God Knows Where I Am

God Knows Where I Am

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 14 April 2017

Venue: Bertha DocHouse Screen (Curzon Bloomsbury), London

Directors: Jedd Wider, Todd Wider

USA 2017

99 mins

Tickets are on sale via the DocHouse website

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

There is plenty of drama in the directorial debut from noted producing brothers Jedd and Todd Wider, but make no mistake, this is a documentary.

There is a deep mystery that unfurls in God Knows Where I Am – sometimes scary, often creepy, but eventually giving way to something much deeper than the surface details. Like most evocative whodunits, the picture becomes a whydunit and exposes, not unlike great film noir (and modern neo-noir), something far more desperate and downright insidious. There is plenty of drama, but make no mistake, this is a documentary.

Sadly, too many filmmakers forget about the power of poetry in cinema. This is especially endemic in documentary work that’s limited to imparting facts, and/or becomes so wrapped up in ‘story’ (demanded by narrow, vision-bereft commissioning editors) that no matter how proficient the films are about the issue and/or subject matter at the centre of the work, they are ultimately bereft of genuine artistry.

God Knows Where I Am opened in the US on 31 March 2017 and is released nationwide by Bond/360.

There is no such problem plaguing God Knows Where I Am. The picture is an absolute heartbreaker and a good deal of its success is directly attributable to its pace, style and structure, which yields a film infused with all the qualities of the sublime. I challenge anyone to not weep profusely at several points within its elegiac 99-minute running time.

The picture reimagines the last weeks of Linda Bishop, an intelligent, sensitive middle-aged woman found dead in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Existing only on rainwater and apples from a bountiful tree, she felt trapped by dangers which threatened and frightened her to such a degree that she was unable to leave the comfort and shelter afforded to her by this lonely enclave. Eventually, as the apples ran out and the unheated house was battered by one of the coldest winters on record, comfort gave way to agony and agony gave way to grace.

Directors Todd and Jedd Wilder have constructed their film using a seemingly endless series of gorgeously composed and lit shots (gloriously mastered on FILM by cinematographer Gerardo Puglia), with many of the dolly and tracking shots moving with the kind of slow beauty Vilmos Zsigmond employed in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. These haunting images, many of which are so stunning they’ll be seared on your soul for a lifetime, are accompanied by off-camera readings from Bishop’s journal by actress Lori (Footloose, Trouble in Mind, Shortcuts) Singer. Singer’s performance here is astonishing – she captures the pain, desperation and even small joys in Bishop’s life during these sad, lonely days with a sensitivity and grace linked wholly to her ‘character’. This is no mere narration or voiceover – this is acting.

The aforementioned sequences are interspersed with actual 8mm home-movie footage of Bishop as a child, who was once bright, happy and full of promise. The filmmakers also wend interviews into the film’s fabric with such figures as Bishop’s adult daughter, various friends and relatives, and a local police detective and medical examiner – all of whom contribute to the mystery that unfolds with spellbinding dexterity.

In addition to the cinematography, the key creative elements in the picture are simply astonishing. Editor Keiko Deguchi creates a gentle, yet always compelling pace that contributes to the poetic nature of the film (and a few dissolves so powerful that each one knocks the wind out of you) while Paul Cantelon, Ivor Guest and Robert Logan have created one of the best scores I’ve heard in any documentary. Elements such as sound, art direction and visual effects are on a par with the best cinema can offer.

This is great cinema and certainly a contender for one of the best documentaries of the new millennium. It captures profound poetic truths about homelessness, mental illness and loneliness, which are rendered with such artistry and sensitivity that this is a film for the ages.

Greg Klymkiw

Watch the trailer:



Seen at IFFR, Rotterdam (Netherlands)

Format: Cinema

Director: Hokimoto Sora

Writer: Hokimoto Sora

Cast: Yamamoto Keisuke, Kawase Yota, Akatsuka Minako, Lily, Tanaka Min, Iwata Ryuto, Takahashi Yo

Japan 2016

85 mins

Hokimoto Sora’s debut Haruneko is a quirky, somewhat surreal oddity.

In the Bright Future strand, I happened upon the Japanese production Haruneko, described in the catalogue thus: ‘makes a valiant play for the accolade “weirdest film of the year”…’. That description being too much to resist, I headed out in the cold to take a look. In many ways, the film did not disappoint. It is set in a café run by a character known only as The Manager, with his elderly helper (a woman who knits) and a young man called Haru. People who wish to die – whether young or old, healthy or ill – come to the café and are then driven to a place deep in the woods, where the point of no return is on the other side of a tunnel. Once there, they can never change their mind about dying, and what they will find is that they will slowly disappear and be transformed into sound waves. Through the lens of a magic lantern show, aspects of their past lives are flashed onto a makeshift screen, with the show always culminating in a live musical number that features a children’s choir and a raucous rock band wearing white cat masks. Honest!

These plot conceits are justified by the overarching ‘point’ of the film that, in the end, ‘all that is left for us is to sing and dance.’ This may be so, but it is a bewildering and not wholly satisfactory cinematic ‘song and dance’.

The terrible beauty of films that incorporate tropes of the fantastic, the uncanny, the speculative and the carnivalesque is that, while we can applaud the director’s bravura and commitment to such narrative strategies, these strategies need to appear seamless, unself-conscious and wholly necessary, rather than artfully pretentious. Luis Buñuel is one of a handful who could accomplish this effortlessly. Director Hokimoto Sora seems laboured and less sure-handed in dealing with these strategies in his film. A tightrope walk of visual and textual precision in balancing these particular tropes – in contradistinction to losing balance to preciousness – is of fundamental concern to the would-be storyteller, and at times Sora seems to lose this balance. Even ‘difficult’ non-mainstream texts need a discernible and perceivable overall inner logic and clarity of vision – however diffuse this may be with regard to the storyline. That uncomfortable feeling of cringe-worthy pretentiousness did rear its head in me from time to time, especially in the musical sequences where the aesthetic seemed a little prosthetic.

But having vented that criticism, I applaud the vision and courage of Sora for approaching his story in this way – we certainly could do with more of that in young filmmakers – and would, nonetheless, recommend seeing for yourself this quirky, somewhat surreal oddity.

James B. Evans

Sexy Durga

Sexy Durga
Sexy Durga

Seen at IFFR, Rotterdam (Netherlands)

Format: Cinema

Director: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan

Writer: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan

Cast: Rajshri Deshpande, Kannan Nayar, Vedh, Sujeesh K. S., Arunsol, Bilas Nair

India 2016

85 mins

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga is not sexy and more of a drag(a) than a durga.

Another World Premiere at IFFR was the Indian film Sexy Durga: not sexy and more of a drag(a) than a durga. Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s film is described as an investigation into ‘how obsessiveness and worship can quickly degenerate in a patriarchal society into a mentality of oppression and abuse of power’. Well, yes… sort of… but this rambling text is far too open-ended and ill-disciplined to address those issues in any buttangential ways. This is Sasidharan’s fourth feature length film, and unlike his previous one, Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game, 2015), which was claimed to have been made without a script, Sexy Durga is claimed to have been made without a pre-set narrative. Sorry to say that this is very evident in various drawn-out, repetitive and rambling sequences and storylines. The risk of improvisation and ‘chance’ in a film can be rewarding if all concerned are up to the challenge, but it would seem not to be the case here. Not all of the actors are persuasive enough to pull this off, and a tighter grip of the director’s hands on set and in the editing suite would have paid better dividends.

The lack of a set narrative notwithstanding, the story is about a young woman, Durga, who is on the run with her lover, Kabeer. They meet up at the side of a road and take off into the night, trying desperately to get to a train station in time to board and begin their amorous journey to a place far away from their point of origin. Along the way, they get picked up by a group of seedy fellows who become increasingly intimidating, while also seeming to be strangely protective of the couple. Sub-plots in this liminal road movie involve the couple trying to escape the group or the group expelling them from their vehicle, but somehow they always get back together to continue the journey in its cramped space.

Set against this trip is recurring footage of Hindu festivities in honour of Kali, the ’embodiment of the rage of the mother Goddess, Durga’, a four-armed deity who carries a severed head as well as her deadly weapons. During the festival, men dance ecstatically, walk across hot coals, and insert sharpened metal skewers into their faces or insert meat hooks into their backs and thighs to be hoisted up a la Richard Harris in the infamous scenes in Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse (1970). The juxtaposition of the males in the car and the males at the festival are meant to somehow conflate into a parable(?), a morality lesson (?), a polemic (?) about masculinity or, as quoted, ‘a degeneration in patriarchal society into a mentality of oppression and abuse of power’. Ok, I get it. But it is not persuasive nor clear, and, to paraphrase, the film itself is more about a degeneration in directorial society into a mentality of obfuscation and indulgence of power. To lose the plot is one thing, but to lack one, is quite another.

James B. Evans



Seen at IFFR, Rotterdam (Netherlands)

Format: Cinema

Director: Niles Atallah

Writer: Niles Atallah

Cast: Claudio Riveros, Rodrigo Lisboa

Chile, France, Netherlands, Germany, Qatar 2016

90 mins

Rey is to be admired for the vision, commitment and sheer determination of the filmmaker.

Perhaps the sheer eclecticism of the producers behind Rey – from Chile, France, Netherlands, Germany and Qatar – somehow echos the sheer eclecticism of the film itself. This wildly ambitious, experimental piece, which had its World Premiere at IFFR as part of the Hivos Tiger Competition, transcends many of the criticisms made of the previous films while at the same time ironically embracing many of those same critiques. It’s visionary, brave, memorable, but it also occasionally slips off of that aesthetic and intellectual tightrope of pretension/non-pretension, with little chance of this particular dialectic finding (or even seeking) resolution.

The PR claims that the director, Niles Atallah, shot segments of the film as early as 2011 and ‘buried the 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm film in his back garden’ for later inclusion in Rey as narrative devices to illustrate ‘deteriorating memories’, wild visions of the protagonist’s developing madness, and to raise ‘problems of history and memory’ by including these degraded visual and aural images into the final film. Atallah also developed his story with plotting devices such as puppets, masks and stop-motion animation, in addition to the scratched and disfigured celluloid exhumations. These devices and more are brought to bear on a story about a real-life but largely forgotten19th-century French lawyer and adventurer named Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, who travelled to Patagonia bearing a written constitution – composed by himself – and declared himself King. He travelled a difficult journey through untrammeled wilderness before reaching his destination and meeting with the local Mapuche tribes, who he undertook to rule over but also protect. He later minted coins, designed a flag and appointed ministers to his ‘kingdom’, which was not endorsed by French or Chilean authorities. Considered to be mad, he pressed on with his plans for the rest of his life, and after legal proceedings and deportation, finally died back in France.

The film recounts the story using experimental cinematic methods that culminate in a theatrical experience where Norman McLaren meets Terry Gilliam meets Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, mixed with Fitzcarraldo. And even this description of some of the DNA that can be discerned in Atallah’s film doesn’t quite do it justice. Rey is a singular work and is to be admired for the vision, commitment and sheer determination of the filmmaker. The film is successful in many ways, but does occasionally slip into self-conscious affectation and slightly pretentious artifice. In the days of Midnight Movies – aided and abetted by certain psychotropic ‘refreshments’ – where the likes of El Topo, 2001: a Space Odyssey and Eraserhead triumphed, I think Rey would have found a theatrical home.

James B. Evans

Death Walks Twice

Death Walks at Midnight

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 20 March 2017

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Luciano Ercoli

Death Walks on High Heels
Writers: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mahnahén Velasco (as May Flood), Dino Verde

Cast: Frank Wolff, Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu

Original Title: La morte cammina con i tacchi alti

Italy, Spain 1971

108 mins

Death Walks at Midnight
Writers: Sergio Corbucci, Ernesto Gastaldi, Guido Leoni, Mahnahén Velasco (as May Flood)

Cast: Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Pietro Martellanza

Original Title: La morte cammina con i tacchi alti

Italy, Spain 1972

102 mins

Hallucinations, deadly mediaeval gloves and make-up fetish are the marks of Luciano Ercoli’s entertaining giallo double bill.

This typically lavish Arrow BluRay/DVD box set collects two gialli from director Luciano Ercoli, following up his genre debut, Le foto proibite di una signora per bene (The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, 1970) with a matched pair of mysteries built around leading lady Susan Scott (aka Nieves Navarro) and more or less the same supporting cast (though the heroine has a different duplicitous love interest in each film).

In La morte cammina con i tacchi alti (Death Walks on High Heels, 1971), Paris-based stripper Nicole (Scott) suspects her useless layabout lover Michel (Simón Andreu) has donned blue contact lenses and a black ski-mask to terrorise her with a straight razor in an attempt to get his hands on some diamonds everyone thinks her murdered jewel thief father left with her. Nicole hooks up with eye surgeon Dr Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff), a fan-cum-stalker who whisks her off to a strange version of the British seaside with pub gossips (including a one-handed handyman with a secret fetish), an ice-delivering fish vendor (crucial plot point), voyeur neighbours and more murderous attacks.

In La morte accarezza a mezzanotte (Death Walks at Midnight/Cry Out in Terror, 1972), Milan-based model Valentina (Scott), duped into taking hallucinogen HDS by her sleazy photojourno pal Gio (Andreu), has a vision of a girl being murdered with a spiked mediaeval glove in the surreally empty apartment across the way. Later, it turns out she’s described a six-month-old crime which has already been solved. The heroine’s alternately sensitive and vicious sculptor boyfriend (Pietro Martellanza/Peter Martell), a desperate widow (Claudie Lange), another sinister doctor (Ivano Staccioli), some hippies and a pair of nasty drug dealers cloud the issue, and Valentina is further imperilled. In both films, Carlo Gentili plays an affably unconcerned police inspector who turns up after every violent outbreak to puzzle things out – though Ercoli prefers to resolve mysteries with shock revelations, sudden attacks, punch-ups (sound effects make fist-blows sound like planks of wood snapping) and rooftop chases.

As in many gialli, the bizarre trappings – weird weaponry, hallucinations, masked heavy-breathers, burbling lounge music, fabulously garish fashions and decors, bursts of ultra-violence – litter plots which turn out to be indecently fixated on money rather than mania. It’s all about the stolen diamonds… or the smuggled drugs. Except, of course, it’s not: these films are memorable because of everything else, and resemble fractured mash-ups of Edgar Wallace Presents programmers with post-Blow-Up swinging psychedelia. Some of the extraordinary frills are so ludicrous as to be almost transgressive – like Nicole’s black-face stripping act in High Heels, which prompts a fetish sex scene as her boyfriend is turned on by wiping off her body make-up.

The vision of a soulless, exploitative modern world revolving around poor, abused Navarro/Scott is cartoonish. Seemingly every man in these films is useless or evil, and both movies eventually despair of masculinity so much that the guy we initially take to be the most repulsive (played by Andreu) is positioned by default as the hero. The scripts – by Ernesto Gastaldi and May Flood from stories by Dino Verde and Sergio Corbucci – feel like several drafts patched together by collaborators who never met (High Heels has a mid-film twist that At Midnight acknowledges as a misstep by not repeating) but Ercoli ringmasters the material for maximum entertainment. Odd funny touches and lines (‘Inspector, he’s a bit less fuddled now’) alleviate the sourness of the genre’s habitual cynicism – so these are among the jolliest, least downerific gialli. When Bava or Argento batter or slice victims’ faces in close-up, you flinch… when Ercoli does it, you can tell he doesn’t mean any harm, really.

Kim Newman

Under the Shadow

Under the Shadow

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 September 2016

DVD release date: 23 January 2017

Distributor: Vertigo Releasing

Director: Babak Anvari

Writer: Babak Anvari

Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi

Iran, Jordan, Qatar, UK 2016

84 mins

This Farsi-language maternal horror film was one of the great discoveries at this year’s Horror Channel FrightFest.

Opening with an explanatory text that places the film within the context of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Under the Shadow firmly grounds its horror in the doubly terrifying realities of a conflict zone and a harsh authoritarian regime. Slowly building up the tension, the film initially centres on the frustrations of Shideh, a young mother banned from continuing her medical studies because of her past political activism. The grinding down of women takes many forms in post-revolution Iran, from the active repression of the authorities to the incomprehension of her generally kind husband, who seems unable to sympathize with her ambitions.

When he is drafted and sent to the front, Shideh finds herself alone to care for their young daughter Dorsa, stubbornly refusing to leave the city to go and stay with her in-laws. As the bombardments intensify, a missile falls through the apartment above, and superstitious neighbours begin to whisper that it has brought something sinister with it. Rational and modern, Shideh initially dismisses the claims, but soon she is forced to take her daughter’s mounting fears seriously.

The realistic start and slow-burn narrative make the terrors that follow intensely affecting. Shideh is a character out of place in her country, in her apartment block and in her own marriage, and her feelings of inadequacy wildly erupt once the missile has broken through the familiar ordering of reality. The cracks in the ceiling it has caused cannot be closed up, the irrational forces it unleashed now out of control. Maternal anxiety, at odds with Shideh’s longing for a medical career, poignantly seeps through the second part of the film, her conflicted love for her daughter making every scare horribly meaningful.

After A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, this is the second Farsi-language horror film that uses the chador in a menacing way, but where in Ana Lily Amirpour’s film it took on a positive meaning, here it has negative, frightful, oppressive connotations. The use of the chador in Under the Shadow is one example of how the film successfully manages to be both a serious reflection on the position of women in Iran and an intensely creepy horror film. Intelligent and effectively chilling, it wisely avoids providing any facile resolution in its climactic ending.

Virginie Sélavy



Format: DVD

Release date: 24 October 2016

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Mickey Keating

Writer: Mickey Keating

Cast: Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Young, Brian Morvant, Larry Fessenden

USA 2015

78 mins

A stylish riff on Repulsion that pays homage to a number of other arthouse horror classics.

A chilly art-horror exercise from writer-director Mickey Keating (Pod), who reunites with lead actress Lauren Ashley Carter – but here gives her the crazy role rather than asking her to be the ‘normal’ character. Indeed, the film is pretty much built around Carter’s presence as a stylish beauty with distracted eyes – she’s virtually the whole show, and luckily is strong enough to carry a picture that sometimes can’t make up its mind whether it’s more than a collage of homages (we checked off The Shining, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Ms 45, The Tenant and others) couched in coolly gorgeous black and white (the only colour is lettering used in chapter headings).

In New York – perhaps circa 1970, though that’s not quite clear – an unnamed woman (Carter) takes a caretaker job (from sinister Sean Young) in an old house that has given rise to many ghost stories and whose previous caretaker has taken a suicide leap off the roof. The house is pristine – and, as a real location, interestingly narrow – but has a single locked room the Madame warns ‘darling’ away from – later, when opened, the contents are terrifying to the protagonist but not shown to us. The woman finds an inverted crucifix necklace in a drawer and later a random guy (Brian Morvant) in the street gives it back to her, claiming she’s dropped it… She becomes convinced that the guy did something avenge-worthy to her (she has scars on her ribs – except when she doesn’t) and sets out to stalk him and pick him up in a bar, leading to an uncomfortable flirtation/confrontation, which pays off with a stabbing and extensive (if tactfully shot) dismemberment. Not only isn’t it clear that the victim is the guilty party who (presumably) raped ‘darling’, it’s ambiguous as to whether she’s remembering something that happened to her – or has filled her blank soul with a trauma inherited from the previous caretaker, and liable to be passed on to the next (Helen Rogers), who turns up during the end credits to replay the opening scene.

Glass Eye Pix mascots Larry Fessenden and John Speredakos show up as cops, barging in just as the heroine has been pared down to a screaming, primal creature. Many reviewers are puzzled or infuriated by the refusal to state clearly what’s going on, but the inferences seem plain to me… and the cloudy areas deliberate. Carter – who was in Jugface too – has something of the pop art look of a 1960s Italian comic heroine, with bobbed hair, carefully applied make-up (we see her doing it) and an array of little black dresses. Her stare is discomforting, yet undeniably sexy – raising the creepy possibility that she’s attractive to her victim because she’s mad rather than in spite of her mental troubles, be they her own or imposed on her by the house. Short enough not to wear out its welcome, this is an intriguing entry in the recent spate of post-millennial Repulsion redos (Goddess of Love, Sun Choke, Broken).

Kim Newman

The Veil

The Veil

Format: DVD

Release date: 4 April 2016

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Director: Phil Joanou

Writer: Robert Ben Garant

Cast: Jessica Alba, Lily Rabe, Thomas Jane

USA 2016

89 mins

For this edition of Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman looks at a recent film from the busy Blumhouse boutique genre production label.

In 1985, the Reverend Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane in a white suit with a folksy-sinister accent) of the ‘Heaven’s Veil’ cult presides over what seems to be a mass suicide at his woodland retreat… and only a little girl survives.

In the present day, driven documentarian Maggie Price (Jessica Alba), daughter of the FBI agent who led the raid on the camp and later killed himself due to bad memories, and Sarah Hope (Lily Rabe), the grown-up sole survivor, visit the site with a crew of genially disposable techies in the hope of finding some answers… which lead them to an abandoned house the FBI never found (accessible by seemingly walking across a lake surface). The place is full of corpses, film cans (and video tapes) and other useful stuff, which prompts flashbacks that give a slightly different view of what happened on that fateful day in 1985. [SPOILER ALERT] For a start, Jacobs was given to deathtripping à la Flatliners and had an antidote prepared for his poison sugar cubes so his followers could be revived en masse, but Maggie’s dad showing up scuppered that plan, setting the charismatic loon off on his backup scheme, which involves killing the documentarians and bringing them back to life in CGI-ghostfaced semi-possessed form to perpetuate his cracked beliefs. Oh, and Sarah learns he was her dad and his faithful nurse Karen Sweetzer (Aleksa Palladino) his mom. [END OF SPOILER]

This lesser Blumhouse production is a collaboration between eclectic screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (Jessabelle, Night at the Museum) and not-that-busy-lately director Phil Joanou (State of Grace, Final Analysis), which riffs on the suicide cult theme – resurgent in the movies thanks to The Sacrament – by blending Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, though it’s less concerned with weird beliefs and groupthink than simple creep stuff with a gang of Scooby-Doo-like kids in a van being done in and brought back in an eerie woodland setting. Alba, slipping a bit from the mainstream, and Rabe, a rising spook name thanks to varied turns on American Horror Story, are oddly given slightly thankless roles, upstaged by the decent, mostly engaging supporting stooges, who at least give the impression of being lively characters before their demon-zombification. It looks great, with blue-tinged widescreen images of ominousness, well-staged 1985 flashbacks and a couple of semi-workable scares, but it’s a predictable, pat programmer.

Kim Newman



Seen at Barbican, London as part of ‘Made in Prague/Cheap Thrills’

Format: Cinema

Director: Gustav Machatý

Writer: Gustav Machatý

Cast: Ita Rina, Olaf Fjord

Czechoslovakia 1929

85 mins

This silent Czech tale of seduction continues to mesmerise with its sensual portrayal of female sexuality.

Erotikon tells the tale of first love – the mad kind that makes a good girl throw away all caution. Andrea (Ita Rina) is living a quiet life with her old father at a country railway station. One stormy night, a suave stranger appears and her father kindly invites him to spend the night, only for the man to seduce his daughter while he’s out on his shift. Naturally, the stranger departs the next morning, leaving Andrea with an unwanted pregnancy and an irrational devotion to the slippery playboy. When their paths cross again in the city, will she give up her secure, conventional marriage to risk everything with this womaniser, even as he’s being pursued by another lover’s angry husband?

Gustav Machatý’s film was famous for its edgy portrayal of sexuality, female sexuality in particular. When Andrea goes to bed after first meeting the stranger and is in the throes of torrid dreams, we observe her through the camera’s (male) gaze, which takes in her upper body, with its erotically extended neck and arms thrown wildly above her head, as well as her bare calves sticking out from under the covers. But when she is actually seduced, the crucial part of the action takes place from her perspective, with delirious point-of-view shots of the man’s intense kohl-lined gaze as he advances on her, and diagonal whip-pans across the walls and furniture as she falls back onto the bed.

Our sympathy centres on Andrea, while the stranger is a caricature of a vain, opportunistic hedonist with little to recommend him apart from matinee idol looks. Accordingly, it’s Andrea’s actions that are the backbone of the film’s drama, while the stranger’s antics and their effect on jealous husbands are a source of comic relief.

One of the peculiarities of silent storytelling is the importance it lends to objects. The ‘Erotikon’ of the title fits the overarching theme of passion, but only appears in the film on the label of a bottle of perfume that the stranger gives to Andrea, the first step in his seduction – and how interesting that a film that can only directly appeal to one of our senses, sight, uses scent as a catalyst to advance the story. The stranger initially tries to apply the perfume to Andrea’s neck himself; she at first refuses both the gesture and the gift, but finally accepts the bottle. She tries the perfume when she is alone in her room, and we wonder whether it has some kind of magic effect on her, inspiring her wild dreams. When she emerges from her room to answer the phone, the stranger intercepts her, and recommences his seduction by smelling the finger she used to apply the perfume.

Later, the narrative continues to revolve around objects: Andrea and her husband are thrown together with the stranger when they meet in a piano shop where the stranger befriends her husband by allowing the couple to take the last model of a piano. When Andrea is on the point of deciding between her lover and her husband, the story ricochets between two objects: the goodbye letter that Andrea has instructed a servant to give to her husband at a set time, and the compact that another woman has left on her lover’s bed: one object threatens her conventional life, and the other her dream life of romantic passion.

The 20th ‘Made in Prague’ Festival offered a rare opportunity to see this film on 35mm (recently restored by the Czech National Film Archive), with flawless live accompaniment by pianist Thomas Ang, and Lydia Kavina on theremin. One of the earliest electronic instruments, the theremin has a ghostly sound and wonderful range: Kavina (who studied under the instrument’s inventor, Léon Theremin, himself) was able to evoke the deep rumble of a train, piercing notes to accentuate moments of high emotion, and even play jaunty dance tunes – no easy task when you have no physical contact with the instrument you’re playing. The theremin is an instrument whose vibrato seems very much of its time and perfectly suited to the melodrama of silent film, yet it also feels contemporary: not only is it electronic, but effectively a wireless form of music.

Alison Frank



Seen at L’Étrange Festival, Paris (France)

Format: Cinema

Director: Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono

Cast: Ami Tomite, Mariko Tsutsui

Japan 2016

76 mins

Sion Sono diverts Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno Reboot into a subversively playful and multi-layered take on the female condition.

The 2016 edition of the Etrange Festival offered audiences the chance to see two of the five films commissioned by Nikkatsu for their 100th anniversary, as part of the Roman Porno Reboot Project. Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind was labelled by Nikkatsu as ‘Battle’, and Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno as ‘Art’. The latter director is a regular at the festival, as there has hardly been a year without at least one Sion Sono film programmed.

Anti-Porno starts in an Almodóvar-like colourful flat, in bright blue, yellow and red, with young Kyoko naked (but for her panties) dancing to her ghost-sister’s rendition of Offenbach’s ‘Nuit d’amour’, after a particularly boozy night. Unlike his earlier contemplative I Am Keiko (Keiko desu kedo, 1997), where the action (or the lack of it) was confined to an unrealistic red-painted flat fitted with yellow-painted appliances, so as to focus on the passing of time, the frantically paced Anti-Porno is rather a reflection on confinement and on the impossibility of real freedom, as the leitmotiv of a living lizard inside a whisky bottle reminds us constantly.

Every detail in this room feels artificial and exaggerated, while the film becomes more and more hysterical, as the versatile artist Kyoko becomes more and more sadistic with her assistant. Kyoko eventually has her bleeding and then raped during an interview that she gives to lesbian fashionista journalists. And just when we tell ourselves that this is really too much and too kitschy, so does the director, who orders the scene to be cut. Once the suspension of disbelief has been shattered, Sion Sono plays with endlessly embedding successive layers of reality, as he did with parallel worlds in Tag.

Sion Sono loves metaphors and, as in most of his films, he can’t get enough. Both the flat and the bottle stand for the virgin/whore dichotomy, to which Kyoko finds herself confined by the world of men. Sion Sono also adds another layer, using butterflies escaped from a biology book and trapped under a schoolroom ceiling to denounce the glass ceiling still blocking Japanese women. Yet Kyoko’s several soliloquies do not do justice to the film’s clever, manifold levels of perception and reality, concluding on one final and rather trivial aphorism: ‘Men’s world is shit, men’s dreams are shit… Porno is shit’. Why did Sion Sono opt for such an obvious and direct address? Was it because the film was a commission for Nikkatsu? Because he had already perfected the poetic treatment of the female condition in Japan in his previous films? Or because he feared he had not been fully understood so far? For, despite a few delightfully funny scenes, among which the bourgeois family dinner conversation on genitalia certainly ranks highest, Sion Sono gets excessively serious here. One has the impression that Anti-Porno moves from a form of criticism to that of a manifesto, bringing hope in the wake. In Tag, Mitsuko’s only solution was seppuku; in Anti-Porno, though Kyoko’s sister chooses death too, in the final scene we leave Kyoko writhing on the floor in gallons of paint, obsessively seeking ‘an exit’.

Pierre Kapitaniak

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