Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella
Julia Ducournau’s technically masterful female-focused cannibal film is less insightful than it may seem.
A girl walks alone at dawn, alongside a deserted country road. When a car drives by, she dives underneath it, causing the car to crash into a tree. The driver is dead and the girl leans over the car door to examine him. Here we are, then, revisiting David Cronenberg’s Crash, one might be tempted to think. Yet we soon find out that, if Julia Ducournau’s first feature film – selected for the Cannes Critics’ Week 2016 – definitely pays tribute to the ‘baron of blood’, it is most indebted to his recent novel Consumed. (Incidentally, let it be said that the English title makes the film’s cannibalistic turn evident from the start.) Cronenberg makes a perfect and duly acknowledged tutelary figure for the 32-year-old French director, who must have been fed pithy anecdotes from dissecting tables and emergency wards in her early days by her dermatologist father and gynaecologist mother. This might partly account for Ducournau’s obsession with the transformation of bodies, already omnipresent in her short film Junior (2011) and in her TV film Mange (2012). Junior actress Garance Marillier – now come of age and confirming her talent – is entrusted with the main role of Justine, who joins her elder sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) for her first year in a veterinary school. During the unavoidable fresher initiation ritual (and in France medical schools are known to be the most gruesome), vegetarian Justine is forced to swallow a raw rabbit kidney, which, after an allergic reaction, triggers a novel taste for meat. A bikini-line depilation accident transforms this taste into a craving for human flesh, which actually runs in the family, as Alexia turns out to be ‘crash’ girl, eating her victims’ spare parts.
Although at first sight, Ducournau seems to be using the horror genre as a vehicle for a reflection on the passage to adulthood, the film is rather short on social or psychological insights, while the plot and the characters seem half-baked. In fact, Ducournau indulges in a sensationalist exploitation of the theme and the wide range of unpalatable reactions it provokes. This was clearly confirmed when she presented her film at the Etrange Festival, and evidently relished retelling the pungent anecdote from the Toronto Film Festival where paramedics had to be called during the screening to assist a spectator who had found the film hard to stomach. Thus, inscribed within the horror genre, Raw rather self-consciously plays with its codes, safe within its boundaries and often verging on parody. Ducournau delivers an efficient and technically mastered (but one would not expect less from a Fémis graduate) variation on the cannibal flick, which manages to keep a few twists in store alongside the more expected final feast. Ducournau was one of the 30 people on The Alice Initiative 2016 list, which aims to boost the number of female directors. Let us hope she gives us more fat to chew on in the years to come.
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans
Ben Wheatley’s Ballard adaptation deliriously embraces social breakdown in a dystopian past future.
We open on a doctor, Laing (Tom Hiddleston), clothes torn and paint-spattered, as he cooks a pedigree dog on an improvised barbecue on his balcony, after declining neighbour Steele (Reece Shearsmith)’s offer to have a tipple with a clearly dead man. Back: the doctor has moved into a flat nearer the top than the bottom of an ultramodern building that towers over its undeveloped commuter belt surroundings, the work of architect Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives at the penthouse/garden estate at its peak. It looks spectacular, but the cracks soon show. There are power outages. Rules are ignored. The technology isn’t working as it should. And there’s a growing sense of friction between floors. The toffs at the top are appalled at the likes of Laing showing up for a costumed ball with the wrong clothes and an inappropriately priced bottle of vino. And lower down the ladder, chippy cameraman Wilder (Luke Evans) bristles with revolutionary ire when he finds his kids are excluded from the swimming pool during an upper crust social. When Laing’s upstairs neighbour, the liberated, and resented Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) throws a party, it simmers with boozy anger and frustration. Things get out of hand. There’s a beating. A suicide. Rival parties are planned in retaliation. A collective madness starts to take hold. The residents venture out of the building less and less, and then not at all. Resources, food and wine are running out and are to be battled over. Pets become food. Society within the tower tears itself apart, and re-organises.
J.G. Ballard’s High Rise has long seemed the novel in his oeuvre begging most for cinematic adaptation (well, either High Rise or Concrete Island) – at least, after Cronenberg’s Crash made it viable to imagine any being filmed at all. It has neither the mega-budget requirements of his early SF, nor the gnomic intractability of The Atrocity Exhibition, but manages to fit his themes into a single location with a limited cast of characters. That said, it was always going to be odd. I’m amazed that what has finally emerged is this successful in capturing the flavour of the book, or at least a warped and woozy hybrid of Ballard and director Ben Wheatley/writer Amy Jump’s sensibilities.*
Initially the urban setting might seem to signal a departure from the folk horror beats that were building through Wheatley’s Kill List, Sightseers and especially A Field In England, but a recurring theme in that movement is the malign and strange affect of landscape on personality, which is an obsession Ballard shared. High Rise takes us away from the ancient outdoors to more modern interiors, but the creeping unease is the same. It isn’t some viral contagion or chemical that is causing the madness (or even the porno-parasites of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, which riffs on similar ideas). It’s the architecture. Royal wants his building to be ‘a crucible for change’, which it most definitely is, though clearly not the change he expects or desires. He can fret all he likes over whether he has ‘left out some vital element’ but it’s too late, the tower exerts its own logic, and there’s no stopping evolution. As the upper classes’ thuggish enforcer Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner) tells him, ‘I don’t work for you, I work for the building.’
The methodology of this madness is evoked through a million cuts. Wheatley sets up tightly edited rhythms within the film showing the rituals of the block dwellers as they go to and from work, shop, swim, ride the lifts and live their lives, and then quietly introduces disruptions, unsettling images that increase in frequency, the pattern of things changes, visual and verbal cues build from a subliminal wrongness into full blown lunacy. A telling tracking shot at the halfway mark takes from one end of a supermarket display to the other, going from fresh fruit to rotting mush. Before that, the party scene at Charlotte’s place is a marvel of drunken momentum and shifting tones, evoking Brit sex farce and brutal Alan Clark aggro along the way, and then suddenly changing gear for an alarming slow mo sequence of the coked up Wilder dancing, suddenly isolated in a strange tribal testosterone display, a bit of business that recurs in the penthouse apartment later in the story. In Jump’s excellent screenplay, the dialogue is initially dominated by the party chit chat and small talk, the flirty one-liners and bitter put-downs whereby the residents subtly and not so subtly jockey for status, but here it always seems to be freighted with double meaning, to the point where even a banal exchange in the tower’s supermarket, (‘keep the change’ – ‘there isn’t any’) feels loaded with portent.
In the novel, if I remember rightly, language breaks down to caveman grunting as the devolution takes hold. But here, deliciously, the barbarity goes hand in hand with a weirdly civilised eloquence. Thus the top floor is full of men discussing their insane and brutal plans for the suppression of the lower floors in language befitting a golf club or yachting marina, a rugger club bumptiousness that wholly fails to recognise the home counties Mad Max stylings of their current situation. There’s something hilariously inappropriate about somebody raising the sudden prevalence of rape, violence and factional warfare with ’I’d watch out if I were you, there’s some very unhappy bunnies bouncing about’.
It’s intoxicating…. with the emphasis on the toxic, it’s a bit of a phantasmagoria, cleverly weighted to keep you off balance and back footed. Most filmmakers making a tale this open to allegorical readings would surely decide to go for a vague and unspecified mise en scène. Instead, Wheatley very specifically anchors his High-Rise in the Britain of the mid to late 70s, with an exacting eye for detail, and cultural signifiers to the fore: there’s a swinging Alan Whicker lookalike, a copy of Action Comic (with the ‘Kids Rule OK’ cover), pound notes, indoor smoking, and not one but two cover versions of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S’. This seems appropriate, and not just because the novel dates from 1975. The film consciously evokes the 70s cinema of Lindsay Anderson, Buñuel, Roeg and Cammel, and works in that heady vein, being an artful treatment of difficult ideas rather than the usual elaborate treatment of banal ideas that dominates your modern multiplex. It’s dense and delirious, both in words and images, in a way that defies simple readings. The sexual politics alone would take a thesis to unpick, moving from swingin’ Carry On innuendo, through nasty assault and into a kind of maternal utopianism.
I’ve seen the film twice now, and think at the first viewing I was simply too dazzled for critical thinking. I just loved this combination of things, these performances, this dialogue, that music.** The second time, I still loved it, and I’d see it again in a heartbeat, but then I’ve been quite taken with everything Wheatley has put out, whilst being quite aware that not everybody feels the same; a press screening of Sightseers had me grinning from ear to ear, surrounded by people who made their loathing quite audible. Balls to them. You’re either on Wheatley’s wavelength… or you’re wrong. And I’ll fight anyone who says different. But maybe that’s the architecture talking.
*Jump has clearly worked her socks off trying to give the characters the motivations and story arcs required by modern cinema. Ballard was happier to work in a distinctly chillier, more oblique register. Horses for courses.
** Clint Mansell, playing a blinder, and some very well chosen tunes, The Portishead ‘SOS’ moment is particularly effective.
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell
Brandon Cronenberg hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to distance himself from his father’s work here. His first feature has weird medical practices and perverse ideas aplenty. In a world where the hysteria surrounding celebrities has spawned a number of spin-off industries well beyond the racks of gossip magazines, you can buy pounds of lab-grown celebrity meat, celebrity skin grafts, and, in the clinic where Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works, get yourself infected with genetically modified exclusive celebrity diseases. Syd’s an effective salesman, trusted in the company, but he’s got a little dirty business on the side, infecting himself with the valuable maladies and passing them on to his underground contacts. Unfortunately, one of the new infections proves to be far more virulent than he expects, and he finds himself a seriously sick and seriously desirable man, with criminal and legitimate interests vying to exploit the strange new superstar virus coursing through his veins. As Malcolm McDowell informs him, ‘I’m afraid you’ve become involved in something sinister’.
If we must make comparisons with his dad’s oeuvre, and, y’know, it’s begging for it, then Antiviral continues in the vein of the 80s Scanners/Brood/Videodrome period, though it lacks their pulpy forward momentum and energy, and takes a while to get going. What it does have is a well thought through look of gleaming white surfaces and strange technology, a lot of woozy discomfiting camerawork and a fantastic sound design that pulses and throbs menacingly, combining to create a queasy subjective experience. Cronenjunior sets out to make you unwell watching his film, and has succeeded admirably: it builds into something truly troubling. He’s aided hugely by the extraordinary-looking Caleb Landry Jones, pale of skin and red of hair, who adds flesh and blood to an intentionally blank and unknowable lead, stripped entirely of past and personal clutter. Good stuff, very promising, though I’d steer well clear if you have a thing about needles – and don’t expect a McDonalds tie-in campaign…..
Antiviral screened at the London Film Festival last month.
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