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Things are about to get very strange... Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Photograph | Jan Kudela

Things are about to get very strange…
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Photograph | Jan Kudela

“The Dreamer awakes.
The shadow goes by.
The tale I have told you, that tale is a lie.
But listen to me, Bright maiden, proud youth.
The tale is a lie; What it tells is the truth.”
— Author Unknown, Traditional folktale ending

When we are children and an adult reads or tells us a story from the realm of “fairy tales” or folklore, a profound logic seeps into our psyche that never leaves. An aspect or a key moment in one of these stories becomes a core foundation of our identity. It seems impossible that some bit of a childhood story has worked its way so deeply into our perception of logic. When given a period of time to “digest” this idea it no longer seems  impossible. It is valid truth. This is not a bad thing. The illogical silliness of some old folklore bears a great deal of truth that is easier for a child to grasp when told in the form of a “Once Upon A Time..” context. Folklore, mythology and fairy tales are grounded in some subversion of truth. It isn’t the fox in Little Red Riding Hood or the witch in Hansel and Gretel that scares us and merges into our logic. It is the deception perpetuated by these character archetypes that grabs our tiny minds and never lets go.This is an important understanding  for every human being: Don’t trust strangers. It is certainly a crucial idea that every child must understand.

On the flip-side of this logic, sometimes those terrifying allegories form such a strong hold within our minds it aids in a perpetuation of illogical paranoia.

Horror is fast approaching... Father Tucker's Play-Time Series Edition of Little Red Riding Hood, c. 1910

Horror is fast approaching…
Father Tucker’s Play-Time
Series Edition of Little Red Riding Hood, c. 1910

Unfounded feelings or suspicions that can linger with us well into our adulthood. While it is absurd to think your Grandmother or anyone upon whom you depend could morph into a fanged sort of demon intent on eating you, it doesn’t mean that in a crisis of an elder’s illness you won’t have a nightmare in which this happens. This is the subconscious creating a metaphor out of the stressors involved in your worries for and about her care. On a conscious level, that a walk in the woods might seem fun but something inside you worries that it could easily become a walk into unspeakable dangers.  A jump into the ocean for a swim can sometimes be met with a fear that somewhere just below us,  John Williams’ musical notes are trying to warn us of that giant shark that is about to attack. We know that the forest and the ocean contain dangers, but these are dangers that are very low from a realistic perspective. This is when those parables, allegories, metaphors and movies come to the surface of our adult identities. It is easy for many to push back these illogical concerns, but for some it gets a bit more murky.

Exploring fairy tales, folklore and mythology is nothing new for filmmakers. They often hold the same sort of spell over us as do the stories that inspire them. Movies have always played a strong role in my life. Partly because I grew up constantly seeing them, but also because I desperately needed to escape my reality. My father was insane. It was mistaken for “eccentricity” at the time. But he was a scary man. He was brilliant at deception. For the first nine years of my life, I viewed him as constant threat. But that is a whole other blog. For now, let’s stick with the fact that my father was insane and he had no clue regarding “appropriate boundaries.” The few boundaries he had were skewed at best.

Interestingly, it would be my greatest source of fear who led me to the power of movies and the escape they offered. This started very early in my life. He seemed to have no idea as to what was acceptable for a child to see. Naturally, as child I didn’t mind this at all. But often I would see images and stories that left me feeling deeply confused and afraid. Children are far aware that culture gives credit. A child may not be able to articulate an understanding, but they understand much more than most think. I can remember my father making a last minute decision that we were going to the movies. My mother was not home. As we walked up the ticket counter he must have requested one adult and one child. I’m not sure, but I the woman behind the ticket counter became quite upset, “Sir, this is not a movie for a child! How old are you, sweetie?” I still remember the shocking way her tough voice suddenly took on a honey-dewed sweetness. Before I could form an answer, I felt the seemingly giant hand of my father firmly clenched my head. “His age is none of your business. How much do I owe you?”

"Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?" Linda Blair inciting heart attacks and long lines at the box office. The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973

“Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?”
Linda Blair inciting heart attacks and long lines at the box office.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973

The Exorcist did not scare me at that time. To be honest, I was just confused. My biggest concern regarding the movie was trying to understand why people around us seemed so disturbed. When I whispered, “Her voice don’t match her lips.” was greeted with hushes from all corners. It would be years later that the horrific side of this film became apparent to me. As a child, it seemed more silly than scary. I understood I was not tell mom we saw it. Later my father took me to the drive-in. Drive-in’s always showed movies in “double bills.” Pay one price per head and see two movies. The movies were usually older and more obscure than what one would find in a traditional cinema. As my father adjusted the speaker to his window the show began. The first movie was about vampires. Later I realized that this was Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.  I’m not exactly sure how old I was, but I am thinking I was about 8. Once again, I wasn’t particularly scared. To be honest, I remember being more concerned about this odd dude who walked around my father’s car. My father pulled out his pistol and the odd man quickly vanished.

The second feature would have a much dramatic impact and it intoxicated my tiny brain. It was scary to me, but it seemed to require my attention. I might not have been able to state what the film was about, but I suspect I understood it better than most of the adults sitting in their cars. This girl was in trouble and none of it was her fault. I was worried for her. And the images that were projected on that outdoor screen were searing into my being. I did ask my father about it. He said something to the effect that it was an artsy-fartzy movie. He was bored and wanted to leave, but I begged him to stay and let us watch it. It would be years later that a friend’s older cousin produced a beat-up old VHS tape for us to watch. The images were pretty muddy, but these were the same ones I had seen as child. I was pulled into the screen of my friend’s television. As I watched it all flow out too quickly for my stoned consciousness to read the blurry subtitles my friend kept muttering, “What the fuck? No, Matty! What the fuck? Make it stop!” She rolled around laughing. Occasionally sneaking a peak, she would scream in a sort of mocked horror.

The movie we were watching was  Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Returning to this film with a clear and adult perspective, it is easy that my childhood reality lent this surreal film a great more power than it intended.

Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

Shot in 1969 and released in 1970, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders marks the end of The Czech New Wave. No doubt it ended up on a double-billing with another old movie at the drive-in. I’m not sure where my friend’s cousin got his tape. I would be in my 30’s before it was even remotely “restored” and released via DVD. After a good deal of work, Criterion has recently re-issued a pristine version with improved subtitles. Watching Jaromil Jireš’ bizarre movie within the context of the 21st Century is challenging. Based on Vítězslav Nezval 1930’s Surrealist novel, the entire production is almost drenched in Gothica.

“Sirin and Alkonost, the Birds of Joy and Sorrow” by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896 Was thought to have had an impact on Vítězslav Nezval

“Sirin and Alkonost, the Birds of Joy and Sorrow” by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896
Was thought to have had an impact on Vítězslav Nezval

Nezval was key member of the Czech Surrealist Movement, and Jireš’ utilizes his dialogue and adheres to Nezval’s core aesthetics. Nezval wrote the following in his “Forward” for his book, Valerie and her Week of Wonders:

“I wrote this novel out of a love of the mystique in those ancient tales, superstitions and romances, printed in Gothic script, which used to flit before my eyes and declined to convey to me their content. …If, with this book, I will have given [the readers] an evocation of the rare and tenuous sensations which compelled me to write a story that borders on the ridiculous and trite, I shall be satisfied.”

Nezval’s book still holds interest, but it is far more complex than the movie it would inspire. At times the book seems like it is intended to be comical, but then takes a twisted turn to the grotesque. It is filled with narratives of the Gothica tradition. It is also creepy in the use of eroticism. Unlike the book, the film adaptation forms an immediate tie to the Pohádka. This is the term for the Czechoslovakian concept of “fairy tales” which is more than a little different from our perceptions of parables. The Pohádka holds an important place in Czech culture and is often steeped in religious ideologies. From what I’ve been able to gather, the “Evil” characters are even more cruel and the “good” characters are quickly identified as victims who may or may not take vengeance. The victims may not even survive. I apologize if I offer a weak definition of Pohádka. Please feel free to leave a comment to correct or clarify my description.

Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie, the dutiful granddaughter practices her piano lessons.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie, the dutiful granddaughter practices her piano lessons.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

The plot is deceptively simple: a beautiful 13 year old orphaned girl has her first period and, as she starts her path toward womanhood, she is confronted with a series of horrify and menacing people and situations.  These individuals and the circumstances in which she meets and experiences them is in a world that may or may not be strictly limited to her imagination. Poor Valerie seems to be living in a sort of disorienting dream state.

The film begins with a beautiful young girl napping in some form of surreal post-hippie gazebo. In the first of many “forms” a thief arrives. Dangling upside down he magically slips Valerie’s earrings off. She awakens just in time to see him running away. She runs after this thief to determine his identity and why he took her earrings. Valerie seems more intrigued than upset. As she roams about her village people began to take a grotesque formations. We have already met her grandmother. Grandma is strange from the first moment she enters our view.  Valerie seems to realize that something is not quite right with Grandma, but she doesn’t let on. Later as she floats in a small pool of water in her village’s fountain. As she prepares to emerge from the water, she becomes entranced by the water’s ripples. The thief returns. This time he magically slips her earrings back on. Seemingly content she begins her walk home.

A First Menses has never appeared this easy or so pretty as Valerie admires her blood drips on the daisies.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

A First Menses has never appeared this easy or so pretty as Valerie admires her blood drips on the daisies.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

In what must be the oddest cinematic depiction of a female’s first menstruation, Valerie notices drips of blood falling on the daisies over which she gently glides. She does not appear alarmed or upset. She simply marvels at the beauty of the red blood droplets on the flowers. She then dashes home to the safety of her pristinely white and innocent bedroom. She falls into a deep sleep. It is very hard to know if the rest of what we see is a nightmare or her reality.

 

Valeris is becoming suspect of her Grandmother.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

Valeris is becoming suspect of her Grandmother.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

Her ghostly Grandmother begins to form into a sinister threat. Other females enter her world who seem to share her Grandmother’s face. And each new version of Granny offers a new level of terror. Her yearning to know who her parents were takes on an odd level of horror. As she looks through her Grandmother’s dining room window she sees a procession of interesting and happy-looking people. Her Grandmother states that these are the missionaries and that they will be providing sleeping quarters for one of the priests. As Valerie looks at the people she begins to notice a number of things that seem “off” but most noticeably is a horrific looking man hiding his face behind an equally disturbing mask.

Oh, not to worry. He is just a former lover of Grandma's.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Oh, not to worry. He is just a former lover of Grandma’s.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

This “man” looks more like a monster than a person. But Grandma dismisses Valerie’s concerns. There is no need to be alarmed. Granny reveals that this vile creature is just a former lover.

Valerie receives an invitation to a sermon for all of the village virgins. Valerie, being a virgin and a “good girl” goes to the sermon. It isn’t long before Valerie meets the man who took and returned her earrings. He proclaims his love and desire for Valerie. The physicality of this man has changed twice already. Valerie seems hesitant, but she clearly finds this form attractive. He warns that the monster she saw is not some just some former lover of her Grandmother but true Evil in human form.

Before long Valerie discovers that this monster might be her father. And that the boy who seeks her affections might be her brother. Or, her father. Identities change so often that we are more confused than Valerie. When she returns home where she is led to a secret chamber.  She is forced to witness her Grandmother in a series of sadistic and perverse sexual tortures for her “former lover” who now looks like a priest. From Valerie’s perspective it is hard to know if Granny is ‘getting off’ or in jeopardy. This sadistic priest is called Gracian. This vile priest proves to be one of the most cruel of Valerie’s world. When Valerie refuses to give in to his disgusting sexual advances which quickly turn to the threat of rape, he conspires to have the whole village turn against Valerie. He claims she is a witch entrancing everyone with her beauty. They attempt to burn her at the stake! Oh, poor Valerie! What is she to do?

Wait? Is this really my week of wonders or are all my friends and family trying to burn me at the stake??!? Oh, poor Valerie! Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Wait? Is this really my week of wonders or are all my friends and family trying to burn me at the stake??!? Oh, poor Valerie!
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

Fear not, despite the flames and rope — Valerie never seems too concerned with this situation. She makes fun of the priest and spectators who were once her friends and neighbors. She magically escapes the fate of the burning stake only to find more horrific challenges ahead. It would seem that her creepy old Grandma has made a pact with Evil. She will surrender Valerie to him in exchange for the return of her youth and beauty. It all gets quite upsetting for little Valerie. Upon learning of her Grandmother’s cruel pact with Evil, she discovers that her recently wedded neighbor has been assaulted by a vampire! But not before this adult neighbor attempts to seduce Valerie. As with most of Valerie’s interactions, she is just curious enough to allow an erotic opportunity to start, but then she immediately finds a way to break free of the erotic commitment. This is the case regarding what appears to lesbian sex is actually feeble attempt to suck Valeri’s blood for strength. Oddly, once Valerie manages to calm her “friend” they both seem to fall asleep. Or that is what appears to happen.

Oh, Valerie! Trust your instincts! Your Granny wants your youth and beauty! Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Oh, Valerie! Trust your instincts! Your Granny wants your youth and beauty!
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

Valerie’s week of “wonders” is really turned into a week of confusion. She soon learns that her parents are quite alive. When they show up, Valerie notices that her mother looks just like her Grandmother, her father looks just like her would-be suitor who she had originally thought might be her brother. And as for the Evil Monster, like the others who populate her world, he is continually vacillating his intentions.

For Valerie, evil becomes the one constant that is seemingly always wanting to kill, seduce or trap her.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

For Valerie, evil becomes the one constant that is seemingly always wanting to kill, seduce or trap her.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

He is clearly some sort of vampire. But just as soon as he seems hellbent on sucking away all of her life’s blood, he is more interested in seducing her. Then, and without warning, he seems intent on raping her. Just when Valerie thinks she know what this Evil Monster wants, he offers to save her. Valerie is amongst every sort of imaginable identity of harm and danger. Possible familial connections turn toward incest, neighbors become enemies in the form of potential lovers or vampires or just plain old ghouls. Every one she encounters is loaded with vile intent.

All while filmmaker, Jaromil Jires, fills her world with symbolic colors, constantly alternating tones and metaphors of all shapes and sizes. From beginning to end the movie is a total trip into stunningly beautiful and ugly oddness. The strange appearances of the actors and Jan Curík’s stunning cinematography make it almost impossible to look away. Is should be noted that Ester Krumbachová served as the film’s Production Designer. Film buffs will note that she was also responsible for the look of Vera Chytilova’s groundbreaking 1966 film, Daisies. Her work here is actually more impressive.

Wow. This is some week alright... Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Wow. This is some week alright…
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

I’ve essentially been making fun of this truly amazing movie. But it is clearly intended to make us laugh as much as it makes us squirm. Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a surreal view of the implications of pending womanhood. The most surprising thing is this film is made by a man based upon the book by another very famous male writer. So is this is a limited male perspective on the challenges of women? Being a male, I’m not qualified to answer. At times the film’s depiction of women is most certainly grounded in a male perspective. However much of what the film explores feels relevant to the all-too-real threats that constantly loom over women.

As soon as the lead character receives the biological sign that “womanhood” is shortly pending, everyone around her seems to shift in motivations and interests regarding Valerie’s identity. Men seem intent on either seducing, molesting or raping her. And if that is not the intended goal, the sexual is over-ruled to hurt, theft, torture or murder. The women in Valerie’s world change as well.  Women now seem to view her as a threat to their own individual identity and worth. Or they desire her in sexual ways that she can’t quite understand. She is an innocent, but those in her world no longer view her as such. She is now essentially “an object” on which they feel free to project love, lust, desire, anger, jealousy, pain, degradation, humiliation and even death. Valerie is no longer a sweet little girl. Valerie is now a potential prize or victim.

Beautiful Innocence is now an object available for the taking. Or so they think... Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Beautiful Innocence is now an object available for the taking. Or so they think…
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

 

It is important to note that Valerie manages to escape and conquer all the challenges that come her way. She is no one’s victim. She sometimes falters as she attempts to understand or is sometimes even partially pulled toward some of the eroticisms — but those are fleeting moments. Valerie is steadfast in protecting herself. Her goal is to survive. And to survive with her dignity in place. Jaromil Jires offers one scene twice in the film: a small group of sensually enraptured women are engaging in an intense but somehow banal level of erotic play in a flowing stream of water. These women seem taken over by sensual delight in every aspect of themselves, each other, the sheer clothing that covers that wet bodies. They tease each other with soft kisses and even attempt to catch the fish swimming by to drop down their “barely-there” dresses and skin. We see Valerie walk past the stream twice from opposing sides of the stream. Our Valerie is clearly amused and passively interested in what these sultry lady-girls are up to. However, when one or more of these women notice Valerie and invite her to join them — Valerie becomes embarrassed or troubled and rushes her way past them. In between her her views of these lusty maidens, she runs across the river. As she crosses she notices the horror of one of the men from her world left for dead in the rapids of the stream that lead to these water vixens. Is there a connection to their perpetual state of wet eroticism and the dead man just a ways up stream?

Uh, oh. What fresh hell is this?  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Uh, oh. What fresh hell is this?
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

Sadly, Valerie’s “wonders” or “curiosities” is most likely going to be longer than a week.  This surreal dreamscape now might be her fate. It is hard to determine the intention of the film’s ending. As her horrifying and eroticall-fueled week comes to an end, all she wants to do is escape back to the safety of her pristinely innocent bedroom that has been bathed in warm white light. Her bedroom may be small, but it contains all she loves and treasures. True, Valerie awakes in her own bed. The problem is that her bed is now placed in the wilderness of her villages’ forrest. It is here we leave her. Alone in her bed surrounded by the natural elements of the forrest. The ending is as beautiful as it is disturbing.

The dilemma Jaromil Jires’ film presents for modern viewing is almost as challenging as Valerie’s week. The part of “Valerie” was played by a 6th grade girl, Jaroslava Schallerová. The movie has no problem in sexualizing this child. Filmed in what can best be described as “dewey erotic lighting” — the actress is often semi or nude and constantly being pulled into sexual intended kisses and caresses. The film veers into the realm of the inappropriate in the way this child actor was filmed.

Valerie in the privacy of her innocent room strikes an alluring pose.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Valerie in the privacy of her innocent room strikes an alluring pose.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

The current view of Film Scholars is that Jires did not film the girl as a “sex object” but more as a “symbol of innocence” trapped in a world filled with sexual desires and constant threat. This defense is weak. I’m not able to buy-in or agree with this attitude.

In defense, the film never even approaches the level of “pornography” or “soft core adult entertainment,” but it does go too far. The actress now in her early 50’s has always been proud of her fleeting moment of fame. Her mother was present for the entirety of the shoot. A fairly recent interview with the adult woman discusses some of these concerns. Adding to my own conundrum regarding the way a child was filmed is the fact that I still admire Louis Malle’s 1978’s Pretty Baby. Brooke Shields was 13 when she appeared as a prostitute and is filmed nude several times. Pretty Baby is highly regarded in the world of film. Because no male touches her while nude, it falls into the legal realm. Brooke Shields, a highly educated and clearly intelligent woman does not look back on the experience as negative. Both of these women appear to be healthy and unharmed.

Welcome to the adult world in which your earrings as well as your innocence are up for grabs.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Welcome to the adult world in which your earrings as well as your innocence are up for grabs.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

I still wonder if either Ms. Shields or Ms. Schallerová would allow their 12 or 13 year old daughter to be in these films.

Louis Malle's 1978 film, Pretty Baby, created some controversy at the time it was released. But it never generated any legal doubts that Brooke Shields was exploited. It remains a potent film, that feels suspect.

Louis Malle’s 1978 film, Pretty Baby, created some controversy at the time it was released. But it never generated any legal doubts that Brooke Shields was exploited. It remains a potent film, that feels suspect.

 

I would not. I somehow suspect they would not either.  Audiences should be warned that this envelope is pushed. Though no where near to the point that Louis Malle pushed it in 1978.

Despite this ethically concern, I can’t help but love the artistry and the film itself. It is a highly effective surrealist attempt to capture both the human psychological and emotional experience of gaining a mature understanding of the world. A world that will very quickly become her/his own. In many respects the morphing of the familiar into the unknown or monstrous is resonating. Of course this lies at the heart of many fairy tales. And Valerie and her Week of Wonders never strays too far from a world that feels like that of twisted folklore. The film is edited and shot in ways that allow the viewer to constantly find new ideas or points with each viewing. It applies a circular sort of logic which invites multiple interpretations. Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a totally unique cinematic experience.

Now we fast-forward 44 years later and approximately 250 miles away to a modern-day village in Germany. Till Kleinert’s Der Samurai is a newer but equally puzzling re-examination of “identity” within a fairy tale-like world.

Trying to catch a wolf without harming it. But will that satisfy the deceptive wolf?  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Trying to catch a wolf without harming it. But will that satisfy the deceptive wolf?
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

In his amazing and  jolting directorial debut, Til Kleinert is exploring deception in a more familiar setting. It also should be noted that there is a growing concern in parts of Germany regarding wolves. For decades the German Wolf was near the point of extinction. In the last decade these wolves have returned to the point of near over-population. This has generated valid concern for the towns that exist near forested areas. While much of our fears regarding wolves is out of proportion to reality, when they start roaming in packs or are hungry — the question of “proportional fear” becomes trivial. We catch a glimpse of the German village in which this story takes place at the beginning. The homes are gathered closely together as if in group formation. The modern windows have metallic-like shades that close from the inside. This is not uncommon in Europe, but to our eyes it seems kind of creepy. This village would appear to be formed out of a shared fear of the woods that surround it.

Der Samurai  Till Kleinert, 2014

Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014

Our innocent hero appears to be a sincere, kind, gentle and lonely man. There are also hints that he hides his intentions very well. He seems almost stubbornly stern when it comes to expressing himself. Jakob may be young but he is a grown man. He is a cop. And he takes his job more than seriously. Jakob seems truly dedicated to protecting the law those who reside in his environment. His village is experiencing a series of minor but annoying mishaps relating to a wolf. It seems the filmmaker’s intent that we notice that this community’s shared fear is aimed at a wolf — there seems to be no clear articulation of the plural version of wolf. This appears to be a fear of one wolf. Jakob does not seem to fear the wolf like his village. He seems more concerned about trying to stop the wolf from bothering the villagers.  We first see him tying up sheer-thin bags of bloody raw meat from low hanging branches to allow easy access. Jakob appears to hope that these bags will satisfy the wolf and prevent it from lurking out into the village.  Or not? We are presented with an unanswered question regarding our hero’s actions. Is this an attempt to keep the wolf out of the village or is this merely an attempt to feed the wolf.

Jakob’s concerns relating to this wolf are very different than his fellow residents. The threat of this wolf is taking on a strange level of horror. Knocking over outdoor trash containers and the alarmed barking of family dogs is resulting in a seemingly illogical reaction. Jakob not only seems perplexed by the level of fear this wolf is causing, he is at a loss at just how concerned everyone seems to be. Michel Diercks plays Jakob with a cautious and thoughtful performance. Diereses’ performance seems to hint at something that the viewer can’t quite understand. His concern for the wolf’s safety seems as odd as the villagers fear. Kleinert frames his story within the context of being afraid of something “out there” that is not only on the prowl but poised for menace.

Something is out there. Just beyond the trees. Is it a wolf? A werewolf or something altogether different?  Der Samuari Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Something is out there. Just beyond the trees. Is it a wolf? A werewolf or something altogether different?
Der Samuari
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

One evening as Jakob starts to leave the sherif office for home,  he discovers a package delivered to his attention.  The package is actually addressed to “Lonely Wolf.” And so the tale begins. Jacob receives a phone call. A whiskey and cigarette damaged female voice advises him of the address to which he needs to deliver the package. It is difficult to articulate why the phone call is so erie. Part of it is in the delivery of what is said and the other part is the way in which Jacob reacts. As we hear the caller’s voice it is clear that she is flirting, but also daring the cop to follow her directions. The package is for her and she strongly urges that he must deliver it to her. There is a tinge of cruelty in her chuckle as she provides her address.

Jacob seems more curious than concerned. It is a disturbing moment in a horror film that very quickly pushes the boundaries of tension to surprising level of creepy horror. As Jakob approaches the dilapidated old cottage occupying carrying the thin long package which he has been “advised” to deliver, a unexpected unease fills us. You don’t want Jacob to go in. You want him to call for ‘back-up.’ The cottage not only looks sinister, it feels sinister. Carrying the box up the seemingly grimly rotted stairs he soon meets the owner of the voice that called him. Sitting crouched in front of an old dresser mirror, her face is hidden. It is clear that she has been applying a great deal of make-up. An abandoned doll hangs by a noose. Pictures from fashion magazines hang around this obviously well muscled person. The pages have been defaced and are fading away. The room is damaged from years of neglect and water damage. It is impossible not to note that what appears to have been yellow wallpaper has been illogically covered with streaks of red. Blood red.

Pit Bukowski is getting ready to really give the villagers something to panic about... Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Pit Bukowski is getting ready to really give the villagers something to panic about…
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

It is difficult to pin-down what it is about this movie that is so unnerving. The two lead actors are great. The film is incredibly well styled. But Till Kleinert finds a way to really get under our skins. The villagers’ fear is not misplaced. Indeed, there is something waiting in the woods to roam out after sunset to wreck havoc upon their quiet little village. But is it not the wolf they have imagined. This wolf is a man made-up and wearing an elegant sort of long slip. The true object of fear is a homicidal and feral transvestite. As this visage pulls the huge samurai sword from Jakob’s package, we instantly know that this “something” is no longer happy merely causing havoc and generating this mini-societal fears.  This is our wolf and it has a blood-lust of epic proportion. If you are thinking this subversion of fairy tale is mired in what can easily issue a reaction of concern, you are correct. Only the most homophobic of viewers will not feel a pang of “Political Incorrectness” warning flags poking at them from the screen. Before the audience has a chance to become offense, Kleinert’s film literally jumps into a frantic level of strange and undeniably fascinating horror film.

Jakob is fully aware of the potential for danger as this almost feral, androgynous and seductive figure carefully caresses her new weapon. He tries to talk this self-proclaimed Samurai out of jumping out of the house. Jakob attempts to apply logic that somehow feels confused. Der samurai seems to take on a sort of perverse beauty in his elegant white slip as well as a sense of supernatural strength. She has no time or interest in listening to Jakob’s concern and protests. She has an axe to grind with this tiny village cloaked away within the German forests. She is out for vengeance and blood.

Pit Bukowski as Der Samurai who takes no prisoners.  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Pit Bukowski as Der Samurai who takes no prisoners.
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

As tensions mounts so do the ever expanding Surrealist stylings. Der Samurai is almost unrelenting in generating our guilt and fear. And while the gore goes to extremes, it is intentionally unreal. Jakob follows this raging “wolf” down deserted streets filled with her violent vengeance. Everything has been slashed and torn up. And Jacob has forgotten his gun. It gradually becomes clear that the kindly Jakob is not as much “hunting” this wolf down, he is starting to encage in a grim sort of dance. This is both figurative and literal.

Facing the werewolf or an identity long repressed? Or maybe not.  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography| Martin Hanslmayr

Facing the werewolf or an identity long repressed? Or maybe not.
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography| Martin Hanslmayr

As we follow this pursuit or dance, more and more of the the villagers are being laid to brutal waste. It may be silly and even look “unreal” but Der Samurai has entered into a truly disturbing frenzy. To be honest, there were more than a few times I had to ask myself, “Did that just happen?” And just as the audience thinks that it has got the whole thing figured out, Till Kleinert turns it all around again. This demented twist on the “fairy” tale continues to escalate along with our unease and fear. Jakob has no choice. He must stop this dance and slay this maniacal “wolf” in tranny clothing. As he approaches to to take this mythical evil creature down, we discover that Der Samurai has shed the costume. Ravenously eating the contents Jakob’s blood-drenched meat bag, Der Samurai is nude. It is a deliberate choice that Kleinert shows that our nude monster is now packing more than a huge sword. His “excitement” has swelled to form the potential for a whole other type of “swordplay”. This is only one of many darkly comic and inappropriate moments in the movie. Jakob is clearly more afraid of a penis erection than a samurai sword or the muscular threat of this wolf who we now know was only hiding in monster’s clothing. This is a problematically loaded bit of metaphor.

Feeding the wolf or attempting to put out the fire with gasoline. It doesn't matter. Der Samurai is ready to fight our hero. Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Feeding the wolf or attempting to put out the fire with gasoline. It doesn’t matter. Der Samurai is ready to fight our hero.
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Jakob would at first seem to want to repress or stifle the beast that threatens his village. But in the end he must face the evil and destroy it. Once again a sort of circular logic is displayed. We do not know where this tale has taken us. The final shot of the film is as confusing as it is entertaining. The grande finale is really as surprising as it is awesome. As Jakob appears to go on full attack of the monster terrorizing the quiet village, the musical score gives sway to a silly and  diametrically opposed pop song by The Ark. Suddenly Der Samurai slips into a sort of parody of 1980’s Rambo-like hero anthem. On paper is seems like a truly ludicrous idea, but in practice it is a magical way to relieve the audience tension and remind us that we are seeing a sort of fairy tale. The lessons of which only really reveal themselves after we achieve some distance from the work. Is there actually a wolf at all? Is our “hero” also our “monster?” It is unclear. Once again the Surrealistic circular logic prevents an established answer. However one very realistic idea is formed: When a society oppresses the individual and that individual gives in and represses their own identity — the results can be catastrophic. Eventually the needs of the “self” must be addressed in one way or another. More than likely the self will assert in a skewed ideology that not only matches the societal ideology, but surpasses it.

Slaying the Beast of the Village? Or not?  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Slaying the Beast of the Village? Or not?
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Der Samurai is wide open for interpretation. I’ve heard and read it described as “Queer Surrealist Horror” to a “perverse reworking of ‘The Big Bad Wolf.'” I do not agree with either label. This is a sleek and effective spin on folklore presented in both a Surrealist and Absurdist way. ,While Til Kleinert is willing to risk his metaphor and parable being misunderstood as “self-loathing” or “homophobic” or “misogynistic,” it clearly is not. Kleinert is willing to trust the intelligence of his audience to understand the film. This film is far too smart, polished and subversively rebellious to be considered as inappropriate art or offensive. This is a spin on a fairy tale and folklore is taken to an unexpected place. It is a thrilling and unforgettable film. Kudos to ArtSploitation for releasing it via VOD, DVD and Blu-ray. The Artsploitation label usually restricts itself to gore horror of the lowest denominator, but in this case they have helped secure the release of a valuable work of Art Horror.

One thing is for sure: There is 'something' on both sides of that window. And neither offer a 'happy ever after' Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

One thing is for sure: There is ‘something’ on both sides of that window. And neither offer a ‘happy ever after’
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Like Valerie and her Week of Wonders, Der Samurai is more of an experience than a typical narrative film. It washes over you.  You are left both exhilarated and confused. Both of these film present themselves with a non verbalized, “Once upon a time…” and bring us to the conclusions that while the world offers us “choices” they are seldom easy to chose. To deny the reality of the deceptions that hide along our life paths is not only problematic — it is dangerous.

And like most fairy tales, these are not for children. In truth, the origins of fairy tales and folklore were really simple ways to explain the complexities of human existence and survival. These parables attempted to explain what is often unexplainable.

At the end of a journey, we may find our way back to bed. But our bed has been moved to a place than can offer no happy ending or safety.  More to the point: there is no such thing as a “happily ever after.”

Fairy tales do not always offer happy endings. When viewed as initially intended, there was never such a thing as Happily Ever After.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Fairy tales do not always offer happy endings. When viewed as initially intended, there was never such a thing as Happily Ever After.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

When does art go too far?

Monica Bellucci embarks on short walk to savage and misogynistic human cruelty in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

Monica Bellucci embarks on short walk to savage and misogynistic human cruelty in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

We all know that the debate regarding when works of art become “inappropriate” or “unacceptable” is not new.  Most of us jump up to fight censorship and the right of the artist to express his or her “self” in any manner their vision requires. And most of us would equally agree that each individual is free to critique or express their disgust with anything the artist creates. These are two key rights of the audience and the artist.

Christians protest outside the Ziegfeld Theater against the screening and attendance of The Last Temptation of Christ,  Martin Scorsese, 1988 outside the Ziegfeld Theater, NYC, 1988 Photograph by Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Christians protest outside the Ziegfeld Theater against the screening and attendance of The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese, 1988 outside the Ziegfeld Theater, NYC, 1988 Photograph by Barbara Alper/Getty Images

When we see an organization pull its resources in an attempt to block an artist’s work many of us pull together in protest. I proudly remember skipping school so I could drive to Houston and cross through the mob of protestors to pay and see The Last Temptation of Christ. For the two of us, it was essential to protect that core belief of free speech. The level of Baptist and Pentecostal anger was more than a little scary, but me and my pal were very proud to support the movie. We went on opening day. Good thing we did. Nearly all the cinemas located in Southeast Texas pulled the movie with the first 4 days of screenings. Those angry Christians (very few of whom I think ever bothered to read the book or see the movie) succeeded in shutting the movie down in The Bible Belt.

To protest a work of art is very different than prevent it from being displayed or shown. It is a never ending conflict that artists will always face. The rights of artists and the audience must be protected.

Brooke Shields was 12 when she appeared nude and played a child prostitute in Louis Malle's 1978 film, Pretty Baby. Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Brooke Shields was 12 when she appeared nude and played a child prostitute in Louis Malle’s 1978 film, Pretty Baby. Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

But it is the rare individual who can honestly state that she/he has never felt the need to scream out from the highest mountain, “This is wrong! This must be stopped! This is inappropriate!” For me, any work that is created to or even unintentionally stirs up hate against marginalized people compels me to draw the line. Unless the artists’ hatred is aimed at Hitler or The Manson Family or any segment of society that I feel intrudes on the rights of another. Then, I’ll support that hate full tilt. Another area which I refuse to accept is art that sexually exploits children.

Or work that misuses violence. For me, there is a difference in using violence as method for exploring human psychology, history, realism or even as way to access horror. It is when violence is utilized in a manner of titillation instead of provocation that it goes too far for me. And nothing angers me more when I see a work of art that uses violence against children or women for no other reason but to shock us.

Many people were unaware that they were objects of satire and many were not paid. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Larry Charles, 2006. Cinematography | Luke Geissbuhler & Anthony Hardwick

Many people were unaware that they were objects of satire and many were not paid. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Larry Charles, 2006. Cinematography | Luke Geissbuhler & Anthony Hardwick

Ultimately the basic guidelines for unacceptable art is art in which anyone is actually harmed, any inappropriate exposure of people under the age of 18 or anytime that an individual is pushed into any level of cruel depiction without consent.

Now a true ethical dilemma for me is when I fail to apply my own guidelines. Because whether I like to admit it or not — there have been more than a few films that slip into some very murky ethical waters. And, I must confess that some of them I found myself not only supporting, but enjoyed. The two films represented by their major studio poster campaigns above are films that I like — both crossed my personal ethical lines or standards. 

But often I do fuel my ethical concern into logical critiques or I simply refuse to give money to offensive work.  What pushes us to create that sort of critique or hide our wallets varies. Such was my reaction by the time Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q reaches about the ten minute mark. I demand a full refund of my ticket and left the cinema.

Familial dysfunction has never been depicted with such de-tached cruelty and satire becomes inverted in Takashi Miike's addition to Japan's "love cinema", Visitor Q, 2001. Videography | Hideo Yamamoto

Familial dysfunction has never been depicted with such de-tached cruelty and satire becomes inverted in Takashi Miike’s addition to Japan’s “love cinema”, Visitor Q, 2001. Videography | Hideo Yamamoto

Yet it is hard not to catch some smart film references in this twisted chapter of the Japan banned series of Direct to Video series called “Love Cinema” — This movie enjoyed some praise in the US while on the festival circuit. Visitor Q remains a cult classic for many. Just for the record, I’m not one of them. In 1999 Miike created Audition. There were more than a few times I found myself feeling I should leave, but the interesting twists in tone, artistry and sheer audacity were far too interesting for me to dismiss. My guidelines shifted for this movie.

"Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!" Children, women and men are all tortured to extremes so over-the-top it becomes surreal in Audition. Takashi Miike, 1999. Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

“Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!” Children, women and men are all tortured to extremes so over-the-top it becomes surreal in Audition. Takashi Miike, 1999. Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

Takashi Miike’s Audition utilizes torture and gore as not only as an “attraction” to horror film fans but a clever metaphorical tool to explore his lead character’s inner-most fears of women, grief and sexuality. It took me several years before I was comfortable in recommending it to friends and discussing the idea of securing Takashi Miike as a festival guest. The festival’s board admitted to the artistry involved in much of Miike’s work, but they were equally offended by it as well. To be honest, I never found a way to defend my opinions of many of his films.

But very few films have ever made me as uncomfortable and repulsed as Gaspar Noé’s experimental film, Irréversible.

"Take the underpass. It's safer." Irréversible, Gaspar Noé, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

“Take the underpass. It’s safer.” Irréversible, Gaspar Noé, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

The film’s narrative deconstruction, cinematography and acting were so polished and unique. I have never worked out how I feel about Gaspar Noé’s depiction of his lead female character’s suffering at the hands of a rapist. The line between valid depiction and grotesque exploitation is not just blurry — it appears to have been erased. Did Noé go too far or did he go just far enough to capture the all-too-real horror that seems to be ever lurking for women? I do not have an answer.

Irréversible was one of many French Films which began to emerge as we entered the 21st Century. Prior to Irréversible, Gaspar Noé shot I Stand Alone. This was another deeply disturbing film which follows an emotionally damaged horse butcher as he contemplates the misery of his life, his threatening visceral cultural rage, suicide and his uncontrollable sexual desire for his daughter. …who happens to be living in a sort of insane asylum. Aside from being grimly nihilistic, I Stand Alone also approaches every aspect from a visually graphic perspective. The film was widely praised and Gaspar Noé received The Mercedes-Benz Award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Despite my repulsive reaction I also consider it an important film.

Catherine Deneuve as the  somewhat perverse mother in Leos Carax's experimental re-working of Melville's "Pierre, or, the Ambiguities", Pola X, 1998.  Cinematography | Eric Gautier. Deneuve was one of the few actors who did not engage in unsimulated and penetrative sex.

Catherine Deneuve as the somewhat perverse mother in Leos Carax’s experimental re-working of Melville’s “Pierre, or, the Ambiguities”, Pola X, 1998.
Cinematography | Eric Gautier. Deneuve was one of the few actors who did not engage in unsimulated and penetrative sex.

It was these films that also included Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Leos Carax’s Pola X, Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi, Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day and Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension that led then Artforum Critic, James Quandt, to coin the intentionally derogatory term, The New French Extreme. Quandt defined the The New French Extreme in Artforum with a nod to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975’s highly polarizing Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom serving as a turning point in Film Art that is only growing more perversely articulated by French film artists who are suddenly “…determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.”

James Quandt  and Artforum created a term for French cinema's graphic focus on the transgressive.

James Quandt and Artforum created a term for French cinema’s graphic focus on the transgressive.

Interestingly, rather than create an aversion toward these filmmakers and their work — he actually ended up drawing more attention to it. And, only a few of the French filmmakers were even vaguely offended by the label. Catherine Breillat was the only film artist I can remember being at all perplexed with Quandt’s label. Catherine Breillat has built a distinguished film career around her obsession with the ways in which sexuality impact an individual’s life. Most often, she pursues psychological and physical sexual themes that are nearly always graphic, perversely cerebral and unsentimental. Her career in the arts started at 17  when she secured a publishing deal for her first novel, Early Man, in 1965. The French Government quickly banned the novel from any readers under the age of 18. Almost immediately as the novel was published it was optioned by two film producers. It would not be until 1976 that the producers had the funds, but Breillat was allowed to adapt her book and to direct it. It is interesting to note that the producers went bankrupt as the movie, A Real Young Girl,  was too controversial to secure a distributor in the late 1970’s. In fact, the French Government banned the film. It would not be until 1999 that the film would be released.  The history of this novel and subsequent movie is an early and accurate summation of her entire career. Breillat’s interests and the manner in which she portrays them are often received with interest, but almost consistently create such controversy that success is somewhat limited. Despite the challenges of making profits, her skill as a filmmaker are indisputable. Catherine Breillat has always followed her vision and made it very clear that the audience will either reject her films or not. So, I remember being surprised that she even bothered to address the appointed label of being a part of The French Extreme. She felt that her work was more aligned to that of David Cronenberg and she suggested that she felt they both made films that fell into the realm of Cinema of the Body.

Of the following three French films only one of them was not considered a part of The French Extreme.

Catherine Breillat’s À ma sœur! was released in 2001. It remains my favorite example of The French Extreme. The title of the movie actually translates as “To My Sister!” but for some inane marketing reason Canal+ assigned it a new title for non-European release. And, so I once again find myself ignoring my guidelines as I enter the world of Fat Girl.

Anaïs Reboux stars as Anaïs Pingot in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Anaïs Reboux stars as Anaïs Pingot in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

In 2001 I wrote that Fat Girl was a controversial, provocative and potent examination of female adolescence. Without even the slightest hint of empathy or sentiment for her lead character — or any others in the movie — the movie is unflinching in its commitment to perversely turn the film against the audience rather than to provoke the audience against the movie. Breillat seems to be lensing the entire film with a driven by the same adolescently stunted emotional confusion, rage, jealousy and loneliness of the main character, Anaïs Pingot. Adolescence is never easy, but is proving to be even more so for Anaïs. The US/UK/Canadian releases for this film have been changed from To My Sister! to Fat Girl. As inappropriate as this new title is, it is a great example at the way our society views females. Even at the hands of the movie’s distributor poor Anaïs is reduced to being nothing more than a fat girl. She is already judged.

Anaïs Reboux in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Anaïs Reboux in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography |

Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography |

Far more graphic than it needs to be, Canal+ has made it clear that this time out Breillat did not require her actors to have sex. But give the fact that the movie utilizes prosthetic penis hard-on’s and full frontal nudity and graphic simulated sex scenes, it feels real. Breillat films her lead character played by a 13 year old non-actress partially nude and places her in not only sexual situations but in truly disturbing scene of sexual violence.  While it is on many levels inappropriate, it never feels like Breillat is trying to exploit this little girl. It often simply feels tragically real as this young girl is only beginning to seriously contemplate her sexuality and the way her body is actually perceived.

Roxane Mesquida and Anaïs Reboux are sisters at once as one and then next as enemies. Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Roxane Mesquida and Anaïs Reboux are sisters at once as one and then next as enemies. Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Her sister is her best friend one minute and her enemy the next. Her parents do not seem to really pay much attention or care about her. One gets the feeling she is evolving into an angry misfit. The movie takes a very blunt and shocking turn in the last few minutes. The audience at the screening I attended sat in silence as the credits began to roll. Some were offended. Some thought the experience was amazing. Several of the people gathered together in the cinema lobby. I attended the film alone. I listened as each person gave their perspective. Everyone seemed a bit disoriented and upset.

 "If you don't want to believe me, then don't." Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

“If you don’t want to believe me, then don’t.”
Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

When it came to my turn to express my thoughts I could only say that I was certain we had just seen a brilliant bit of cinematic art that is both unforgettable and unforgivable. 14 years later, I still feel the same.

What to do when everything that happens seems to reflect the way you feel? Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat. Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

What to do when everything that happens seems to reflect the way you feel? Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat. Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Whenever someone asks me about this film, I always warn, “It is not for all tastes.”  — I should probably add that this is one of the points of every film Catherine Breillat has ever made. Fat Girl takes no prisoners. She refuses your judgement. She will not break.

Christophe Honoré’s 2004 film, Ma Mere, has also been labeled as an entry into The French Extreme.

Isabelle Huppert as Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Isabelle Huppert as Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

It is actually rather surprising that it took so long for Isabelle Huppert to take a role in one of these films. If ever there were a fearless female actor is it Isabelle Huppert. This actor is an essential part of this controversial movie. In many ways, it seems as much her film as it’s director, Christophe Honoré. Unlike Fat Girl, this film never really puts me at odds my guidelines. It does something far worse. It actually fascinates me. Christophe Honoré simplistic aesthetic is often curiously mismatched to Huppert’s nuanced but harsh performance. It is this simplistic and minimalist mode of storytelling merged with a deeply layered performance by Huppert that seems to provide the fuel to both the plot and to the characters. Huppert’s Hélène is a puzzle of a character that is never fully put together to answer questions. But Huppert is somehow able to play this perversely cruel woman with not only a lingering sort of sadness. It is also much to Huppert’s credit that she is able to interpret Honoré’s almost “camp” level dialogue in unsettlingly believable ways.

"The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit." Isabelle Huppert & Louis Garrel in Christophe Honoré's Ma Mere, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit.” Isabelle Huppert & Louis Garrel in Christophe Honoré’s Ma Mere, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Her son is played by Louis Garrel who manages to keep up with both his director and the iconic actress with whom he shares the screen. We learn that Hélène and her much older husband lost custody of their son and were essentially banished to the Canary Islands because her husband’s wealthy family wanted to keep there lifestyles as far from the family as possible. Though never clearly stated, we quickly learn that subversive and the kink of BDSM is far less about pleasure as it is about punishment. The son is desperate to connect with his mother. Hélène is not so interested in that. Instead, she is hellbent on manipulating his innocence to push him through a constant bombardment of challenges to his mannered way of life. And she does so in an almost ritualistic planned events. So eager to please his mother and also worn down from his grandmother’s Catholic influence he pushes through each challenge until his humanity is completely debased. While Christophe Honoré’s film earned an NC-17, it is actually visually reserved for a film considered as French Extreme.

Dominique Reymond knows far more than she lets on to the son in Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004   Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Dominique Reymond knows far more than she lets on to the son in Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Not that Honoré doesn’t push the envelope on graphic nudity and graphic moments involving domination. But he never really takes the visual to the level of extreme I was expecting. The truly offensive and controversial aspects of this film come from the tone and the manner in which the actors, particularly Huppert, are so genuine in their convictions to hedonism. By the time Honoré actually brings us the mother and son to the final challenge of incest, Hélène chooses to deliver her cruelest to her son. We don’t actually see what the son is doing as he looks at a corpse, it is all the more shocking that we don’t. And as he runs away from the morgue in a state of total panic it almost feels like it is his mother has somehow taken control of the film’s soundtrack.

"Wrong isn't what we're about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it." Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004  Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“Wrong isn’t what we’re about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it.” Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Suddenly, as this broken son runs all we can hear is “Happy Together” by The Turtles. Much like Leos Carax’s controversial “epic” reworking of Herman Melville’s Pierre, or, the Ambiguities in Pola X, Christophe Honoré has used Georges Bataille’s controversial cultural critique novel, My Mother, as the source for his film — he is far less concerned with providing a cultural / societal commentary as he is in exploring the depravity of a parent and the way it can eventually can pull the child to an even darker level of perversity. And, just as The Turtles hit the last chorus — “...so happy toge-”  Honoré cuts them off mid word and his screen immediately switches to white. Ma Mere ends with a thudding silence that lingers long after it has been viewed.

"This goes to your mother. The Mediterranean bitch." Isabelle Huppert & One of her Disciples in Ma Mere, Christophe Honoré, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“This goes to your mother. The Mediterranean bitch.” Isabelle Huppert & One of her Disciples in Ma Mere, Christophe Honoré, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Over the course of the last decade, The French Extreme had de-evoloved to mostly disgusting torture porn. The goal of these films seems to shock the audience with an assault of savage gore.  The original French artists who are most associated with The French Extreme have pretty much all changed gears. Even Catherine Breillat has started to look at other aspects of human life. Her greatest challenge is the fact that she suffered a stroke. But this only seemed to push herself harder to craft a film loosely based on her experiences during and after her stroke.

" I've sunk like the Titanic. But if I ever resurface, I'll be an atomic bomb." Isabelle Huppert in Abuse of Weakness, Catherine Breillat Cinematography | Alain Marcoen

” I’ve sunk like the Titanic. But if I ever resurface, I’ll be an atomic bomb.” Isabelle Huppert in Abuse of Weakness, Catherine Breillat
Cinematography | Alain Marcoen

Certainly powerful stuff, but not so extreme.

The last film of the genre I saw that displayed incredible skill and intelligence was simultaneously the most unpleasant torture porn I have ever seen. Particularly appalling was the fact that it simply was too well made for me to question it. It was Pascal Laugier’s 2008 Martyrs. Which Hollywood has been trying to re-make in a “less dark way”?!?

"Keep doubting." Martyrs,  Pascal Laugier, 2008 Cinematography | Stéphane Martin,  Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky & Bruno Philip

“Keep doubting.” Martyrs,
Pascal Laugier, 2008
Cinematography | Stéphane Martin,
Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky & Bruno Philip

But, that would be a whole other sort of post.