The strong sense of community is immediately evident at L’Etrange Festival, the Parisian celebration of outlandish new films and obscure rarities from the past, now in its 16th edition, but without an ounce of cliquishness. While the same faces were spotted eagerly returning to get their fill of strange gems, there was also enough diversity in the audience to demonstrate the breadth of the programme, which attracted art-house audiences as much as fans of alternative, genre and exploitation cinema.
This year’s event was graced by the presence of two legendary guests, Alejandro Jodorowsky, who curated a selection of films, and Tobe Hooper, who came to introduce a brief retrospective of his work, including a screening of his restored 1969 debut Eggshells, rarely seen until now. Both Jodorowsky and Hooper were engaging speakers, and it was fascinating to hear Hooper discuss the making of Eggshells, explaining how The Night of the Living Dead played a major role in leading him away from experimental cinema and into the more lucrative horror genre that he mined with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The programmers are passionate fans of alternative cinema themselves, and the joy of the festival is to know that any screening randomly chosen will lead to the discovery of something interesting or challenging in one way or another. Below, Nicolas Guichard and Virginie Sélavy report on some of the more noteworthy films in this year’s programme.
No Mercy (Yongseoneun Eupda, 2010)
Alejandro Jodorowsky was given carte blanche to put together a programme of films, among which was South Korean revenge tale No Mercy, by director Kim Hyeong-jun. In good form as always, Jodorowsky was warmly welcomed by the Etrange Festival crowd. Introducing No Mercy, he talked about his passion for Asian cinema, explaining that he hates recognising actors and that he finds it easier to get into the stories of Asian films because he doesn’t know the cast. He told the audience that he buys piles of unknown films from his local Chinese corner shop, and acquired No Mercy in this way. Thinking at first that it was a classic crime thriller, he was surprised when the film’s tone changed and turned into a ferocious revenge tale, one that he says impressed him as more extreme than Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.
While this is debatable, No Mercy certainly offers an interesting take on the revenge story. It starts with famous forensic pathologist Kang Min-ho being called to the scene of a gruesome murder, a woman cut into pieces. The culprit is soon found, a crippled fanatical eco-activist, but it turns out that he kidnapped Kang’s daughter before his arrest to force Kang to help him; the first murder was in fact a set-up to involve Kang because of something in their shared past.
Here, vengeance is about narrative, about the institution or reinstitution of the law. The avenger, being disabled, is not a protagonist, an actor, but is a creator of narrative. As in Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’, the law is inscribed in the physical body itself. The puzzle of the bodies in the film offers a variation on the system of cruelty; the pathologist’s job is to guarantee the correct reading of the signs of law-breaking. But a past mistake prevents him from correctly interpreting what should be obvious: the avenger is not a transgressor, but a rigorous applier of the talion who seeks to punish the story’s real transgressor. Like in a tragedy, not Greek but Elizabethan, the transgressor is the author of his own misfortune.
While the structure of the film offers a fascinating passive variation on the theme of vengeance, the direction is not entirely successful: the realistic style is more banal than in Bong Joon-ho’s landmark Korean crime thriller Memories of Murder and the film does not achieve the fantastical power of Oldboy. The dénouement weakens the theme, as is generally the case in the genre: vengeance relies on a fantasy of power, which necessarily has something surreal, floating, indefinite about it…
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of Virginia (2010)
Appalachian mountain dancer and all-round hell-raiser Jesco White has already been the subject of a feature film by Dominic Murphy, the excellent White Lightnin’ (2009), and of a 1991 documentary by Julian Nitzberg, Dancing Outlaw. Here, Nitzberg returns to Boone County to paint a fascinating portrait of the whole White family, exploring the family tree, down from Jesco’s father D. Ray White, a legendary mountain dancer and rugged miner, and his wife, an extraordinarily strong woman who raised over 20 children (not all hers!), in spite of the dire poverty of their circumstances. Next on the tree come hard-living, pill-popping Jesco and his siblings, their dazed, violent, drug-addicted offspring and their own children.
Nitzberg’s film is never condescending or exploitative and it certainly doesn’t glamorise the Whites. As stories of glue-sniffing, dope-smoking, hardships, misery, fights, shoot-outs, murders, prison, two-timing and violent husbands are told, it’s almost like we’re in an old country song – unsurprisingly, the Whites have been the subject of several ballads, one penned by Hank Williams III, which he is seen singing in the film while Jesco White dances along. The Whites are like the last representatives of a lost culture in a modern world that finds them unmanageable and only tolerates them as characters in a folk tale. It recalls the moment when Nashville country tried to get rid of the last old-school country singers in the early 70s, when Waylon Jennings invented Outlaw Country in reaction against this sanitisation.
It is a fascinating and poignant film because it documents the tail end of a long-gone era that gave birth to country music, but has now degenerated into a world of desperados addicted to prescription drugs, no longer connected to their culture. While the older generations (down to Jesco and his siblings) have a strong sense of where they come from (as when Jesco’s older sister Mamie sings ‘I’m a miner’s daughter’), and entirely understand and take on their outlaw position in relation to mainstream society, the younger Whites seem lost, disconnected from D. Ray White’s harsh spirit and values, devoid of their parents and grand-parents’ ability to make the system work for them, and unable to control their lives, finding themselves in prison or institutionalised. One of the county’s officials describes the Whites as completely free, and in one way, this is very true. No law seems to apply to them, and there aren’t many people capable of living as much in the moment and according to their immediate impulse, without a thought for consequences, as they do. In that sense, they are truly rock’n’roll. But Jesco also says that he feels like he’s already dead, and you cannot help but feel that it is also a sense of profound despair that frees them from caring about what happens.
Quentin ‘Mr Oizo’ Dupieux’s gamble of making a serial-killer thriller with a tyre in the role of the psychopath had us salivating in anticipation. It started well, opening with a US cop in the desert warning spectators armed with binoculars that sometimes there is ‘no reason’ for what happens in films. Their entertainment programme starts when a tyre thrown away in the desert comes back to life and starts exterminating the animals in its path, blowing them up with the sheer force of its evil vibrations. So far so good, but all the deaths follow exactly the same pattern, so that it soon becomes very repetitive. Surely, inventive cruelty is one of the basic rules of horror… The tension and terror we were hoping for failed to materialise, and it wasn’t imaginatively surreal enough to hold our attention.
Mr No Legs (1979)
When a film is described as ‘so bad it’s good’, you can usually safely assume that it is just plain bad and is best avoided. But in the case of this 1979 wheelchair exploitation shocker, this overused phrase of post-Tarantino times provides a perfect and truthful description. Directed by Rico Browning, the creature from The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequels Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks among Us, Mr No Legs is so woefully inept that it is phenomenally entertaining. The standard cop story is prodigiously enlivened by the title character of Lou/Mr No Legs, the vicious wheelchair-bound henchman of a drug lord played by real-life amputee Ted Vollrath with tremendous gusto – in fact, the film’s biggest fault is that it doesn’t give him more screen time. The culmination of the film’s bad taste, oddness and outrageousness comes in the swimming pool scene, where Mr No Legs dispatches a number of able-bodied assailants in a jaw-dropping display of legless Kung Fu, complete with jumps, back flips, killer screams and secret weapons. The final car chase is splendidly preposterous, the stunts hilariously amateurish, and it has to be a contender for the title of longest and slowest car chase ever committed to celluloid. Although the comedic value of the film (enhanced by the French dubbing in the version we saw) is clearly unintentional, it is laugh-out loud funny. There is genius in this level of ineptitude.
L’inconnu de Shandigor (1967)
Directed by Jean-Louis Roy in 1967, this Swiss film is part of the golden age of late 60s European science fiction, a dystopian, speculative fiction describing a parallel rather than futuristic world. A mad scientist (played by Daniel Emilfork, who would play another mad scientist nearly three decades later in Jeunet and Caro’s The City of Lost Children) has invented a secret anti-nuclear weapon, the Annulator, and several groups of spies from various countries want to get their hands on it.
Situated between Alphaville and Who Are You, Polly Magoo? L’inconnu de Shandigor is a pop film, boasting a great credit sequence consisting of black and white serigraphy, as well as a superb use of architecture and locations. It stars Serge Gainsbourg as a dandy-ish spy, who plays the organ in black gloves at the funeral of another spy, interpreting ‘Bye Bye Mr Spy’, a song he wrote especially for the film. Like Polly Magoo, it has all the pop accessories, but devoid of the existential depths of Alphaville, it is more on the cartoonish side of sci-fi, and it never really takes off or coheres into a substantial narrative.
Fade to Black (1980)
Vernon Zimmerman’s 1980 Fade to Black could be described as post-modern horror: the protagonist, Eric, can only act in reference to his extensive knowledge of film. A loner whose only passion is cinema, he has a neurotic relationship with his mother that imitates Hitchcock’s Psycho. Mounting frustration and unhappiness lead him to seek revenge against those who have humiliated him, and for each murder he transforms himself into one of his favourite characters (including James Cagney in White Heat, another psychopath with a mother complex).
Fade to Black marks the appearance of the nerd in cinema (here, in an early instance of the revenge of the nerd sub-genre). Eric is like a failed Tarantino who never got his break. And what the film demonstrates is that if the nerd succeeds in expressing his frustration (or if he succeeds in becoming a ‘creator’), he is doomed to repetition.
The Housemaid (Hanyo, 2010)
A re-interpretation of the 1960s South Korean film of the same title, Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid ominously starts with an anonymous suicide, only obliquely related to the story, announcing impending tragedy. From this shocking opening set on bustling, crowded city streets, the film moves to the rarefied surroundings of a rich family’s house. The luxurious, but cold, marble floors, the dark corridors and the blue-green glass lampshades, remindful of Dario Argento and Italian giallos, create a sinister, claustrophobic atmosphere around naÃ¯ve new young maid Euny, hired to look after little girl Nami because her mother is pregnant with twins. The innocently sensual Euny is soon seduced by the husband, a haughty, cruel, rich heir, and their illicit affair leads the family to intimidate and brutalise Euny, with terrible consequences.
As a melodrama about the exploitation of the lower classes, the film is quite heavy-handed and the wealthy family is too simplistically depicted, their cruelty not sophisticated enough to be truly interesting, while the misery piled upon Euny feels relentless. However, this is redeemed by the superb use of décors and lighting, the sense of atmosphere, the palpable sensuality of the affair, and the stunningly extravagant, over-the-top dénouement. Interestingly, the film follows a similarly unusual structure as Bedevilled, another slow-burn Korean film (also showing at L’Etrange Festival) about the exploitation of a lower-class woman, which culminates in an extremely violent, blood-splattered finale that strongly contrasts with the rest of the film.
La vie Ã l’envers ((1963)
This was the last film we saw at this year’s festival, and what a terrific end to the event it was. This Alain Jessua film from 1963 was a total discovery for us, and has led us to seek out his other films – expect to read more on the writer/director in Electric Sheep soon! Adapted from Jessua’s own novel, La vie Ã l’envers (Life Upside Down) centres on Jacques, played by the fantastically long and angular Charles Denner, who gradually disengages himself from all the situations and conventions imposed by society – work, marriage, etc. The detached, ironic, sharp observational tone makes the film a total joy, each of Jacques’s frighteningly lucid comments a devastating and effortless blow to social hypocrisy and conformism. The film has been misleadingly described as anti-consumerist and a rejection of modern society, but it goes far beyond that: it is an existential meditation on withdrawal from life itself, modern or otherwise, and from all human interaction. Shot in minimalist, elegant black and white, the film offers one of the best and subtlest incarnations of the Duchampian bachelor machine in cinema. The end is beautifully ambiguous, and we are left to decide if Denner is mad or whether he has managed to trick society into giving him what he wanted – total solitude and isolation.
Nicolas Guichard and Virginie Sélavy