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Every once in a while a movie comes along that captures a cultural moment. And, sometimes, that same movie can also offer insights into subcultures long forgotten. And, with a backward glance, the moving images and sounds seem to act as a unified predictor. A film like this becomes a touchstone to our past. A link from our current to a past that often feels foreign and alien. This is one such movie…

"This is as far as the elevator goes." Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982

“This is as far as the elevator goes.”
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982

It was in August of 1982 that Slava Tsukerman’s notorious cult film, Liquid Sky, debuted at Montreal World Film Festival. Heads were turned, jaws dropped and the festival awarded the Special Jury Prize to the director. The film went on to receive several other key Art Film Festival awards. Sadly the movie received a minimal theatrical release. In the US it did manage to strike a chord and secure a following via its VHS release. Liquid Sky has become an essential Cult Film. The fact that it continues to be challenging to track down and watch have only added to its allure within the Cult Film Cannon.

This is not your average low-budget movie. The filmmaker, his wife and his cinematographer were fresh from The Soviet Union. They had managed to find a way to New York City to make a movie. It wasn’t long before they were collaborating with a performance artist who seemed to be on the fast track to stardom within the underworld of the Post-Punk/New Wave club scene. This history of the film’s 28 day production story can be found across the span of The Internet. The key here is understanding that this Russian filmmaker captured a moment both fantastic and scary. He may not have had a big budget, but he most certainly had a big cinematic vision filled with ideas and aspirations.

Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

There are a couple of crucial elements which blast the viewer within the first three minutes of Liquid Sky:

  1. A human face framed within a sphere of neon light that reveals itself to be a mask of sorts.
  2. The music sounds vintage early ’80’s, but is just slightly off-key and deeply odd — even a bit altogether off.
  3. The Twin Towers / Empire State Building skyline (the lower midtown perspective?) is not only familiar — it is iconic. And yet, there is a myst of fog that seems sort of wrong.
  4. A flying saucer hovers toward the screen.
  5. Unhappy people in a darkly grim club jerk and dance about. The beats indicate fun, the melody warns danger and the people look more focused than happy.

Welcome to Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky. This cult film is respected for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important and immediate is the use of electronic music. The often discordantly familiar mixed with unique samplings of dialogue and other bits of music make it completely unique. We are hearing one of the earliest uses of the first true digital sampler keyboards and it is scoring the entire movie. These are the sounds of the Fairlight CMI Series 1 that pulsate out from the screen. The music manages to be at once primitive and complex. It is sinister, but with the slightest twinge of pop happy beats.This very well might be the first example of ElectroClash. The Fairlight CMI Series 1 was not actually new, but not many musicians owned them and even fewer knew how to play/use the digital sampling keyboard.

Stephen Paine demonstrated and sold The Fairlight CMI Series One to both Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel on the same day. EMI, London, 1978

Stephen Paine demonstrated and sold The Fairlight CMI Series One to both Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel on the same day.
EMI, London, 1978

Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush were among the first few musicians to actually purchase and pursue the use of the instrument. The Fairlight CMI gave life to Peter Gabriel’s 1980 album and his 1982 Deutsches Album. It played an even stronger role in giving Kate Bush’s sonic visions live for both Never for Ever and The Dreaming albums. And in fact it is easy to state that the sounds and looks of Liquid Sky have served as influence for a number of creative artists.

When actress, Paula E. Sheppard, takes the club’s darkly lit stage — she is straddling a cumbersome sort of electronic box. It might appear that her mic is broadcasting the inner workings of her chest, but her heartbeat has been sampled. It pulsates from her electronic box. As she lifts that microphone up towards her vexingly beautiful and malicious face she begins an odd bit of what I would call “Slam Poetry.” She seems to threaten her club audience with her words. While the verses to “Me and My Rhythm Box” might be pretentious — they are also oddly effective. In another actor and filmmakers’ hands this scene could have been painfully bad. But here, within the confines of Liquid Sky — this drone and wail of a song plays energetically and deeply weird. This is electronic music with a purpose. The cheesy happiness of 1980’s MTV is not present. Nor will you notice any of the ironic No-Wave disco-threat of Blondie. Slava Tsukerman and his synth composers — Brenda I. Hutchinson and Clive Smith — are in total and complete step with their filmmaker’s vision. Liquid Sky ‘s musical score is totally unique, worrying and unforgettable.

"Me and my rhythm box. Are you jealous, folks? My rhythm box is sweet. Never forgets a beat..." Paula E. Sheppard rocks the mic at The Pyramid Club, East Village NYC, c. 1981 Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Me and my rhythm box.
Are you jealous, folks?
My rhythm box is sweet.
Never forgets a beat…”
Paula E. Sheppard rocks the mic at The Pyramid Club, East Village NYC, c. 1981
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

I suppose some might disagree, but it isn’t a far leap to realize that what we are seeing and hearing would go on to influence artists lucky enough to secure a copy of Media Home Entertainment‘s highly prized VHS tape. You should not jump to judge my assertion until you have seen this movie and compared it to early sounds/looks of artists like Fischerspoon, Miss Kittin & The Hacker as well as pop-sensation Lady Gaga.

Liquid Sky Influencing Electroclash "Hi Huh-I Hyper Hyper-media-ocrity You don't need to Emerge from nothing You don't need to tear away! Feels good Looks good Sounds good Looks good Feels good too..." Fischerspooner, Emerge, 2001

Liquid Sky Influencing Electroclash
“Hi Huh-I Hyper
Hyper-media-ocrity
You don’t need to
Emerge from nothing
You don’t need to tear away! Feels good
Looks good Sounds good Looks good Feels good too…”
Fischerspooner, Emerge, 2001

Paula E. Sheppard’s Adrian is performing not on a set, but in a very real Post-Punk/New Wave NYC Underground club. The Pyramid was where Tsukerman filmed all of the movie’s club scenes. This club is legendary and has served as home to a number of NYC subcultures for decades. The lower East Village hole-in-the-wall could tell us an unlimited number of stories. At one time a home to NYC PUNKS then to their Post-PUNK / New Wave offspring and on toward to both the American Hardcore and GLBTI NYC communities.

By 2006 Pyramid Club presents PUNK by way of nostalgia... No wave here. The Radicts and The Bruisers Pyramid Club advert, 2006

By 2006 Pyramid Club presents PUNK by way of nostalgia… No wave here.
The Radicts and The Bruisers
Pyramid Club advert, 2006

Adrian’s musical performance and jaded delivery hold up to the likes of Miss Kittin and The Hacker. While she may not have the ability to fully utilize her rhythm box as well as Miss Kittin or Fischerspooner — both owe this film a nod for their sounds that would lead us into the ElectroClash sound of the early ’00’s. And it makes sense. Adrian is attempting to thrive within the dystopia of post-70’s NYC. This is Ed Koch’s nightmare of a city. As grim as it was — it did provide some surprisingly cheap housing options and opportunities.

Liquid Sky inspires... "Every night with my star friends. We eat caviar and drink champagne. Sniffing in the VIP area we talk about Frank Sinatra. Do you know Frank Sinatra? He's dead..." Miss Kittin & Hacker The First Album, 2001

Liquid Sky inspires…
“Every night with my star friends. We eat caviar and drink champagne. Sniffing in the VIP area we talk about Frank Sinatra.
Do you know Frank Sinatra? He’s dead…”
Miss Kittin & Hacker
The First Album, 2001

It was not off the Manhattan grid, but it was not an area that most would have cared to have roamed after sunset. The club offered risk of danger and lent an edge to an evening of clubbing before the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the cruel leadership of Ronald Reagan. As Debbie Harry sang on her 1989 album:

“Darkness falls like a black leather jacket and melts into the sidewalk like a sleeping drunk. In the streets, the wind throws yesterday’s headlines around.
Another night comes and goes. So, for awhile back then there was someplace to go.
Somewhere more home than a house. A family of choice, not an accident, but sometimes as soon as something gets started it’s over.

Now the days are much shorter and the people from the good part of town all come around, but the something is missing even though there’s more there now.
I shrug off my attempts to explain how a torn T-shirt made it all danger again…” Debbie Harry, End of the Run, 1989

The Ultimate Queen of NYC PUNK / Post-PUNK / New Wave Debbie Harry Photograph | Arthur Elgort, 1989

The Ultimate Queen of NYC PUNK / Post-PUNK / New Wave
Debbie Harry
Photograph | Arthur Elgort, 1989

Now Ms. Harry would have been referring to CBGB‘s or MUDD Club, but it is important to note that Pyramid Club might not have been on the radar of the darlings of the NYC PUNK / POST-PUNK or New Wave of 1981 — but in perhaps an even more important way — Pyramid Club was home to the many clubbers who couldn’t quite make it to the big rooms of those more anti-popular clubs. And it was within Pyramid‘s walls that some very real shit went down.

No. This is not Lady Gaga, but the looks / sounds may have inspired her. Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

No. This is not Lady Gaga, but the looks / sounds may have inspired her.
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

It is likely that Blondie’s lead singer walked through Pyramid doors at some point. Most certainly it is likely that Madonna ventured there. Liquid Sky features Otto von Wernherr in the role of the German astrophysicist who is the only person aware of an alien presence that has invaded the home of the film’s two main characters. Wernherr was a musician / actor / artist and fixture of the late 70’s / early 80’s NYC Downtown Scene and an early Madonna collaborator. That collaboration was already happening as Liquid Sky was filmed.

The more famous attempt to capture the NYC underground Post-Punk/New Wave movement is actually less revealing than what is found in Liquid Sky... Debbie Harry & Jean-Michel Basquiat Downtown 81 / New York Beat Movie Edo Bertoglio, 1981/2000 Cinematography | John McNulty

The more famous attempt to capture the NYC underground Post-Punk/New Wave movement is actually less revealing than what is found in Liquid Sky
Debbie Harry & Jean-Michel Basquiat
Downtown 81 / New York Beat Movie
Edo Bertoglio, 1981/2000
Cinematography | John McNulty

If Liquid Sky‘s Adrian character is the symbol of artist, then the character of Margaret is more closely tied to the artist who yearns for success and validation that is almost impossible to secure. We know immediately that Anne Carlisle’s Margaret is a model. She is also Adrian‘s promiscuous lover and flatmate. As Adrian performs with her rhythm box, Margaret is backstage prepping for a fashion show. A show that will be taking place in the club. The other models seem only to be in background of Margaret‘s beauty. The only model who challenges her is an effeminate gay man, Jimmy.

"Are you going to come to my roof tomorrow night?" Anne Carlisle x 2 Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Are you going to come to my roof tomorrow night?”
Anne Carlisle x 2
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

At first glance he seems to be Margaret‘s doppelgänger. The then up and coming performance artist, Anne Carlisle, is playing both Margaret and Jimmy. To Slava Tsukerman’s credit, the dual roles are only obvious when the film wants it to be. Tightly and cleverly edited, Margaret and Jimmy are two very different characters. Margaret and Jimmys’ fashion show takes place within minutes of the film’s beginning.

Striking a pose... Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Striking a pose…
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

This fashion sequence serves as not only a set-up for the film’s oddly complex world, it also pulls us into the era in which the film was made. While these models look like what we might associate with the very early 1980’s — it is important to note that these “looks” were ahead of the cultural curve in 1981. When I first saw this movie in 1983, these models/actors looked absolutely other-worldly. Their painted faces, geometric clothing and posing were all new to my eyes. While they might have shared some similarity with Adam Ant, Missing Persons, Bow Wow Wow, Boy George and Flock of Seagulls — the people on the screen offer no semblance of charity or fun. This clique is hard-edged and seemed almost intent on menace.

"Something strange is going on here." Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Something strange is going on here.”
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

These hipsters want your attention, but they are not willing to beg for it. Just the opposite, these models and their respective looks are daring us not to give them our attention. The colors may be bright neon and they might be covered with make-up, but these danger boys and girls are out for blood. This is not just a fashion show — it is almost a declaration of war.

Dare you not to look and love me... Benjamin Liu Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Dare you not to look and love me…
Benjamin Liu
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Also within minutes of the film’s start we figure out that there is a lot more going down than performance, fashion and clubbing. Adrian is an established heroin dealer. That human face mask hangs in she and Margaret‘s penthouse apartment. This work of art offers dual meaning. It is the same face shared by both Margaret and Jimmy. It is also not a mask — it is the holding/hiding place for Adrian‘s supply of heroin. A supply that she sells to everyone from uptown artsy folks but to everyone within her orbit. Margaret might be the only person in Adrian‘s world who has no interest in the power of her powdered sky just waiting to be heated into milk for injection.

So here we have a film that is about clubbing, strutting and drugs. Where does the Sci-Fi element come in?

"Are you sure this has something to do with UFO's?" Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Are you sure this has something to do with UFO’s?”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

No one can ever accuse Slava Tsukerman of constructing a slow-moving film. We witness the arrival of invaders from space within minutes of the movie’s beginning. Liquid Sky‘s construction is tight and unusual. Things happen simultaneously. They also happen with minimal explanation or character development. In most cases this approach would stunt a film, but it is one of Liquid Sky‘s magical elements. I should note that I first saw this film when I was 16 years of age. This might seem a great trip movie, but it is not. As trippy as the film is it is not conducive to positive altered state viewing. The paranoia, cruelty and perversities work against the fun aspect of a stoned age viewing. It is most likely due to my state at the time I first saw Liquid Sky that I did not understand the invasion from space plot twister.

"In the beginning Aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later Aliens appeared in specific subcultures -- punk circles. Still around heroin, but in these circles even more. Strange deaths have occurred..." Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“In the beginning Aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later Aliens appeared in specific subcultures — punk circles. Still around heroin, but in these circles even more. Strange deaths have occurred…”
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

We see the alien flying saucer arrive at nearly the same time we meet Adrian, Margaret and Jimmy. We also are given the alien’s perspective as it approaches the rooftop of Adrian and Margarets’ penthouse apartment. Most cleverly we are also given a view of the alien itself. The alien and its space ship interior. Both perspectives are truly psychedelic. But how does the introduction of alien invasion, surveillance, fashion, music, drug use/abuse and sexuality anchor Liquid Sky to the subcultures within which the film is placed?

"Where are the drugs?" Paula E. Sheppard Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Where are the drugs?”
Paula E. Sheppard
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Most likely it was never Tsukerman’s intention to create a film that we can now view as a sort of chronicle of the NYC Post-Punk/New Wave subculture. And it is most certainly sure that he never intended the movie to serve as a signal predicting the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Wether intentional or not, there should be no denying the film’s ability to do both things. Liquid Sky is a low-budget film with big budget aspirations. It is essentially a science fiction horror movie, but its genre goals are almost buried beneath a polarizing depiction of the New York City Underground Club scene of 1981. It is a depiction that stings and slips under the viewer’s skin.

"Jimmy is the new Miss. America! he has all the mannerisms of a sex symbol." Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Jimmy is the new Miss. America! he has all the mannerisms of a sex symbol.”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

At first, in 1981, it seemed that a disease was being caught / spread by members of the gay community. It was quickly becoming an outbreak. Initially the sicknesses was coined as The 4H Disease as the syndromes seemed to be inflicting homosexual men, heroin users, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Despite some obvious signs, that initial name did not catch on as well as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) It wasn’t long before the CDS realized this was not an illness restricted to any one segment of the population. Certainly those living in cities like New York were realizing this long before the tragic epidemic was assigned the name AIDS in July of 1982. But in 1981 the young people populating the New York City Underground had not yet fully grasped the meaning of what was beginning to strike their respective communities. Paranoia and fear were already running rampant for a number of socio-political reasons. Liquid Sky captures an artistic world caught in the magic and the horror of the era.

"Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. Whether or not I like someone doesn't depend on the kind of genitalia they have. As long as I find someone attractive. Don't you think? Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. Whether or not I like someone doesn’t depend on the kind of genitalia they have. As long as I find someone attractive. Don’t you think?
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The world of Liquid Sky takes place in the rag-tag world of the Artist as Outsider. More specifically, the world of Tsukerman’s film is concerned with outsiders and misfits. As in reality, the world of the arts is populated with youth, creativity and sexual experimentation. Sexuality is either fluid or leaning toward homosexuality. The Post-PUNK/New Wave NYC subculture is tightly connected to the pulse of the NYC Gay subculture. And both are freely connected to sex, drugs, music and art. Liquid Sky has a morality, but it is based in humanism rather than in the political.

Early on we watch Margaret attempt to seduce her male counterpart, Jimmy. It is here we are granted a cruel view of misogyny. It isn’t that Jimmy is just turned off by the idea of fucking a woman  — he makes it fairly clear that he detests women across the board. He treats Margaret as if she were nothing more than a link to drugs. Margaret has a tough shell, but something about Jimmy‘s cruelty eggs her on toward him. This seems to be a girl who is not used to being turned down. Despite his cruelty she is unwilling to write the mean queen off.

The only character who seems concerned with any other’s sexual preference is Adrian‘s uptown client. A failing artist who seems to have once clung to the idea that heroin will spark his artistic vision is now just uncomfortably numb. He finds Margaret’s androgynous beauty alluring, but he is far too concerned regarding her sexual preference. To Margaret and Adrian this junkie is normal and dull.

"What kind of drugs will you have?" Anne Carlisle Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“What kind of drugs will you have?”
Anne Carlisle
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Adrian clearly identifies as lesbian and seems to be disgusted by Margaret‘s promiscuity. And like Margaret she too has dreams of fame and success. Both women are damaged, but while Margaret has soaked up her sadness — Adrian funnels an insane level of sadness and rage into her work. Theirs is a dysfunctional relationship beyond reason, but they seem to cling to each other. Sex is merely fun and a tool. All of these characters trade in sex and shared works. Adrian is repulsed by the idea of her client wanting to have sex with Margaret but is totally cool with sharing her spoon, syringe and rubber band. Margaret attempts to procure cocaine by snuggling up to straight dude at the club. In the end she is brutally raped. She seems to accept this act of cruelty as a dark part of her life with which she must deal. She also seems totally committed to being mistreated by her girlfriend.

"I am a stranger in this country. How can I see what they do on private property?" Otto von Wernherr Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“I am a stranger in this country. How can I see what they do on private property?”
Otto von Wernherr
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Both Anne Carlisle and Paula E. Sheppard are highly effective in their respective roles. We may not know these two characters but they feel genuine. The same is true for much of the cast. Otto Von Wernherr would never win an award for acting, but he is believable as the befuddled West German scientist trying to understand what these space aliens are doing in this circle of artists. At first he suspects the aliens are only interested in the heroin which shoots so freely among these characters, but soon it is revealed that these invaders are even more interested in the chemical reaction that orgasm creates within the brains of these humans. The interesting trick of the film is that while the film is never formerly concerned with character development, it fully utilizes the skills and charisma of the actors.

"For me it's easy. Hell to Hell. I'm not dancing in marijuana jungles. I live in concrete mazes. Stone and glass hard like my heart. Sharp and clean. No romantic illusions for changing  the world. I don't lie to myself that love can cure because I know I'm alone. And you fought that every day. You lied. You lied. You go to hell. Suits you well."  The nihilism of the slam poet runs deep. Paula E. Sheppard Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“For me it’s easy. Hell to Hell. I’m not dancing in marijuana jungles. I live in concrete mazes. Stone and glass hard like my heart. Sharp and clean. No romantic illusions for changing the world. I don’t lie to myself that love can cure because I know I’m alone. And you fought that every day. You lied. You lied. You go to hell. Suits you well.”
The nihilism of the slam poet runs deep.
Paula E. Sheppard
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Sex has become an empty act. It no longer means anything to Margaret. So when the people who force their way with her sexually begin to die at the instant of orgasm she has little to no concern for the deaths. She is more curious than concerned. When an older artist brushes aside her need for conversation, she barely puts forward an argument as he rapes her. Thing take on a perverse edge when Adrian walks in do discover the nude male body. She slips into a sort of trance and begins a grim sort of rap to the beat of her fist on her thigh. When she reveals her deepest sexual fantasy is to have sex with a dead man, Margaret is repulsed. However it takes a good deal of necrophiliatic  attempt before she tries to stop Adrian.

All the more upsetting when we realize that Margaret mistakes the aliens murdering her sexual partners to be a sign of power. For the first time in her life she thinks she is found her awakening. Her sex is no longer something to be traded or abused. Alien intervention has allowed her sex to become a threat. A threat she is more than happy to put to work.

"How many of you want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?" Paula E. Sheppard & Anne Carlisle push past the R-rating of the day... Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“How many of you want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?”
Paula E. Sheppard & Anne Carlisle push past the R-rating of the day…
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The characters of Liquid Sky are sick, twisted and sad. And yet we feel compelled to watch. This is not the sort of interest one experiences while watching a John Waters movie. Despite a few goofs and a low-budget, Liquid Sky is an interesting film. Once the movie begins, the viewer is going to be in for the long haul. The alien aspect of the film is largely secondary. We are concerned with the people. Margaret‘s misguided interpretation of the strange events that have started to happen all around her lead her down a very dark alley of self-examination.

And it doesn’t take deep thinking to discover that Slava Tsukerman’s film serves most effectively as horrific predictor of the AIDS epidemic.

"I was taught that to be an actress one should be fashionable. And to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful. And I kill with my cult. Isn't it fashionable?" Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“I was taught that to be an actress one should be fashionable. And to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful. And I kill with my cult. Isn’t it fashionable?”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky is not a movie for the squeamish, but neither is it actually an example of “shock cinema.” Much of what we think we see is never really shown. And what is shown is potent. This is a horror film, but it is less a horror film about alien invasion than it is a horror film about human nature. Before everything goes inside out and upside down, Margaret is offered the chance to be interviewed for a cool underground fashion magazine. The reporter who would appear to be totally linked in with the whole gang takes a cruel turn when she interviews the would-be model. The aggressive reporter informs Margaret that her style of dress, make-up and living are tacky. Even though she is able to put the reporter in her place, her privilege is not granted or acknowledged. Margaret dares to be different, but ultimately she only finds power in what she thinks is her ability to kill.

"You wanted to know whom and what I am? I'm a killer." Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“You wanted to know whom and what I am? I’m a killer.”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky finds a surprising, clever and fitting conclusion. But the film’s resolution is not so easy that it makes the viewer comfortable. As low-fi as it sometimes is, Liquid Sky disturbs. It also entertains, informs and inspires. Going on 35 years, it continues to enlarge its following. Over the last couple of years there have been screenings held at BAM, MOMA and other venues. Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle have always made themselves available to discuss the film, their work and their hope to find funding to restore and preserve Liquid Sky‘s original negative print.

It is decaying. Literally.

"This subculture is not like 'The Mods' or 'The Rockers.' The punks don't need help from the outside to kill themselves..." Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“This subculture is not like ‘The Mods’ or ‘The Rockers.’ The punks don’t need help from the outside to kill themselves…”
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The VHS tape still fetches a good price on the market. Several DVD’s are floating around, but the quality is not good. Unlike most film art, Liquid Sky has actually managed to become more controversial with time. It also has the rare distinction of having aged like fine wine. This movie is more interesting every time I see it.

Despite the film’s strong following and the fact that it continues to inspire new generations of audience, there have been no takers to restore, preserve and redistribute. When the 1970’s slasher film, Alice Sweet Alice, began receiving some delayed glory there was hope that it might help Liquid Sky find a new life. After all  Alice herself is one of the key stars of this movie and Paula E. Sheppard has a cult following of her own.

A strange little girl. Before she slammed with her rhythm box she was "Alice." ...And she was scarier than the mask. Paula E. Sheppard Alice Sweet Alice Alfred Sole, 1978 Cinematography | Chuck Hall

A strange little girl. Before she slammed with her rhythm box she was “Alice.” …And she was scarier than the mask.
Paula E. Sheppard
Alice Sweet Alice
Alfred Sole, 1978
Cinematography | Chuck Hall

However she has always run from attention and rumor is that she found the experience of Liquid Sky negative. And sadly, Alfred Sole’s under rated horror film is still more famous for featuring a young Brooke Shields than it is for being an interesting and unusual genre film.

Liquid Sky continues to flow... "I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong. To crash the critics saying, "is it right or is it wrong?" If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here..." Lady Gaga Applause, 2013

Liquid Sky continues to flow…
“I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong. To crash the critics saying, “is it right or is it wrong?”
If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear
Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here…”
Lady Gaga
Applause, 2013

Even still, there is always hope. Tsukerman and Carlisle have even scripted a sequel that is ready to roll. No matter what the future holds for Liquid Sky, it is a movie that deserves attention. Seek it out if you dare.

Matty Stanfield, 1.31.2016

"Killing all the teachers..." Rebellion, Fashion, A Warning, Electroclash and a bit of history all in one VHS tape... Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Killing all the teachers…”
Rebellion, Fashion, A Warning, Electroclash and a bit of history all in one VHS tape…
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from 2015 Slant Magazine piece by MARC SPITZ

“A glowing spaceship appears over the New York City skyline as dissonant New Wave music fills the multiple ears with their dangling rings. Junkies, models, poseurs and performance artists feed off each other in a battle to be the most fierce, all the while unaware that tiny aliens are harnessing their ecstasy. Most visitors to New York go to Serendipity for a frozen hot chocolate — these buggers are literally fueling their space ship with the power of the human orgasm, which turns the screen electric blue and red and green and purple.

“Liquid Sky” is set in New York City in the few years between disco and AIDS when young denizens indulged in exhibitionistic sex and hard drugs and took their fashion cues from the gleefully androgynous English New Romantic movement (big hair, frills, ruffles, theatrical make up). They danced like rusty robots in neon lit nightclubs. Within this odd demimonde Margaret (Anne Carlisle) lives and works as a successful model. She has the perfect life, with one exception: she kills everyone she has sex with, whether that sex is loving, non-consensual or even with her male doppelganger “Jimmy” (also played by Anne Carlisle, then a face at the Mudd Club, a key hangout of the period). Margaret is high maintenance (“You know this bitch takes two hours to go get ready to go anywhere,” says girlfriend Adrian, who nearly steals the film with her performance of “Me and My Rhythm Box”).

Shot in Ed Koch’s crumbling New York on a tiny budget, “Liquid Sky”’s now highly-influential look, which has informed the costumes of everyone from Karen O to Lady Gaga and Sia, came largely from Carlisle’s closet or thrift shop shopping bags. Carlisle, director Slava Tsukerman and co-producer Nina Kerova created a new kind of glamor queen who, Bowie-like, quite easily stokes the desire of the men and women — before leaving a crystal spike in the back of their brain. “I kill people that fuck me,” the character confesses. Is it worth it? Almost. Is it almost ghoulishly predictive? Absolutely. This was 1982.

“They already had AIDS, but it wasn’t that publicized,” says Tsukerman, who swears the film was conceived as science fiction. Tsukerman, who traveled from Moscow to Hollywood and then found himself in Carlisle’s fast-fashion world, where it seemed that everyone was a dancer, painter, band member, filmmaker or actor, adds, “The information about AIDS came after Liquid Sky.”

Carlisle was equally aghast when her real life friends began dying of this new sexually transmitted disease. “It was so amazing, because the film is really about dying from sex and then everyone started dropping. It was really, really eerie. That happens sometimes in creative life. You do something and it’s an accident that it actually comes true. It’s mystical.”

The two were already well established in the world of downtown film before “Liquid Sky” was co-conceived. Tsukerman had a film called “Sweeet Sixteen” which was nearly financed. “It was about a girl who was killed in a car accident in 1935 and her father, a crazy scientist, saves her head and makes a mechanical body,” he says. Andy Warhol was supposedly committed make an appearance. Carlisle had a film called “The Fish” which she was showing around the clubs. When the pair met, it was clear that Tsukerman found his muse — but he had reservations, once “Liquid Sky” began pre-production, that Carlisle, primarily a painter, model and self described “nihilist” who attended the School of Visual Arts, could handle the role of both Margaret and Jimmy, even though, as she recalls, “I had a boy’s haircut and a mini skirt. No one else was doing that.” Carlisle convinced him one day. “We were scouting locations and I dressed as a man and I picked up a girl in front of him and that was my audition,” she says. “She thought I was a boy. I admitted I was a girl and she said she was still into it.”

“Liquid Sky” has a pre-apocalyptic feel of the Cold War sci-fi with the slickness of much more expensive films like its contemporary “Blade Runner,” but the budget (about a half-million) nearly sparked a mutiny. “The crew was paid very little and they did revolt at one point over the food,” Carlisle says. “They were worked day and night. We worked terrible hours. That the film got made at all was a miracle. It was really — at one point, I was arguing with them, we’re making art here and you’re worried about food. And he said you’re making art here. We want pizza!”

Cinematic Motivation is never more clear than when a film artist decides to create a personal adaptation of another’s work. Often the source material serves as a clearly stated guidebook for the film it inspires.

"Come on! Let's go." Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

“Come on! Let’s go.”
Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography |
Bernard Zitzermann

However, when one is dealing with an articulate and strong-willed film artist, an adaptation will serve as a point from which the filmmaker can jump into aspects of the source that is either hidden with the corners of plot or that is sometimes simply not there. This is most definitely true of two films based on well-established and respected source materials.

In 1996, Claude Chabrol opted to translate a highly respected crime novel for the Big Screen. Fourteen years later a younger South Korean filmmaker, Sang-soo Im, who had studied to become a Sociologist, would decide to “remake” a classic 1960 Korean horror film.

Domestic Horror Taken to a Whole New Level. This is a key classic Korean film. A warped horror film that remains shocking 55 years later. Kim Jin-kyu / Lee Eun-shim The Housemaid / Hanyeo Kim Ki-young, 1960 Cinematography | Kim Deok-jin

Domestic Horror Taken to a Whole New Level. This is a key classic Korean film. A warped horror film that remains shocking 55 years later.
Kim Jin-kyu / Lee Eun-shim
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Kim Ki-young, 1960
Cinematography | Kim Deok-jin

Both of these filmmakers chose particularly well-known works. While it is clear that they both respected the works from which they would create two important modern films — neither had a problem with subverting core ideas to their respective cinematic intentions.

The Iconic co-founder of La Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol was not a sociologist but he was an astutely politically aware artist. Chabrol refused to label his work as “political” but it was. A self-proclaimed Communist, he did not live the life of a Communist, but he was often concerned with the plight of the struggling classes within French society. As the economic gap between the wealthy and the impoverished, one can see his societal frustration emerge in most of his films.

Friends or Conspirators? Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Friends or Conspirators?
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Chabrol was far less interested in plot as he was in the characters and their often odd choices and actions within the plot. This is not to say that plot was not important to Claude Chabrol. It was. But his plots are often pushed to the side of the screen so that the audience focuses on the ideas and the actions of the characters. Chabrol seemed to see very little use in explaining the nature of humanity. The actions and choices of his characters carry consequences and often push or pull the plots in various directions and shapes.

Sang-soo Im didn’t not pursue a life as a Sociologist, but he fully understands sociology and the rigid restrictions that exist between and among the ever-mounting class struggle of South Korea. Like Chabrol, he is normally focused on the way elitist concerns are forcing the working classes and impoverished further down the Korean societal ladder.

A the South Korean Economic Gap Between Wealth and Poverty Grows, a woman plunges to her death. The opening sequence of The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

A the South Korean Economic Gap Between Wealth and Poverty Grows, a woman plunges to her death. The opening sequence of
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

His films serve as often controversial commentary regarding his country’s leadership and the power that money play out in removing access to control personal choices and opportunities. Plot is more important to Im, but his characters’ motivations are often more required than chosen. For many of Sang-soo Im’s characters, there are no choices — only actions.

Ruth Rendell’s British crime novel, A Judgement in Stone, was published to great acclaim and success in 1977. This novel is best known for delivering the following blunt statement as it’s first sentence:

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

Wham! And Rendell’s novel begins. Chabrol loved the novel, but he was not willing to limit the main character’s motivation strictly to illiteracy. It most certainly seems to factor into her choice, but it never feels like the chief motivation. This should not surprise anyone familiar with Chabrol. Chabrol has never been interested in motivation of his characters. They are human. When it comes down to it, can we really ever fully understand why someone does something?

Pushed down by their class or pulled down by personal struggles that have been ignored? La Ceremonie Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Pushed down by their class or pulled down by personal struggles that have been ignored?
La Ceremonie
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

A character he renamed, “Sophie Bonhomme” is played expertly by Sandrine Bonnaire. Unlike Rendell’s classic novel, we do not know that Sophie is illiterate immediately. We are also not ever completely sure why she is unable to read or write. We do pick up that she comes from a lower class background and that she spent a good deal of her young life caring for her ailing father. Perhaps education was not an option. Or, maybe, Sophie simply has learning limitations with which assistance was not available. Not being able to read or write is clearly a source of great anxiety and frustration, it never feels as if it is the most challenging aspect of her situation. There seems to be something far more worrying at Sophie’s core

Reflection of doubt, self-loathing, frustration or a sociopathic rage? Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Reflection of doubt, self-loathing, frustration or a sociopathic rage?
Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

In Kim Ki-young 1960’s The Housemaid, we follow the story of a composer and his pregnant wife who decide that they need to hire a maid to assist with the running of the household. What makes this old film so potent is it’s unhinged approach to horror. The newly hired housemaid is trouble. The film is surprisingly graphic and strange for it’s era. The Housemaid systematically engulfs the entire family into a state of domestic horror. Clearly insane, this maid spys, enjoys subversive behavior and prefers to catch/kill rodents with her own hands rather than rely on poison or traps. She thinks nothing of seducing the husband. But when she becomes pregnant she panics. The composer’s wife begs her to abort the baby by self-harm. She does, but then the crazy-bat-shit really hits the fan. The housemaid becomes a full blown menace who has no problem with evil tricks, torture and murder. Even children are not spared her cruelty.

Sang-soo Im basically throws this entire plot out of the window. His 2010’s The Housemaid is not a horror film as much as it is an erotic thriller. However, “thriller” is not an altogether correct label for this “remake.” Sang-soo Im has created an entirely different film. Essentially, it only shares the same title.

Caring for their little girl and cleaning house are not the only "chores" which quickly become more and more degrading... Welcome to Sang-soo Im's "Erotic Thriller" The Housemaid / Hanyeo Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Caring for their little girl and cleaning house are not the only “chores” which quickly become more and more degrading… Welcome to Sang-soo Im’s “Erotic Thriller”
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

This is the story of the poor soul hired by a cruel wealthy family. This family uses “politeness” with their servants as a device rather than a courtesy and any level of respect is nonexistant. The hired help are far below them. They exist only to serve and have little to no human value. And, in Im’s film the housemaid, Eun-yi, is not alone. She has an additional key duty and boss. She has been hired as both an Au Pair to the young couple’s daughter and as an assistant maid. Besides the husband and pregnant wife, she also reports to Miss Cho. Do-yeon Jeon plays Eun-yi and the great Yuh-jung Youn plays Miss Cho. Both performances are effortlessly realistic. When these two women are on the screen you almost forget you’re watching a movie.

The Head Maid understands that to survive in the world of servant to a wealthy family one has to transform into a cold stone or face whatever added humiliation their masters plan to deliver. Youn Yuh-jung The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The Head Maid understands that to survive in the world of servant to a wealthy family one has to transform into a cold stone or face whatever added humiliation their masters plan to deliver.
Youn Yuh-jung
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Miss Cho knows the score, but is a strict boss. Nothing happens in this sleek minimalist home without her knowing. Constantly poking the newly hired Housemaid / Au Pair to do everything with perfection, it is hard for the audience to know if Miss Cho is friend or foe. It is not until the mid-point of the film, while she is attempting to relax in the servant’s bathtub she explains to Eun-yi why she is so hard on her:

You get up in the morning and think of what you have to endure. And, damn. It makes your gut hurt. But what can you do? Just breathe in deep and transform into a cold stone.

Daughter and Mother or Conspirators? The Mistresses of the house know no limit to their cruelty. Seo Woo / Park Ji-Young The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Daughter and Mother or Conspirators? The Mistresses of the house know no limit to their cruelty.
Seo Woo / Park Ji-Young
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

At this point we realize that Miss Cho has been trying to teach Eun-yi to be precise and hard so as not to become any more a victim of this family than she already has to be.

We already know what Sang-soo Im has in mind. He begins the film in the tourist area of Seoul where the lower classes sweat and struggle to serve and clean-up after the tourists and middle class Korean party animals. Eun-yi is one of the working slaves. She sees a young women recently tied to scandal and ruin toss herself from a building. The tourists are shocked, but this serves as more of a curiosity and nuisance to the workers. Eun-yi, however, is shaken to the core.

Cleaning to please and entice... Jeon Do-yeon The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Cleaning to please and entice…
Jeon Do-yeon
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Taking on a job as an Au Pair / Housemaid is a welcome change. She will be given her own room and will share her bathroom with only Miss Cho. At first it seems like a dream job. Her dream will quickly transform into a nightmare far harder than any cold stone.

Back in the lush but secluded mansion in Brittany, Sophie is struggling. While the family is polite and even kind, both the wife and husband seem to have an-ongoing debate whether or not they should “teach” the new maid how to do things exactly the way they like them done. The husband, Jean-Pierre Cassel, appears constantly unsatisfied about one thing or another. The wife, expertly played by Jacqueline Bissett, does not seem to disagree as much as she is hesitant to address what are most likely only minor issues that will work themselves out. Valentin Merlet plays their young teenage son who is seemingly amused by the situation. Their young adult daughter, Virginie Ledoyen, is the voice of concern for Sophie. She seems idealistic in her attitude toward the family’s “need” of a live-in maid, but there are numerous hints that this attitude is largely derived from a collegic life and is a passive-aggressive way to prod her father and step-mother.

Well-intentioned on the surface, but this wealthy family seems to struggle with their own level of self-entitlement. Their concerns and politeness seem to be more about "political correctness" than any ethical sense. Virginie Ledoyen / Valentin Merlet / Jacqueline Bisset / Jean-Pierre Cassel La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Well-intentioned on the surface, but this wealthy family seems to struggle with their own level of self-entitlement. Their concerns and politeness seem to be more about “political correctness” than any ethical sense.
Virginie Ledoyen / Valentin Merlet / Jacqueline Bisset / Jean-Pierre Cassel
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The truth is the Lelievre family appears to be fairly normal in their attitude toward their maid. There is a strong element of wealth-guilt within the wife’s interactions, the husband seems over-worked and uses humor to tinge his issues. The son and daughter are both normal children of upper-class privilege. No one in this family is cruel. And most certainly, there is no clear intent to be cruel. This, of course, is Chabrol’s clever way of making the audience squirm. It is hard not to like this family, but as the film moves forward — it becomes challenging to not be annoyed by their unintended treatment of Sophie as inferior and casual disregard for her personal time.

The wife begins to leave notes and lists of tasks she needs Sophie to perform. It is here we know that Sophie is unable to read or write. She clutches the note and runs to her small room where she keeps a child text on phonetics. She struggles to fit the letters and words to the codes in the book. Bernard Zitzermann’s cinematography gradually shifts into warped close-ups which add further distortion to the faces of the characters as they grimace, worry or think. It is an effectively disorienting effect that is not immediately noticed.

No educational assistance, illiterate, misfit or insane. Sophie's frustration is beginning to form into rage. Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

No educational assistance, illiterate, misfit or insane. Sophie’s frustration is beginning to form into rage.
Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

As Sophie becomes frustrated, the camera moves in just a bit closer. Finally as she reaches her limit of frustration she begins to find clever but increasingly challenging ways to have the notes read to her so that no one will notice she is unable to read.

Eventually she turns to the one person outside of the family who she has met, Jeanne. Enter Claude Chabrol’s longtime favorite muse, Isabelle Huppert. As with all of her roles, Huppert doesn’t merely play her character — she seems to slip into Jeanne’s skin. Jeanne initially appears to be an eccentric and harmless townie who enjoys gossip and flops about as if she were a child. Jeanne and Sophie start to bond after she assists with one of the notes. It isn’t clear if Jeanne understands that her new friend is illiterate. What is clear is that she wouldn’t care either way. She appears happy to have made a friend. She is even more excited to have made a friend that gains her access to the Lelievre family home. Jeanne appears to have more than a few problems with the Lelievre family. She holds them in disdain. From Jeanne’s perspective, this is a family of fraudulent snobs.

The Scandalous Postal Employee: Child Killer or Mentally-Challenged Misfit? Isabelle Huppert takes a puff La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The Scandalous Postal Employee: Child Killer or Mentally-Challenged Misfit?
Isabelle Huppert takes a puff
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

As a postal employee she enjoys peeping into other’s mail. A habit that rightly infuriated Mr. Lelievre. Much like we quickly come to understand about Mr. L he doesn’t care for dealing with issues in appropriate ways. He marches into the post office and accuses Jeanne. Playing innocent, Jeanne provokes his anger to higher level. She pushes every button she can find until Mr. L slaps her. Most likely a very bad choice of action. It isn’t long before The Lelievres decide to inform Sophie that they do not approve of her friendship. She is then advised that she is “free to be friends” with her (as if it is their choice) but she is “not allowed” to have Jeanne over for tea and watch TV in her private room — which seems like an antiquated sort of former servants’ room. This pronouncement seems to push Sophie to a whole new level of frustration. And yet, in a classic move by Chabrol, Sandrine Bonnaire holds back. We are never quite sure of what she thinks or feels.

A bit of fun or anarchy?Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

A bit of fun or anarchy? Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Later Zitzermann’s camera starts to move in to slowly distort Bisset’s face as she regains her composure to return to the small party the family is holding. This distortion serves as a sort of signal that Mrs. L is losing her patience with her maid.

Back in South Korea, the newly hired servant is having some issues of her own. On a short family “holiday” the family and Eun-yi Li take off for the summer cottage in the winter. While the husband, wife and daughter sit in the warm hot tub, the Au Pair/ Housemaid is left sitting just outside in the cold. When the cute little girl, Nami, decides she wants to jump into the cold pool — Eun-yi tosses off her towel and jumps into the cold pool with her. The child then returns to the warmth. Eun-yi remains wet and in the cold. Even still, she doesn’t seem to mind.

The family relaxes in the warmth while their housemaid sits patiently in the cold. Jeon Do-yeon as The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The family relaxes in the warmth while their housemaid sits patiently in the cold.
Jeon Do-yeon as
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Later than evening after a disappointing attempt at sex with his very pregnant wife, the husband decides to pay his new housemaid a visit. As she hears footsteps, Eun-yi quickly puts her sweat shirt on. Before she has a chance to gather her thoughts the husband is making his moves. He insist that she have a sip of wine. Then he quietly says, “Let me have a look.” — he pulls the cover off the housemaid and proceeds to touch her body in a sensual tease. Clearly uncomfortable and confused, it is hard to tell if Eun-yi is upset or aroused. It doesn’t really matter. It is clear the husband isn’t going to take no for an answer even if she chose to demand it.

Would you like to suck your master's wine bottle? Does she really have a choice? Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Would you like to suck your master’s wine bottle? Does she really have a choice?
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

She submits and seems to welcome his touch and sex. Sang-soo Im is not afraid of eroticism. The two actors encage in a highly erotic sex scene. Despite the eroticism, there is an ever-present uncomfortableness about the scene. This is not implied. It is there. Be it a good idea or a bad one, this servant is willing to indulge her master. As she kisses his nude body, the husband takes on the role of “Sex God.”

A Questionable Seduction as The Servant "services" The Master... Erotica pushed to the limits of an R-Rating Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

A Questionable Seduction as The Servant “services” The Master… Erotica pushed to the limits of an R-Rating
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Clearly, he is more turned on by the adoration than by the woman. He flexes his muscles, drinks his wine and proceeds to have his way with “the help.” Their affair continues. The housemaid begins to fall in love with this self-absorbed man.

Master lost in his own fantasy. Master and Servant Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-Deok

Master lost in his own fantasy. Master and Servant
Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-Deok

She also finds herself growing attached and devoted to the child, Nami.  Eun-yi reads a particularly disturbing fairy tale to Nami. Despite the gruesome story, the Au Pair expresses her feelings to the child:

“I love how you are such a good child. You’re not bad-tempered. You’re polite to me.”

Nami answers with the sort of honesty that only a child can provide, “Daddy taught me to be polite. It may seem like a sign of respect, but it’s really putting myself first.”

It is here we are once again reminded that Eun-yi’s experience of the world is limited. She does not think with duplicity, but there is a slight hesitation as she takes in the meaning of what this innocent child is telling her. Miss Cho understands this better than anyone: this family has no respect for anyone other than the people of wealth with whom they share the world’s glory.

Miss Cho continually attempts to both advise and warn Eun-yi that she is still young and desirable. She should leave this “Hell,” find a man and marry. Better to be poor with someone you love than to serve this “scary people.” In a moment of brutal honesty she informs the Au Pair/housemaid that “This job is R.U.N.S. Revolting, ugly, nauseating and shameless. I have wasted my whole life in this place.”

The servant hired to mother the wealthy child who offers politeness as a means of putting her own interests first. The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The servant hired to mother the wealthy child who offers politeness as a means of putting her own interests first.
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

Unlike Miss Cho, Eun-yi is unable to transform into a cold stone. Eventually this family pushes the young woman to the point of no return. She is meaningless to them. To the man she thought she loved, she is simply flesh with three holes for his pleasure. She is the object of bullying, intimidation and suffers a far greater indignity that seems to drain her of all hope.

“I am going to get revenge. However small, I have to do something.”

One gets the feeling that Miss Cho sees no way for this young woman to seek out vengeance on such a powerful family. This is prominent family who are firmly placed within the class structure of South Korea. And this family’s world is built on corruption and cruelty that seems to fit easily in a culture and society that is increasingly limited to the “have nots.” But Miss Cho does have some power. The young wife has had her twins. The family needs assistance like never before. Miss Cho quits and tosses part of her uniform on the metallic floor. Outraged, the husband demands, “What do you think you are doing?!?!” Miss Cho looks at him and almost trembling in rage answers, “What the hell are doing? You really like living like this?!?”

The quiet daughter, Nami, looks on with a concerned face.

The husband dismiss Miss Cho’s actions, “This is what these people are like. Just ignore her.”

The powerful feel safe in their cocoon. No one can hurt them. Most especially the common servants. He is wrong. Eun-yi gets her vengeance. It is twisted and horrifying. Sang-soo Im turns the tables on the vile family and on his audience. Nothing quite compares the viewer for what comes next.

Look what you made me do. Jeon Do-yeon The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Look what you made me do.
Jeon Do-yeon
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

Back in France, Sophie and Jeanne finally fully bond over a lunch of freshly picked wild mushrooms and stale wine. As they eat and chat, Chabrol finally allows us some insight into this marginalized women. It is almost shocking when Sophie casually informs Jeanne that she has heard something about her. Jeanne pauses and indicates that she has learned something good. With a slight smile on her face, Sophie tells her that she knows Jeanne killed her own daughter. The response is equally odd. Unbothered, Jeanne calmly states:

“It’s not true. It was her own fault. Anyway, they couldn’t prove it. Want to see a picture?”

Besties! La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Besties!
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Within a few minutes we discover that Sophie murdered her ailing father and then set fire to their home which had just been taken from them to develop luxury condos. Realizing that they are both murderers, they start to giggle like two school girls. What makes this scene so chilling is it’s simplicity. Sophie had grown weary of caring for her father and the one thing she had was taken to make way for luxury living quarters that she would never be able to afford. So she killed her father and burned their humble home to the ground. Jeanne was a single mother unable to support a child. Whether or not the murder was intended is not clear, but there is no remorse. Life is easier without another mouth to feed and the demands of motherhood.

The family dismisses Sophie. She pushes them into a corner. They have no choice. She should be fired. But the head of the house terminates her like a angry man scolding a dog. Essentially, he will allow her some shelter and food for a short while until she finds new employment. Sophie is left to stew in what is clearly a sociopathic mind. As the family gathers to watch the live televised airing of an opera, there is a brief conversation. The family is relieved that they have done the right thing by firing their maid. The problem is that they have told her she can stay on for two weeks until she finds a place to live. Mr. L is cruel in his dismissal. The cruelty is completely understandable, but he has not thought about the anger that is seething just beneath the surface of Sophie’s calm exterior. This is their home. They are safe. No one could ever hurt them. Most certainly not some illiterate common maid. Everyone calm and secure, they settle down to watch the opera.

No time to worry about the help, it's time to enjoy the televised opera. Jacqueline Bisset / Virginie Ledoyen / Jean-Pierre Cassel La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

No time to worry about the help, it’s time to enjoy the televised opera.
Jacqueline Bisset / Virginie Ledoyen / Jean-Pierre Cassel
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Sadly, the peasants are outraged and demented. Sophie has secretly let Jeanne into the Lelievre home. The two angry women joke about the vile “bastards” siting in the library with all their fancy books, antiques, television and watching some bourgeoisie opera. And then, Jeanne discovers something in a small room just off from the kitchen: The Lelievre shotgun collection.

Before long Sophie and Jeanne are playing around in the kitchen with the guns. The family hears something. The son suspects that the “weirdo from the postal office” is in the kitchen. Mr. L gets up to send them both out but for good. Only the wife is hesitant. Maybe it’s better to leave it alone. But all three disagree. Mr. L makes his way to the kitchen.

Revolt! La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Revolt!
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

 

 

 

Like The Housemaid, these two marginalized and angry women have come to a tipping point. Their “vengeance” is really more of a “judgement.” From the warped perspectives of two people who have been pushed or pulled down all of their lives, they only know a few ways to deal with their anger at a society that rejects them. Typical of the great Chabrol, the carnage that follows is delivered realistically and without any of the normal cinematic tropes the filmmakers often use when filming this sort of horror. Zitzermann’s camera follows. There are no editing tricks. There is no foreboding musical score. Even though we know what is coming, nothing quite prepares us for it.

As these two masterful, entertaining and disturbing films come to their close the viewer is left with several realizations. Perhaps the most important is the reminder that revolt or revolution is never an actual solution, but when one or two take place the impact is devastating and cruel. Neither Chabrol or Im are particularly clear at the close of their films.

In Chabrol’s universe, Sophie and Jeanne have committed horrible acts.

The Servants' Revolt Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The Servants’ Revolt
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography |
Bernard Zitzermann

However, one cannot help but wonder if this all could have been avoided. Why didn’t this community do more to assist this once desperate and struggling mother? Why hasn’t her minister and church attempted to offer her guidance? Instead a judge simply dismisses her and her action. Her church and minister find her crude and childish. They no longer want her help in their charity work or even want her at their church. Sophie is clearly struggling with the solitary life in Brittany, yet the family continually alternates between “hot” and “cold” in their interactions with the maid. They do offer assistance, but it all seems to come with pressure and sideways logic. This is a good family, but they prefer to stay within the confines of this cocoon reserved for the wealthy. They fully realize that they are lucky, but they never think beyond that point. It is as if they have developed a false sense of safety.

In Sang-soo Im’s universe the societal structure of South Korea has become so fractured between the wealthy and impoverished that there is almost a complete disconnect. As he brings this class struggle down to a contained plot of a newly hired maid, we see the plight of the workers being exploited by those to whom they serve. This family is evil. Only their young daughter seems to offer any hope for their redemption. Nami seems to see her world realistically. Her Au Pair has also given her a traumatic experience that will no doubt take form in some way. Which way is not entirely clear.

Unlike Chabrol, Im prefers to leave his audience with a strange and disturbing bit of Surrealism. The family is gathered outside of the mansion in the cold. It is Nami’s birthday. As her drunken parents wish her a happy day and tell her that the world is hers, Nami simply watches them and then walks slowly toward us in an ever increasing sort of fishbowl lens. The Housemaid had told her she was sorry and that she should never forget her. While it is unclear about the future of the world in the hands of Nami, one thing is certain. Nami will not forget The Housemaid. Neither will we.

 

The future is hers. How will she form or play within it? The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The future is hers. How will she form or play within it?
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

 I last I hope we don’t. As the economic gap shows no sign of diminishing, it is important we take the time to re-evaluate the way we interact with others. And as racism has not been this ugly in decades, we better take a long hard look at how we allow our politicians to move forward. We are living in extreme times. It is time to “re-think” motivations, intentions and the way we respond.

Matty Stanfield, 9.1.2015