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I first wrote about Johan Liedgren in November of last year. If you have not read that post, check it out here.

His most recent film continues to gain momentum and with recent shifts in the United States — it has gained even more importance.  I’m quite literally pasting an interview Kate Shifman conducted with Mr. Liedgren last year. I do so with Ms. Shifman’s permission. 

"Well, there's no story without evil." Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi “Well, there’s no story without evil.” Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

“Well, there’s no story without evil.”
Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Johan Liedgren’s most recent feature film displays something very rare: a strong female protagonist who finds a very big voice in sexual controversy and moral complexity.

A witty, intense and unpredictable tale fusing rapid-fire chamber-drama with fearless acting and relentless cinematic appeal, “The Very Private Work of Sister K” starts with the story of a young nun accused of grave transgressions, who rises to battle the oldest of beliefs as the true nature of sexuality is put on trial. Award-winning director Johan Liedgren teams up with director of photography Zia Mohajerjasbi and actress Liza Curtiss as Sister K in “…a modern bar-fighting lovechild of Eyes Wide Shut and 12 Angry Men.”

I called Mr. Liedgren at his house in Seattle on a Wednesday afternoon in early December, curios about a male artist’s relationship to what Hollywood has been struggling with for such a long time: strong and complex female characters.

Kate Shifman: There is a scene where the female protagonist Sister K keeps telling the older male priests the sexual relationship she had was “…not just sex.”

Johan Liedgren: Sex is never just about sex.

KS: They say that it was simple. She says… it was complicated.

JL: She says it was complex. Human sexuality is complex. Not necessarily complicated. We all know how babies are made. Good sex is something very different.

KS: Complicated and complex – what is the difference?

JL: I feel like I am getting set-up to mansplain. (laughter)

KS: What’s the difference to you?

JL: One has many moving parts. The other can be simple but still mean many things on many levels. I should really look that up…

KS: It is rare to see truly strong female characters. Especially from a male director. Is this a feminist film?

Liza Curtiss The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Liza Curtiss
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

JL: I don’t know how much it matters that I am male. But yes, she is very strong. But for me it was never because she repeats some political line that fits an established feminist abstract narrative. Her strength is interesting because she finds her moral high ground in a very specific experience. And to make things more interesting, it’s fueled with religious context and a suitcase full of sexual taboos.

KS: But it’s different than “Spotlight” in many ways.

JL: The obvious ways, sure. And it’s more fun to watch. But even more so because it serves as allegory rather than dramatized documentary.

KS: What you describe could have happened.

JL: It did happen… I can’t find the details but I think a similar case 20 years ago in Denmark. A civil case of a nun who thought her patient needed sexual attention on a regular basis. And just as I was editing the Sister K, New York Times did an article on Anna Stubbenfelt – the therapist who fell in love with and slept with a much younger severely autistic boy. Fascinating. And complex.

“Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher. “

KS: Could this film have been done with a male nurse?

JL: Sure. But you would have to play against the cliche’s or you would be re-making Spotlight. And that’s not me. Too easy. It can’t be predictable.

KS: Could it be about something other than sex?

JL: Of course. But not for me, and not for this story. Sexuality has a absolutely singular place in our lives. It’s an everyday need and deeply mysterious at the same time. It’s giving and taking. It’s familiar and yet always new somehow. Unmatched complexity. That’s why sexuality will always resonate with divinity for me. Those hips don’t lie. (laugh) But hey, don’t forget what Sister K did to her patient.

Andrew Tribolini The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi Andrew Tribolini has a little story to share… The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Andrew Tribolini
The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi
Andrew Tribolini has a little story to share…
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

KS: And still we root for Sister K.

JL: I agree, most people do. But you have to work for it, and you are constantly challenged in that position as the story twists and turns. And I think that is why the film turned out so well. It was not an easy project.

KS: Too controversial?

JL: Never!

KS: Are you actively staying away from politics?

JL: Sexual politics is often part of my projects. But traditional politics – yes, anything with dull and predictable categories… we are living in a world stuck in lazy narratives, selling something predictable to the already converted. Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher.

KS: More complexity.

JL: Exactly! The Hollywood machine requires simplicity and predictability. Known categories they can market too. Stories that everyone likes. It is up to independent films to dramatize more complex issues. To take real risks. Commercial and artistic. Even smaller independent film seem more concerned with making something that Hollywood likes than taking risks and breaking new ground.

KS: You don’t see much feminist film come out of Hollywood.

JL: That’s an understatement.

KS: Did you set out to make a feminist film.

JL: No. But I did set out to make a film about a woman who finds a deep female power outside the obvious, and she does so without being perfect. Clearly.

“All of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.”

Johan Liedgren

Johan Liedgren

KS: You are an accidental feminist.

JL: Love that! (laughter) – Johan Liedgren… accidental feminist. In some ways I think we can describe Sister K just the same.

KS: What would you like people to take away from the film?

JL: I would love to see someone stand up for real sexuality the way Sister K does. Bring the message home – when sex is talked about at that dinner party, as “simple”, there will be those women around the world who will push their plate to the side, empty their glass of wine, stand up and deliver the same speech Sister K did. And end it with a passionate “…Good sex, that’s where God goes to church!” Bam! Mic-drop…

KS: I can see that happening at a stale dinner somewhere.

JL: But also… I think the film – and certainly actress Liza Curtiss – does a brilliant job of having us drift deep into the complexity of what is going on long before we know we are in it. She uses all our pre-conceived notions of gender and sex to take us somewhere very different. She’s that good. You are laughing, but then suddenly realizing you are caught rooting for some very questionable behavior. Good story is a beautiful trickster – leading us to places we otherwise would not see. Film can and should do the same. I think all of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.

KS: Your film starts out with a funny, almost childlike story within the story – a rabbit who decides to stop eating his vegetables.

JL: Right. It’s a good example of how story can be a trickster – it’s not long before we fully embrace the rabbit as a brutal nocturnal carnivore.

KS: Accidental Carnivore?

JL: Nice. (laughter). But yes, Sister K in similar fashion seems harmless and benign in the beginning only to reveal incredible potency. No one sees her coming.

KS: Is she deceiving them all from the very beginning?

JL: Well, if she is, it’s not to save herself. It’s to make sure the story that survives is told right.

KS: Several times she talks about what happened to her as a story, a story to be told – told over and over again. The film eludes to the work of Eve, and the story of Eden.

JL: The value and currency of her actions is the story that will be told about her. And that is also how the rabbit story ends, with that story living on, retold over and over again, from generation to generation. I love story. The rabbit story even survives one of my films and appears in the next. Lives on… and if you end the interview now, the story of the film through this interview will live on – and it would provide for almost perfect symmetry. (laughter)

KS: What a director! (laughter). Thank you, Johan – a wonderful film and a surprising and incredibly potent female protagonist where we least expect it.

JL: It was all my pleasure.

The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016

The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016

Kate Shifman is a NYC freelance writer, consultant and photographer traveling the world, currently based in Portugal. Johan Liedgren is an award-winning film-director, writer and story consultant. His work with large brands, design, media and technology companies is extending narrative thinking and storytelling to products and disciplines far outside traditional application. Johan lives a relatively balanced life with his two sons in Seattle. More info  here

The Very Private Work of Sister K can be rented/purchased here

I highly recommend it.

Matty Stanfield, 1.29.2017

 

 

 

Barbet Schroeder has always been interested in human obsessions and the dynamic of relationships, but when he got the idea to make Maîtresse he added something rather strange: Comedy. If you have never seen his infamous 1975 film, you should be aware of several things prior to watching it. The first of which is that this is essentially a very dark comedy about an unlikely love between a professional Dominatrix and a somewhat dim-witted would-be-thug.  The second is that it is probably the closest a film has come to capturing the true idea of BDSM as something more than a simple desire — for Ariane (Bulle Ogier) and her clients, it is a true obsession. While she might attempt to keep her professional life hidden in the strange world isolated in a cloistered series of rooms beneath her apartment, it becomes clear that this world is more than a way to earn money. Elements of her sadism have already worked their way into her sunny world.

Stylish lady with some secrets... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Stylish lady with some secrets…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Like her clients, this is an obsession meant to be hidden from the rest of the world to see. The third is that Maîtresse is a very graphic film. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. The final and most important general statement about Maîtresse is that it is a highly artistic and well-crafted film. While it does not deserve to be listed or thought of as Shock Cinema, it is a most certainly highly provocative work. Schroeder is an intellectually restrained artist, but he is most certainly putting himself in the role of provocateur when it comes to this unforgettable and odd movie.

When Barbet Schroeder began production of Maîtresse in 1974 he knew he was creating a provocative film, but he had no idea just how difficult it would be to secure distribution in 1975. It would be more than a couple of years before this infamous film would be seen much at all. The film was essentially banned and censored for over six years after the initial debut. The UK would prove the toughest nut to crack. Interestingly it was not so much due to the exploration into the world of a French Dominatrix which included graphic depictions of BDSM activities, nor was it actually due to anything tied up in fetish and kink and it certainly wasn’t the horrific visit to a Paris horse meat slaughterhouse. The bottomline reason Schroeder’s film was refused release into the UK was because it featured the back view of a vulva.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975

To give the British Board of Film Classification their due — they were smart enough to actually state that the film’s refusal was related to the “excessive” degrees of fetishism. The real reason BBFC denied release to the film was not because a person was being whipped, it was because the audience could see her vulva. The board did not mind that the audience could see a penis being severely mistreated. They were upset that the man seemed to enjoy having his genitals mistreated.

Maîtresse was screened and received a limited release in the US. The distributor assigned the film an X-rating on its own. So limited was the release that very few film critics actually reviewed it. The New York Times quite liked it. But the film became notorious with relatively few people having ever actually seen it. That all changed when The Criterion Collection remastered and released it to DVD in 2004.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Criterion Collection, 2004

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Criterion Collection, 2004

While the uncensored theatrical cut of Maîtresse had been released to the UK via DVD starting in 2003, the transfers were not solid. Under their Flipside Editions, The British Film Institute released it to Blu-ray in 2012. Blu quality enhanced, the BFI release is actually superior to the Criterion Collection pressing. There has been some very loose rumors that Criterion may give the film another image/sound boost to re-issue to Blu-ray, but it is rather unlikely. The film’s graphic scene filmed in an actual horse slaughterhouse is truly horrific to watch. This scene is most likely intended to act as a sort of metaphor for a powerful beast being reduced to a powerless victim ultimately utilized as food. The scene arrives in the story when the leading man is feeling powerless and emasculated.

Even playing "footsie" takes a turn... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Even playing “footsie” takes a turn…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Note: Even by 1975 horse meat had already become a taboo form of food in more than a couple of countries. However it should be noted that while it has dramatically shifted away from favor, there are still butcher shops in France specifically reserved for the sale of this meat. All the same this is an alarming scene that will most likely put off a good number of people. As an FYI, Schroeder’s use of the footage is almost tame when compared to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s use of Goethe recitation as the audience is led through the horrors of a slaughterhouse in 1978’s In a Year of 13 Moons. Fassbinder employed this form of human brutality to create a metaphor for fascism and despair. Unlike Schroeder’s movie,  Fassbinder’s film is not even remotely a comedy. Still both films carry a repugnant reputation for screening graphic screening of animal slaughter. Consider yourself warned.

All the same, it is annoying that the Criterion transfer is inferior to the one released by BFI Flipside Edition.

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer. Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 BFI Flipside, 2012

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer.
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
BFI Flipside, 2012

While one might expect a 1975 French film to be dated, it really isn’t. Even the clothing is not particularly 1970’s tacky. Let’s not forget that Karl Lagerfeld was in charge of costume design. …And the line between S&M to Lagerfeld is fairly short in distance.

And speaking of Sadomasochism, Maîtresse is one of the few films to actually craft a realistic depiction of this subculture. While many speak of Sadomasochism, the reality is that a true Sadist is not going to derive much pleasure from role-play. And while one might think of a Masochist as passive or willing victim, the true master of S&M role-play is always the Masochist. In other words, there is a very dark side to the games that many adults play. In Maîtresse the role playing is most definitely in action, but the games are being played with the rules loose and usually hidden. During the first half of the film it would appear that  Ariane takes no particular pleasure in what she does in the lair beneath her bright apartment, but Schroeder slowly begins to reveal aspects of her true nature as the film moves forward.

Going down below to a domestic torture garden... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Going down below to a domestic torture garden…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Ariane seems to take true delight in feeding a collection of venus fly trap plants. Her high-scale bathtub has been crafted to include a bottom chamber that she has filled with water snakes or eels who feed off small fish which she her maid/assistant pours into the mix. And of course as the battle of the sexes ensues we see examples of her need to remain firmly in the position of dominance.

Tighten up the gimp... Bulle Ogier & Client Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tighten up the gimp…
Bulle Ogier & Client
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The film’s perspective belongs to leading man of the story. Gérard Depardieu’s Olivier appears to be a harmless sort of guy, but it only takes a small opportunity and he is ready to take up the grift as burglar. And it only takes another moment or two before we realize that this burly young man is a criminal. The film’s plot begins as Olivier and a pal break into what they think is an empty Parisian apartment. Like voyeurs, we follow these knuckleheads into a creepy dark space. With only a flashlight to provide limited perspective, we understand within a few seconds that this is no ordinary apartment. The small light reveals gimp masks, gas masks, latex & rubber suits, a hanging noose, a sinister looking dental chair, something like a torture rack, loads of odd surgical type equipment, dildos, baby bottles, diapers, a wide variety of torture tools and a terrified naked man shivering in a dog pen.  This might all read a bit funnier than it is. I first saw this movie in Cambridge back in the 1990’s and it was and remains a genuinely creepy opening sequence. Soon these two thugs find themselves handcuffed together and to a radiator as Bulle Ogier’s Ariane tends to her clients.

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

This is a filmmaker’s movie. Gerard Depardieu is well cast in the type of role for which he was best known in his youth — a sort of primally sexy gentle giant. It is really through Olivier‘s eyes that the audience sees the film. While this man is far from innocent, he clearly has no understanding of the world to which he has entered. But it is both comical and interesting that he finds himself deeply attracted to Ariane. His desire for her begins as she one-up’s both he and his pal by managing to cuff them together with no hope of escape. His attraction only builds as she offers him a chance to make some money and leads him further into the dark corners of her domestic torture garden. As they approach a man dressed in female bondage gear, she demands that the client get on all fours. She straddles him and positions Olivier directly in front of the masochist’s face. Olivier looks more curious than shocked. She unzips her burglar’s fly, pulls out his penis and demands that he urinate in the client’s face. Olivier‘s eyes never leave those of Ariane. As we hear the urine release he shares a passionate kiss with her. Suddenly this brute of a man is in love.

And now we begin your punishment... A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

And now we begin your punishment…
A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

After a night of what appears to be romance funded by Ariane, the two lie in bed. There are no professions of love, but it is clear it is there. Schroeder’s screenplay and Bulle Ogier’s careful performance require no words for the audience to understand that much of her attraction / fondness for Olivier is grounded in his mix of dull intellect, brutish but placid assertions of dominance. Of course the deal-sealer for Ariane is that this man is unabashedly almost worshiping in his adoration. There is also no need for discussion regarding Olivier‘s confusion regarding the downstairs world of his love’s professional life. All Depardieu need to do is offer a glance and we know that he is even more confused than those of us in the audience.

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment...

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment… Bulls Ogier / Wealthy Clients / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When Ariane essentially tricks him into visiting a friend in the country, he has no idea that she is leading him into a Dominatrix scenario involving a group of wealthy devotees. Confused, unsure and fearful of being judged as less than a man Olivier agreed to remove his belt and whip the pretty and only female player in the chateau. It is clear that he simply does not understand why a tough whipping would provide pleasure. Eager to demonstrate his abilities to his new lover, he opts to softly tease the masochist’s vulva. Of course this only demonstrates his misunderstanding of this type of desire. The wealthy clients are amused as is Ariane. But Olivier and the audience are confused and worried that he is being used and reduced to some sort of walking joke.

When I saw Maîtresse for the first time back in the 1990’s I had been informed that it was a dark comedy. At this time it was hard for me to accept it as comedy. It seemed to me that the film was aiming far deeper than one anticipates from the genre. Despite my own desire to interpret the movie in a different way there were elements that simply did not seem to fit the action on the screen.

Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified...

Néstor Almendros captures our Mistress in perfect frame to emerge with a halo for the man who will become obsessed. Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified… Bulls Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Carlos D’Alessio’s musical score seemed odd. It is a rather charming bit of work that never fits into the world we and Olivier are exploring. In addition some of the darkest moments contained within the movie have no musical accompaniment. Seeing the film again after it had been added to The Criterion Collection, the comedy of Maîtresse hit me. Certainly not a comic experience that generates laughs as much as amusement — this is more a sense of bemusement. This is, of course, a French film. I love French cinema, but no one else presents comedy quite like the French. This level of dark comedy or comédie de l’ cruels has become more familiar outside of French cinema in the past decade. John Magary’s recent brilliant independent American film, The Mend, presents an incisive and rage-filled study of two brothers as the sort of dark comedy one might expect from France. Serious studies of humanity taking a turn toward the comical is not so odd to most of us anymore. Despite all of the transgressions and darker elements of identity, Maîtresse is most certainly a comedy.

Watching love's persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend.

Watching love’s persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend. Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

A key to understanding Maîtresse is to know that nothing we see is eroticized. This is not an erotic film.

When we are given glimpses into the Maitresse’s world of punishment and humiliation it is either directly related to Olivier‘s sneaking around peaking or listening. Schroeder spent a good deal of time researching the subject matter of the film as he felt no connection to the world of S&M. Much of Bulle Ogier’s character is based on an actual dominatrix. He gained her trust and she agreed to allow she and several of her clients to be used in the film itself. Long before the idea of digital effects existed, Schroeder carefully placed the actual dominatrix in relation to his actress/wife’s positions. The actual members of the 1970’s Parisian BDSM Underground wear masks to protect their identity, but they are willfully accepting their mistresses’ punishments. All is filmed to make it look as if Ogier is the one applying nails, needles and other manipulations. Filmed without typical movie lighting or other stylings, these transgressive acts are presented with only the sounds that were occurring at the time of filming. The result is often jarring and more than a little shocking, but never eroticized.

Nothing is ever explained beyond the most limited of discussion. Like Olivier, we are left with only what we see and might already understand separate from the film. Unlike Olivier, we are hopefully not quite so simple in our thinking and reasoning. And let’s hope we are not male chauvinist pigs. Olivier has a deep-seated need to dominate his woman. Having grown into a world of cruelty and crime, he has no trouble formulating the idea that his girl is a prostitute in need of a strong pimp. He wants the role of her pimp. And he wants to find a way to help her earn even more money. Because it is all about money. Right?!? 

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it... Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it…
Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tragically for Olivier, he is unable to grasp that Ariane needs no protecting and certainly no pimp. Ariane never states an opinion, but it is clear that she does not identify as a prostitute and would never even consider the idea of pimp in her existence. As Olivier becomes more and more obsessed with understanding what Ariane does and why people pay her to do it — he becomes even more determined to know all of her secrets. The identity of a certain person constantly being mentioned in relation to money either with her maid or on one of her two phones consumes Olivier.

It is at this point of the story that we fully begin to understand the depth of Ariane‘s own perverse sadistic urges. It would not take much for her to simply explain it all to Olivier, but she has far too much fun watching him struggle for his grounding and fret over the details of her life.

Even when Olivier’s tendencies toward domestic abuse begin to flare up, she maintains her sense of control.

He's just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now?

He’s just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now? Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When he puts his huge hands around her slender throat she plays it off as if a game. Poor Olivier doesn’t even pick up that he has failed to scare her. Later when he finally pushes things too far and our Maîtresse has had enough, she head-butts Olivier so hard blood begins to pour from his nose. Clearly shocked by her strength, his reaction is to attempt to warn Ariane that she too has been harmed. He is concerned. Ariane is unbothered by the self-damage inflicted by her head-butting. She is seething with anger.

It is the dim-witted Olivier who is emotionally crushed. This is not the first time we have seen this rough and huge man fall to pieces over his girl.  Control and cruelty are needs and that refuse to stay in that dark cave of torture secretly adjoined to her private home. These needs are not being fully satisfied by respecting most of her clients’ wishes and safe words. A Sadist wants real control and a victim. She is happy to play along with Olivier‘s limited view of women for the pleasure his pain provides.

She may look the part of angel, but this aspect is in appearance only.

Another key scene involves some personal and rather rough role-play between Ariane and Olivier. Schroeder wisely shoots this scene in a particularly ambiguous way. It looks like a violent public fight between the two characters as reality with the looming threat of rape. When the two end up in a garden shed of an elderly woman we hear Ariane‘s screams. As the poor old woman rushes to come to the aide of the petit blond woman, Olivier emerges with a switchblade pointed to kill. When Ariane walks out of the shed she is still pulling up her skirt. We might expect that she would feel empathy for the elder woman, but instead she merely leans into Olivier and mockingly suggests he leave the poor “old dear” alone. She skips away without even waiting to see what Olivier might do.

We never actually  know if this was a bit of role-playing or a real scenario that Ariane has manifested / navigated for some sadistic fun.

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man. Bulle Ogier  Maîtresse  Barbet Schroeder, 1975  Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man.
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Despite the dark elements of the on-screen actions, this is a story about the battle of the sexes. It is also an odd 1970’s twist on Feminisim. The key word here is “odd.” In many ways it almost seems a mistake that Barbet Schroeder opted to sculpt a very twisted romantic comedy from the BDSM clay of his story. There are so many aspects of Bulle Ogier’s Ariane it seems a bit of a waste of a great actress that she is unable to explore them. As I’ve stated several times, not much is ever explained about the title character.

Forever lingering with mystery...

Forever lingering with mystery… Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The subplot of Ariane‘s situation is only mentioned in passing. I’m not sure I even fully noticed it upon my first viewing some 20 years ago, but it is wrought with dramatic potential. La Maîtresse is the mother of an elementary school age child.  An older gentleman (who may or may not be the child’s father) appears to have taken custody of the child. We may not know the full story here, but it would appear that Ariane is fine with this arrangement and most likely has intended it to be this way. When we see her with her child she clearly feels a stronger bond to her Doberman Pinscher. A beloved pet she has named Texas and claims to have trained to kill upon demand. We do not know if this is true, but it seems likely to be an accurate claim. Her young son appears to attempt to gain his mother’s attention, but Ariane is far more interested with Texas. When the boy walks off with his guardian/father, Ariane appears bored, but fixated on the dog. We never learn the name of her son, but she is more than happy to sneak away and join Olivier on a very strange drive in which the battle for power takes a surprising turn.

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?!

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?! Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse is an uncomplicated film about some very complicated people. The choice to keep it unexplained and unexplored is intentional. And as it turns out this was a very clever and wise decision. Maîtresse pulls us in just deep enough to make us squirm but never so far out that we need to grasp for air. It also prevents the film from slipping into a psychological realm that would ultimately prove disappointing.

Why?

Well sometimes life’s complications and the obsessions to which it leads are too murky to actually articulate.

Matty Stanfield, 1.28.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if John Carpenter had filmed his own script of Eyes of Laura Mars. It is a rather silly question as he did not film his own script. Instead that duty was assigned to the skilled filmmaker, Irvin Kershner. The only director bold enough to stand his ground against the likes of George Lucas while shooting his film for the Star Wars franchise and the director who was able to assist Barbra Streisand tone it all down to play a very believable housewife in a very surreal experimental film of the early 1970’s, Up The Sandbox.

"And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever I can't escape. One minute's so sincere. Then you completely turn against me. And I'm afraid..." An Iconic Movie Poster Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978

“And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever
I can’t escape. One minute’s so sincere.
Then you completely turn against me. And I’m afraid…”
An Iconic Movie Poster
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978

Up until 1977 he had never directed a horror film. It is clear that the under-appreciated film artist was less interested in the terror aspects of Carpenter’s script than in using it to focus on the problematic trend of mixing sex with violence as a form of subversion or perverse eroticism. One merely has to glance at only one of Rebecca Blake’s photographs taken for the film to understand that she is carefully constructing slick photographs in the vein of Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin. Interestingly, these provocative and aggressively misogynistic photographs point toward where Karl Lagerfeld would be headed later on.

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph | Rebecca Blake

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph | Rebecca Blake

John Carpenter’s original screenplay is fairly simple: A Post-Feminist (???) fashion photographer takes controversial photographs which capture not only the erotic elements of the female form in stylish clothing, but acts of brutal violence and murder. Violence and murder usually aimed at women.  Her work is highly profitable and has made her a bit of a celebrity. As a coffee table book collecting some of her most infamous photographs hits the stores, people close to her begin to be murdered in horrible ways that always culminate with their eyes being gouged out.

Even more disturbing, the photographer begins to lose her own vision only to be replaced with the POV of the killer for the duration of each murder. Amping up the horror is the fact that the pop culture princess of fashion photography discovers that all of her photographs mimic a number of brutal and confidential police shots of actual murders. Hence, it would appear that Ms. Mars is somehow psychically linked to a serial killer. It is the psychotic madness of a killer who has been inspiring her art. Art that many are eager to purchase and admire.

Eventually, the killer sets his sites on Laura Mars herself. As the killer tries to kill her she is put in the chilling position of POV limitation — she can only see herself as the killer goes after her. Essentially blind with only disorienting and panicked visions of her own body as target, she is a prisoner of the killer’s eyes ...and her own.

Taking aim... Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Taking aim…
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

John Carpenter deserves a great deal of credit with coming up with an original and scary concept. It is unlikely he viewed as any sort of cultural or pop art commentary, but the circumstance of the imagined situation opens that door. Enter the decision to hire Irvin Kershner as the director. By securing the respected film director, the already infamous producer of the project was able to seal a deal with Faye Dunaway to play the lead character. In 1977, this was a casting coup. Dunaway was at the height of her cinematic power in the mid to late 1970’s. A beautiful and respected Academy Award winning actress, Ms. Dunaway was sought after.

Initially Jon Peters was rumored to have wanted to talk his then Life Partner, Barbra Streisand, into taking the role. The script was too violent and dark for Streisand’s taste. She did agree to sing a theme song which turned out to be a surprisingly rock-driven song. The esteemed Conrad Hall was rumored to be first choice to serve as the film’s cinematographer, but Kershner wanted Victor J. Kemper. He got him.

Several gorgeous models were hired to serve as models and actors. Tommy Lee Jones was secured for the leading male love interest. And thanks to a large paycheck, several respected actors were cast in supporting roles — most notably Brad Dourif and Raul Julia. This was an A List Production out of the gate.

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak. Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak.
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

When the results of the finished film screened in 1978, viewers were presented with a cinematic cornucopia of ideas and images. Some of these worked. Others failed. Mixed together — Eyes of Laura Mars became a largely mixed experience for film critics and an often vexing one for the audience. The film was a hit. Though filled with tension, the movie failed to actually be scary.

While Laura Mars‘ photographs are violently and sexually graphic, the film is surprisingly restrained. Most certainly the violence and amount of nudity earned the film an R rating, but there was a loopy sort of immature logic holding the film together.

Some did find the movie disturbing. Some found it to be a fun ride with more than a few unexpected twists. Others were just left a bit confused.

A male's smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

A male’s smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

37 years later Eyes of Laura Mars continues to entertain. Sadly, much of the entertainment grows out of unintentional camp.

This is not to say that this odd bit of big-budget 1970’s filmmaking does not hold some merit. But the film’s merits are easily over-powered by the strange plot, Dunaways’s soap-opera like turn and some deeply campy “stupid model” moments. The movie is a fun, pretty and ungrounded mess. And over the past decade it has developed a sizable cult following.

Most view Eyes one of those “So Bad It’s Great” cinematic guilty pleasures. While I can understand ascribing this uncomfortable thriller to that genre, I’ve never been certain that it should be regarded as a bad film.

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

I grew up in a fairly small town in Texas. We were not too far from Houston, but we did not always get movies when they “opened.” More often than not, movies arrived to our town several weeks or a month after the movie had already been in circulation. This was the case with Eyes. It opened late into its run at our fairly new mall cineplex.

My father had no understanding of what was or wasn’t appropriate for a child. He took me with him to see this movie. The woman who sold us out tickets already knew me as the kid who she would often pull out of a movie to ask where my parents were. I’m not sure if it was before or after the time my father took me to see Eyes of Laura Mars, but this theater manager pitched a fit when my father took me to see Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Hurry! I Need more film! I'll push my skirt up further while you take care of that! Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Hurry! I Need more film! I’ll push my skirt up further while you take care of that!
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Her attempts to prevent my father from taking his little boy to see adult movies always failed. Mr. Goodbar was a traumatic experience. But Eyes was not one. In fact nothing I saw made my jaw drop or caused me any real confusion.

The thing I most remember about seeing this movie was that my father was forced to really get his shit together because no one was admitted after the first ten minutes of the movie’s start. My father had the annoying habit of arriving at the middle of a movie and then staying to see the first half at the next screening. But he had to arrive on time for Eyes of Laura Mars. I also remember noting that he was truly glued to the screen. It seemed like the casually naked models and the violent photographs interested him.

I was not scared by the movie. While I had not yet become educated in filmmaking, I did know who John Carpenter was — and I was frustrated that the Halloween dude wasn’t making a movie he wrote.

"This is Lulu & Michele! We're not home so go to Hell! But if you're not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!" Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

“This is Lulu & Michele! We’re not home so go to Hell! But if you’re not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!”
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars is not a truly bad movie. It may not be scary, but it has its share of intense moments. It also offers a rather lucid capture of 1970’s NYC and its fashion scene.

Sony did issue the film to DVD, but the HD download currently available via iTunes is far superior to the non-remastered print that the ever-cheap Sony put on DVD. One major thing about the Sony DVD is that it features a film-length commentary from the late Irvin Kershner. In that commentary he speaks of not having had much knowledge of the fashion world at that time. He was surprised when he heard female models talking, disrobing, doing drugs and giggling like school girls.

A staunch liberal, Kershner was also more than a little repulsed by discovering that there seemed to be a misogynistic attitude toward women by an industry devoted to women as their focal demographic. This concerning misogyny would change the film’s tone. No new comer to the Sexual Revolution, he was very much surprised by the attitude of the female models he encountered as well as what he saw as The Studio 54 Culture. Clearly this is what motivated Kershner.

Oh, the model's life and selling cars while being abused and killed... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photography by Rebecca Blake

Oh, the model’s life and selling fashion! No prob with nudity or killing or being killed. But they do have problems with the color of the dresses… Sex, violence and Misogyny Sells Clothing!
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photography by Rebecca Blake

At the time of the film’s release more than a few critics were annoyed by the ample use of casual nudity and the constant stream of violence against women. Kershner explains that he didn’t need to include all the nudity and explicitness of the faked photographs, but these aspects of the plot tied to the world of fashion greatly disturbed and interested him. These aspects seemed to signal that this once simple slasher movie could serve as something a bit deeper in the form of societal and cultural commentary. Or so it seemed.

It wasn’t so much the clothes that the photographers were wanting to capture as the sexuality of the models. And the models were more than happy to comply. Sex was their commodity and it was taking on a sinister tone from Kershner’s perspective. The non-actor models didn’t need to be asked or walked-thru to be nude for the film. They treated their scenes as they would a provocative fashion spread. Off came the clothing and on went the vapid conversing and drug-taking.

Kershner saw and attempted to capture a world in which the female model had no issue with being nude or posing as a victim, but their psyches were challenged when they had to wear “pink” or any color that they didn’t like. Carpenter’s original screenplay was re-crafted to “realistically” capture this world. A intriguing idea in theory does not always manage to fully morph onto the screen.

A lovely book for the late 1970's coffee table? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A lovely book for the late 1970’s coffee table?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Kershner was very careful not to discuss too much about Faye Dunaway. It is no secret that she became frustrated with the making of the film but also the way in which it was promoted. This was really the first film in which Dunaway failed to connect to the production.

A deeply stylized and theatrical actor, Faye Dunaway always had a 1940’s sensibility about her — hence her success in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Towering Inferno and Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown. She had managed to take her style of acting to a whole new level for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network and won the Oscar.

As Laura Mars Faye Dunaway appears to be a bit lost. It often feels as if she is fighting against what Kershner wanted. Continually dressed in flowing robes or gowns, Laura Mars seems to edge toward Gothica. She is power-dressed with purpose and that purpose is not to be sexy.

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models? Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models?
Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Surrounded by The Beautiful Elite of the modeling world, Dunaway is constantly subverting her assigned wardrobe to a new purposes. It seems almost comical to watch her photographing a fake car crash tragedy with her models either playing dead or cat-fighting in undies and minks. Kershner’s commentary avoids much discussion, but it seems an odd choice that Dunaway’s Laura Mars opts to hike up her skirt and do a Old-School Hollywood leg reveal as she shoots her pictures.

Decidedly not sexy, it just seems uncomfortable. Dunaway strictly refused any nudity in her love scenes with Tommy Lee Jones. But one suspects she desperately wanted in on some of the semi-nude cat fights she was left to “photograph.” The audience is less interested in Dunaway’s Laura as they are in the barely clothed fighting beauties amidst the wreckage.

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura's eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura’s eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars gets the late 1970’s NYC Fashion World down correctly. The clothes feel and look very much from the 1977 era. The fashions being photographed look legit. And the wealthy photographer may edge toward the dramatic, but her clothing is clearly upscale and in style.

Kershner also captures the feel and look of the true 1977 NYC. Hell’s Kitchen, Columbus Circle and the Fashion District look like they are from another reality compared to now. This is most assuredly an on location shoot. The grime and grit plays a key role to the film. And although he did not shoot there, one of the movie’s early moments features a PR party given in honor of Laura Mars‘ work and new book that could easily be mistaken for a Studio 54 event.

At this event, Kershner makes no excuses for the vapidity of models like Lulu and Michelle, but both Darlanne Fluegel and Lisa Taylor are comically believable in their roles. It is in this early scene we are given a glimpse into their characters’ personalities.

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura's killing portrait... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura’s killing portrait…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The director is also to be credited for showing the importance of gay male culture within the world of Laura Mars without falling into homophobia. Little is actually articulated, but we know these men are gay. Rene Auberjonois delivers a solid performance as Laura’s close friend and business manager. We not meant to make fun of him.

And while both Raul Julia and Brad Dourif are wasted, they put forward great work here. Tommy Lee Jones is also strong except when pitted against Dunaway’s convulsively confusing turns. Jones is playing the role as realistically as possible, but he often finds himself in bad soap opera territory when kissing or making love to his leading lady. This is not his fault. Dunaway’s work here often feels like that of an insecure fading movie star who is afraid of losing her place at the table. Sadly Kershner didn’t seem to be strong enough to talk her down. This is of particular surprise given his track record for getting the best out of his actors. It is safe to say that Dunaway’s finest work has been given under infamous duress with tempermental directors.

Roman Polanski or Barbet Schroeder anyone?

Art crime? Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Art crime?
Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

While it was most definitely a fail on the part of Kershner to not better execute the horror of a film that was obviously intended to be a slasher flick, I doubt we would really remember this film if it had followed that path.

It should be noted that one of the few genuinely creepy moments in the movie is when we are limited to Laura Mars‘ POV which is trapped in the POV of the serial killer who is chasing her at full speed with intent to kill. Arte Kane’s musical score is manically-pitched and when edited into this threatening but non-violent scene, it does illicit a good deal of tension.

Even still, there is a major bit of let down when acts of actual real-time murders happen. Thanks to the musical score and the trippy use of POV there is some suspense, but the cinematic pay-off in these slasher scenes feel like something you might have seen on Charlie’s Angels.

Well, minus the nudity.

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance! Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance!
Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

This is very little gore in this film’s violence. Of course the film’s Big Reveal which Columbia Studios built up by closing ticket sales after the first ten minutes of the movie, has never seemed at all shocking to me. Even as a child I had figured out the identity of the killer before the film decides to reveal it.

Even still, it is a nightmarish situation that is interesting when compared to the “fashion art” our heroine has been crafting with her stylishly perched skinny leg and handy Nikon camera. This is perhaps the film’s most winning turn of horror — it is the film’s use of murder as fashion and violent death as eroticism that leaves a queasy sort of taste on the cinematic palate.

Killing to sell a car... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Killing to sell a car…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Irvin Kershner’s take on Carpenter’s script may not have gone to the logical horror route of the Slasher Film, but it’s twisted turns guide the audience to a surprisingly gruesome walk toward the pop culture of the future.

And Faye Dunaway’s odd performance does leave an impression.

It should be noted that this performance does not straddle an artistic line as her work in the ill-advised Mommie Dearest. Instead her work as Laura Mars is consistently up-ending itself. The manic and insecure diva-ish turn has, over the years, added a level of paranoia.

This paranoia plays well into both schisms of the infamous movie: The Uncomfortable and The Cult of Camp.

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Perhaps it is unfair to lay Dunaway’s failure all on her. She is given some very strange dialog:

While in a post orgasmic embrace she murmurs:

“I can’t understand. [slight pause] how it’s possible. [slightly longer pause] to live your whole life. [pause ] without someone. [slight pause] and be doing more or less OK. And then suddenly you find them. You recognize them.”

cue lush love theme as Tommy Lee Jones plants a big smooch on her face.

What do those words even mean?

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Perhaps Eyes of Laura Mars is a bad movie. Or maybe it is simply flawed. It doesn’t matter. Once you see it you will never forget it.

Matty Stanfield, 12.4.15

 

Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983

Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983

Marshall McLuhan was a fascinating intellectual. He was also a scholar and philosopher who focused nearly all of his attention to the ways in which media does a great deal more than inform, sell or entertain. Almost 30 years before it was created, McLuhan predicted the concept of a “global village” or and electronic means of communication. In other words, the Canadian Media Theory Philosopher predicted what we now call The Internet.

If you are unfamiliar with the ideas put forward by McLuhan, here are a few quotes that highlight his ideas about the impact of media:

“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.” 

“Ideally, advertising aims at the goal of a programmed harmony among all human impulses and aspirations and endeavors. Using handicraft methods, it stretches out toward the ultimate electronic goal of a collective consciousness.”

Marshall McLuhan circa 1970 Photographer | Unknown to me

Marshall McLuhan
circa 1970
Photographer | Unknown to me

“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.”

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

“The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

McLuhan emerged as much a critic of media as he was in awe of a power that most could not see or simply seemed to to fully grasp. While “the medium is the message,” that message is continually elevating to newer and more invasive ways.

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects  Marshall McLuhan, 1967 Graphic Design |Quentin Fiore

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects
Marshall McLuhan, 1967 Graphic Design |Quentin Fiore

The continual evolution of medium’s technology is quickly escalating in it’s strength. Humankind is being manipulated in ways beyond the imagination. Individuality was / is losing ground. Is giving way to a formation of something more than “human” in the way we define ourselves.

“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.” Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, theories, opinions and assertions are almost frightening in the ways one can chart the truth of what he stated in his lifetime. This great thinker died in 1980, yet his ideas remain alive and valid. To say he was ahead of the cultural curve would be an understatement.

As a Media Theorist, he had a great interest in television and motion pictures. Or, rather, an interest into what was actually being conveyed to audiences as they took in the information being “fed” into what was no longer simply the mind of the individual but the shared mind of those who watched and listened. By the mid-1970’s his ideas had well slipped into the intellectual mainstream as evidenced by his appearance as himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977.

In the surreal scene Allen’s character is able to invoke the presence of McLuhan to defend his personal opinion to an annoyingly loud fellow cinephile while they wait to see The Sorrow & The Pity:

Wait a minute, why can’t I give my opinion? It’s a free country!
He can give it… do you have to give it so loud? I mean, aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that? And the funny part of it is, Marshall McLuhan, you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan!
Oh, really? Well, it just so happens I teach a class at Columbia called ‘TV, Media and Culture.’ So I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity!
Oh, do ya? Well, that’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here, so, so, yeah, just let me —” [Allen pulls McLuhan into Gordon Willis’ frame] “Come over here for a second. tell him!

"I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!"  Marshall McLuhan stands up for Alvey Annie Hall Woody Allen, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!”
Marshall McLuhan stands up for Alvey
Annie Hall
Woody Allen, 1977
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

While more than a few artists latched onto the ideas of Marshall McLuhan so did Film Theory, Philosophy and Journalism majors at universities across the world. But perhaps no intellectual and no artist latched onto McLuhan’s theories than fellow Canadian filmmaker, David Cronenberg.

Art is anything you can get away with.— Marshall McLuhan

From the very beginning, David Cronenberg pushed the ideas of Grindhouse Horror further than any other. Certainly, George A. Romero was interested in the ideas around how marketing and consumerism were rendering humans to a zombie like need that could never be fully satisfied.

"What are they doing? Why do they come here?" "Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." Zombies roam the mall for live flesh as the new commodity. Day of the Dead George A. Romero, 1978 Cinematography | Michael Gornick

“What are they doing? Why do they come here?”
“Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
Zombies roam the mall for live flesh as the new commodity.
Day of the Dead
George A. Romero, 1978
Cinematography | Michael Gornick

But it was Cronenberg who began to translate McLuhan’s ideas into a literal horror involving not only the way in which we think, but the way in which medium-saturated psychology could possibly morph into our biology.

Cronenberg was also way ahead of the cultural curve, when his low-budget gore-fests like 1975’s Shivers and 1977’s Rabid use the idea of sexual appetite and parasites or viruses merging to spread world-wide pandemics. Shivers is focused on a swinging singles apartment complex, but Rabid branches out into the world. A strange sort of gaping slip of a hole appears in the armpit, and the diseased seeks out sex partners to satisfy a painful urge. …and spread a disease.

A perplexing gape of wound appears on the body beautiful. Iconic Porn Star of the day goes legit as the sexy victim of disease which causes her to aggressively spread her sickness... RABID David Cronenberg, 1977 Cinematography | René Verzier

A perplexing gape of wound appears on the body beautiful. Iconic Porn Star of the day goes legit as the sexy victim of disease which causes her to aggressively spread her sickness…
RABID
David Cronenberg, 1977
Cinematography | René Verzier

As silly as the gore might be in this movies, both carry a cerebral and visceral horror for viewers that remain today. We might giggle at some of the effects, but once these movies end the realization that we have seen two movies that seem to have predicted AIDS is impossible to dismiss. It is of particular interest that Cronenberg sought out the former Ivory Soap Girl turned Porn Superstar, Marilyn Chambers, to play the main carrier of the disease. A once symbol of Purity, Cleanliness & Innocence turned to Hardcore Media Porn Star Sinsation. The medium is the message…

In what can probably be considered Cronenberg’s first truly artistic horror film, 1979’s The Brood offers horror on several levels. In some ways this movie is a horror film about child-like killers. The site of these murderous little demons is delivered in a low-fi but intensely horrifying way.

Brooding literally births avenging demonic child-like killers intent on carrying the medium and message The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Mark Irwin

Brooding literally births avenging demonic child-like killers intent on carrying the medium and message
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Mark Irwin

On another level, this surprisingly cerebral film offers a horror film related to the clinging fears left over from the 1960’s/1970’s revolutionary changes regarding individual freedoms and a culture in which patriarchal “control” over sexuality, marriage, children and our own individual minds was giving way to something that many felt sinister.

Oliver Reed’s Dr. Hal Raglan is a brilliant and charismatic sort of Psychiatry Guru (or Psychoplasmics Master) who has established a center for emotionally challenged individuals. A wife and mother with serious emotional issues has sought help, but has become a sort of Cult Slave to Dr. Raglan’s mad science experiments involving psychological anger.

Samantha Eggar broods her rage into full-fledged living beings designed to carry out her darkest violent urges. The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Samantha Eggar broods her rage into full-fledged living beings designed to carry out her darkest violent urges.
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Played by Samantha Eggar, this woman has learned to channel her rage into her core biology. Dr. Raglan is the medium. The message is an endless rage which morphs into stunted results of psycho-physcial pregnancies. She is not merely brooding anger, resentment and anger at her husband and a daughter who has perhaps prevented her evolution as an individual. No, she is literally brooding a number of angry beings birthed to carry out her inner insane rages. Under the work of the Mad Scientist, she is birthing the medium that seeks to destroy.

"Thirty seconds after you're born you have a past and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it." Grooming a birth of insane rage... Body Horror taken to a whole new level. The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Thirty seconds after you’re born you have a past and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it.”
Grooming a birth of insane rage… Body Horror taken to a whole new level.
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

The Brood suffers from limited budget, hammy acting and an idea that feels at once brilliant and a bit too silly. But we cannot forget that this is a David Cronenberg. The Brood is more than a partially scary and partially satirical cult movie — it sneaks in under our skin and into our shared thinking. This film lingers long after the comedic elements fade. Esteemed writer, Carrie Rickey, has pointed out that The Brood is also a startling counter-point to Kramer Vs. Kramer.

In 1981’s Scanners, David Cronenberg officially crossed over to mainstream success. No longer limited to Drive-In’s, Midnight Screenings or lower-rate cinemasScanners received a wide release.

Disturbing but creative art therapy isn't enough for corporate interests... Scanners David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Disturbing but creative art therapy isn’t enough for corporate interests…
Scanners
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

And it not only changed the way we think of Science Fiction Horror, it elevated Cronenberg to a whole new level of artistic acceptance. It can also be closely linked to the ideology of Marshall McLuhan. Although the message is presented to humanity more in the form of 20th Century biochemicals than media. In Cronenberg’s Scanners, Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is not merely a carcinogenic, it has infected fetuses with a new sort of power. Thalidomide not only harms, it too causes a strange psycho-power mutation within infected fetal tissue of mothers treated with these chemicals.

"How do you feel?" "I feel crystal clear." Heads do not roll. They explode. Scanners David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“How do you feel?”
“I feel crystal clear.”
Heads do not roll. They explode.
Scanners
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Suddenly, Cronenberg’s much discussed Body Horror has elevated from human emotion to true biological horror. These infected mothers have given birth to children who have a new horrific telekinesis power. A power that can ultimately be controlled and used as a new kind of weapon. The film is best known for the effect of exploding heads, is actually going much deeper into human fear and horror ideology.

But it would be with Cronenberg’s 1983’s Videodrome that his interests in McLuhan’s teachings and the director’s own personal interest in the horror of the body turning against it’s owner would blend to form the almost perfect mix of Art Horror, Science Fiction, Surrealism and Cultural/Societal commentary.

"First it controls your mind...then it destroys your body" France's marketing campaign focused heavily on Debbie Harry Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“First it controls your mind…then it destroys your body”
France’s marketing campaign focused heavily on Debbie Harry
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Max Renn is the burned-out, bored but still ambitious CEO of a small Adults-Only cable company that seems posed to break big in the growing world of cable TV. Renn markets his cable channel as “The one you take to bed with you.” In 1983, audiences would have linked this fictional channel to the likes of Playboy TV or a wide range of latenight-only cable channels that offered soft porn and other provocative topics to it’s viewers.

Just slightly ahead of the game, the VHS industry was really only just starting to take-off across the mainstream. Players were only just starting to come down in price and the middle class had only dipped a few toes into the video-stream. The battle between VHS and BetaMax had not even fully started.

Cyber-Punk Surrealism or Infected Brain Hallucination? James Wood's is about to receive a whole new kind of "head"  Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Cyber-Punk Surrealism or Infected Brain Hallucination? James Wood’s is about to receive a whole new kind of “head”
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

In the real world, these types of channels were facing a number of obstacles in presenting hardcore sex. It was limited to silly soft-porn movies or carefully edited hardcore sex movies to amped-up R-rated erotica. In Cronenberg’s film Max Renn is eager to push pass the rules. Seemingly latching onto McLuhan’s idea of art being what one can get away with, Renn no longer cares about the rules that restrict him from gaining a competitive edge in the erotic marketplace. His “ethical” stance is flawed. If compared to McLuhan’s concept, Renn has perverted the idea regarding art. For Renn, this is simply business.

Enter the oddly moralistic world of David Cronenberg. Sexuality is a lure that Cronenberg utilizes to pull the audience into his latest exploration in psychological horror. The use of sex is both titillating and perverse. In many ways, Videodrome is  Cyber-Punk Horror that dares to call our erotic desires into both cinematic provocation as well as an almost moral judgement.

Cinematic Provocation. A strange group of people can only find sexual pleasure/release at the time of self-inflicted car collisions take place. The scars become more erotic than the body upon which they inflict.  Rosanna Arquette CRASH David Cronenberg, 1996 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Cinematic Provocation. A strange group of people can only find sexual pleasure/release at the time of self-inflicted car collisions take place. The scars become more erotic than the body upon which they inflict.
Rosanna Arquette
CRASH
David Cronenberg, 1996
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

I stress almost because Cronenberg is expertly exploiting/selling sex as much as he thrusts our prurient interests to a questionable level. This was not the first time nor was it the last that this skilled filmmaker would use sexuality in a perplexing duality of human nature. There is always a strangely moralistic tie in all of Cronenberg’s films. Even in his adaptation of JG Ballard’s CRASH, he would tease the audience with subversive and perverse sexuality to arouse not only very dark eroticism, but to illicit a perverse joy in turning it back on the audience.

One of our first opportunities to understand this character is when we see him as a guest on a local channel chat show. The chat show host is clearly uncomfortable discussing the ever-expanding level of sexual explicitness on television, but she grins and bares it. Max is one of three guests. The second guest is Nicki Brand, played with a gleeful level of subversion by Cultural Icon, Debbie Harry. Nicki, like Max, sells sex. She is selling herself as a sort of Post-Feminist erotic answer to the “outmoded” concepts of Feminist Theory formed by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Her mode of medium is talk radio in which she dishes out pseudo-pop-psychology sexualized advice.

"What about it, Nicki? Is it socially positive?" "Well, I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it's tactile, emotional or sexual."  Feminist Theory gets a kink-reboot with Debbie Harry as Nicki Brand. Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“What about it, Nicki? Is it socially positive?”
“Well, I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional or sexual.”
Feminist Theory gets a kink-reboot with Debbie Harry as Nicki Brand.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Debbie Harry, at her own erotic prime and fame is the perfect actor for this role. At once intellectual and also a rather edgy erotic tease, she is like cat-nip for Max Renn. As the chat show host pulls them into a debate about the dark side of eroticism to the masses, it becomes clear that Nicki Brand isn’t really looking to counter-point Max Renn as much as to simply admit that she is fully aware of the “dangers” but not that concerned with falling prey. As she informs the host, “We live in over-stimulated times.” As Max begins to openly flirt with Nicki, the host is left in an even more comical unease.

She then turns away from her two sex-fueled guest to her scientific expert who refuses to appear on any other media than the television. Taken to a truly literal perspective, Professor Brian O’Blivion appears on a TV sitting on a coffee table by the host. As the increasingly nervous host attempts to interview O’Blivion it quickly becomes apparent that he is not going to fully connect with her.

Marshall McLuhan deconstructed: Dr. Brian O'Blivion only seems to respond... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Marshall McLuhan deconstructed: Dr. Brian O’Blivion only seems to respond…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

He seems to be watching her other two guests, but moves into a sort of intellectual rant about the powers of television media: He begins to offer an almost religious sort of speech that television will soon replace “our” reality. Completely ignoring his host, he begins to almost preach through the screen of his own TV image:

The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye.

David Cronenberg was very clear that his created character of Dr. Brian O’Blivion is based soley on Marshall McLuhan and the esteemed Media Sociologist’s ideas. McLuhan’s teachings, ideas and concepts are all brought to the forefront of this highly entertaining and often disturbing film. While Cronenberg lays it all out in literal and visceral visual terms, nothing actually strays too far from the recently departed McLuhan.

James Woods' Max Renn develops an odd itchy rash as he watches... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

James Woods’ Max Renn develops an odd itchy rash as he watches…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Played with simultaneous sexy swagger and icky slimed confidence by James Woods, Max deals with the European Erotica Market as well as underground networks of slightly harder-edged porn from Asia. We catch glimpses of the new work he is considering for his channel. From his European connection, the work seems innocently decadent. From the seemingly illegal importation from Asia, the work seems to be a sexualization of ethnic stereotypes that are pushing toward sadistic erotic pleasures. For Max, these new erotica films might offer a bit more in the way of erotic explicitness and controversy — but they are not enough. He is looking for something more “dangerous” and “risky.”

Enter Max’s pal and tech wiz, who manages to catch a Malaysian signal of what appears to be very realistic torture porn. So realistic in presentation, there is a suspicion that what Max is seeing may be a true filming of snuff human cruelty. It is never fully clear to us if Max is fully “OK” with what he sees on a show that seems to be called Videodrome, but it is clear that the sadomasochistic is most definitely turning him on.

In 1983, it was shocking when Debbie Harry is suggested to supply a little bit of BDSM to get Max's changing body stimulated. In 2015, this medium of BDSM has already become passively engrained within the cultural mind.  Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

In 1983, it was shocking when Debbie Harry is suggested to supply a little bit of BDSM to get Max’s changing body stimulated. In 2015, this medium of BDSM has already become passively engrained within the cultural mind.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

He pushes his tech engineer to find the true origin of the Videodrome signal which turns out to be coming from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Comforting himself by insisting that what he is seeing is a “pretend” electrically-charged clay wall and orange/red floors upon and against which acts of brutal sexual assaults and murders are carried out in realistic but fake ways. Max essentially threatens his libidinous European contact to find the creators of Videodrome to help him secure a deal to air their show. Soon later, his contact tries to soft talk him out of the idea. She advises that what he has been seeing is more than erotic entertainment.

She leans in as informs him that Videodrome has a philosophy. Videodrome is real. 

At first Max refuses to believe it. His sexual relationship with Nicki is one linked to pain and punishment. It is all-the-more-hightened by a viewing of Videodrome. In a clever bit of Surrealism, Max and Nicki’s sexual blood-letting morphs out of Max’s condo and onto the wet red floor of the Videodrome set. Hallucinations give way to very real altercations in which Max’s body seems to be changing to fit into the psychology of Videodrome.

"Open up, Max. We have a tape we have a tape we need to play..." Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Open up, Max. We have a tape we have a tape we need to play…”
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

In one of the film’s many mind-bending special effects, Max begins to develop an itch resulting from what appears at first to be a an enflamed vertical line traveling down his “happy trail” that quickly emerges into a yon-like flesh entry point. Wet and wanting to be fed, this vaginal sort of “wound” becomes a portal in which Max and insidious Bad Guys place guns and breathing-infected videotapes. The pain of this “fleshy slit” also seems to deliver a source of uncomfortable pleasure. Eventually this body morphing develops teeth.

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a repulsive, intense and surreal Art Horror masterpiece that must be experienced to fully understand and enjoy. With each scene, the Videodrome transmissions seem to infect Max’s psychology, perception and ultimately his body.

A new point of entry to Max Renn... Body Horror taken to a whole new level. Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

A new point of entry to Max Renn… Body Horror taken to a whole new level.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

The ultimate body horror show, Max must either destroy the evil that is Videodrome and accept the new flesh it has created and take it forward to the next logical step. Many viewers interpret the film in different ways — particularly it’s apocalyptic ending. But it seems to me that David Cronenberg is pushing Marshall McLuhan’s ideology in very literal way. Fully infected by media’s disease, Max must refuse to submit to a vile corporate plan. He must take back what the medium has communicated into his very being.

“Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!”

The Medium turns against you... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

The Medium turns against you…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

David Cronenberg has not only gotten away with creating a powerful and lasting work of film art, his horror film navigates the audience into a whole different sort of human universe. Video/Analog may have given way to HD/Digital, but the message of the medium is still every bit as worrying to us in 2015 as it was in 1983. The power of media is inescapable now more than ever. Paranoia and the threat of disease is at all time high.

Vidoedrome is far more than a Cult Horror Film Classic, it is a very warped, twisted and disturbing cinematic philosophy not to be be forgotten.

"Death to Videodrome. Long live the New Flesh." Now, come to Nicki... Debbie Harry Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Death to Videodrome. Long live the New Flesh.” Now, come to Nicki…
Debbie Harry
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Matty Stanfield, 9.28.15

Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession was initially unleashed to its first audience 35 years ago at The Cannes Film Festival. The film and Isabelle Adjani’s performance was and remains the stuff of legend.

"Murder. Evil. Infidelity. Madness." Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981

“Murder. Evil. Infidelity. Madness.”
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981

She received the festival’s Best Actress Award. The film itself had a profound and lasting impact on Cannes Film Festival audiences.  Many film critics present appeared to like it, but were unable to explain what it was. It defied genre. While many critics liked it, almost as many hated it. Not too long after rumors began to circulate that Adjani had suffered a nervous breakdown which many blamed on the pressures of playing the film’s lead. Initially it seemed that Adjani was eager to promote the film. As the film began to screen in Europe, audience reactions ranged from “confused” to “repulsed” to “angry.”

The Absence of Faith or The Conflict of having it?  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The Absence of Faith or The Conflict of having it?
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

As French audiences began to dwindle at an alarming rate, Adjani’s attitude toward her role, the movie and the director became critical. It didn’t seem to be a “marketing ploy” — and if it was, Andrzej Zulawski was not happy about it. While I’m unaware of the actor ever directly blaming Zulawski or her role in Possession for what appears to have been a very real breakdown, she never gave a definite answer. It was clear that Adjani was initially eager to work with Zulawski. It was clear she fully understood what she needed to do as the character.

"Do you believe in God?" Isabelle Adjani appears to moan to the heavens than to pray.  Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Do you believe in God?”
Isabelle Adjani appears to moan to the heavens than to pray.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

If one tries to sort the “gossip” from “truth” — it becomes clear that Adjani gave herself over to this particular role unlike she had ever done before or since. Despite the honor and the acclaim she received for her performance, Adjani seems to have opted to distance herself from the movie as quickly as possible. Since it’s brief release in France, she has never spoken of the experience beyond the implication that she felt she had been manipulated by Zulawski.

Isabelle Adjani  Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The one thing she did state has remained firmly intertwined with Possession‘s history:

Zulawski, Bruno Nuytten (Cinematographer and soon-to-married to the film’s lead actress), Adjani and the crew were assembled under the infamously long and deep passenger tunnel beneath U-Platz der Luftbrücke Subway Station in Berlin. The film’s special effects crew had just fitted Adjani with surprisingly realistic fluid-filled bags. It is doubtful that anyone knew that Isabel Adjani was about to go far and beyond her director’s expectations. Just before Andrzej uttered “Aktion!” Adjani approached him and asked how she should approach the violent seizure as described in her script. He thought about it and was not completely sure how to articulate what he wanted, but the first words that came to his mind and through his lips to Adjani’s ears were essentially that this scene should look like a tribal sort of violent dance.

Reportedly Adjani thought this over for a minute. Turned to her director once more for guidance that was a bit more specific.

“Fuck the air.”

It was with this very direct response Isabelle Adjani would create what would soon become and remains one of – if not the most disturbing scenes in cinematic history. What Adjani does far below the Berlin subway system is almost impossible to describe. I think the aspect of Adjani’s convulsive “dance” is that it never feels false. You don’t need to have ever been to Berlin to realize that she is writhing and slamming about the dirty walls, floor and the air of a real space. This is no film set. It is profoundly repulsive and fascinating all at once. And just as you think this “fit” is over, Adjani begins to drain her rigged bags. Suddenly the entire scene somehow manages to amp-up to a whole new level of horror.

One of if not the most deeply disturbing moments in cinematic history.  Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

One of if not the most deeply disturbing moments in cinematic history.
Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The most horrific and disgusting aspect is not the impact of the lo-fi but highly effective bags — it is Adjani’s face, eyes and the sounds she emits as the infamous scene comes to its end.

Distributors pushed Possession out to Europe with a great deal of hesitation. It failed to attract audiences but it was a most definite part of pop culture conversation. It was banned by a large number of European townships. Most unlucky, the UK banned it before it could even find a screen. It would be another 2 years before Possession screened ever so briefly in Manhattan. Another year or so later the film was secured by several different distributors who edited the film to make it shorter, to censor the more “offensive” moments and to re-construct the entire film. Several different versions were released on VHS. These versions make no sense. Yet something remained that made a younger generation more curious. As bad as those VHS versions were, a cult-following was born. It would not be until 1999 that an “uncut” version of Possession would finally find its way to DVD.  It didn’t take long for word to get out that it was not the version as Zulawski intended. It has barely been a year since Mondo-Vision out of Irvine, CA fully restored and issued the actual full length version to DVD/Blu-ray. It has been the first “hit” Mondo-Vision has issued.

"I'm afraid of myself, because I'm the maker of my own evil." Isabelle Adjani with knife Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I’m afraid of myself, because I’m the maker of my own evil.”
Isabelle Adjani with knife
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Even with the passing of 35 years, Possession remains unaged and is still upsetting the viewers.

The most casual mention of it among fellow cinephiles incites repulsion, annoyance, unexpected emotions resulting in adamant claims of misogyny and cinematic atrocity. In 1999, I made the mistake of suggesting a Andrzej Zulawski Retrospective at a film festival board meeting. My suggestion was resoundingly turned-down. I would later chat with several of the board members who were particularly frustrated with my suggestion. I was disappointed to discover that not a single opinion was valid. None of them had ever seen it. One key member of the board told me, “I don’t need to see it. I’ve heard about it for years and it will never screen here.”

Perhaps the most almost violent reaction I’ve witness came from an esteemed and infamous filmmaker herself. Actually she has probably upset as many audiences as Zulawski. She dismissed Possession as  “pretentious meaningless human cruelty disguised as Art House Cinema.” One particularly brave soul pointed out that most of her films could be explained in the same way. I am not sure if he said this to provoke her or to make a point. But her face took on a shade of red I had never seen. She stormed away muttering something about the need for a cigarette.

Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

A week later I found out she hadn’t actually ever seen it. Since then she has and her opinion has taken a dramatic turn. It is rather funny that she now seems convinced that she always knew Possession was a work of “breathtaking cinematic art far ahead of its time!”

It would be unfair to expect an audience to to have an understanding of the artist’s identity or a grasp of how this artist’s identity was formed. The art needs to be able to stand on its own. One should never have to research to access a work of art. There must always be something within it that either entertains or resonates to an audience. But art would be so boring if all of it only served to entertain or resonate. From time to time an artist creates work that is deeply challenging. It is at that time the audience must adjust their eyes to gain more perspective on what is being shown. In the world of Film Art, this is often the case. Not every member of the audience will feel the need to engage with a film beyond the superficial or visual perspectives.

"Because you say "I" for me."  Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Because you say “I” for me.”
Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

But I am one of many who marvel at what a filmmaker sometimes achieves. While we are entertained to a point and we might feel a pull toward resonation — it is not always so easy to identify the “points” or the aspects that try to resonate.

This is especially true when approaching a filmmaker like Andrzej Zulawski. Most of his films are beyond “visual.” Often his films take on an almost epic scale of the visceral.  This is especially true of his films prior to 1999. Zulawski films seem propelled by a frantic intensity that fuses with his equally visual sense which highlights the metaphorical or allegorical aspects of his stories. To fully encage with is work the viewer needs to gain some insight into his life and what has formed his view/philosophy. This allows access to a myriad of meanings lurking just behind or within one of his characters. Most importantly the viewer secures a  perspective on why his films tend to illicit an often mixed bag of reactions. Understanding more about him allows the audience to tap into why what we see matters to us.

As I sit here and attempt to pursue a “request” to articulate my opinion of Andrzej Zulawski, his film Possession and the opposition it continues to generate,  I suspect it is important to note my reality.  All of the factors that have formed my identity is what continually draws me into his specific cinematic world. My fear of narcissism, pity and losing what I think is best called “anonymity” prevent me from sharing what I’m inclined to share. Beside this self-clarification “need” might be beneficial here, but it might just be a “desire” that would work in opposition to what I’ve been asked to convey. It seems like such a basic fact, but I’m often surprised how many people fail to realize that what we see in art is largely derived from what we bring to it. In the case of Film Art, what we project mingles with what is projected on the screen. It is a fundamental understanding of how we relate to art.

Anna coldly discusses philosophy as she pushes a child to hold Allongé. She seems unaware of the childs sounds of pain and horror. It appears to be a ballet lesson, but it sounds like a rape.  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Anna coldly discusses philosophy as she pushes a child to hold Allongé. She seems unaware of the childs sounds of pain and horror. It appears to be a ballet lesson, but it sounds like a rape.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Yet this core concept escapes a number of people. Suffice to say, that if life has presented a number of fucked-up challenges in life — what resonates or draws you into a art will be very different from someone who has been blessed with easier or more reasonable challenges. This lucky individual is less likely to be immediately drawn into darker examinations of the human experience. It does not mean that this lucky individual should avoid these challenging works, but they might have to work a bit harder to access them.

The slow emergence of “re-evaluation” of Andrzej Zulawski and Possession has been a long time in coming.  In large part this is due to Mondo-Vision’s beautiful restoration work on some of his most vital work. Following a successful run of Possession at New York’s Film Forum in late 2011, two organizations decided to hold retrospectives of the director’s work. If there were any concerns when the Brooklyn Academy of Music held their retrospective in 2012, they vanished as soon as tickets went on sale.

"There is nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you." Isabelle Adjani shares a secret with Heinz Bennent Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“There is nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you.”
Isabelle Adjani shares a secret with Heinz Bennent
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

BAM titled their retrospective “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski.” This did not rest easily with the filmmaker. It was because of this title he chose not to attend or participate.

Film Comment‘s Margaret Barton-Fumo spoke with Andrzej Zulawski and asked him how he felt about the BAM’s title, “This is the exact reason I am here in Warsaw and not in New York. I hated it so profoundly, it sounded so base—and I thank you for asking. On the other hand, I understand that these nice good people want to have something catchy. But I’m totally, totally aghast. I’m against this, and this is the reason I never came.”

It is of great import that he takes offense at the use of the word “hysteria” to describe his work. The word has not only taken on a pejorative meaning, it is a politically unethical word choice.  It is so easy to disagree. Both of the central male and female characters seem to be in a state of frantic panic which “hysteria” makes perfect sense. One on of the amazing feats of Adjani’s performance is that she seems to ampying her level of frantically shrill and manic energy up with each passing scene. When we first see “Anna” she appears tensely coiled-up — trying hard to suppress something. A few moments later she has uncoiled and emotions and panic jump from 1 to 10. It is a high wire act without a net in which Isabelle Adjani somehow manages to escalate her “hysteria” well out of measurable range. If the maximum scale is 10, Adjani seems to be closer to 100 by the mid-point of the film. The important difference that offends Zulawski is that he is using a concept of “hysteria” to criticize what causes it. The work is frantic about what culture perceives as “hysteria” — it is unfair to sum up the total of his work to “hysterical excess.” Baron-Fumo was able to discuss the film and the fact that the filmmaker had always called Possession his most “personal” film.

"Love isn't something you can just switch from channel to channel." Sam Neill contemplates the loss of his wife. Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Love isn’t something you can just switch from channel to channel.”
Sam Neill contemplates the loss of his wife.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Zulawski went into great detail of how the disintegration of his marriage seemed to mirror what he saw in Eastern Europe at that time. His response to Baron-Fumo’s questions are exactly as he is — open, honest and extremely articulate. For the filmmaker, Possession is a film he still thinks about in relation to what it means outside his own very private experience. It is clear that he is aware it carries a universal story that morphs into something completely unique, but he is not comfortable in fully addressing this aspect.

"For the first time, you look vulgar to me." A married couple on the verge of... Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“For the first time, you look vulgar to me.”
A married couple on the verge of…
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

His on-going struggle to reflect beyond his 1981 film remains too close to the bone to claim ownership beyond what he sees as a tragic experience that happened in his life. It is clear that he would prefer to dismiss the concepts of metaphors, allegories, horror and surrealism — but Zulawski is far too intelligent not to realize that those concepts exist within the frames of the movie.

No matter where they go, the wall separates Anna and Mark from potential.  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography

No matter where they go, the wall separates Anna and Mark from potential.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography

While he recoils at the word “hysteria” and its origin as misogynistic and psychologically confused attitude toward women. He is equally repulsed at the idea of referring to his work as “excessive.” He does understand the confusion his cinematic world creates. He is self-aware. He continues to feel it essential that the audience understand how these earlier films are rooted in his own experience.

The first half of his filmmaking career is intensely experimental. This visionary and challenging use of cinema seems to be reaching for that idea of compulsive beauty or psychic automatism almost as André Breton defined it in his Surrealist Manifesto. Almost. I am not only uncomfortable in putting too much surrealist emphasis on his work — I suspect that the links to Berton’s philosophy are purely accidental. Andrzej Zulawski makes his own rules and he ends up breaking a lot of unstated “rules” related to depicting “reality.” Zulawski seems to be creating new “rules” as it is difficult to find any level of “the predictable” as he leads us through a perverted idea of “reality.” This is a world that it wound-up in the environment, culture, repression and oppression to which this artist was born. The challenges he experienced formed him into a powerful artist whose vision pushes beyond the realm of anticipated boundaries. In the world of these early films, characters are forever fighting and clawing at reality of world that undervalues the individual as well as the ability to live the life they want to live. They become both victim and victimizer.

"I can't exist by myself..." Doppelgänger or projection? Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I can’t exist by myself…”
Doppelgänger or projection?
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

This is true of several of his films, but most certainly true of his infamously 1996 film,  Szamanka (She-Shaman) — a film that confused and shocked as much as it entertained. It is also found in the neon-drenched, adrenaline fueled kinetic and insanely unhinged power of 1985’s  L’Amour braque/Mad Love. This loose re-interpretation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot retains a vital piece of experimental cinema — and those who see it now will realize that much of what they thought was “original” in American mainstream cinema was really directly borrowed from L’Amour braque. Christopher Nolan or Kathryn Bigelow, anyone? But it is Possession that must reflects the imagination and perspective of an artist formed through the fires of a government intent on suppressing and oppressing the individuals caught within it.

Andrzej Zulawski was in 1940 Poland. The great nephew of writer Jerzy Zulawski whose The Lunar Trilogy, it almost seems predictable that Andrzej as Film Artist was pre-destined to clash with the Polish government. He studied the art of film in the world of 1950’s Paris, but returned to Poland to establish himself as an artist. He achieved fame in Poland, but that fame was tied more to the controversy of censorship than art. Eventually he opted to leave his native country in 1972 for France. He quickly established himself as a filmmaker of note. As it can easily be understood, I doubt he has ever gotten over the level of despair he felt as his artistic voice was continually muted, defeated and wasted by his homelands’ government. In France his work was and remains highly regarded. 1975’s L’Important c’est d’aimerThat Most Important Thing: Love remains a classic and beloved film.

But no one was prepared for what he unveiled at The Cannes Film Festival in 1981.

Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

I can easily write “a review” of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession on RottenTomatoes, IMDB and Letterboxd. Assigning a rating and a quick review is simple. I have done that. As far as I am concerned Possession is a cinematic masterpiece. The challenge is slip into the movie’s frantic energy, darkness and apocalyptic / nihilistic nightmare and still avoid giving out “spoilers.” Because the whole point of the “request” to create this post is to possibly spur more people to see it. And if you did see it and didn’t like it, maybe this post will lead you to “re-evaluate” what you saw.

There are several ways to interpret Zulawski’s notorious and brilliantly insane film. And these meaning are not limited to the director’s sole opinion. He knows this.

On the most superficial level Possession is an exorcise in Horror Surrealism hinged to the psycho-sexual.

From another perspective that directly ties to it’s creator’s intent, it is a depiction of the devastation, rage, despair and horror which divorce can cause for wife, husband and child. The tragic implications of a family destroyed takes the form of of a surreal and metaphorical crisis of identity. As the husband fights to keep the marriage together he only manages to “twist the knife of already fixed pain” for both himself and his wife. The wife slips into a full-tilt conflict over “the auto-piolt” implications of motherhood and deep need to rebel against repression and isolation her marriage has provided.

Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

As the husband slips into a sort of existential stupor, his wife seeks out sexual validation and the intense need for connection that very quickly leads the audience into the realm of repulsive horror. A horror in which the wife seeks to replace her spouse with something of her own creation. As the husband begins to climb out of his stupor, he starts to sense the implications of his wife’s choice. He tries to protect their son but is faced with his own challenge. His need to recapture his spouse leads him into a less violent but equally disturbing attempt to replace his wife. Of course the most tragic aspect of the situation is their child. He becomes nothing more than a vague symbol to both Anna and Mark.

From another point of view, and this is the one I apply, Possession is a masterful articulation of the dire implications and consequences of forcing identity/identities into a tiny box not of her/his/it’s own design. Under what amounts to mind-numbing surveillance, control, oppression, repression and judgement — the identity/identities are pushed to the point of insanity. A tiny box is not an appropriate home for a human. It is an even more insurmountable task to contain marriage, parenthood, desire, expression, anger, sex and love into a tiny box. Rebellion must occur. But it will not be a sane rebel who emerges. It will be an outrageous blood thirsty psychotic who comes out of that box seeking vengeance, power and a misplaced understanding of love. What comes out of this boxed world is a perversion of humanity. And it is not a human perversion. It is an inflicted perversion created by the very “entity” that creates, seals and surveils the box.

"He's very tired. He made love to me all night." Isabelle Adjani and her spousal replacement. Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten The Creature by Carlo Rambaldi

“He’s very tired. He made love to me all night.”
Isabelle Adjani and her spousal replacement.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten
The Creature by Carlo Rambaldi

It really doesn’t matter how one chooses to interpret Andrzej Zulawski’s  Possession. When the viewer applies thought to the extreme horrors we are shown, the film works from any vantage point.

It goes without saying that Possession is not for all tastes. It most certainly is not for the the faint of heart or the squeamish. And it would be child abuse to allow a child to watch this movie. It is equally important to understand that should you not be shocked, offended, repulsed or even a bit amused by some or most of what you see — Zulawski has failed. It is Andrzej Zulawski’s motivational intent to upset the viewer.  The challenging and disturbing nature of Possession is fact. But it is a mistake to think this film is perverse, misogynistic or meaningless. This film is wrought with meaning and it is a critique / study of why human beings can become perverse or insane.

Love struggles against  tierney Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Love struggles against tierney
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

To deny Possession a place on the shelf of Cinematic Masterpiece within the context of “experimental” would be short-sighted.

Andrzej Zulawski’s cinematic artistry and Possession offer no way out. You have no choice. Both he and his iconic 1981 film refuse to be forgotten.  Possession is true Film Art. And, if anything, it’s validity has never been more potentially viable than now. As we move further into the 21st Century the challenges of individual freedoms, privacy and the ability to control our own lives seem to be mounting against us.

The Oppressed and Repressed invert against themselves. Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The Oppressed and Repressed invert against themselves.
Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Just because the Berlin Wall came down does not mean it will not be reconstructed.

 

If you have not seen it, seek it out. And if you think you saw it and didn’t like or understand it. Consider a re-evaluation. You might be surprised. I can assure that you will not be bored.

I can’t help but add that should you ever have the opportunity to hear Andrzej Zulawski, Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders speak, always take advantage of it. These three important filmmakers are widely different and yet oddly aligned.  Just listening to each of these filmmakers discuss their work, art or life in general is fascinating. All three are highly intellectual without any air of superiority. A discussion with one of these men is a true experience. One of the aspects of each of these artist is that they do not crave or need your approval. In fact if approached from the perspective of “a fan” that are less likely to respond. These three men — especially Andrzej Zulawki — are very much grounded in reality and logic. They do not thrive in the “celebrity bubble” that encapsulates most of their contemporaries.

Only their work takes flight…

So I find myself coming back to a key scene in Possession where the husband, played by Sam Neill, is essentially interrogated. A question is posed to him, “Does Our Subject Still Wear Pink Socks?”  It is this line that starts the journey into the darkest corners of the human psyche as well as the darkest corners of a world that equates the color of socks to assessing individuality.

Conformity at all cost... Isabelle Adjani & Another Victim Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Conformity at all cost…
Isabelle Adjani & Another Victim
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Before you step into the experience of Possession, this might assist you.

"I'm afraid of myself" Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I’m afraid of myself”
Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Are you ready or not?

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.