Three films by French directors turned this year’s L’Étrange Festival into something even richer and stranger than usual.
Every year L’Étrange Festival delights us with oddest and weirdest productions from all over the world. What is quite unusual, though very heart-warming, is that the three films that stood out this year (at least in the eyes of your humble reviewer) were the work of French directors. Three films permeated with literature. Three treasure islands. Three voyages celebrating the mysteries of the sea, but in ways that could not be more dissimilar. Xavier Gens’ Cold Skin is a Hollywood-ish adaptation of a novel by Sanchez Piñol; Bertrand Mandico’s Wild Boys is a neo-feminist tale that gives free rein to the director’s wildest fantasies; and F.J. Ossang’s 9 Fingers is a 21st century reassertion of the surrealist manifesto.
Xavier Gens’s latest film came as a pleasant surprise, after a long period during which he probed different genres, whether horror with Frontier(s) (2007), spy-action with Hitman (2007) or science-fiction with The Divide (2011), all equally disappointing. By turning to Albert Sanchez Piñol’s novel, Gens gained at once an original scenario and in-depth characters. The story of Cold Skin is that of a young meteorologist (David Oakes) sent to a remote arctic island, which is inhabited only by the lighthouse keeper, Gruner (Ray Stevenson). But our nameless hero soon discovers that there are hostile, humanoid amphibian creatures (which might have sprung from a tale by H.P. Lovecraft) that visit the island nightly, and that there is no God to save them from the fiends that plague them thus.
The literary turn of the film was announced tongue-in-cheek by David Oakes, present at the screening, who summed it up as ‘Rambo with the soundtrack of John Keats’. Gens uses literature in the film as a chorus, as the hero’s fate descends from Robert Louis Stevenson to Dante’s Inferno, which remains a leitmotiv throughout the film. Both the film and Pinol’s book focus on the relationship between these two solitary men, as well as on their differing relationships to the ‘toads’, and especially to the beautiful creature Aneris (Aura Garrido). Although Gens claims to have been faithful to the book as possible, he gives the story a different undertone. By building stone and shell circles, and wearing primitive amulets on their necks, the creatures become capable of artistic expression and are thus made even more human than in the book, and therefore closer to the two men who fight them. Moreover, while the book is situated in the early 1920s, just after the First World War, and the hero is an Irishman with a politically troubled past, Gens has chosen to shift his plot to September 1914, thus having the hero flee the war. The conflict between the men and the amphibian creatures no longer bears the moral resonance of four years of mass massacre, nor can the creatures reflect the Irish struggle for their own island. But this is splitting hairs, and the film is by far Gens’s best yet, offering a subtle and disturbing reflection on what eventually makes us human.
With Wild Boys, Bertrand Mandico’s first feature film, we leave the Lovecraftian island for a much more fantasized and witty realm of gender warfare, though the period seems to remain the same. The title is far from innocent, and one cannot help wondering for the first few minutes whether William Burroughs’s project of adapting his transgressive novel as gay-porn film has not finally found its way onto the screen. Infused with Walerian Borowczyk’s sensuality, Wild Boys gives full vent to Mandico’s erotic universe, already glimpsed in his short films like Prehistoric Cabaret (2013) or Our Lady of Hormones (2015).
The plot is triggered by a performance of Macbeth by five schoolboys in honour of their beautiful and obviously much fantasied-about teacher (Nathalie Richard), which turns into a collective rape and ends in the teacher’s death. Yet this is nothing like any other scene portraying sexual violence, as the five boys are all played by young actresses (the rising star Vimala Pons with Pauline Lorillard, Diane Rouxel, Anaël Snoek and Mathilde Warnier). Following an almost Wellesian trial, the desperate parents call upon a Dutch sea captain (Sam Louwyck), who offers to reform the five degenerates by taking them on a sea voyage. What starts as the taming of five male shrews soon turns into a shipwreck on a magical island, full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, but also phallus-like fruits to quench the wild boys’ thirst with a sperm-like sap, and plants spread like female legs to satiate their lust. Under the guidance of the androgynous Dr Severin(e) (Elina Löwensohn, Mandico’s muse since Boro in the Box), the boys undergo an actual gender metamorphosis, tits growing and cocks dropping.
But somehow, Mandico manages never to be vulgar. The film’s photography oscillates between the stylised black-and-white main narrative and Pierre-et-Gilles-like colour sequences, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of Guy Maddin’s Forbidden Room. For all the psychedelic, red-eyed death hounds and colourful diamond skulls, watching Mandico’s film leaves the audience enchanted and full of buoyant vitality.
Watching these three films is like a literary voyage into the nautical inferno of creation, and with F.J. Ossang’s 9 Fingers, we reach the murkier regions of the writers Hanns Heinz Ewers and Magloire-Saint-Aude. As always with Ossang’s films, behind a film-noir plot lies a vast poetical wasteland, peopled with ghostly voices of surrealism that eventually turn the film into an artistic manifesto. 9 Fingers opens on a manhunt reminiscent of Welles’s The Third Man, with Magliore (Paul Hamy) being chased by police. But the real plot commences aboard the freighter Sri Ahmed Volkenson 5 (later re-baptised as The Marryat), which is bound to be wiped out by toxic material smuggled on board by a man named Kurtz and his sidekicks. Stuck with the gangsters, Magloire sails into the unknown.
It takes a poet like Ossang to orchestrate so minutely and almost cryptically the literary references that permeate the film, telling a contrapuntal tale. For nothing here is random. During the initial burglary the name of Melmoth is glimpsed on one of the number plates. On board the cargo ship, Magloire picks up the novel Vampir by Ewers, a sea voyager himself, who travelled to Haiti (Magloire-Saint-Aude’s home country) to discover its voodoo practices. Later, when Magloire debates the meaning of life with Ferrante, the last word of their conversation is hijacked by Roussel, whose copy of Locus Solus Ferrante has marked with the date of Roussel’s suicide.
Ossang picks up his references as he picks up his actors. Who else could shoot a film today gathering so eclectic and motley a cast: Lionel Tua (discovered by Ossang in The Case of the Morituri Divisions and faithful ever since), Pascal Greggory (who needs no introduction), Damien Bonnard (revealed last year in Alain Guiraudie’s Rester vertical), as well as la crème of thirty-something-year-old French actors, Paul Hamy and Gaspard Ulliel (an international star since he lent his face to Chanel). The latter, who was initially cast to play Magloire, later joined the cast for the small and hilarious part of the Doctor, prescribing Magloire a very special medication – atalanta fugiens – another one of Ossang’s Hermetic jokes. The director even indulges in a Hitchcockian wink, when our Killer Boy comes on the ship as a Messagero. Like the two other films, 9 Fingers’ journey ends on a desert island, a Nowhereland, a terrestrial zone where emotions freeze. ’Understanding nothing, that is the key’, deceptively preaches Ossang, but his film blatantly brims over with meaning, distilled with erudite and witty impertinence.
This seafaring trinity proves to what extent literature, philosophy and poetry are still vital ingredients in contemporary cinema, and these three pearls offer a sea-change that turned this year’s Festival something even richer and stranger than usual.