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L’Etrange Festival 2012

Motor Psycho, Knightriders, The Driver, Painless, Koji Wakamatsu

Motor Psycho

L’Etrange Festival

6-16 September 2012, Forum des Images, Paris

L’Etrange Festival website

Nicolas Guichard reports back on some of the highlights of the brilliant Parisian feast of oddness L’Etrange Festival.

The 18th edition of the Etrange Festival in Paris once more demonstrated the capacity of the event to showcase the joyous diversity of cinema current and past, from the fun atmosphere of the Zombie Night to the premiere of Juan Carlos Medina’s Painless, or the more serious atmosphere at Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (screened in religious silence). We are already looking forward to next year’s programme.

Knightriders (1981, dir. George A. Romero)

Presented as part of the Motorpsycho strand, Knightriders was Romero’s attempt to escape from zombie films. This bizarre work is notable mostly for its central premise (bikers who want to live like the Knights of the Round Table) and for the director’s insistence in injecting a political message into his films (here, a sort of anarchist utopianism). Despite the surrealism of some scenes, the political parable is weakened by longueurs in the script and a borderline kitsch aesthetic (in particular, the silly helmets and suits of armour).

Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965, dir. Kenneth Anger) + Motor Psycho (1965, dir. Russ Meyer)

Also part of the Motorpsycho strand, this was an appropriate double bill of two 1965 films that together offered a condensed image of pop culture and a chance to feel the excitement one always feels when noting the connections between experimental and exploitation films. In one corner, Kenneth Anger’s unfinished project Kustom Kar Kommandos, of which only the first part remains, is a sort of three-minute erotic pop allegory in which a young man polishes his car to the tune of the Paris Sisters’ ‘Dream Lover’. In the other, Russ Meyer’s Motor Psycho is like a masculine version of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! , a garage film soundtracked by Bert Shefter and Paul Sawtell’s nervy track ‘The Three Weirdos’, in which three hoodlums on bikes terrorize an isolated Californian town.

11.25. The Day He Chose His Own Fate (2012, dir. Kôji Wakamatsu)

I was really looking forward to this film: Mishima’s futile and tragic end, filmed by the late delirious Japanese director Kôji Wakamatsu. But during the screening, I started wondering whether there was another director by the same name. No trace of his customary hallucinatory style, only a linear film during which you can’t wait for Mishima to just end it. Wakamatsu’s usual political sharpness is present in the evocation of a country under American tutelage, and his analysis of the competitiveness between lefty activists and right-wing paramilitaries. But that wasn’t enough to rescue the film and, ultimately, I couldn’t help wondering if the filmmaker’s goal may have been to ridicule Mishima’s absurd gesture. If that’s the case, he succeeded.

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929, dir. Dziga Vertov)

Screened as part of Jan Kounen’s Carte Blanche, this was the chance to see The Man with a Movie Camera on 35mm, projected on a big screen in the original conditions (no soundtrack). With its constructivist aesthetics, Vertov’s film is a pure visual pleasure, due to both its coherence and its freedom: the vertiginous thrills it offers come from the creation of a total filmic language that uses images of daily life while eschewing conventional realism.

Painless (2012, dir. Juan Carlos Medina)

One of the highlights of the festival was the premiere of Spanish director Juan Carlos Medina’s first feature film. With the exception of the odd mannerism, it undeniably is a superb aesthetic achievement. Just like the best Spanish or South Korean films of the past decade, it succeeds in combining elements of genre with poetic and dreamlike filmmaking. In this historical and psychological puzzle, Medina develops an allegorical thriller in which several strands (the fate of children insensitive to pain, the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the personal story of a neurosurgeon) join up to form a pattern that is both terrifying and harmonious: a sublime film in the philosophical sense of the term.

Beyond the Forest (1949, dir. King Vidor)

Adapted from Stuart Engstrand’s novel, this somewhat clumsy film noir nevertheless offers an interesting take on the femme fatale, with the character of Rosa Moline, a frustrated woman, half-Lady Macbeth, half-Madame Bovary, played by Bette Davis. Her Bovarian ambition to escape from the mediocrity of her provincial life is counterbalanced by her emotional dependence on her lover. Rosa is thus the femme fatale who falls victim to her own fatality: the impotence of her desire.

The Driver (1978, dir. Walter Hill)

The Driver belongs to a category of film in which the main character is reduced to a function and becomes a perfect bachelor–machine: there is even a femme fatale played by Isabelle Adjani (perfect when she stays silent) to complete the system. Much indebted to Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Samurai, The Driver re-appropriates the lessons Melville learnt from Hollywood, and inscribes his solitary character (in the most existential sense) within the codes of the most emblematic genre of American cinema: the Western. The bird’s chirping of Melville’s film is replaced in The Driver by a country song that serves both as a gimmick and a psychological signifier. The archetypal psychology of Western and crime film thus seems to match the samurai’s ethic: achieving virtuosity means renouncing life.

The international science-fiction festival Les Utopiales takes place from 7 to 12 November in Nantes, France, with a film programme curated by Etrange Festival programmer Frédéric Temps. This year’s theme is ‘Origins’ and the event is presided by astrophysician Roland Lehoucq with Neil Gaiman as its guest of honour. For more information, please visit the Utopiales website.
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