I, Olga Hepnarová

I, Olga Hepnarova
I, Olga Hepnarová

Seen at Fantasia 2016, Montreal (Canada)

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 November 2016

Distributor: Mubi

Directors: Petr Kazda, Tomas Weinreb

Writers: Petr Kazda, Tomas Weinreb

Cast: Michalina Olszanska, Martin Pechlat, Klara Meliskova, Marika Soposka

Alternative title:
I, Olga

Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, France 2016

105 mins

The brutal, moving tale of an abused young woman’s revenge in Communist Czechoslovakia had its North American premiere at Fantasia.

***** out of *****

While watching this grim, superbly realized feature-length dramatic biography about the last person ever executed in Czechoslovakia, my mind occasionally drifted to the famous tagline for Meir Zarchi’s rape-revenge exploitation classic I Spit on Your Grave. It read:

‘This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned four men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her!’

Within the context of that vile, but oddly affecting grade Z drive-in picture, it’s hard not to agree with the provocative sentiments expressed in the aforementioned declaration. I Spit on Your Grave is, however, pure fiction, whereas I, Olga Hepnarová is hardly an exploitation film: it is based on a true-life revenge-crime story that actually occurred in Prague during the summer of 1973.

Watching it, I imagined my own tagline:

‘This woman has just hijacked a two-ton diesel truck in Prague and plowed it full-throttle into a street full of innocent bystanders… but no jury in Czechoslovakia would ever convict her!’

Ah, but they did.

Writer-directors Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb have crafted a compulsive, moving and shocking film out of their title character’s life and the events leading up to her capture, conviction and execution. Most importantly, their picture pulls you in so closely and deeply that it’s impossible not to feel for this lonely young woman living a life of neglect and abuse in the post-Prague-Spring world of Communist repression, one in which all of former Czech party leader Alexander Dubček’s progressive reforms were reversed with a vengeance.

The astonishing young actress Michalina Olszanska plays Hepnarová from age 13 to her death 10 years later. She manages to pull off the near-impossible task of a poker-faced intensity that forces us to look beneath the veneer and into her eyes, which alternate between shark-like death stares and deep humanity, ranging from innate intelligence, sensitivity and confusion, to pain and anger, and even, on occasion, humour. She delivers one of the great screen performances of the new millennium and it serves the superb screenplay and austere mise en scène perfectly.

Using gorgeously composed long takes, shooting in evocative monochrome (via the expert lensing of Adam Sikora of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Four Nights with Anna and Essential Killing fame) and presenting Hepnarova’s sad tale using voice-over excerpts from her haunting journals, the filmmakers offer a compelling arms-length plea for understanding. It’s their carefully controlled, often Kubrickian observations that deliver the kind of humanity and emotional core with which the late director of Dr. Strangelove, et al, was so often not properly credited with. Control and austerity does not mean the kind of coldness many critics mistakenly attribute to such work and in contrast, can often guarantee the film’s ability to reach right into the flesh and rip our hearts out.

I, Olga Hepnarová goes even further by tearing into us and exposing our nerve endings – pulling and tugging at the raw tendrils and putting us in as much pain as humanly possible to capture the life and emotions of this young woman. The film shares her life with us and we’re placed in the eye of the storm of this woman who spent a lifetime being callously neglected by her mother (‘To commit suicide you need a strong will, my child. Something you certainly don’t have. Accept it.’), raped by her father (captured with a subtlety that’s far more horrific than any graphic depiction), numerous attempts to kill herself, incarceration in a Soviet-style snake pit of an asylum (suffering even more physical and psychological abuse) and an early adulthood of exploring her sexual identity with often very sad results.

And finally, the filmmakers present us with the visuals depicting the results of Olga’s actual words:

‘I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A woman destroyed by people… I have a choice – to kill myself or to kill others. I choose to avenge my haters. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide victim. Society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death.’

Of course we weep for her victims, but the film achieves the extraordinary by allowing us to weep for the ‘destroyed woman’ whose pain goes so undetected and neglected that her only choice seems to be the declaration of a death sentence upon a society bereft of caring.

To say the film takes a story from the 70s and makes it even more vital for our contemporary world would be an understatement. We weep for Olga Hepnarová, but we’re also placed in a position wherein we might be able to weep for those who carry out acts of violence and, in so doing, kill themselves.

Mental illness is a genuine affliction. It can result in evil actions, but the perpetrators are, more often than not, sick in mind, body and soul. Healing and caring has escaped them. I, Olga Hepnarová speaks not just for one, but all of them.

Greg Klymkiw

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We Are the Flesh

We Are the Flesh
We Are the Flesh

Seen at Fantasia 2016, Montreal (Canada)

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 November 2016

DVD/BR release date: 13 February 2017

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Emiliano Rocha Minter

Writer: Emiliano Rocha Minter

Cast: Marìa Cid, Marìa Evoli, Diego Camaliel, Noé Hernandez

Original title: Tenemos la carne

Mexico, France 2016

79 mins

Emiliano Rocha Minter’s extreme theatre of the flesh was the climax of Fantasia.

Rituals and rebirth, libidinous excess and transformative violence: in his spectacular debut, Mexican director Emiliano Rocha Minter creates his very own Theatre of Cruelty, in a direct line to Alejandro Jodorowsky and Antonin Artaud, but with a fully formed personal vision. In a similar spirit to his illustrious predecessors, incest, cannibalism, orgy and slaughter are used to build an extreme sensory experience that brutally shakes up audiences’ aesthetic and moral preconceptions, forcing them into new forms of perception.

In what seems to be a post-apocalyptic world, a grubby middle-aged man goes about the business of survival in a derelict building. His solitary, wordless existence changes with the arrival of two ragged, starving young people. The older man, Christic, diabolical and off his head, feeds them eggs along with subversive thoughts, which recognize no conventional moral boundaries, until the boy – reluctantly – and the girl – readily – let go of all inhibitions and interdictions to descend into a lawless, frantic, primal state of blood and lust.

It is a film that fully, messily embraces the body, all gore and genitals, mucus and menstruation, sex and slime. Many of the acts performed take place in a psychedelically coloured womb-like, subterranean space, creating a world that is carnal and hallucinatory, crude and oneiric, explicit and artificial at the same time. It is an intense, confined performance of the flesh that reduces everything to the physical, in what is both a retreat and a rebellion. The shock of the flesh is a liberation from the rule (and in that, it is a very Sadean film), but it is also a withdrawal from the world, a refusal to engage with the outside reality. Indeed, despite initial appearances, We Are the Flesh is elliptically, obliquely about Mexico, with its distortion of Catholic rituals and its perverse rendition of the national anthem, and its final revelation of what lies above. A stunning masterwork, visually and sonically accomplished, radical, fearless, and nourished by an irrepressible, lush, dark energy.

Virginie Sélavy

The Bloodstained Butterfly

The Bloodstained Butterfly
The Bloodstained Butterfly

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 22 August 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Duccio Tessari

Writers: Gianfranco Clerici, Duccio Tessari

Cast: Helmut Berger, Giancarlo Sbragia, Ida Galli, Silvano Tranquilli, Wendy D’Olive, Gunther Stoll, Carole André

Original title: Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate

Italy 1971

95 mins

Duccio Tessari’s stylish murder-mystery is a forgotten, unusually complex gem of giallo cinema.

A most unusual entry in the giallo cannon of explicit murder-mystery thrillers, this very fine courtroom whodunit – delivered in its entirety for this glorious restoration – boasts a breakout turn from German import Helmut Berger, here cast as a wealthy businessman’s son with women on the mind.

The action begins in classic giallo fashion: a girl is murdered while out walking by an unseen assailant with a knife. Witnesses soon identify the apparent killer: well-known sports TV personality Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia). But the trial soon throws up more questions than it answers, particularly when we see that the accused and his legal team know more than they are willing to let on. Before long, the murders resume, and the accused is out on bail.

Tessari’s handsomely photographed film – the framing and texture of the Bergamo locations is exquisite – shies away from gratuitous violence (very little blood is actually spilt) and the trademark giallo eroticism, despite some soft-focus nudity. Even the requisite animal, a butterfly, of all things, is modest by giallo standards.

The wealthy are typically up to no good, of course (two lecherous middle-aged men salivating over teenagers being a case in point), with the ever-diligent police always a few steps behind. A running gag about undrinkable coffee (from a machine!) is a nice touch. A generous amount of detail over police forensics, quaint by modern standards, adds some gravity to proceedings. The opening sequence (cut from the original in several territories) introduces a fine cast with colourful precision.

Some typically Italian flourishes will inevitably raise eyebrows, particularly the access a television crew appears to have to the crime scene (filming right next to the victim’s body, no less). The director’s cameos, complete with carnations, and his wife’s casting as a key player complete a series of in-the-know gags.

Casting well-known Italian faces and a clutch of German imports, Tessari finds time to pass comment on the ethics of money in sports, while all around the faint hangover of the 1960s lingers in the air. These characters are far too nattily dressed to be leaning towards counterculture (we are near Milan, after all), but there is sufficient subversive content to keep our minds engaged. The recent Blow-Up was an obvious influence on Tessari. Interesting, too, to note some brightly coloured macs early on, which predate Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now by a year or more.

A forgotten, unusually complex gem of giallo cinema, this welcome reissue by Arrow Video comes complete with interviews with some of the key cast, essays on the film, a pair of commentaries and photo galleries.

Ed Gibbs

White Coffin

White Coffin
White Coffin

Seen at Fantasia 2016, Montreal (Canada)

Format: Cinema

Director: Daniel de la Vega

Writers: Ramiro García Bogliano, Adrian García Bogliano

Cast: Julieta Cardinali, Rafa Ferro, Fiorela Duranda, Damián Dreizik, Veronica Intile

Argentina 2016

71 mins

In his latest offering, the Argentinian director Daniel de la Vega takes us into some delightfully juicy territory.

***½ out of *****

Who in their right mind doesn’t love George Sluizer’s 1988 shocker The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos)? It’s the Dutch suspense classic in which a man obsessively searches for his girlfriend who disappears without a trace at a roadside pitstop. As great and perfect as Sluizer’s picture is, Argentinian director Daniel de la Vega (working from a zanily inspired screenplay by the Bogliano Brothers) takes us into some delightfully juicy territory in White Coffin, which enjoyed its World Premiere at Fantasia 2016 in Montreal.

Imagine The Vanishing, wherein a smelly guy is substituted with a hot babe searching for her sweet little girl amongst a sect of evil-infused torture-hounds. Add plenty of supernatural frissons, a wham-bam no-nonsense 70-minute running time and some to-die-for action and you get the rich cocktail of powerful 100-proof homebrew that is White Coffin.

Shaken, of course. Not stirred. Belt it back and allow your nerves to be jangled and definitely not soothed.

Virginia (Julieta Cardinali) is taking a powder from her abusive hubby with cute-as-a-button daughter Rebecca (Fiorela Duranda) in tow. Hightailing it across the Pampas, the duo encounter a strange fork-in-the-road from which they’re warned off by Mason (Rafael Ferro), a hunky gaucho who appears to be taking far too much interest in them. When they arrive at a pitstop on the highway, the worst thing any parent can imagine occurs. Sweet little Rebecca disappears without a trace.

Luckily for Virginia (and mostly for the audience), she spots a glimpse of her daughter through the window of a souped-up tow truck and we’re treated to one of the most delightfully hair-raising chase scenes I’ve seen in sometime. (It’s up there with the recent and decidedly overblown Jason Bourne chases, but happily sans the herky-jerky of that otherwise dull blockbuster.)

There’s no point ruining some of the surprises in store, suffice to say that the outcome of the chase brings a return of Gaucho Mason who mysteriously appears ever so often to dispense cryptic advice and guide our hot heroine through a labyrinth of horror and suspense, which also involves a dangerous game played by two other hot mamas also missing their kids.

All I will promise you is white knuckle suspense, a perplexing puzzle of evil, a passel of devil-worshipping inbreds, detailed instructions on how to build a white coffin (in case you should need this yourself whilst vacationing in lovely Argentina), vice-like direction to manage all these elements of horror and, most importantly, you will enjoy some first-rate cat fights, with babes, naturally. The latter treat is like a jarful of maraschino cherries dumped into this mega-fun concoction of witches’ brew.

Greg Klymkiw

Battles without Honour or Humanity

Battles without Honour and Humanity
Battles without Honour or Humanity

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 8 August 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Kinji Fukasaku

Writers: Koichi Iiboshi, Kazuo Kasahara

Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Kunie Tanaka

Original title: Jingi naki tatakai

Japan 1973

99 mins

Fukasaku’s 1973 yakuza movie is imbued with a sense of the absurd stupidity of violence and anger at the mythology of the criminal clans.

Kinji Fukasaku’s influential 1973 yakuza movie Battles without Honour or Humanity opens with a freeze frame of the mushroom cloud. We are in a post-war Japan one step on from Ground Zero. Life is a confused and violent shambles, a shanty town existence – anticipating the opening of Brian De Palma’s Scarface – where a feral criminality lurks, with roaming GIs boozing and raping and yakuza families fighting and jockeying for territory. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) is a demobbed soldier who agrees to confront a drunk yakuza as a favour for the local gang. The confrontation turns to murder. It is a hesitant, unglamorous and amateurish killing, but the symbolism is obvious. The traditionally dressed yakuza with the samurai sword represents the floundering figure of the failed old ways, his weapon an outmoded throwback. It is clear that these old ways are not necessarily more honourable – the man is a drunken psychopath and we’ve already seen the samurai sword used to lop off limbs as part of an extortion racket – but Hirono and his friends represent a new reality of instability and opportunism, created by the mushroom cloud that opens the film. In jail, Hirono will make friends, a blood brother indeed, and his loyalty will be rewarded with an entrance into a yakuza family.

The rest of the film follows outsider Hirono – although becoming a blood brother with one family, his loyalty remains with that of his old pals and their boss for whom he went to jail – as he negotiates his way into a gangster’s life. This picaresque hero is an amiable thug, an obstinately thick-headed lump, who barely understands the shifting feuds, the complicated double-crossing and the intricate interweave of loyalty and disloyalty that run throughout the film. His simplicity contrasts with the avarice and power plays around him as the families battle for territory and drug money. There is no dignified old guard here. The boss of Hirono’s family is a transparently venal and petty man provoking a war with his parsimony.

Fukasaku imbues the film with a sense of the absurd stupidity of violence. Each murder is met with a journalistic freeze frame with date and time title (the film is based on a series of newspaper articles written by Kôichi Iiboshi that were themselves adapted from the memoirs of real-life yakuza Kôzô Minô) as well as being punctuated by a blaring scream of American jazz trumpet. When a yakuza decides to cut off his finger in the most iconic of yakuza moments, the scene is played out as a ludicrous comedy with the severed finger flying off into the garden and the assembled gangsters crawling around on their hands and knees to find the missing digit.

It is precisely the mythology of the yakuza at which Fukasaku’s fury is aimed; the rituals and the lore of the criminal clans are literally shot to pieces by the film. The immediacy of his anger can be felt in the documentary style he adopts. His freeze frames are particularly well chosen, they suggest a dynamism most motion pictures lack. Even the yakuza themselves occasionally tire of their activities, one of them complaining that every night he has doubts, but in the morning, when he’s surrounded by his men, he gets back to it. The film was immensely popular and would spawn four sequels known collectively as The Yakuza Papers. Another cycle of films, New Battles without Honour or Humanity and Aftermath of Battles without Honour and Humanity, would also be launched. However, the law of diminishing returns applies and Fukasaku’s thesis had already been forcefully expressed in the first film.

John Bleasdale

This review was first published in 2002 in connection with the DVD release of Battles without Honour or Humanity by Eureka Entertainment.

Sid and Nancy

Sid and Nancy
Sid and Nancy

Format: Cinema

Release date: 5 August 2016

BR/DVD release date: 29 August 2016

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Alex Cox

Writers: Alex Cox, Abbe Wool

Cast: Gary Oldman, Andrew Schofield, Chloe Webb, David Hayman

UK 1986

112 mins

Alex Cox’s retelling of the Sex Pistols bassist’s doomed junkie romance with an American groupie still packs a punch.

Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy is 30 years old and looking pretty damn fly for its age, well turned out in vintage bondage trousers and handsome Roger Deakins cinematography. Age changes a film, and in this case the years have been kind. It tells the true tale, you must surely know, of the utterly ill-starred relationship between Sid Vicious, the under-rehearsed bassist in the second line-up of The Sex Pistols, and Nancy Spungen, an American groupie/prostitute. It is a romance written in gob and heroin, mostly heroin, through which the couple ‘meet cute’, after a fashion, and through which they will both spiral, over a couple of years, towards a wretched murder/overdose in New York 79.

Being punkily inclined as a teenager, a decade or so after the movement’s heyday, I bloody loved Sid and Nancy, partly because it was one of the few and far examples of what could be termed punk cinema that could be found in the local video outlet, together with Cox’s Repo Man and the early works of Penelope Spheeris. I wore out my VHS copy with over-use whilst at the same time being fully aware that many lairy old ex-punks ‘who were there at the time’ had a bit of a downer on the film for its many transgressions,* and they had a point. It is, to be sure, a travesty of history, if you care about that sort of thing. The actual events are compressed, blended, shaken and stirred to fit a clear narrative arc. Anachronisms abound, and wrong notes are struck. But to criticise the film on grounds of accuracy seems wrong-headed. Cox sets out his stall early on: he puts ghosts in the Chelsea Hotel’s corridors, and fills London’s streets with St Trinian’s-style hockey-wielding little thugs. He has mounted cavalry trot past, drapes the punks in vintage Vivienne Westwood and covers the walls in Jamie Reid art and spray can graffiti. This, it is clear, is not aiming for realism. This, at least in its London scenes, is a ‘print the legend’ portrait. He fills his frame with background artistes and makes sure they have stuff to do, unleashing a three-ring circus of anti-social activity. He lets his set dressers and costume designers have a field day, and always one to prefer the idiosyncratic to the functional, he allows his actors to go broad to the point of caricature, a risky strategy that (as with Repo Man) continually draws memorable performances from even minor characters. So we have David Hayman delivering a winningly saturnine Malcolm McLaren, the cherishable Kathy Burke stealing scenes in Clockwork Orange get-up, and Debbie Bishop doing great work as Pistols secretary Phoebe, amongst a cavalcade of sharp little turns.

The film belongs to Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, though. this was Oldman’s first man-sized role ( he was in Mike Leigh’s Meantime in 84, but not much else of note), and he grabs it with both hands. His Sid is an endlessly watchable blend of swagger and style and clumsy naivety, a likeable fool who’s won the lottery and landed his dream gig without having to do any heavy lifting. He plays up to the sneering, v-flicking, violent role the tabloids have created for him, but deflates the image with moments of sweet politeness and vulnerability – witness him begging Nancy to help him with the washing-up ’round his mum’s flat dressed in leopard print underpants and socks. He’s essentially a big, clueless kid who’s been given all the toys but doesn’t understand the game, and watching his descent to the snot-bubbling wreck on the NY subway is heart-breaking. Webb has the harder task of imbuing ‘nauseating’ Nancy with any qualities that would make her worth going to hell for, and does a fine job. Her Nancy is, for sure, an appalling human being, a leech whose every utterance is a whine or a scream or a shrieked insult when she hasn’t gotten her way, but she’s also possessed of a brash, ballsy energy and a lopsided devotion. Her horrified realisation that, dressed in Sid’s mum’s floaty scarves, she ‘looks like Stevie Nicks!’ is hilarious. Her quiet admission that the reason the couple have been thrown out of her grand-parents’ house early on, in a disastrous visit home to her folks, is simply that ‘they know me’ a quietly unnerving moment of self-awareness.

Together they form a tight little bond, immune to the truth, where he is a star for the ages and she is his soulmate and manager. This is emphasised by the sequences that punctuate the piece like dream interludes: slow-motion scenes where all noise drops away apart from the pretty, yearning music composed for the film by Pray For Rain and The Pogues, The first shows the couple walking in blissful drunken serenity away from the Pistols Jubilee boat party as all around them are brutally collared by the cops; a later one has them snogging in a New York alleyway as trash rains down around them. Both emphasise the bubble that the young lovers have built around them. In many ways it’s a film of two halves, taking a definite turn when we get to New York and the Chelsea hotel. The colourful burlesque drops away, the frames become less and less crowded, grim reality seeps in, until we’re left with two helpless people in a shrinking room. Junkie etiquette takes hold, a life of endless empty promises and all conquering need, where the world shrivels and the detritus accumulates.**

Cox and co-writer Abbe Wool’s most egregious sins against the facts of the case have all been in the service of making the film a love story, and I can see how its fanciful ‘taxi to heaven’ confabulations would seem like so much appalling bullshit to anybody involved with the actual squalor of gutter-level smack addiction. Within the film, all the Christiane F stuff sits a little uneasily with the earlier Carry On cartoonery. Other duff notes are the scenes with ‘Rockhead’, a thinly veiled and thinly conceived Iggy-esque*** creation inserted into the Soho sections of the story, whose appearances and purpose are a little baffling. And it has to be said that Andrew Schofield just doesn’t land Johnny Rotten, coming across decidedly more clownish Captain Sensible than malevolent Mr Lydon, and flatly underselling his ‘ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated’ moment.

All told, viewed today it’s an inventive and energetic raggedy thing, made with a wide screen chutzpah rare in British film, and held together by a committed charismatic lead couple. The music sounds fine, the photography is superb, it’s generous and inclusive and wide-eyed, and like most of the director’s work, feels just a little out of control. I wish Alex Cox had a longer purple patch, I lost track of his work after Highway Patrolman, but he made some damn cinema when he could raise the money. The Moviedrome seasons he curated and presented for BBC2 were a cinema education for a generation. Give the man some appreciation.

Mark Stafford

* The most obvious being that yer actual punk rockers of a certain vintage will never believe that Sid actually killed Nancy, much has been written, and at least one full-length documentary (Alan G Parker’s Who Killed Nancy, 2009) made, on the case for the defence, if you will.

** It’s jarring when Courtney Love turns up in a small role as a friend of Nancy’s later in the film, bringing to mind parallels with another smack-addled rock’n’roll horror show.

*** The real James Osterberg pops up later as a prospective Chelsea guest.

Watch the trailer: