From Art-House to Slaughterhouse (Week Three: Fat Girl)

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Countdown to Halloween: Fat Girl

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The French title of Catherine Breillat’s 2001 film is: “A Ma Soeur!” which translates to “For My Sister!”. But for some reason, it became: “Fat Girl” in America.

At the New York Film Festival in 2001, Mme. Breillat said she preferred the title “Fat Girl”. I don’t know why? but knowing a bit about Mme. Breillat, it’s probably because that title’s more provocative and to the point? That’d be my guess. Because, if Catherine Breillat can be labelled anything, it’s provocative.

The original title sounds more ‘autobiographical’ to me. Like the film really is “For My Sister!”. Why does it have an exclamation point? It makes the title feel aggressive, personal and directed at her sister? I’d love to know what’s behind that…but, I don’t think I’ll ever truly know?

This bizarre film, an odd combo of sex-education and horror film, begins with two sisters in the middle of a family holiday; somewhere in southern France. The two girls make a sort of ‘loose’ bet with each other to see who will ‘catch a decent boyfriend’ over the summmer. Like the usual ‘teen stereotypical comedy’. Naturally, the slim sister with the gorgeous face “catches” the boy. A young Italian, also on vacation with his family, and who’s French isn’t quite as sophisticated as the sisters. His lackluster French helps the young sister to be a few steps ahead of him. The older sister, however, seems just as easily swayed as if he were a native speaker. The film revolves entirely around these two young sisters, their lose of virginity and this boy. The older sister is 15, the other a year or two younger and overweight (the “fat girl” of the title) and it’s here we detect something in the film which seems to say something about female body issues. The older/’prettier sister’ is particularly focused on the body and looks (she even tries to put her new-slim-boyfriend on a ‘diet’, because, as she says: he’s “not as slim as [he] could be for [his] age”) she calls her younger sister: “lumpy”, a “fat dump” and “disgusting to watch eat”. It’s obvious the older sister is all surface, no substance. Very pretty, but intellectually and emotionally not as sophisticated as the younger one. The ‘fat girl’, on the other hand, is all substance. Her ‘beauty’ is more well rounded (no pun inteded) than her sister’s. Her’s is a case of being beautiful on the inside, rather than the obvious outside beauty of her sister.

The film’s undertone deals with weight and body issues and indicates the ‘fat sister’ character is reduced to a ‘non-entity’ because of her obesity. It’s like she isn’t ‘seen’, barely heard and because of this, is oft-times placed into role of ‘observer’/’voyeur’. First and most noticeably is when her older sister invites her ‘holiday boyfriend’ into the sister’s mutual bedroom (apparently their parent’s are strict and they cannot ‘sneak out’) here the ‘fat girl’ is almost a ‘second thought’ in the situation, she’s barely thought of. The only time she’s referenced is as an excuse for the sister to not ‘take’ the boy ‘into her mouth’, after she refuses to lose her virginity to him (though she’s already let him enter her ‘from behind’, something the younger sister-correctly in my opinion-sees as being a lose of virginity in and of itself).
The boy immediately goes into a “seduction routine” when he enters their bedroom and the younger sister pretends to sleep. Mostly, the young sister cringes and covers her face when hearing the boy’s “routine”, so full of cliche and stunningly obvious bits of heavy handed verbal pressure, it’s like embarrassing obvious soap opera. Yet, I think, most guys would have yo admit, perhaps shamefully, they’ve attempted similar talk, nearly verbatim. Fortunately, there isn’t someone ‘recording’ what’s said, thankfully, as it really is cringe inducing and this scene makes that painfully apparent. But it also makes this scene of seduction, ironically, more truthful and honest, if utterly pathetic. It must also be stated that this whole scene is shot from the point if view of the “fat girl”, so I think it’s clear how we’re meant to watch the film.

Additionally, the film has one hell of a mean sense of humor that pervades throughout. Not in a “Seth Rogen/Jonah Hill/” sort of way, not even like Todd Solondz. Instead, I was reminded more of the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. It has something of the grotesque about it. Since Breillat and the film hail from France and not the American Southeast, I tend to think this link coincidental. Perhaps, however, there’s a link with Catholicism? France being predominantly a Catholic country after all? But I tend to think that’s a stretch. More than likely, it’s coincidental? But the cruelty is there, the meanness is present.

I also found it odd how much importance these girls place on their virginity: who loses it first, to whom and to what type of boy. But perhaps this too is true and honest? I enjoy how the ‘fat sister’ declares she wishes to lose her virginity to someone whom she doesn’t love, a ‘nobody’, as she puts it. This way, she says, when her ‘first time’ is over, she won’t have any delusions that she’s been tricked, that she loves the guy, or he her. A decidedly mature resolution for such a young lady. The other sister, though a year older, is more naive. She easily falls victim to the youthful holiday romance gone afoul. Her younger sister, because of her obesity, is put into the position of ‘invisibility’ and thus can more easily observe what her sister doesn’t seem to recognize at all. She’s far less naive and far more practical too. The older sister falls, almost willingly, to the boyfriend’s ‘pillow talk’. The younger sister sees the young man’s duplicity far before her sister ever does. She tries to warn her, but ultimately allows her to go through the process of losing her virginity, even though she intuits it will end in disaster. Oddly the younger sister sobs throughout the scene of her sister’s lose of virginity (in “one deep thrust” which the boy suggests is “the best way” to do it). As if it’s she too, who is losing her innocence. In fact, I’d say it’s almost as if the two sisters exist as one. Like they are two separate parts of one girl, perhaps that’s the point?

Naturally, the older sister winds up betrayed by her ‘summer love’ and is left in tears. In fact, both the younger and older sister leave their vacation in tears as the mother drives ferociously, back to their home near Paris early, before they’re supposed to. It having already been revealed that the older sister was betrayed by her holiday lover; in front of the boy’s mother, her own mother and her sister. Again, it seems both sisters suffer as one. The two sisters seem to share in the agony.

This is where the film comes to it’s ‘horrific’ final and controversial conclusion. I don’t want to reveal everything, but I will say it involves a character which could almost be Michael Meyers or Jason Vorhees sans the all white ‘Shatner mask’ or hockey mask and involves said character taking on the role of the younger sister’s ‘dream lover’. Who takes her virginity, but with no love involved. In fact it’s with a ‘nobody’, just as the sister wanted. But at a traumatic cost. This is obviously the most controversial scene of the film. Some have stated it’s simply Breillat running out of ideas or a sloppy, silly ending. Naturally, I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced the ending is ‘real’. I think it may, perhaps, be a ‘fantasy-dream’ of the sister’s (the Fat Girl). I believe this, as this section seems to break so severely from the rest of the film. This scene is also preempted by the mother falling asleep, the “Fat Girl” encouraging her sister to do the same and the young sister going to sleep too. From there, the action seems exaggerated, unreal. It also seems the type of ‘fantasy’ this girl, in particular, would have. It fits with her ‘ideal’. The ‘type’ of male she wished to lose her virginity to. She also seems to say she thinks the ‘act’ is ultimately (in some sense) not as traumatic, as the one played upon her sister by the boy who took her virginity and betrayed her ‘love’.

A controversial, horrific and disturbing cinematic journey to be sure.
The Horror…the horror…the horror!.

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From Art-House to Slaughterhouse (Week Two: Twentynine Palms)

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Countdown to Halloween: Twentynine Palms

This is Bruno Dumont’s bizarre homage to late 60s, early 70s drive-in cinema: road film-cum-horror film. It’s so unlike the bulk of Dumont’s oeuvre. Twentynine Palms is generally ignored, rarely considered or discussed even by his fans. When put beside his other work, it’s almost like a ‘forgotten film’.

We examined Claire Denis’ foray into the realm of horror with “Trouble Every Day”, her 2001 “horror film”. But, she’s not the only French filmmaker who’s recently interested in exploring these realms. I could go into the work of Gaspar Noe, for instance, but I’d say all his work is influenced by and steeped in American exploitation, genre and horror film? Recently, there seem to be a whole clique of French filmmakers who’re making films that utilize exploitation film elements. Instead, I’m more interested in these art-house filmmakers who rarely, or barely, tread in those waters. For instance, Claire Denis and the brilliant Bruno Dumont.

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Generally, Dumont’s films deal with the sublime, the transcendent and the spiritual. They exist in a halfway house, somewhere between religious and philosophical. Some even deal with religion, specifically, as their subject matter. Dumont, an avowed atheist however, seems to be drawn to and fascinated by the spiritual experience. I wouldn’t say “Twentynine Palms” does not contain any interest in this realm, but it certainly hides it more than the rest. But, “Twentynine Palms” isn’t really one of his naturally spiritual films. Instead, it seems a meditation on America. Even perhaps, an ode to American exploitation films of the “psychedelic” period-road films and shock horror specifically.

 

This interesting diminutive film, always struck a deep chord with me. I find it to be Dumont’s strangest, most peculiar work in an otherwise consistent filmography. Most viewers, I think, didn’t know what to make of this thing? It’s clearly Dumont’s least popular work, even considered a ‘failure’ by many. In my opinion, however, it’s at least as good as his next film: “Flanders”. A film that always generated far more respect because its subject matter, the current mid-east conflict, will always generate more gravitas. Whereas a sexually graphic road film wrapped round a shock-horror core, tends to be looked upon with jaundiced eye by those in the “art-house community”. A snobby group, in case ya didn’t know (no surprise to exploitation fans, I’m sure?)? But for someone like myself, who’ll view any cinematic offering from any source, these ‘politics’ are just plain annoying. In fact, another ‘secret’ is that most exploitation/horror film fans are just as snobby. Many of them are probably scoffing right now, at this discussion of a ‘foreign/art-house film’ on a page for exploitation/horror films and think me ‘pretentious’, I’m sure?

“Twentynine Palms” begins like a standard road film. A couple drive through Southern California and finally into Twentynine Palms, California. The male lead is an American photographer scouting locations, the female half is the photographer’s French girlfriend who seems to be along for the ride as; part concubine and partially to keep him from getting lonely while he scouts his locations. I can’t help but think that this may have an autobiographical element to it? I can easily see the photographer representing Dumont himself and a girlfriend or wife as they look for locations, perhaps even while scouting for this very film? It has a strong feeling of coming from some place real and personal.

At this point the film too gets literally personal. The two main leads engage in rather graphic sexual activity across various exotic locals throughout Southern California. They engage sexually at their barren motel swimming pool, inside their cheap, tawdry motel room, out of doors, on rocky formations and atop desert mesas, in their SUV, hell, Just about every place they end up for an extended period of time. Their rutting seems to reflect a better way for them to communicate with each other, since their verbal communication seems highly problematic (he speaks a little French, she hardly speaks even a little English). Perhaps Dumont is representing sex as the one way these two can more freely and easily communicate with each other? At times, it even seems like their sexual act has distinct ‘personalities’ to it; loving and gentle, as they express love to each other. At other times, when arguing and fighting with each other, their sexuality expresses ‘hatred’ and ‘anger’. It seems Dumont is showing us the transformation from verbal to physical with scenes of sexual intercourse taking the place of their lack of verbal skills.

As the sex between the couple begins to disintigrate and decline, the film takes on a more paranoid, brutal and anxious tone. It’s here the film seems to remind one most of the 70s film, “Deliverence”. There seems to be a feeling of menace, coming from without. One can feel a palpable sense of dread, that there are ‘others’, out there and that they’re (more than likely) not benevolent. Just as it’s revealed in “Deliverance”, it’s also revealed here. In fact it is revealed in a strikingly similar way. I get the feeling that, much in the way many people in America were haunted and disturbed by what can happen in the most rural areas of the south in “Deliverance”; Bruno Dumont seems to feel the same about the United States in general? I may be wrong, perhaps he’s trying to express something else entirely, but the feeling I take away from the film is one of a certain fear of location.

The ending of the film works on one’s mind in a most shocking and transgressive way. The first act of violence blindsides us, just as the proceeding act of murderous brutality does. The first act of violence makes me sense the filmmaker gets the feeling America is chock a block with utterly warrantless, random acts of violence. While the second act of violence seems to be making a comment on the effects of the first. In reality nearly all violence is random and it’s rarely, if ever, well thought out. Violence is what happens when verbal communication breaks down. Which leads me to think the film may be about break downs in communication. First, between the couple, then by the world at large and finally between individuals. I don’t see the film as an indictment of America*. Instead, it seems to summarize the fear and paranoia inherent in open and wild landscapes and the violence that comes from the inability to articulate oneself.

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*It should also be noted that Twentynine Palms, CA also happens to be the locale of a known Marine base…there may be something to that?

From Art-House to Slaughterhouse (Week One: Trouble Every Day)

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A Countdown to Halloween:

“Trouble Every Day”, Claire Denis’ film meditation on intimacy, jealousy, lust and male-female relations in modern France. Art-house meets exploitation film. I think Denis is making a statement here about lust and death, a gory horror film as metaphor for contemporary love and lust.

The film stars the always interesting, Vincent Gallo, as a doctor flying to France with his new wife for their honeymoon. But he’s hiding a secret. He’s sick.

Another couple, a black man and a white woman. Like Gallo and his wife, the man is a doctor, but here the wife is the one sick. Apparently her sickness is further progressed than Gallo’s. Because we watch as the wife lures a truck driver into picking her up (metaphorically and literally; much of this film is a collision between the literal and metaphoric) and whom she leaves half eaten, covered in blood and dead in the grass. Her husband, buries the body of the trucker and lovingly cleans his wife’s body of the blood and gore left over and administers a mysterious medication to her. They don’t seem like a couple of young lovers anymore. Instead they’re more like an elderly couple, one of whom is senile, while the other cares for and cleans up after the other. A metaphor perhaps for that variety of true love, even if your lover happens to be a cannibal.

Gallo’s character can’t seem to find relief. The mysterious medication he takes (which looks the same as the one the wife is given) doesn’t seem to be helping much.

The whole film is about the nature of unrestrained animal lust. Both the African doctor’s wife and Gallo’s doctor character seem plagued by an illness which makes them prone to wild, abandoned sexual urges to the point where the body and flesh of the one being seduced is literally eaten and consumed by the infected one.

Gallo is apparently aware of what he may do and seems able to prevent himself from being completely unrestrained, with his wife, sexually. We even see, in a very early scene, that his wife’s shoulder has a badly bruised bite mark imprinted on it. An example, perhaps, of him earlier nearly losing control. In one memorable scene, he leaves the bedroom before he consummates the sex act with his wife, only to ‘relieve himself’ in the bathroom, while his wife pounds the door, crying. Humorously, he ejaculates a geyser of, what looks like something that would emit from a tightly clenched bottle of Head and Shoulders, onto the porcelain of the bathroom sink, rather than seminal fluid. It’s really like some somber version of that scene in “There’s Something About Mary”. I have no idea what that detail is meant to demonstrate except, perhaps, that his bodily fluids are tainted and diseased.

The African doctor’s wife, appears to be beyond the point of being able to restrain herself. It seems her disease has progressed to a point where she no longer has the ability to “withdraw” from the act? It’s probably why her husband is forced to board her up in their bedroom, nailing two by fours, planks of wood and boards like the protagonists in a zombie movie. Except In this ‘horror movie’ it’s the zombie thats boarded up, to protect us from it.

Gallo’s story concludes with a grotesquely violent sex act that resembles something between menstrual cunnilingus and some awful genital mutilation. The African doctor’s wife’s story finishes with her engaged in furious sexual congress with a youth, who seemed to be trying to save her from her ‘imprisonment’, only to wind up as her sushi meal for the night. Ultimately she winds up in a total conflagration, perhaps the only true ‘cure’ to the awful disease of the movie?

Finally, Gallo’s character, while showering the blood from his last ‘meal’ off of his body, tells his wife ” I want to go home”. We’re left to assume that he and his young wife will end up much like the African doctor and his wife. Completing the story’s cycle. But there are no absolute answers here, only concepts to ponder.

Denis’ use of horror cinema tropes to explore human sexuality, I found both highly original and far more compelling than a straight version of the same. Denis is also a master of using film to convey tactile senses, to explore and demonstrate that sense which is the hardest to convey in cinema. In this film, she really conveys the sensation of skin on skin, flesh on flesh, hands touching skin, fingers probing and exploring the dark moist areas of the human body. Her use of highly heightened sound is also remarkable, as it completes a complete demonstration of the senses.

This film is just as unnerving and disturbing (if not more so) than most straight horror films I’ve seen lately. Conversely, I also think it’s able to explore particular aspects of human sexuality far better, using a horror film template, than a straight melodrama ever could.

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