The Genre-Busting Pleasures of MAGIC MIKE XXL

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Somehow I wasn’t in line on the first day for Magic Mike XXL; even though I thoroughly enjoyed the first one, and heard nothing but raves about the film, it took me a month to see it. But I’m extraordinarily glad I finally did – I haven’t had that good of a time at the movies, well, maybe ever. So while most everything about the film has already been said – though I’d quickly like to give a shoutout to the fact that this movie sees female pleasure of all kinds as a transformative force – a few less obvious, though no less revolutionary, things have stuck with me.

  1. Metatextuality: This being the sequel to a Soderbergh film, the clever intertextuality of MMXXL isn’t actually that surprising. It’s remarkable for how effective it is, though: Gabriel Iglesias’ classic McConaughey impression when discussing how Dallas has gone to Macau; Andie McDowell, who may as well be reprising her character from Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, warning us of the sexual desert of middle age; Channing Tatum’s literally tongue-in-cheek performance of “Pony” in his workshop; and, my favorite, Joe Manganiello’s horror and disgust at the troupe of male entertainers performing a Twilight routine. All these moments work together to build a film that never takes itself too seriously, and is, like its male entertainers, focused on the audience’s pleasure.
  2. Respect: Speaking of pleasure, the male entertainers all respect the need for pleasure, and joy, and hold it above anything else. They respect women; I can’t think of a single misogynistic comment throughout the entire film, which must be some kind of record. And while the film is incredibly heteronormative, there’s no homophobia, either; the guys get up on stage and do legit voguing at a drag show, with none of the “no homo” attitude we’ve come to expect from modern masculinity. And when Zoe (Amber Heard Depp) describes herself to Mike as going through a lesbian phase, he doesn’t mock her, or make any suggestive comments about how he can fix that. He just accepts it.
  3. That ending: I can’t express how glad I am that the stripped convention wasn’t a competition where they had to beat some young upstart group of male entertainers – instead, the only people they were competing with were themselves. This means that there can be a really satisfying ending without some totally manufactured conflict with an ending we see coming. Instead, the guys are able to perform to the best of their abilities, and “win” by doing their best, as cheesy as it sounds. And speaking of cheesy, the end, with a montage of July 4 good times set to “All I Do Is Win,” should be an eye-rolling affair. Instead, it’s a celebration of friendship and hard work! Plus Zoe and Mike don’t fall in love – she’s even seen throwing her arms around a group of women. How’s that for a nice ending? As the friend I went to the movie with said, “This is what Entourage should be.”

Dana’s Weekly Roundup

It’s a frustrating thing to have so many ideas about things to write on (seriously, I have a very full Google Doc with things I hope to get to one day…) but not have the inspiration, or the energy to do it. To throw myself back into writing about film, here’s the first Dana’s Weekly Roundup, a quick digest of all the films I’ve watched in the past seven days!

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To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942): It doesn’t seem possible, or at least wise, to ever make a romantic comedy-backstage drama-espionage thriller set in occupied Poland, not to mention making it in 1942. Leave it to Lubitsch to do it, and to make it a true masterpiece. Carole Lombard and Jack Benny star as Maria and Joseph Tura, the most famous actors in Poland, whose company is putting on a performance of Hamlet while the Nazi occupation begins. Ms. Tura becomes involved in the Polish resistance, roping in Mr. Tura through his own stubbornness, and a plot to bring down the Nazis in Poland comes down to the downtrodden troupe of actors. Of course, this being a Lubitsch film, there’s a frankly portrayed love triangle, as Maria is also in love with Polish airman Robert Stack. There are so many disparate parts to the film – the love triangle, the crosses and double-crosses of espionage, the broadly funny set pieces for Benny – that it would easily seem disjointed, but it’s Lubitsch’s expert eye, as well as the cast’s impeccable timing, that make the film a true masterwork. It’s hilarious, and touching, often at once, as well as bold and daring, especially considering its date. Very highly recommended!

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The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931) I could honestly just watch Lubitsch films all the time, so we followed up To Be and Not to Be with The Smiling Lieutenant – love triangles aside, they could not be more different films. The Smiling Lieutenant stars frequent Lubitsch collaborator Maurice Chevalier as the titular army man, who is in love with Claudette Colbert, the leader of a beerhall touring-all-women’s orchestra (!!!). Chevalier pitches woo left and right, and soon he misdirects his ardor to the Princess of Flausenhaum, a neurotic, repressed, delightful Miriam Hopkins.

This is pre-code Lubitsch in all his glory – the innuendos zing by at lightning speed, and there’s a complicated love triangle that ends with the two rivals becoming friends (of a sort) – Colbert sings a song called “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” to Hopkins to help her win over Chevalier once and for all. This is the thing I loved most about the film – the two women aren’t angry at each other over the lieutenant; instead, they’re both sad about the circumstances, but Colbert understands the die is cast against her and decides to non-bitterly help her “rival” instead. That’s so much more progressive than most romantic comedies that have come since.

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Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982) I’ve been interested to see Losing Ground since it was presented at Lincoln Center earlier this year – the rediscovery of the first film directed by a black American woman is something to celebrate! While I didn’t make it to the run at Lincoln Center, I’m glad I got the opportunity to check it out during BAM’s (excellent) Indie 80s series. Seret Scott is magnetizing as Sara, a philosophy professor researching religious ecstasy over the summer break, when she rents a house in upstate NY with her artist husband Victor (director Bill Gunn of Ganja & Hess fame). On the brink of his first real success as an artist, Victor declares he’s over abstraction and is ready to embrace nature, and beauty, particularly in the form of Celia, a resident of the small town they inhabit that summer. Through her marital crisis, Sara gets a lead role in a senior thesis film, where she lets her hair down (literally) and dances with an older, becaped gentleman.

The first half of the film is a little clunky – most of the dialogue is expository and didn’t seem right coming out of any of the characters’ mouths. As the film went on, however, the colors became more brilliant, the motion more fluid, and the emotions more believable. A scene by the pool at the very end of the film, and especially Sara’s long-gestating venting of her feelings towards her husband, almost made me want to stand up and applaud (and I generally hate things like that in the theater). While the 80s score really hobbles the emotion of the film, the acting and beautiful direction overcomes it by the end, and it’s a real lost gem of American cinema.

Orson Welles at 100

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Orson Welles has taught me a lot of things. He taught me that weirdo ambition from southern Wisconsin can take you pretty far. He taught me that you can work against the grain, and maybe people will come around to your side in the end. He taught me that you can be a serious artist and a bitchy gossip at the same time. He taught me about magic, and about storytelling, about lies and about truth and about secrets. He taught me about low-angle shots and deep-focus cinematography, and how you can hide almost anything behind beautiful images. He taught me about the importance of understanding your own talents. He’s the best film talent America has yet to produce, and his influence lingers in the air everywhere. Welles is the first place cinephiles should start, and he’s also the artist that I revisit time, and time, and time (and time) again, and always find something new, always find something that makes me rethink my opinion from the last rewatch. Thanks, Mr. Welles.

THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN, AND AGAIN, AND AGAIN: A Supplementary Giallo Guide

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Anthology Film Archives presented the second part of their excellent, all-35mm giallo series, naturally titled The Killer Must Kill Again!, a few weeks ago, and as with the first part (Giallo Fever from September 2012), it was an really wonderful, well-curated segment of everyone’s favorite sleazy genre. Getting to see such favorites as TenebreAll the Colors of the Dark, and Phenomena on 35mm is one of those things that makes me glad we live in NYC.

(Side note: If I had one complaint, it’s that the source 35mm print for All the Colors of the Dark was the US cut, titled They’re Coming to Get You – a not-untrue but less expressionistic choice – which trimmed down the freaky psychedelic pregnant nightmares, and lead to some choppy scene transitions. Still, I’ll take it.)

Assuming that there will be a third part to the series – and I can’t see why there wouldn’t be, as all the screenings we attended were near-capacity – I humbly present ten titles that would do this series proud. Since most of the major gialli have already been screened in this series, consider this a supplemental giallo guide, a map through the genre’s sometimes-murky, often sleazy territory.

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Deadly Sweet (Tinto Brass, 1968)

A pop-art, proto-giallo from Tinto Brass (yes, that Tinto Brass*, although there aren’t any butts on display here that I can recall), also known as I Am What I AmDeadly Sweet is the story of Jane (Ewa Aulin, fresh off of Candy), who is found by Bernard (perennial favorite Jean-Louis Trintignant) in a nightclub next to a dead body; she assures him that she didn’t actually kill the person, so the two team up to find out who really did. Plot is secondary to the film’s visual style: mod, ultra-colorful swinging London, characters who break the fourth wall, and even an obvious, loving Antonioni homage that might surprise people who only know Brass as a skin filmmaker. I’ve never seen this film programmed on the big screen, and that needs to change, stat.

*Please note that if any theater in NYC is interested in doing a Tinto Brass retrospective, I will program that with pride. The Borowczyk retro at Lincoln Center was such a smash hit that maybe people are finally into revisiting Euro-smut on the big screen!

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The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Luciano Ercoli, 1970)

One for the giallo names record books, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion stars Dagmar Lassander as a frustrated housewife who is one day warned by a stranger that her husband is a killer. This leads her down a rabbit hole into pornographic photos, blackmail, and even murder. What’s most interesting about the film is – as with many gialli – a portrait of an unsatisfied wealthy wife, looking for love and finding trouble, coupled with sexual experimentation. Much like All the Colors of the Dark, the sanity of the beautiful protagonist is in question and being tried throughout the film – “Is she actually crazy?” should probably be the tagline for most gialli.

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The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (Sergio Martino, 1971)

Sergio Martino is one of the masters of giallo – All the Colors of the DarkThe Strange Vice of Mrs. WardhTorso, and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key were all directed by Martino between 1970-1973, and are all classics of the genre. Any giallo series would be incomplete without a Martino film, and I think The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail is one to be rediscovered. Anita Strindberg and George Hilton star as a pair investigating the murder of a recent widow who was about to inherit a large fortune from her deceased husband. Could it be the husband’s lover (Janine Reynaud, as wonderful here as she is in many Jess Franco films)? Or someone else entirely? The quintessential giallo, in many ways: the black-gloved killer lurking in the shadows, beautiful women, a Bruno Nicolai score, George Hilton, and an appearance by J&B.

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The Case of the Bloody Iris (Giuliano Carnimeo, 1972)

Nothing should make the relationship between giallo and paperback pulp mystery novels more clear than the titles of the last two films. The Case of… films might be routinely named (in English, at least – this film’s title literally translates to What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body which is a bonkers, perfect title), but The Case of the Bloody Iris is another standout film from the golden age of giallo. Genre queen Edwige Fenech stars, again with George Hilton, as a British model who moves into the flat of two recently murdered young women, and finds herself stalked by the same killer. Another giallo in which the victims are being punished because of their sexuality, which would make an interesting series in and of itself- however, the film is pretty relaxed in its own treatment of sexuality. Edwidge’s husband brings her to his secret sex cult, but it has no bearing on the murder itself – just a nice little treat for wiggy sex scene fans.

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Love and Death in the Garden of the Gods (Sauro Scavolini, 1972)

In reviewing the list I came up with for this post, I realized that most of the gialli that I really love are anchored by a strong female lead: Ewa Aulin, Anita Strindberg, Dagmar Lassander, and (of course) queen Edwige. Love and Death is no exception – Erika Blanc, an actress I would haved like to see in lots more films, gives the performance of her career in this film, a surreal, dream-like murder mystery that is on the outskirts of giallo classification. Sauro Scavolini (whose brother Romano would also fit in this program nicely with Spirits of Death) directs this beautiful, creepy story of a ornithology professor who moves into a house in order to study the local birds. He finds the recorded confession of a killer with a very twisty-turny back story. I love a good frame narrative, and the professor listens to the tape unraveling the story of Azzura (Blanc), her husband, her brother, and her psychiatrist, it’s hard to imagine where the film will go next. There is a spooky, hauntingly beautiful dream sequence that rivals the one in All the Colors of the Dark for fantastic beauty in a giallo, and the ending is supremely satisfying. This would be a perfect film for a giallo series – absolutely gorgeous on the big screen, and a really underrated, under-seen title.

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The Killer Must Kill Again (Luigi Cozzi, 1975)

Foreshadowing the more bloody, graphically violent gialli of the 1980s, The Killer Must Kill Again is part straight-up horror movie, part giallo, and part rape-revenge thriller. Although Anthology’s series was titled after the film, it hasn’t actually played in either series, and is a film with interesting twists on the typical giallo themes. We know from the outset of the film who the killer is; Antoine Saint-John is a gaunt, shaved-head creep who really embodies the giallo killer aesthetic. It’s a bit grimier and sleazier than the rest of the films on the list, and the story doesn’t have as many plot twists as a giallo usually does, but it’s a perfect bridge between the “traditional” and later gialli.

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The House with the Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati, 1976)

The House with the Laughing Windows is probably the most high-concept film on the list, and an interesting case study in how giallo evolved after the golden age of 1970-5. Lino Capolicchio stars as an art restorer who travels to a small Italian village to restore a fresco of St. Sebastian. The original artist of the fresco, it turns out, often tortured and killed people in order to inspire his art, so the restoration takes on an eerie vibe – the villagers are (understandably) against it, and the killing starts anew. The imagery in this film is what takes this film over the top – the snails, the shadows, and the actual house with the laughing windows are all things that stick in my brain when I think about the film. Without a big name star, and with a more esoteric plot than most gialli, this is an outlier on the list.

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The Stendhal Syndrome (Dario Argento, 1996)

Perhaps not actually a giallo, but no giallo program would be complete without a film from the master, and I wanted to highlight Argento’s late-period work with the last film of his I can say I really like, The Stendhal Syndrome. Argento cast his daughter Asia, in my favorite collaboration between the two, as a detective in Florence on the trail of a serial killer. She is afflicted by the Stendhal syndrome, a physiological response to great works of art which cause vertigo and an almost hypnotic state. The killer takes advantage of her state, but the story doesn’t end there, and to give away much more of the plot would be to ruin the fun. Asia is killer in the role – hard and soft, beautiful, monstrous, vulnerable and tough all at once. Not really a giallo, but enough murders and high-concept plot twists to keep everyone entertained.

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Amer (Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani, 2009)

There are a string of neo-giallo films that could ostensibly be featured in the series: Eyes of CrystalBlackaria, Argento’s own late-period Giallo. But while those films generally feel like a simple homage to the genre, Amer is a film that stands tall on its own merits. Clearly inspired by such films as Suspiria – the red and the green lighting! – Amer is an exploration of one woman’s sexuality through three scenes from her life. We see the woman as a young girl, discovering her mother in the throes of pleasure in a creepy, possibly haunted house; an adolecent, when she starts to realize her own erotic power, particularly compared to her aging mother; and as a woman, alone in an abandoned manor. Amer is like a more sophisticated version of a golden age giallo: filtered through postmodern feminist thought, and infused with three decades of horror imagery to gain inspiration from. It’s clearly one of my favorite films.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

With my 2014 Top 10(ish) list basically set in stone, I was pleased to finally be able to see Clouds of Sils Maria, hoping it would be the film to make me rethink my list. Unfortunately, it’s not the bracket-buster I was hoping it would be; it’s full of good ideas, but none of which are pushed far enough to actually break waves on the movie’s smooth, beautiful surface.

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Juliette Binoche is Maria, an aging actress who is on her way to Switzerland with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to publicly present an award to her notoriously reclusive mentor Wilhelm. While on the journey, Maria and Valentine are hit with the news that Wilhelm has died, turning the celebration into an impromptu wake. While Maria is resistant to the idea, and wants to return home immediately, Valentine convinces her to stay and pay tribute to Wilhelm. While at the accompanying dinner, Maria is introduced to a director, Klaus, who wants to remake Majola Snake, the film that made Maria famous twenty-odd years ago; only this time, Maria would be playing the older, broken woman, while It starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) will be playing the role that originally made Maria famous.

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Much of the film takes place at Wilhelm’s estate in Sils Maria, where Maria and Valentine retreat so Maria can learn her lines, and prepare her psyche, for the stage version of Majola Snake. The scenery is breath-takingly gorgeous; the isolated nature of the place plays into the seemingly isolated lives of both Maria and Valentine. While the play Majola Snake is about a conniving young woman and the pathetic older woman who is in love with her, Maria and Valentine’s relationship doesn’t play as an analogue to that – I’m not sure if that was supposed to be the idea, but Valentine never seems much more than an impressively loyal employee to me. She’s not devoted to Maria – she disagrees with her often (which contributes to the film’s climax) and goes off to party with friends she meets along the way. In the same vein, Maria needs Valentine, and tells her as much, but never takes an unseemly interest in her. They both have secrets that they will not reveal to each other. Both women are an island, which takes away the kind of Persona/3 Women-esque psychological codependency this movie honestly could have used.

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The ending (spoilers in this paragraph) is unsatisfying, to say the least; Valentine abandons Maria as they are finally about to see the mythical snake of mist, and then she is never mentioned again. I’m not necessarily a person who needs closure in every film I see, but the final third of the film doesn’t feature, or even mention, Valentine once. Valentine’s presence can be felt in Maria’s decision to go ahead with Majola Snake, and in Maria’s refusal to run lines or discuss the play with her new assistant, but there’s a sense of loss that isn’t even acknowledged. But perhaps, it’s as Moretz’s Jo-Ann tells Maria: once the audience knows something is over, they want to move on. No point in dwelling on the past.

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The meta-texual elements of the film are the most interesting to me. I don’t see Binoche in English-speaking films very often, so her accented English and short hair reminded me very much of Asia Argento (who I recently gushed about here), with a softer edge. And it must really have been strange for Kristen Stewart to do this movie, when Jo-Ann Ellis is a weird mashup of Stewart’s public persona/career choices, with a bit of Lindsay Lohan thrown in for good measure. Moretz gives my favorite performance of the film; she’s very young, insecure, in love, sure of herself, blase, scared, and very used to fame, all at once. It’s a difficult balance to get right, and I think she nailed it. Binoche and Stewart are also solid in the film, but their characters have so little depth, ironically enough, that it’s hard to engage with them on a deeper level. I found it very unbelievable that a lauded, experienced actress like Maria would find it so hard to dig into Majola Snake and find the relatable pieces of Helena, even if she is still connected to Sigrid. She’s not a woman who seems stunted in any other way, so why this stubborn resistance of the character of Helena?

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The film is unequivocally beautiful, using Sils Maria as a perfect backdrop for the characters’ personal dramas. And I absolutely love seeing a mature film about strong women with great performances – it’s one of my favorite things! I do recommend the movie, but I was really hoping it would knock me out of the park.

 

Vibrations (Joe Sarno, 1968)

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Vibrations is, to put it mildly, a weird trip. Made in the middle of Joe Sarno’s incredibly prolific 1960s output, the film is the story of two sisters, reunited after years, both of whom have acute personal and sexual issues, likely due to a highly dysfunctional childhood. While this may seem like the subject matter for a recent Sundance drama, in Sarno’s hands, it’s mostly sex scenes, interspersed with scenes of actresses walking around. This isn’t a bad thing! If you’re a Sarno fan, it’s what you’ve come to expect. This film stands out from others of this era (like the earlier Flesh and Lace, which I was recently not impressed with) because of its deeply weird subject matter, and its even weirder take on the subject matter.

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Julie and Barbara are sisters who, apparently after some trouble when they lived together on Prince Street, haven’t seen each other in a while when Barbara shows up at Julie’s apartment door. Julie lets her stay, because they’re sisters, but they have a troubled past. Barbara constantly comes on to Julie, getting into bed with her naked “like [they] used to” when they were girls. Julie is, understandably, troubled by this behavior, but it seems like their past has affected her in a different way. While Barbara is compulsively sexual, Julie is introverted and sexually frustrated. She works as a typist and aspiring poet, and it seems like her closest friend is a new male acquaintance who brings in his first short story for her to type.
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Not finding any “action” at Julie’s house, Barbara starts to go stir-crazy until one night, she hears action through the paper-thin walls. Lots and lots of action. As Barbara, Marianne Prevost gives an astonishing performance – though Sarno may have been going for sexy with Barbara, Prevost’s performance is troubling. When she hears an orgy through the wall, Barbara masturbates with a compulsive ferocity that is difficult to watch. Barbara doesn’t love having sex, or having orgasms; she needs to. While (unsurprisingly for the film) this isn’t tied to the childhood incest she committed with Julie, it’s likely not unrelated.

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Barbara’s visit is in the “visitor that changes everything” mode of Teorema or this year’s The Guest. Once she hears, and sees, Barbara frequenting the house of sin next door – a rich girl’s storehouse! – Julie eventually opens up and attends an orgy with Barbara. Julie has sex with Park (credited on IMDb as “Park – the hairy man,” with good reason) while Barbara is tied to a post and two women use the titular vibrator on her, and while they don’t have sexual contact here, their eye contact is constant, and disturbing. Eventually, Barbara forces herself on Julie, and makes Julie tell her “it’s good” as she performs oral sex on her, in the most upsetting scene in the movie. Interestingly, it’s hard to tell if this is supposed to be titillating or a painful coda on Barbara and Julie’s relationship. It’s likely both.

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Vibrations is shot in Sarno’s trademark of the time, rich black and white with deep shadows and light. The beautiful, intense chiaroscuro of Sarno’s 60s films really make me believe that if they were rescored (the film’s score consists of organ noodling) and re-released, they would be seen as sex-art classics. Instead, they’re relegated to Something Weird releases, waiting to be dug up and watched for any number of reasons, prurient or not. The excellent documentary The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Pictures did a great job of portraying Joe Sarno’s quest to make erotic art, and that’s what Vibrations is: disturbing, erotic art. The film ends with Barbara tied to a post, crucifixion-style, with two women using a vibrator on her, and goading her about how much she can take. It’s a weird, powerful ending for this weird little film.

Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)

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What a better film to mount a comeback to than one of the bleakest, coldest films I’ve seen in a long time! I generally love Claire Denis’ films – Trouble Every Day is in my top films of all time, so I thought I was ready for some delightful Denis brutalism. I wasn’t exactly prepared, it turns out.

 

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(From here on out, be prepared for spoilers)

Vincent Lindon stars as a Marco, man whose brother-in-law, as close to him as a blood brother, commits suicide, and he takes leave from his solitary life as a ship captain in the Navy to help his sister. Not only is his brother-in-law dead, but his niece, his sister’s daughter, has been found wandering naked in the streets of Paris with her wrists slit. Marco theoretically comes to put the pieces back together, but he soon finds himself embroiled, with his emotionally unstable sister (Julie Bataille) in a plot for revenge against Edouard Laporte, the man both see as responsible, through his business dealings, for their loved one’s death. Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) becomes an unwitting player in the revenge plot as Edouard’s trophy wife, who Marco quickly seduced once he moves into their building. From there, no one, including Edouard and Raphaelle’s son, is left untouched.

While this might seem like an awful lot of plot, it’s revealed slow as molasses. The film begins with intercutting scenes of the suicide crime scene, juxtaposed with Justine’s naked walk down the street. I appreciate this style of story-telling; in fact, when some major plot points come together in the final 15 minutes of the movie, it’s like watching a beautiful, terrible puzzle being finished (although I’d expect nothing less from Denis).

 

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Now, on to those twists. The film surprises twofold in the last few minutes: first, when given the choice between killing her lover Marco and killing her husband, who has taken away her child, Raphaelle chooses to kill Marco, in what was honestly a very surprising turn of events. The willingness (or unwillingness) of a mother to protect her child is a main theme here, and it turns out that Raphaelle was willing to kill a man who may have truly cared for her in order to maintain her status quo life with her son. If Raphaelle had shot her husband, it would have been a totally expected change of heart, but also incredibly satisfying for the audience. Denis denies us both the pleasure of righteousness and that of predictability, and it’s really masterful.

On the other hand, there’s the second twist, which caused a minor uproar at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. (I remember hearing that there is some rough stuff that happens in the film, but thankfully didn’t remember the details.) It turns out Justine was being pimped out by her father to Edouard! Probably for some buisness favors! And not only that, but Justine was also raped by her father on camera with a decorative corn cob! This, I did not care for. I’m actually surprised that Denis, a strong feminist filmmaker, went this route. It seems like a cheap shock; perhaps Denis is making an ill-advised statement that we’re all violated by capitalism and patriarchy? But I really didn’t need to see that point made visual with corn, especially after a doctor describes the brutalized state of Justine’s vagina in an earlier scene. There was nothing in the film that seemed to suggest that Justine’s parents – particularly her mother, who seems to have known about the entire thing – would do this to her; but then again, desperate times call for desperate measures. The most desperate measures, apparently. (NB: A friend informed me that Denis remarked that the end of this film is a response to William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, a book I have not read – but was also the premise for The Story of Temple Drake. I sense a revisitation to these themes soon!)

That’s one of the things that bothered me most about the film – the judgements come down very hard on the mother characters. Justine’s mother at least helps to pimps her daughter out to ensure her family’s business stays afloat, but it literally costs her everything. Raphaelle is shown to be a bourgeoisie housewife who would rather keep her family intact than face what her husband has done. No one in the film comes out smelling like roses, to be certain, but it’s the mothers who have to live with the consequences, while everyone else is dead or gets away with it. But maybe that’s exactly the point – capitalism has changed our ideas of the family (and of right and wrong) that these captains of industry no longer feel responsible for the effects that their actions have on the family unit.

 

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I was much colder on this film before I had a pleasant conversation on Twitter with some cinephile pals. Perhaps instead of a character study, it’s more useful to view the film as a dissection of the film noir, a genre associated with the tough man (Marco) and the femme fatale (Raphaelle? Justine? Both?). This is what choices made in film noir would look like in our times. While the irony didn’t always work for me – Marco is a near-saint, risking everything for a revenge plot that comes to absolutely nothing, in order to avenge a truly terrible man – I appreciate the sentiment, and the craft. Bastards is a searing indictment of capitalism and patriarchy, to be sure, but it never involved me on an emotional level, past gut-level shock. Perhaps that’s the point.

The Loreley’s Grasp

Ready for awesomeness? Las garras de Lorelei, better known over here as The Loreley’s Grasp or otherwise When The Screaming Stops, has pretty much everything: a girl’s school, a goofy swarthy and yet completely ineffectual hunter, a swamp creature that rips out human hearts in a very HG Lewis manner, angry mobs with torches, underwater cave castles, mad science — the only thing it doesn’t have is Paul Naschy! Our director Amando de Ossorio had finished his run of Blind Dead films just before The Loreley’s Grasp, and that same aesthetic is well in place here: gorgeous locations (the marshland swamp is particularly nice) and plenty of technicolor Gothic touches plus some really well-considered camerawork help keep a solid balance between slower atmospheric dread and the suprisingly fast-paced and gory murders. Tony Kendall plays Sigurd (those of you who know your Norse mythology will have a leg up here) and skips no opportunity to smirk, take off his shirt and show off his tightly-panted package while flirting with the jailbait students and patroling the six by six square feet of garden. While swimming in the swamp he first spies Helga Line’, whom you may know from any of a series of sword and sandal films or (more likely) roles in Horror Express, Horror Rises From The Tomb, and The Countess in The Vampires’ Night Orgy.
A small (Italian? Spanish? French? Does it matter?) town finds itself under siege by nighttime attacks where the victims’ hearts are torn out. The local girls’ school (with its 20-something students, but again, does it matter?) requests that Sigurd keep watch over them at night, which he does with the aforementioned smirking and flaunting of his package. Sigurd sees Lorelei in the marshes, and chases her, and when he finds her, she gives him a lot of evasive answers about who she is that should tip Sigurd off to the fact that she is the Lorelei of legend, who the townspeople are terrified of; the legend of Lorelei says that she eats peoples’ hearts every hundred years so as to be able to live. Sigurd totally ignores all the signs, and falls hard for Lorelei. At the same time, the stony headmistress is falling for Sigurd! What will happen!
There are some really nice de Ossorio touches in the film – particularly, a scientist who is testing a moonlight machine and a radioactive knife to use against Lorelei (and the subsequent trashing of his his laboratory is awesome, too), and Lorelei’s underwater castle, complete with skull-adorned bikini servants. He’s a director that makes the best of Technicolor, so Bava fans should find a lot to like, particularly when balanced with some of the more Gothic touches. Pedants might find the actual Loreley costume unconvincing, but that sort of thing doesn’t bug me, and the attacks go so fast you don’t have a lot of time to worry about that.
Fun fact: when the film was released in the United States as When the Screaming Stops, complimentary barf bags were given out at the theaters! I wouldn’t be surprised to see if David Friedman or Roger Corman had distributed the film, it’s such a great move. And so misrepresetative! The poster makes it seem like an early 80s slasher film, and while it’s not gonna satisfy the gorehounds there are definitely some bloody moments which remind me very much of the chest-molds-and-pig-hearts business in video nasty Madri Gras Massacre. There’s even a nice Blind Dead nod at the end! All things considered, it’s hard to think of a genre fan who wouldn’t like The Loreley’s Grasp; we both loved it, for sure.

BEST HORROR FILMS EVER

Sort of. Time Out London recently polled filmmakers, critics, actors, and people who just plain love horror (professionally) to come up with a list of the 100 Best Horror Films. It’s not a bad list, to be sure: there are the usual suspects on there, but a lot of weird, unexpected things came up, too. So we wanted to make lists of our own!

 

Dana

I love making lists, so I didn’t foresee how hard this would be. My only real rule was only one film per filmmaker. This is both a list of my favorite horror films, and what I think are the best horror films ever, so it’s a little lopsided, maybe. I can’t really decide on a number order, so here, in alphabetical order, it is:

The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

Female Vampire (Jess Franco, 1973)

Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

The Living Dead Girl (Jean Rollin, 1982)

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)

Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)

Some of these might be controversial (to nerds): Isn’t Female Vampire more pornography than horror? (Maybe, but with Lina Romay’s performance and some of Jess’ best direction, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong here.) Is Tenebre really Argento’s best? (I strongly say yes.) Isn’t Psycho sort of obvious? (Sure, but when I finally saw it a few years ago, it actually scared me, having lost none of its charm or its effectiveness over 50 years and knowing the ending.) Goddamn, wasn’t the period from 1978-1982 amazing for horror films? (You’re telling me.) But I’m happy with this list. Close calls: Deep Red (I almost, almost disregarded my one-film-per-director rule for that one), Peeping Tom, Possession, The Ordeal (Calvaire), The Descent.

 

Darren

I hate making lists. I’m gonna be awake all night tonight thinking of replacements and alterations.

The Night Of The Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960)

Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971)

Vampyros Lesbos (Jesus Franco, 1971)

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)

Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)

Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990)

I could easily add The Hitcher, Last House on Dead End Street, Messiah of Evil, Halloween, The Evil Dead, Haxan, The Reincarnation of Isobel, Begotten, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the list goes on and on.  This is in no way whatsoever a ten “best” list or even necessarily a ten “favorite” list, it’s ten films that over the years I’ve viewed a lot, thought about a lot, stole ideas from a lot, had my aesthetic shaped by a lot. I might do a couple more lists of ten with tighter themes to make myself feel better. I barely consider The Night of the Hunter to be a horror film in the strict sense, but for my money it’s one of  the most dreamlike films (by which I mean it obeys a kind of occult logic all its own) I’ve ever seen, and for me the thing I love the most about horror is falling into another world, of entering a film and living inside it, so I couldn’t not include it.

Celebrating Lina Romay: Exorcism & Lorna, the Exorcist

We’re kicking off a very extended look at the work of Jess Franco and the late, great Lina Romay with two ’70s era films: Exorcism and Lorna, The Exorcist. Do not let the questionable English titles fool you: there’s no exorcism in Lorna and the exorcism in Exorcism is mostly Jess stabbing naked women with a switchblade while ranting about saving their souls.

Exorcism and Lorna, the Exorcist are both sterling examples of what a Jess Franco Picture is: both star the late, great Lina Romay, both have explicit sex scenes, and both deal with the confusing, perverse magic of female sexuality. Not only that, it seems like they both benefit from the Jess Franco Method of making films: finding locations that work, actors that work, and building a film around them. Both of these films, as well as Celestine Maid At Your Service and Brutal Nights of Linda, were shot using the same basic crew (though Exorcism didn’t see release until ’79, apparently) — some people don’t care for this approach but I applaud Jess’s work ethic. More is better than less!

One of the most interesting parts about Exorcism (L’éventreur de Notre-Dame) for me was the utterly Franco-ian fixation on public sex, particularly S&M shows. There are numerous examples of dark, sexy stage shows in Franco films (Succubus and Vampyros Lesbos, off the top of my head), and an S&M black mass is at the center of Exorcism’s plot. To Franco (and to Lina) in the 70s, sex was performative – Exorcism’s show takes the form of a Satanic rite, complete with chalices, bondage gear, and incantations. The audience watches the women perform bondage as we watch the audience watching them; it’s meta-performance, and the levels upon which Franco presents performance and spectatorship are fascinating to take apart. And Lina was always his partner in this performance; she was ready for anything Jess would throw at her, and Exorcism is a prime example of their equal partnership, in which one would push the other to do great things.

Jess playing a defrocked priest who attempts to save the souls of the damned through exorcism ending in murder is pretty much right in line with his general interests, particularly considering said priest makes a living writing second rate Sadean stories for (if we remember right) Knives And Garters Quarterly. While submitting his latest masterpiece, he overhears talk of a black mass (basically one of Jess’s patented nudes-and-fake-blood nightclub shows) and decides to make things right…PERMANENTLY! It’s not one of his most intricate plots, but things move along at a brisk pace and you get plenty of what you signed up for.

The character Lina plays in Lorna, the Exorcist (Les possédées du diable) is a far cry from her usual vixen roles – Lina is Linda (so many L names!), the soon-to-be-18 daughter of a man who made a deal with Lorna, a Satanic witch (I think?), before her birth, trading Linda upon womanhood for riches. Lina is innocent, corruptible, with increasingly dirty dreams of a beautiful (if ridiculously made-up) woman. It’s nice to see Lina stretch a bit and take on the wide-eyed ingenue role, but it’s equally amazing to see that final shot of Lina laughing hysterically, just having murdered her father.

Lorna is played by one-time Les Folies Bergère dancer and Franco regular (Doriana Grey, Sexy Sisters) Pamela Stanford, decked out in a truly unreal series of wigs and eye makeup, offering a promise of wealth and power to Patrick, Linda’s father, in exchange for his first born child on the day of her eighteenth birthday. Patrick, currently childless, doesn’t think too much about it and happily beds Lorna and follows her gambling advice. Eighteen years later, however, he’s decided he’s keeping his baby. Meanwhile, Catherine Laffiere is in a Renfieldian psychic connection with Lorna from her asylum bed where she writhes around and gets occasional visits from Dr. Jess. Did I mention Howard Vernon is Lorna’s butler?

Whether you’re as familiar with Lina’s work (and as bummed out by her way-too-soon passing) as we are, or a Franco naif, these two films are required viewing. They serve both as a great introduction to the Lina-Jess partnership, as they contain all the elements of the couple’s most fruitful collaborations, and as a way to celebrate the wonderful, inspiring, bonkers career of Lina Romay, a woman who would do anything, and was absolutely magnetic in the process.