was also responsible for the film's photography and visual effects. I was impressed as I thought that these two qualities were the film's strongest. I also thought that the two lead performances by Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy were very good, and the two are clearly talented actors who I would not mind seeing again in another film. Beyond these aspects, Monsters is not wholly satisfying: I wanted more from what was there and wanted less of what was actually shown.

Simple premise: The presence of alien life has been discovered in space, and a satellite was launched to collect data. The satellite made an unsuccessful re-entry, and the collected data scattered as debris on the earth's surface. Alien life has appeared in this area; and it has been designated an "infected zone" and it is located in Mexico, south of the U.S. border. A photojournalist, Andrew, working for an American magazine is south of the zone in Mexico, hoping to get some photos of the dramatic action caused by the upheaval at the local level in Mexico, the presence of the U.S. military, and of course, the alien life. Andrew's publisher (more of a mogul) has a daughter, Samantha, located in the same area as Andrew. He quietly commands Andrew to escort his daughter back to the U.S., safely.

One of the benefits of the modern visual style of filmmaking, taking its cues from documentary and news media, is to invoke a sense of an objective style of capturing footage; so the viewer is free to form his/her own opinion while watching. This is of course a fiction and still requires a "suspension of belief" on behalf of the viewer. Alternatively, however, one can say this style really calls attention to itself with its handheld-style camera work, with a specific emphasis on "handheld." There's always at least a lingering sense that someone is holding a camera, capturing footage, and making a movie. It's a brilliant style, always at risk of appearing either organic or contrived. Both results, organic or contrived, can also be brilliant. Edwards captures some fantastic imagery with some striking compositions, such as when Monsters visits the small villages in Mexico; the "post-apocalyptic" imagery, such as downed plane or a vehicle stuck in a tree; or genuine location captures, such as when Andrew and Sam visit a pyramid near the U.S. border.

One of the aspects that really aids this modern visual style of filmmaking, in terms of making it seem organic, is the absence of dramatic music accompanying the action. Edwards has chosen to include dramatic music within Monsters. This is inherently not a flaw, as the only potential result is the film seems, with its inclusion, more contrived. It does, however, become a strong flaw within Monsters. As the film progresses and Andrew and Sam make an arduous journey to the U.S. border and beyond, the viewer gets a sampling of accompanying music during scenes. There is music invoking a sad feeling when Sam is looking at memorials of dead children; there is music invoking a contemplative or ponderous sense as Sam and Andrew are walking an empty street with no signs of life around; and there is music invoking an ominous sense when the aliens and humans have an encounter. There is actually a scene when the ominous music begins and the viewer is the first to realize that the aliens are about to appear. The characters are initially unaware. Odd. Monsters certainly could have benefited from the absence of dramatic music.

Computer-generated visual effects receive the harshest criticism from viewers and critics alike when they are done poorly. In other words, nearly everyone finds its grating when imagery created by a computer looks exactly like imagery created from a computer. Edwards in creative fashion attempts to hide his computer-generated imagery in the shadows. I believe nearly all of the alien and human encounters occur at night, and the frame is often very dark. The aliens are put in a corner of the composition. Like shadows, the alien imagery is vague and unformed. Edwards does, however, have at least one scene where an alien tentacle is shown in the light; and my cinematically-trained mind immediately had flashbacks of Anaconda (1997). It seems as if the entirety of Monsters wants to avoid these types of viewer flashbacks, and Edwards almost makes it to the end. I ended up questioning this scene's inclusion, as I don't understand it. Also, when the screen went almost completely dark, as the film progressed, I was ready for an alien encounter.

I suppose the film's philosophical and socio-critical themes deserve mention. Monsters doesn't hide them: they are almost completely delivered via dialogue. When characters, for example, sit around a traditional setting, like a campfire, and begin to have a philosophical conversation, it appears exactly like it is. The words become focal, and the viewer is watching a conversation but primarily listening. There is such a didactic quality to these scenes in Monsters that it is off-putting. Interestingly, the simple character-driven themes, such as Andrew's abandonment of his own commercial gains to learn some humanity and Samantha's quest to discover what she wants out of life, are the film's most interesting. Able and McNairy really imbue these qualities with their performances. In fact, if Monsters had completely focused on these two characters and their personal, spiritual journeys, then Monsters would have been a much more affecting emotional film; and Edwards still would be able to include his philosophical themes and social criticism. Alfonso Cuaron executed this style brilliantly with his film Y Tu Mama Tambien.

As an alternative to blockbuster, big-bang explosion, Hollywood cinema, I can see how some viewers will find Monsters refreshing and creative. Monsters is refreshing and creative in that respect. I suppose I'm still looking for something different from cinema, and I didn't find it here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Intruder (1988)

When I was a kid, I lived for horror films. I often could get my old man to take me to the theatre to see one on the weekend so afterwards we could raid the local hamburger joint, as mom kept us in healthy eating at the house. Primary 80s horror viewing was done via the video store, however, and I relished "New Release" day so I could browse the stacks of boxes. I'll never forget the box of demonic Angela in Night of the Demons, Pinhead on the Hellraiser boxes, or the iconic skull on the box of Evil Dead 2. This artwork screamed "Rent Me!" and I often picked up quite a few for the weekend. I knew about all of these flicks well in advance, because I hungrily read genre magazines Fangoria and Gorezone from cover to cover, as if they were my bible. As I got older, this passion for horror films seriously waned. Now, I rarely watch any new horror cinema, and like most of the cinema covered here, I seek out the obscure and forgotten (or never known) for something unique and different.

A few months ago on eBay, I got a lot of genre magazines, primarily Fango and Gorezone, for a pittance, perhaps from someone once like me. When I got them in the mail, I started perusing them. A lot of those old feelings of excitement returned. I even got the opportunity to read my letter in an issue of Gorezone where I queried the editors on the work of Jim Van Bebber whose film Deadbeat at Dawn was making a bloody splash on the horror scene! Finally, when Bryce at Things that Don't Suck announced that he was hosting Raimifest, I knew exactly which film that I would revisit and then review. I had rented it over twenty years ago and had been disappointed--not in the film mind you, but in its video presentation. I even found the article in Gorezone No. 6 that inspired me to seek it out, written by the inimitable Chas. Balun. Allow me to quote Balun's opening paragraph from his article to kick off the substantive portion of this review:

"Actor, writer, producer, director, Fake Shemp, practical joker, devoted horror fan, and close personal friend to both Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell--known 'em both since junior high school, as a matter of fact. His previous film credits include Evil Dead II (as co-writer and actor), Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except (co-writer, producer) and The Dead Next Door (actor). He's currently in postproduction on Intruder, his feature film directorial debut that co-stars old chums Sam and Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell; it sports the FX talents of Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Bob Kurtzman (Savini's crew on Day of the Dead)." (Gorezone, No. 6, March 1989. edited by Anthony Timpone, O’ Quinn Studios Publishing, New York, p.8) The director described is Scott Spiegel whose film Intruder was also co-written and produced by Lawrence Bender (whose collaborations with Quentin Tarantino must have led to these three eventually working together on From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999)). Intruder is about a crew working in a grocery store after closing who get picked off, one by one, by a killer. It's a film with a single location, few characters, and a simple plot. While Spiegel admits in the Gorezone article that after working on Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except, low-budget films, like Evil Dead, should be kept to a single location for organizational and budgetary reasons (Gorezone, p.9), his decision to do so with Intruder is as much a creative one: like Evil Dead and the film that he co-wrote previously, Evil Dead 2, when the setting, plot, and characters are simple, the complexity and creativity can come with the details. The opportunity for interesting and bloody practical effects; off-kilter photography, lighting, and editing; and dark comedy are ripe. Does Intruder succeed? Yes, kind of, sort of, no. However, Spiegel and crew had some hurdles to clear in 1989 even before the cameras started rolling.

In 1989. the MPAA had its sharpest scissors. Virtually every horror film with an iota of gore was censored by the group. Video had saved a lot of horror films, as "unrated" versions of films were common. Balun notes in his article that Paramount Home Video would release Intruder on video (Gorezone, p. 11) and this was the version that I first saw. (Someone is going to have to verify the following information for me, as I don't have an original VHS of Intruder to view.) The subsequent VHS release had its gore censored and was released rated R. It was even censored in a disrespectful manner: scenes were cut from the release with its audio, so even the music gets muffed. Paramount didn't even bother cutting and then redoing the audio track. With a low-budget film with a heavy portion devoted to elaborate FX, there went a good part of its appeal.

However, Intruder was going to suffer at its inception: by 1989 or even before, the slasher genre was tired. Three buzz words surrounded Intruder in print media: "slasher," "gore," and "grocery store." How would Spiegel attempt to tackle and entertain and make memorable his film among jaded fans? In the Gorezone article, Spiegel reveals himself a real horror fan with a deep love for the genre. He declares that "Intruder is straightforward in a Halloween kind of way." (Gorezone, p.10) However, this same filmmaker also made Super-8 comedies in his youth with Sam and Ted Raimi, and this comedic tradition continues in his adulthood with both Evil Dead 2 and Intruder. (Gorezone, p. 8) Ultimately, Intruder wants to be a tension-filled horror film with laughs. The comedy and the horror actually work against each other in the film.

Here is an example and it is representative. In celebration of Raimifest, the character is Randy, portrayed by Sam Raimi, and his death scene (yes, he dies in the film. What a shock.). By the end of the first act in traditional fashion, all of the characters are introduced, the mystery opened, red herring inserted, and the dramatic motivation begun: the grocery store is shutting down. The two co-owners are selling the store. The crew has to stay overnight to mark all the prices down in the store. This motivation will separate the characters into different parts of the store and put each alone on some task. By the time Raimi's Randy meets his demise, the viewer has already seen his treatment: character alone, quiet audio, dark room, a minute for him/her to discover that something is amiss, then audio cue, attack, and gore scene. It is very predictable to say the least. The comedy, when inserted in these scenes, is completely out of place. For example, Randy is in the meat department, and before the killer gets him, he picks up a packaged container. Instead of a fresh cut steak, it is a human hand. The tension is not only undercut by the predictability but its comedy. Nail-biting, chuckle, or jump scare? I don't know. Take your pick. However, this is my opinion in 2011. If Intruder were made today, not only would I have never seen it, then I probably would have never had known about it. Intruder does have a wonderfully dated quality that really defines it. The grocery store setting appears genuine and also appears dated even in 1988. To see products that are no longer around because they have lost their utility or their companies have gone under, print magazines no longer published, and technology seriously outdated is surreal.

Anyone can attack a mystery or a horror film armed with elementary logic. Take any mystery: define the number of characters, reduce the pool by their obvious characteristics from the extreme ends of the spectrum, limit the pool to a workable bunch, and deduce the killer from the small group. Shit, you can probably guess with bulls-eye accuracy. Or, even easier, attack the traditional, three-act structure, plot-driven film. First, learn the running time of the film from either the back of the DVD cover or on the internet from, say, Moviefone. Second, divide the film's running time into thirds and make note of each time. While watching the film, look at your watch. At the end of the first third, all of the characters in the film are introduced, the exposition delivered, and the dramatic conflict begun. At the end of the second act, again look at your watch, the dramatic action should be fuelled and the characters should have some sort of knowledge as to its resolution. Finally, the third act has the most structural sub-components but its ultimate aim is climax and resolution. So, for example, when I look at my watch at the end of an hour into Intruder, it's "final girl" time. I can pretty much guess where this is going. It's a load of shit to say it, but it's true: a film's heart can never be measured with any logical or mathematical approach. It is conveyed really to the viewer, and the level to which it reaches you is dependent on the viewer. Intruder conveys a tremendous amount of heart. The enthusiasm with which Balun writes his Gorezone article and the geeky-horror-movie-fan enthusiasm so very present in Spiegel radiates throughout Intruder. The shadowy compositions are really effective. Spiegel is able to make his shadows powerful enough to compete with the other props and gore effects in the frame, and often the shadows win out in creepy factor. Often a lot of the comedy, while it may be out of place, is quite endearing. For example, virtually everyone who works in the store is constantly snacking on something. Raimi's Randy is totally focused on some menial task. In the foreground of the composition, a jar of olives stands out from which Randy is mindlessly taking out olives. He pops them in his mouth without looking. The camera goes into close-up of the jar, and Randy reaches into the jar. The killer has placed an eyeball among the olives. Randy's fingers graze the eyeball but at the last second, he grabs an olive. It's a cute, "ewww" gore effect, and one that only a real lover of horror films would even think to include. Any Raimi fan will recognize Dan Hicks in Intruder and he gives a wonderful performance. He tells a story midway into the film that is totally creative and incredulous, yet Hicks's rendition is genuine. While all of the performances in Intruder waver in quality, none are lacking in enthusiasm. The final film appears as if everyone, from cast and crew, want Intruder to be a roller-coaster scarefest. This one quality, its heart, is ultimately Intruder's redeeming quality. This is why it made fans in 1989 and still has fans, like me, today. Intruder is old-school predictable horror but it's old-school horror. They just don't make them like this anymore. Okay, I'm fucking around. Yes, they do. However, not quite like this. See it and understand.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)

Brad Anderson directed Session 9 (2001), indisputably one of the best and arguably the best horror film of its decade. He followed this feature with another fantastic film, The Machinist (2004). I recently watched his latest feature film, Vanishing on 7th Street (2010) via the Zune Video application via the XBOX Live Marketplace (with content accessible in the United States). I would like to share this small anecdote about my life before this review of Anderson's latest film, as I feel it is very appropriate:

I grew up in a small community on the Gulf of Mexico. I attended college in New Orleans and after graduating, I moved to Los Angeles. Within a couple months of arriving, I was sleeping soundly in my apartment until I was awoken by a considerable rumbling. I sat up in bed, disoriented, confused, and worried. Within a few seconds, my mind began to rationalize: "Hey, stupid, this is Los Angeles. That was an earthquake." An immediate sense of comfort warmed over me when I realized this, and any fear that I held almost disappeared. For all I knew the Big One was about to hit, but the comfort that I had received in identifying the source of my fear stayed and lessened any other immediate fears.

What would happen if that comfort were removed? What if a catastrophe were to occur and none of its survivors could identify its source? How would they act and react to circumstances? This is the thematic premise of Vanishing on 7th Street. Here is a bare description of the set-up for the film:

Paul (John Leguizamo) is an introverted projectionist working at a multiplex movie theatre. Rosemary (Thandie Newton) is a physical therapist who works at a hospital and has an infant child. Luke (Hayden Christensen) works at a television station as a reporter and is fucking the woman who covers the weather. One evening, all of the power everywhere immediately goes out, and everyone, save primarily the mentioned three above, disappear. These three do not know each other at all. As each scrambles in the darkness to survive, a bar appears in the middle of the city with its power intact. Luke is the first to enter the bar and meet its sole inhabitant, a child named James (Jacob Latimore). The three characters eventually unite at this bar. The only thing that is certain is that something which can exist only in darkness is making people disappear.

Anderson seemed to have in mind the massive failure which was M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening (2008) and wished to not recreate its mistakes, as both films deal with the same thematic premise. Both filmmakers deserve kudos in attempting to tackle this premise, as virtually no one can relate to its dilemma. If a catastrophe were to occur and no one could, with any degree of certainty, identify its source, then what would people do? Immediately, I'm certain that some would ignore the question completely and just attempt to survive as best as possible. Ignorant and/or uneducated people would probably make something up to create a sense of comfort and pick an easy target, like terrorists. All the characters that Anderson presents in Vanishing are intelligent people who are trying to understand what is going on but are having a lot of trouble just surviving.

Anderson is walking a tightrope with his viewer. First, how he is able to adequately convey his ideas to his viewer? Second, as Vanishing is a horror film, is he going to be able to generate the fear that is very much present in his characters into his audience?

The mystery of the colony at Roanoke is Anderson's primary thematic metaphor. Shy and introverted Paul is seen reading about the colony at the beginning of the film, and later when the three unite at the bar, it is Paul who brings it into the discussion. While the mystery colony is Anderson's primary metaphor, his primary tool in conveying his thematic ideas is dialogue. Vanishing is set largely in the bar, and when the three are together, they talk quite a bit. This amount of dialogue coupled with the singular setting gives Vanishing a stage-play-like quality. This is not a bad thing in itself, but at the time of my viewing, I wasn't in the mood to see a film structured like this. It doesn't help the proceedings much when the characters break their dialogue to have an emotional outburst. These outbursts are frequent, and while I can feel for these characters, watching them continually breakdown becomes annoying. Ultimately, Anderson overdoes the dialogue so his themes aren't hidden, and this quality sacrifices the dramatic and compelling qualities of the cinema.

That is not to say Vanishing is not compelling on a visual and atmospheric level. When the characters are shown alone, two things happen: one, each does not talk; and two, Anderson really shows his creative talent. Luke's visit to the television station, the morning after the incident, is a highlight. Paul, later in the film, takes a bizarre trip, which Anderson mixes with footage from present events and Paul's subjectivity. Newton's sequences alone are also visually compelling and tension-filled. Incidentally, Newton's scenes alone are much more affecting emotionally (instead of the frequent bouts of crying to which she is given). There is a brilliant film in these sequences, but unfortunately, Anderson handholds his audience too much. Ironically, in a film about the fear of uncertainty, Anderson goes to length to make certain his audience understands this fear.

The film's conception is a big risk, and I wish that Anderson would have went further. Vanishing, with its few brilliant sequences, could have surpassed Kiyoshi Kurosawa's underappreciated masterpiece, Kairo (2001), which also deals with similar material. As it stands, Vanishing on 7th Street is another example of commercial conservatism overshadowing real artistic talent.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Una ondata di piacere (1975)

Irem (Al Cliver) and Barbara (Silvia Dionisio) are a good-looking young couple, who, at Cefalù, spy another couple, Giorgio (John Steiner) and Silvia (Elizabeth Turner), water skiing. Giorgio knocks Silvia from her tether, and while she is splashing in the water, Giorgio makes an intentional turn towards her head, almost killing her. Witnessing this cruel display by Giorgio, Barbara and Irem decide to interject themselves into the lives of Giorgio and Silvia and play a game. Barbara quickly seduces Giorgio with her beauty; and eventually, Giorgio invites both Barbara and Irem to accompany himself and Silvia aboard his yacht for a weekend cruise. Soon after boarding the yacht, Barbara and Irem quickly learn that Giorgio and Silvia like to play games, too. Una ondata di piacere (1975) marks a return to cinema after an absence of years for its director, Ruggero Deodato. In his own words, Deodato speaks of its genesis, taken from his interview included as a part of a featurette of the Raro DVD release:

"Waves of Lust" is a film that I didn't really want to do at first. I'd been in the doldrums. I'd shot some comedies but then I was prohibited from making anymore because of competition and various other reasons. In the meantime I'd married a girl [Silvia Dionisio] who started out with me and got very famous. That's why I wanted to distance myself from cinema. The woman's always more important than the man. If I'd made five films in a year, the woman would get more famous by doing just one. And the husband is seen as being past it. I didn't like the idea of that so I started working in advertising. I was very successful but it always felt really sad when I went to Milan and saw a crew arrive from Rome to shoot a film. I'd get depressed.
They'd always call me with an ulterior motive. "Can you bring your wife as well?" My wife was already working with Monicelli and Scola, why should she make B movies with me? Agents in the business would ask me to go and see them and tell me to take my wife too. But she already had an agent. That's why I distanced myself. Then I got the offer to this film, and even though I wasn't keen on the erotic aspect of the story I thought I could steer it into thriller territory and manage to maneuver it out of the erotic ghetto. But I got ripped off, because my wife said: "You not doing this film if I'm not in it." But she couldn't do it, because the female lead was already cast. She said: "You're not making a film with a naked woman if that woman isn't me. As soon as all my other colleagues start to strip off, like Ornella Muti, I want to be able to say I did it with my husband." I told her it was impossible, but she was so persuasive with me and the producers that they annulled the contract with the other actress and my wife did it for a quarter of her normal fee. So for me it was quite a difficult shoot, because not only did I have to get my wife naked, but I had to make sure she came out looking good. It's difficult to direct your wife when she's naked, making her adopt certain positions. She'd say: "Wasn't that okay?" It was more than okay...but it was a very embarrassing shoot. It was even more embarrassing because the film was a huge success. It made a fortune. But my wife lost a contract because of it. Actually it was a contract we both had with a production company to advertise a famous liquor. The owner said: "After this film I don't want either of you."
In Cannibal Holocaust and The Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato, Deodato relates this version of the film's genesis:

The producers Marras and Salviani, offered me the chance to make an erotic film; this style of movie was in fashion at the time. Muti, Giorgi, and Agnostina Belli were the pioneers and then everyone started doing it. I had planned to shoot that film with another actress, who at the last minute refused to be film naked. So I put forward my wife's name to the producers; at that time she was a star and had never got undressed before the cameras. She accepted the part only because her peers were doing this sort of film at the time. (p. 14, FAB Press, Surrey, U.K., edited by Harvey Fenton, 1999.) Una ondata di piacere benefits from its tight and almost primary setting, Giorgio’s yacht, four characters, with each actor giving an effective performance, and a willingness to be provocative, leaving the conservative perhaps back at shore. It is a film about power and its perversity, its ridiculousness, and its attraction. John Steiner’s Giorgio is the most overt character with the most stereotypical rendition of power. Giorgio’s wealthy, competitive, and possessive; and perhaps as a result of these traits, he is cruel. He enjoys berating and abusing his wife, Silvia. Giorgio refuses a business deal with a down-on-his-luck colleague, and it is intimated in a later scene that this colleague committed suicide because of this refusal. Giorgio could have helped, exclaims Silvia, but he didn’t want to, intimating that Giorgio took some pleasure in rebuffing his colleague. In another sequence on the yacht, Irem overhears Giorgio tells his lawyer via phone to close a deal with its end result being the unemployment of six hundred workers. Giorgio doesn’t care in the least, and this irks Irem. Dionisio’s Barbara immediately realizes Giorgio’s nature, and as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Barbara’s plan is to seduce Giorgio. However, she is never going to complete the seduction: the ultimate punishment is to deny Giorgio what he wants the most. For someone so driven and possessive and cruel like Giorgio, to be denied anything could kill him. Barbara’s plan does not work as conceived. The perversity of Una ondata di piacere reveals itself during the second act. Elizabeth Turner’s Silvia reveals herself as not a victim but as very complacent in her position. In their cabin, Barbara and Irem stare incredulously as they hear Giorgio and Silvia have sex in their cabin. Barbara remarks, humorously, from the noises that they are making now, one would never think that they tried to kill each other earlier that day. Irem remarks that they seem like a master and happy slave. Barbara still attempts to exact her plan but she is never able to make any effective headway. Meanwhile, Irem develops a blossoming obsession towards Silvia. Like Barbara, Silvia seems to enjoy seducing Irem yet keeping him effectively at bay. Silvia’s character takes a perverse turn, as does Barbara‘s--when the third act begins, Barbara changes her plan, and when the credits roll, the viewer will certainly be questioning her cruelty. Ruggero Deodato has always been a court jester of cinema, enjoying being willful and provocative for the sake of being so. I admire this tremendously. The thriller plot of Una ondata di piacere is tired; and the real interest of the film is in watching these characters reveal their different layers with totally unexpected results. In fact, as much as Una ondata di piacere is touted as an erotic film, Deodato shoots the film as if it weren’t: the film has an organic style, none of the nudity or the sex is particularly treated with flourish. When Turner and Dionisio disrobe in front of each other, Deodato’s composition doesn’t change. Like a conversation, the inclusion of any skin into the frame just continues. When Irem attempts to fuck Silvia, Deodato shoots them on the small staircase leading from the cabin to the upper deck. There’s nothing special about the setting nor the atmosphere: there’s only Irem’s obsession and Silvia’s seduction. Any eroticism from the film is generated from the actors: gorgeous Dionisio is as seductive in her jeans and hooded sweatshirt walking the streets of Cefalù as she is sunbathing topless on the deck of the yacht. Deodato’s primary composition of Dionisio is a facial close-up. Cliver and Turner generate heat in their few sequences, and Steiner, perhaps intentionally with his performance, looks buffoonish in his sexual scenes. Una ondata di piacere is unexpected in Deodato style and is worth seeing if not just for Silvia Dionisio’s precious performance. She captures every frame and is the very definition of charismatic. While Steiner’s character is the most overt and Turner’s character the most subverted, Dionisio’s character is the most unexpected and holds the most mystery. Una ondata di piacere is a rare film in Deodato’s filmography, rarely spoken of, but like most of his cinema, very provocative and compelling and certainly worthy of seeking out.

Friday, March 4, 2011

La nuit des traquées (1980)

La nuit des traquées (1980) is a sad film. I had not seen the film in quite a while, and it was the first film that I had seen of Jean Rollin's since his death. There is an overwhelming sense of melancholy to the whole production. I pulled my Encore DVD of the film for no particular reason and gave it a spin. I watched it several times over successive nights. I suppose I wanted to see if the sadness came from me or was an emotion elicited from watching the film. "When I see this film," says Rollin, "I feel a sense of unease. As if the film contains the seed of a great film that was never actually realized." (from Virgins and Vampires, edited by Peter Blumenstock, Essays by Jean Rollin, Crippled Publishing, Germany, 1997, p.93)
Robert (Alain Duclos) is driving on a dark night during a storm in the countryside. A young woman, dressed only in her night gown, steps out on to the road. Robert stops to help the young woman. She has no memory, save her name, Elisabeth (Brigitte Lahaie), and Robert agrees to drive her to Paris for help. Robert takes Elisabeth to his flat in Paris, and the two fuck. Robert has to leave to go to the office and requests that Elisabeth wait for him. While Robert is gone, an older gentleman and his lady assistant arrive to reclaim Elisabeth and take her back to her home--the "Black Tower," a modern high-rise building located in a block of them in the outskirts of Paris. She is a patient there.

With La nuit des traquées, Rollin has been compared to David Cronenberg, especially his film Shivers (1975). The two films certainly share superficial qualities, and the comparison is not without merit. The "Black Tower" setting and the physical affliction of its residents (which also affects Elisabeth) which is causing their behavior to change are notable similarities. However, beyond these similarities, I think the comparison ends. Elizabeth's affliction is a romantic one in signature Rollin style: a disease which removes memories. The modern high-rise setting is often focal, because it is far from Rollin's previous settings, such as the ruinous castle in Requiem pour un vampire or the little getaway villa of Fascination, for example.
Natalie Perry, "in a very moving scene that gave the film its true meaning," (Virgins, p. 93) appears in the hallway of the Black Tower in front of Elisabeth and her roommate, portrayed by Catherine Greiner. Perry's character knows that she has a child and does not know where her child is. She cannot remember the sex of her child nor its name. She only has this innate connection, beyond her memory, that she has had a child and that her child is somewhere, alone. Elisabeth and Catherine are speechless and are overcome with the awkwardness of being so moved so suddenly by such emotion. Catherine tells Perry's character that her child's name is Alice, and this statement brings comfort to Perry's character. Its comfort is not lasting, as Perry's character only takes five or ten steps away, and asks again what her child's name is. Catherine tells Elisabeth that we can make memories for each other--making memories as temporary comfort for a debilitating condition that is consuming them. Grenier's character, in addition to suffering the memory loss, has also lost the ability of her fine motor skills, like undoing her buttons or unfastening her belt. "Cathy Grenier was a real actress. She dreamed about playing and worked for a long time on the scene where Brigitte feeds her with a spoon. This scene is a great moment, very moving and she is excellent in it," says Rollin. "I resisted to the bitter end facing André Samarcq [the producer] who insisted on me cutting it out at the editing." (from the supplemental booklet included in the Encore DVD set, p. 19) The scene which Rollin is describing is during a sequence where Elisabeth and Catherine are having dinner. Elisabeth watches as Catherine cannot bring the spoon of soup to her lips without spilling it. Without words, Elisabeth sits next to her friend and feeds her. Like Perry's sole scene, this sequence is especially tender and moving. So much so, after viewing, one can see why Rollin put up a fight to keep it in La nuit.

While the wonderfully-titled "Black Tower" is interesting on a visual level (just odd and out of place and disorienting), the actual location of the film perhaps hides the more interesting influence over La nuit. André Samarcq offered this production to Rollin to be filmed “within ten days or so in the La Défense district” with “complete freedom,” save the forced inclusion of several soft-core sex scenes. (Encore booklet, p.3, and Virgins, p. 93) Rollin chose to cast his friends from the x-rated movie industry, because “at the time I was rebellious,” he adds. “I was particularly bothered by the disdain that the mainstream movie people displayed towards their porno colleagues.” (Virgins, p.93) The building was an office building named “Fiat Tower,” where Rollin and crew would come in minutes after the workers left at five p.m. and film all night. (Encore booklet, p. 5) Rollin tells this fantastic story about the location:

During “La nuit des traquées”, the top floor of the tower was called the X floor. It was empty and probably served as junk space; you can guess what the crew used it for. There was a storm once and I was in the lift, looking for a location for a scene. I was aiming for the top floor. It must have been just past midnight, I was alone. The wind was howling and roaring in the lift shaft. Suddenly, I clearly felt the tower rocking. Anyone who has never found himself alone at night in the centre of a dancing tower doesn’t know what it’s like to feel scared. I learned later that the towers are erected on neoprene supports and that it’s normal that they move during a storm. But I didn’t know this at the time. So, the automatic doors open and the actors and actresses are thrashing around restlessly on the floor in front of me. I go down one floor, leave the lift of terror and climb down again through the staircase. The tower is still moving under my feet...” (Encore booklet, p. 5)

A beautiful story (it serves as an example also of how fine of a writer Rollin was). There is also a little joke in the story, as well, tied into the “X floor.”
Nonetheless, Samarcq’s demands upon Rollin show its influence in La nuit des traquées and alter its outcome. The lengthy sex scene between Lahaie and Duclos goes on way too long for most viewers. In addition, the scene is way too much for most viewers. To be totally frank, Brigitte Lahaie is too much for most viewers. Lahaie is one of the most sensuous actresses to ever grace the screen. She possesses an overwhelming and powerful sexuality. She also plays all of her roles with a true vulnerability and genuineness. Few possess these traits. However, to encounter a scene like this early in the film, many might determine the film for something it is not--a pure sex film. The subsequent sex scenes in La nuit might be borne from Rollin’s rebelliousness against Samarcq: one is a scene of violence, a rape scene shot in the same manner as a consensual sex scene; and the other is a sex scene ending in violence, performed by two ancillary characters (to be fair, ancillary characters pop up in and around Rollin’s films so often, they can hardly be called ancillary as their quantity removes their ancillary nature). The sex scenes are there, but they’re not titillating, save Lahaie and Duclos’s scene. These exploitive scenes punctuate La nuit loudly, making it unique in that respect. I’ve never valued tonal consistency (or any consistency, for that matter) in film, as I believe an artist is completely free to do as he/she wishes with the art. However, the tender scenes don’t play well with the exploitative scenes--they stand together like bullies and victims forced uncomfortably together for a school photo.

La nuit has some beautiful scenes. The opening sequence where Duclos encounters Lahaie in the rain is one of Rollin’s most beautiful in his entire filmography. Rollin writes, “I was so pleased with this beginning of the film that I was considering to open all my future films with a similar scene.” (Encore booklet, p. 6) Dominique Journet, as Véronique, is also present in this opening scene, and as in this one, she steals virtually every scene that she’s in. Véronique is arguably the most tragic character in La nuit, solely because Lahaie’s Elisabeth is focal. That is to say, since such a mystery surrounds Véronique, her emotional scenes have much more resonance. When she is alone and grasping her knees in a somber state, her emotion comes solely from her--not from some previous plot revelation or a character-building scene. Her character also has the saddest ending. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the music by Philippe Bréjean: it’s simple and haunting. He really captured the melancholy mood of the film. It has to be heard rather than described with words. La nuit des traquées is an obscure film in an obscure film maker’s filmography. There are no castles, no Castel twins, and no beach scenes. It’s a beautiful and sad film full of fragments, where perhaps, all its beauty and sadness reside.