Davide Manuli’s The Legend of Kaspar Hauser (La leggenda di Kaspar Hauser, 2012) is a re-imagining of the story of the 19th-century man who appeared from nowhere claiming to have had no previous contact with society as a techno Western starring Vincent Gallo and featuring music by Vitalic. It screened on 6 July 2012 at Hackney Picturehouse as part of the East End Film Festival.
Our cinemas are presently teeming with transformation, infested with the umpteenth spawn of Stan Lee, Marvel and DC - underwhelming Spiderman, the Avengers ad nauseam - so it is perhaps worth having a quick spew. Comic books give us transformation, clean, wreathed in steam and colourfully costumed, but the flip side of such adolescent power fantasies is the disgust of mutation; dirty, gooey and possibly fatal.
David Cronenberg’s The Fly begins with Howard Shore’s wonderfully bombastic B-movie score striding through the titles and immediately places the movie in highly strung melodramatic territory. Cronenberg’s gore-fest was based on the 1958 black and white horror film, which itself was based on a George Langelaan short story published a year earlier in Playboy and was directed by Kurt Neumann and scripted by Shogun author Jim Clavell. Cronenberg’s up-to-date reimagining (long before the horrific verb ‘reboot’ had seen the light of day) was an unexpected critical and commercial hit on its release in 1986. It was the film that brought body horror into the mainstream. But gruesomeness aside (only for the moment), The Fly is a chamber piece, a relationship drama, which infests adolescent hopes of transformation with the corrosive vomit of mutation.
Geena Davis is the ambitious journalist Veronica Quaife, who belatedly realises she’s onto a major story when she snags Seth Brundle, a goggle-eyed and socially inept young scientist, at a conference and he takes her home to show off his latest invention: teleportation devices. Completing the ménage í trois of filigree-named protagonists is Stathis Borans (John Getz), Veronica’s ex-lover and current editor, who at first is sceptical and jealous.
‘I’m onto something big, really big,’ Veronica tells him. ‘What? His cock?’ Stathis replies.
In a sense though, Stathis is right. He’s the hairy truth teller. Everything in the film is motivated by sex, despite Seth’s ludicrous suggestion that his invention has been spurred by the fact he got motion sickness on his tricycle. This is a B-movie horror plot complete with a monster, a mad scientist and a spunky girl reporter, but somehow when it was being teleported from 1958, a tiny relationship drama must have got into the machine and the two were fused. Seth is obviously lonely, which explains his otherwise insane indiscretion in blabbing to the beautiful Veronica. He is the virgin of the piece - unworldly and naí¯ve, with his wardrobe full of the same clothes and his ‘cheeseburger’ dinner date invitation. Whenever he steps out of his laboratory, things are going to go wrong, be it drinks receptions or arm-wrestling contests. His relationship with Veronica is immediately intense and swiftly marred by petulant and adolescent jealousies.
Veronica, with her can-do no-bullshit approach, is the mover and shaker. She is the one who seduces Seth, in her own time and on her own terms. ‘You’re cute,’ she tells him, but only once he’s proved his chops as a scientist. She is the one with experience. She has perhaps used sex in the past, having - after all - slept with her boss and decided to stop sleeping with her boss, while keeping her job. Stathis could easily have been taking advantage of his position. He is the sleazy, hirsute chancer, cheerfully sneaking into Veronica’s apartment to take a shower. ‘Was passing… felt a bit grimy,’ he says. Despite Veronica’s protestations, perhaps they are meant to be together. There are sparks in their exchanges, compared to the puppy love Veronica enjoys with Seth. She cuddles Seth and coos about his flesh, like an old lady who steals babies (her comparison!). Seth is like their baby, a troublesome genius who shouldn’t be allowed out on his own and who ultimately longs to be joined to her and be completed by her. Seth (the romantic) wants to consume her totally, whereas Stathis just wants to fuck her.
The goo of the make-up effects is still impressive today, but none of that matters if we don’t care about the characters, as was to be proved by the sequel, which was directed by the make-up artist Chris Walas to make an interesting but ultimately forgettable film. Cronenberg’s success here, helped by several career-best performances, is to drop fully realised characters into the B-movie plot. Seth’s disintegration as a human being is played out tragically. At first, he feels benefits from the experiment gone wrong: super strength, increased sexual performance etc. but soon comes to realise that it’s a disease, a kind of cancer. His mutation isn’t a clean Peter Parker transformation. To be fair, The Amazing Spiderman does give Parker some sticky moments, but they are more for comic effect than fuelled by body disgust.
Seth is not simply turning into something. That in itself wouldn’t be all that bad. Waking up one morning to find yourself a giant cockroach is amply better than waking up one morning to find yourself a rubbish mix of cockroach and man. The speed of Seth’s deterioration and his desperate attempt to retain some semblance of humanity even as he becomes Brundlefly give the film something like a tragic grandeur. Veronica’s disgust and loathing, as exemplified by her maggot dream, is tinged with pity. Stathis, finally, is also transformed. He becomes the hero of the piece, albeit an ineffective one, trying to protect Veronica and, as a consequence, suffering his rival’s jealous bile.
In the end, the only fatality of the film is Seth himself, who to some extent achieves his ambition of being the first insect politician and retains some degree of humanity (and some call on our sympathy) even in his final moments.
This article contains spoilers.
‘Why don’t you stick to your own species, Fitzenstein?’ spits out Trina Sinclair (Danielle Hampton), hockey star and archetypical teen movie queen bee. The object of her loathing is Ginger Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle), one half of a misfit duo of sisters, the deliciously acerbic anti-heroes of Ginger Snaps (2000). It is an interesting choice of language. Playing on the name ‘Frankenstein’, Trina characterises Ginger as a monster: a sub-human freak in the high school hierarchy. Trina does not realise how blackly comic her quip is; Ginger has, in fact, been bitten by a savage wild beast and is mutating into a blood-thirsty werewolf.
John Fawcett’s cult teen horror film uses the idea of mutation - both biological and sociological - to provide a witty and intelligent exploration of what it means to become and live as a woman in middle-class suburbia. Twinned in Victorian boots, plaid skirts and over-sized overcoats, the fuzzy-haired Fitzgerald sisters - Ginger and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) - are cast as mutants in the homogenous world of Bailey Downs, a fictitious Canadian town of pristine picket fences and sports pitch triumphs. The sisters deviate from the norm, not only in their Gothic fashion choices but also in their biological development. As their mother tactfully remarks in one of several awkward family dinner scenes, ‘the girls are three years late menstruating - they’re not normal’. With their young, hollow-eyed physiques, the girls are scorned and ostracised by their classmates. Director John Fawcett emphasises the sisters’ alienation by framing the actresses in large empty shots - crossing suburban landscapes or on the fringes of sporting events. But far from wanting to fit into their high school (‘a mindless breeders’ machine’), the pair has embraced their mutant status. They take comfort in being ‘united against life as we know it’; and their intended escape route is a joint suicide pact.
When we meet the sisters at the start of the film, they are idly discussing the best way to enact their plan. ‘Wrists are for girls,’ sighs Ginger, ‘I’m going to slit my throat’. Immediately the dissatisfaction with being a ‘girl’ is flagged up as a central theme to the film. A montage of photographs follows as the credits begin, each showing the sisters meeting their ends in a variety of sticky ways, brought about by the domestic world they hope to escape. There is a dead body in a refrigerator; another under a lawnmower; another impaled on a garden fence. The Fitzgerald girls clearly abhor the idea of turning into a stereotypical housewife. The sisters’ mother, Pamela Fitzgerald (ably played by Mimi Rogers), provides a vision of that future with her seemingly prim conventionality and household routine. ‘God, I hate our gene pool,’ Ginger later moans after yet another fractious encounter. The girls are presented as aliens within their own family.
When the photographic sequence fades to a classroom, we become aware that the photographs were staged for a school project, entitled ‘Life in Bailey Downs’. The male teacher murmurs his response - ‘I am completely sickened by that. Wasn’t I? Mmm?’ - as a male student asks if they can see the pictures of Ginger again. Clearly the shots of death did not have the desired effect. The sexually predatory nature of men and male attitudes towards women are recurrent features of the film and explored during Ginger’s mutation into aggressive werewolf.
It is no coincidence that Ginger is bitten by the wild beast on the night of her first period; as she becomes a woman in the eyes of society, she also transforms into an animal, unable to control her body and urges. As alien observers of the ‘total hormonal toilet’ of high school, the girls want to avoid these biological changes at all costs, offering a variety of preferred diagnoses for Ginger’s back pain (‘maybe it’s cancer of the spine?’ ‘Or tuberculosis?’); and when it is finally clear that Ginger is menstruating, she expresses her anger at the transformation (‘God, I mean, you kill yourself to be different, then your body screws you over’) while the female adults in the film - the girls’ mother and the school’s guidance counsellor - offer only glib sentiments of encouragement (‘congratulations, sweetie!’) and advice (‘play safe!’).
After the attack and the onset of puberty, Ginger is increasingly sexualised, not only in her behaviour but also in the eyes of those around her. As she gains more male attention, the film gives a nod or two to the standard teen movie transformation with shots of Katharine Isabelle striding down hallways with newly-dyed hair and figure-revealing clothing; but the subversion of the usual ‘boy meets girl’ plotline creates a feminist critique of standard rom-com stereotypes and reveals a much more sinister side to male-female relations. Rather than a mere attractor of attention, Ginger becomes an aggressor and instigator of sexual activity - a social faux pas in the restrictive world of Bailey Downs. The object of her lust, high school student Jason McCardy (Jesse Moss), is blind-sided by Ginger’s sexual dominance: ‘You lie back and relax,’ he tells her before asking ‘hey, who’s the guy here?’ [SPOILER ALERT] Ginger is not willing to adopt the submissive role prescribed: ‘Who’s the guy here?’ she angrily retorts before lunging at him and taking some blood-curdling bites (she is a werewolf after all!). [END OF SPOILER]
The aftermath of losing her virginity is equally messy as the act itself, both physically and emotionally. As she returns to Brigitte covered in blood and vomiting, Ginger speaks of her dissatisfaction: ‘I get this ache and I thought it was for sex but it’s to tear everything into fucking pieces… It wasn’t what I thought it would be - there was all this squirming and squealing and then he was done and you’re like â€œOhâ€.’ Ginger explains to Brigitte, the younger and less experienced of the sisters, the way that women are portrayed after sex: ‘He’s a hero and I’m just a lay, a freak, a mutant lay.’ The woman is seen as the alien other; an inferior object, which men can stereotype and dismiss.
This dialogue may sound unsubtle but Ginger Snaps is not simplistic in its message. As the plot progresses and Ginger’s mutation becomes complete, the film presents more nuanced effects of a male-dominated society. [SPOILER ALERT] One side effect is competition - the once-close sisters turn on each other (‘Poor B, I’m obviously growing up and you’re not’) and Ginger kills her love rival, Trina Sinclair, in a savage and comic attack in the Fitzgerald kitchen. After the killing, Ginger realises that the misogynistic system may have its advantages: ‘Look, no one ever thinks chicks do shit like this… We’ll just coast on how the world works.’ Their mother’s reaction to discovering the murder also reveals an interesting dimension to her Stepford Mom character. By contending that they should fake a fire in the house before going on the run, Pamela reveals her dissatisfaction with the role she has been assigned and her willingness to break free: ‘We’ll start afresh, just us girls. It’ll be fun.’ She highlights the difficulty of being a mother in society, predicting that both the girls’ father and the wider community will blame her for creating and bringing up murderous daughters. [END OF SPOILER]
While her mother voices discontent, Ginger embraces this unequal, competitive world and her new-found power, sneering at Brigitte as her peers once did: ‘I’m a goddamn force of nature. I feel like I could do just about anything. I feel almost like we’re not related anymore.’ She has now grown distant from Brigitte and fully mutated into a monstrous werewolf. The transformation (and film) ends bleakly. The sisters, once united in their mutant status and close, have become alienated from one another and the only equal and caring male-female relationship in the film has been destroyed. Perhaps Ginger Snaps aims to tell us that such a relationship is not possible once a girl becomes a woman and a sexual being. Perhaps Brigitte behaves as she does because her sister had transformed into a product of a society that they had hoped to avoid. Ironically, Ginger’s mutation (both natural and supernatural) brought her more in line with the norm than her previous mutant existence.
The films that Peter Greenaway made in the 1980s, even the lesser known examples shot between The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), all share many aspects. These include deliberate camera movements across elegant tableaux vivants, an interest in food, sex and mortality, visual and textual references to art and mathematics and a score by Michael Nyman. This is not say that these films are disappointing in any way, but just that if you’ve seen one of them you know what to expect from the others. Having seen all of the director’s 1980s films except The Belly of an Architect, I wasn’t surprised by its style, pace and content - and even though Nyman didn’t score this film, Wim Marten’s music is very similar in style.
In this 1987 rumination on sex, death, art and food, underrated character-actor Brian Dennehy is cast against type as an intellectual romantic lead, in contrast to his usual roles as cops and agents of the law in quirky thrillers and Westerns. Dennehy plays overweight architect Stourley Kracklite, whose obsessions with intestinal disease and mounting an exhibition on the fantastical French neo-classical architect í‰tienne-Louis Boullée are costing him his marriage and sanity.
Boullée is an apt obsession for Kracklite, who is better known for his uncompleted and lost projects rather than the few that survive. Echoing the grand follies that his 18th-century forebear wanted to leave as his legacy, the modern architect struggles with realising his predecessor’s work in an exhibition beset by spiralling costs and local meddlers who want to seduce his wife or invite him to feasts, adding to his already prodigious waist line. As each generation of architects is bound to be replaced by the next unless they are able to realise monumental projects within their lifetimes, Kracklite is doomed from the moment he enters Italy while impregnating his wife on a train - her pregnancy mimicking the tumour that is growing within his belly.
Greenaway beautifully lets each of the architect’s obsessions contrast with the other: while he finds and enlarges numerous photocopies of classical sculptures that fill the floor of his apartment, his self-obsession drives his wife into the arms of another, who can worship her body in his stead. The director chooses a variety of stunning backdrops across Rome and his lead actor’s physical presence contrasts well with the classical landscape.
As the eponymous belly expands with a tumour inside and the story winds its way to inescapable tragedy, Greenaway’s film adds to the legacy of sex and death attached to Italian cities on film. From the endless murder and copulation in the ancient Rome featured in Caligula (1979) to cannibalism and revenge in modern day Florence in Hannibal (1991) - not to mention most of Dario Argento‘s oeuvre - it seems that the spectre of reoccurring carnal tragedy haunts dramas played out in classical metropolises south of the Alps.
While the finale may seem inevitable from early on and the directing style telegraphed in advance, the film is both solid and morbidly reassuring, like the architecture it promotes, as well as sumptuous and easily digestible like the feasts and wine that hasten the architect’s demise.
Somewhere in Palilula anything can happen, and frequently it does. We are invited into a world turned upside down in Silviu Purcărete’s carnivalesque triumph. Serafim, a young paediatrician, arrives in this ghost town, and we learn about the place and its inhabitants through his eyes and the stories he tells. Hard spirits and cigarettes are the staple diet of a community of drunks, doctors, cleaners, prostitutes and a hermaphrodite. There are no children, the hospital patients are not sick, and soon Serafim starts to adapt and feel like he belongs there. Purcărete lifts us to emotional heights with a scintillating score (by composer Vasilé Şirli) and awe-inspiring theatrical tableaux (production designers are Helmut Stürmer and Dragoş Buhagiar), then lets us fall into depths of visceral mire, then up again and so on. The director immerses us in fantasy but his tale is hugely allegorical. Here, the legacy of Soviet rule and the onset of market economy in Romania are parodied and mythologised. By pushing surrealist and magic realist genres of cinema, Purcărete carves out a space for himself alongside Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini. This UK premiere at the EEFF comes highly recommended.
Perfectly timed for the arrival of the Olympics, an event even the most hardened Londoners are sick to the back teeth of before it has even begun, this collaboration between artist, filmmaker and restless rambler Andrew Kötting and writer, cultural investigator and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair is a match made in heaven. Kindred spirits who both share a physical and spiritual attachment with the South Coast, the pair first met when Sinclair reviewed Kí¶tting’s Gallivant for Sight & Sound and then maintained a correspondence before collaborating, tentatively, on the filmmaker’s cross-channel Offshore.
In many ways a summation of the themes and practices that have acted as signposts in their respective careers, the film, commissioned as part of Abandon Normal Devices, is a travelogue-cum-odyssey of suitably Olympian ambition as the two fearless explorers and a stolen plastic swan pedalo christened ‘Edith’ (named after the ancient English queen Edith Swan-Neck, whose statue can be seen at the Hastings suburb of Bulverhythe, cradling the dying King Harold after the Battle of Hastings) travel Jerome K. Jerome-style on the waterways of south-east England to the riverside fortress that will become East London’s Olympic 2012 site.
Having aborted several attempts to pen a synopsis, here is the filmmaker himself on the kernel of Swandown: ‘For four weeks throughout the months of September and October 2011 Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair pedalled a plastic swan over 160 miles from the seaside in Hastings to Hackney in East London. They drank 84 litres of water, 2 bottles of whisky, 4 bottles of wine and 24 cans of special brew. They got through 8 pairs of sunglasses, a handmade suit, a pair of walking boots and a camper van. Andrew Kötting wore the same clothes throughout. Iain Sinclair was changed regularly. They met all sorts en route, from the hoi polloi to the hoity toity, from the very old to the very young, with the pedalo acting as catalyst and magnet. Sometimes they were accompanied by invited guest pedallers - sage and comics creator Alan Moore, comedian and cultural commentator Stewart Lee, actor Dudley Sutton [who appeared in Kötting’s Emile Zola-inspired second feature This Filthy Earth], neuroscientist Dr Mark Lythgoe and artist Marcia Farquhar.’
A liquid road movie evocative of Gallivant, which Swandown frequently echoes, it also conjures the ghost of Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, playfully referenced via audio excerpts of Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams. Shots of the two self-confessed ‘codgers’ strenuously dragging their vessel across fields and roads to the next stretch of water add to the Herzogian tone. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is another frame of reference. I was also, if a little perversely, reminded of John Huston’s The African Queen. For its creator, the endeavour also acts as a tribute to the acclaimed performer, traveller and conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who in 1975 was lost at sea attempting to cross the Atlantic in a pocket cruiser. ‘Swandown was always meant to be a homage to him and the ridiculousness of his quest,’ comments Kötting.
Jovially described by Sinclair as ‘a blend of Benny Hill, Stan Brakhage and Joseph Beuys’, Kötting adopts the role of athlete, fool and visionary, larking about and cheerfully interacting with the flotsam and jetsam of British life. He is both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The director suffers for his art, contracting trench foot from his waterlogged boots and a nasty leg infection from a dog encountered en route. Sinclair is cast in the role of the cynical, weary, literary, philosophising wordsmith. Will Self in Shooting Stars in essence. The blend is perfect.
During their journey our intrepid, increasingly stiff-legged Marco Polos listen to the ambient echoes of British culture (historical, literary, political and depicted through Super 8 and archive newsreel footage from the South East Film and Video archive as well as a re-enactment of Shakespeare’s Ophelia as depicted in Millais’s pre-Raphaelite painting) and tune in - like ‘flesh radios’, as Sinclair says, channelling the cultural unconscious - to the secret voices of England today and yesterday. The result is a factual, frolicsome and fun film/text/Dada performance piece that offers an artistically riotous response to the corporate spirit dominating London in Olympics year. As Stewart Lee comments, ‘Iain Sinclair hates the Olympics. He doesn’t think anything should happen in Hackney without his permission’.
The two key points on the Swandown itinerary are its start and end: Hastings (from where ‘Edith’ originates and the actual physical launch point of the trip, a disastrous and inauspicious event hilariously captured on camera) and Hackney, homes to Kötting and Sinclair respectively. ‘The two geographies are intimately connected,’ says Sinclair - ever since a chunk of Hackney’s old artistic-bohemian population moved down to the South Coast, in search of freedom, inspiration and an affordable cost of living. ‘The old Hackney of anarchy and poverty has drifted down towards Hastings, whereas Hackney is now a virtual Wizard of Oz city of supermalls and surveillance. We had the idea of doing an anti-project, against the global corporate entities of the huge projects being done in Hackney in the name of the Olympics.’
Sadly, Sinclair’s commitments force him to abort the voyage before the Olympian Citadel is breached, leaving Kötting to pedal the final leg of the journey alone. The tone of the film becomes ever more melancholy as rural idyll gives way to urbanisation (a river littered with rubbish, frequent shouts of abuse rather than encouragement from passers-by and fellow river-dwellers) and a sporting project ensnared in bureaucracy, security and secrecy. The somewhat downbeat conclusion, however, never for a moment overshadows the project’s impish inquisitiveness and quintessential Englishness. Featuring many of Andrew Kötting’s long-time collaborators, including musician Jem Finer, cinematographer Nick Gordon-Smith and sound recordist Philippe Ciompi, this is an enduring and entertaining male buddy movie the likes of which we haven’t seen before.
Kotoko starts with an intensity that doesn’t diminish throughout the film. The story could pan out as a recognisable tale of a woman whose anxieties are exacerbated by her role as a new mother. Kotoko is paranoid, exhausted, and losing her grip on reality. So far, so what? But Shin’ya Tsukamoto has a unique vision, as we know from his Tetsuo films. In actual fact, this familiar account, shot in vérité style, includes an extreme level of violence. This brutality takes place in the narrative world of the film: Kotoko experiences beatings but also administers them generously herself. It is also part of Tsukamoto’s treatment of her psychological state and her mental decline. One technique is to manipulate diegetic sounds to create a sense of overwhelming agitation. He makes cooking with a large wok sound like being run over by a truck. This is interwoven with sweet and contemplative shots, many lingering on Kotoko, played by Tsukamoto’s attractive writing collaborator and star of the film, Cocco. Images of beautiful women harming themselves don’t do it for me but, on the whole, this filmmaker’s capacity to portray transgressive violence on screen, which you can feel in your own body as you watch, is pretty phenomenal.
Those who cling to wealth and power by forcing conformity, stifling creativity and crushing the very essence of humanity are the faceless dominant evil that exploits the most vulnerable aspect of what it means to be human. It is ultimately our spirit which is, in fact, not as indomitable as we’d all like to believe. Through indoctrination and constant scrutiny we are reduced to lumps of clay. We are moulded in the image our true rulers want to see. They want us tied to the consumption they control. Call them what you like, but they are indeed The New World Order.
And they are winning.
And, worst of all, the loser is love.
And without love, we all become prey.
Harkening back to great 70s science fiction film classics like The Terminal Man, Colossus: The Forbin Project, A Boy and His Dog, Silent Running and THX 1138 - when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut, when it was actually ABOUT something - Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature film Carré blanc is easily the finest dystopian vision of the future to be etched upon celluloid since that time.
The future it creates is not all that removed from our current existence.
Léonetti announces himself as a talent to be reckoned with. This low-budget science fiction film astounds us with its visual opulence. That, of course, is because it’s obvious that Léonetti has filmmaking hardwired into his DNA. NEVER does the film feel cheap or low-budget. Never do we feel like it has structured itself around all the usual budget-saving techniques that so many other first-time filmmakers unimaginatively opt for. Léonetti has wisely, painstakingly chosen a number of actual exterior and interior locations that fit his vision perfectly and work in tandem with the narrative. His compositions are rich and because his location selection has been so brilliantly judicious, he clearly had the time to properly light and dress the images.
The next time I hear some young filmmaker whining about the ‘challenges’ of their one-set low-budget production I will consider placing them on my list of those who shall feel the wrath of my Baikal semi-automatic Russian assault rifle when civilisation collapses and it becomes one giant free-for-all.
Though Carré blanc shares a specific approach with past work to a genre that can, perhaps more than any other, effect true analysis and possibly even change, there is nothing at all retro about the picture - no obvious post-modernist nods here. It is completely unto itself.
Carré blanc is fresh, hip, vibrant and vital.
Blessed also with a deliciously mordant wit, Léonetti delivers a dazzling entertainment for the mind and the senses.
The tale rendered is, on its surface and like many great movies, a simple one. Philippe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet) grew up together in a state orphanage and are now married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for limited procreation and, most curiously, promoting the game of croquet - the one and only state-sanctioned sport.
Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state - he is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator - and he’s very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe is transforming into indifference. In this world, hatred is a luxury. It’s a tangible feeling that the rulers would never tolerate and would punish with death.
Indifference, it would seem, is the goal. It ensures complete subservience to the dominant forces. Love, however, is what can ultimately prove to be the force the New World Order is helpless to fight and the core of this story is just that - love. If Philippe and Marie can somehow rediscover that bond, there might yet be hope - for them, and the world. It is this aspect of the story that always keeps the movie floating above a mere exercise in style.
So many dystopian visions suffer from being overly dour. Happily, Léonetti always manages to break the oppressive force of the film and its world by serving up humour. Most of the laughs in Carré blanc occur within the context of tests delivered by the interrogating indoctrinators. In the world of the film, suicide is often the only way out for those who have a spirit that cannot be crushed. One early scene features Philippe as a young teen and another boy his age who have both attempted unsuccessfully to kill themselves (by hanging and wrist-slashing respectively).
Both boys are led into an empty room where smiling corporate lackeys speak to them in tones of compassion. They are both asked to engage in a test to cheer them up. Lying before them is a body bag. The test is thus: which one of them will be first to go inside the bag?
Let us just say that we laugh in horror at what follows. (I wasn’t the only one laughing in the packed house at the film’s premiere screening. A few sick puppies belched out appreciative guffaws.)
Narratively, this sequence reveals that Philippe is clearly an interrogator in the making. The test itself is a perfect way to not immediately ‘waste’ potential ‘talent’ by snuffing them out before seeing what they’re really made of. As the film continues to unspool, some of the biggest laughs and equally chilling moments come from the tests Philippe concocts and metes out to discover those who must be weeded out of society - permanently. Other laughs derive from the odd announcements and pronouncements over the endless loudspeakers.
To Monsieur Léonetti, I offer a tip of the hat for coming up with so many dollops of darkly humorous nastiness throughout the proceedings. They not only offer entertainment value, but are inextricably linked to the world he creates, a world so similar to the one we live in and one which feels just around the corner if humanity does not prevail over the force of a very few.
Love becomes the ultimate goal of Léonetti’s narrative and as such, he delivers an instant classic of science fiction. At the end of the day, the best work in this genre IS about individuality and the fight to maintain the indomitability of spirit.
It might, after all, be the only thing we have left.