Three films by French directors turned this year’s L’Étrange Festival into something even richer and stranger than usual.
Every year L’Étrange Festival delights us with oddest and weirdest productions from all over the world. What is quite unusual, though very heart-warming, is that the three films that stood out this year (at least in the eyes of your humble reviewer) were the work of French directors. Three films permeated with literature. Three treasure islands. Three voyages celebrating the mysteries of the sea, but in ways that could not be more dissimilar. Xavier Gens’ Cold Skin is a Hollywood-ish adaptation of a novel by Sanchez Piñol; Bertrand Mandico’s Wild Boys is a neo-feminist tale that gives free rein to the director’s wildest fantasies; and F.J. Ossang’s 9 Fingers is a 21st century reassertion of the surrealist manifesto.
Once again, the Etrange Festival in Paris lived up to expectations, offering a wide array of films from many different horizons (whether in terms of genre or geographic origin) for its 19th edition, and discouraging any restrictive definition of ‘étrange’ cinema. The audience got their fill of fiction, documentaries and shorts from virtually all over the world, which confirmed the continuing importance of Asian cinema and revealed the frighteningly poor number of contributions from the festival’s home country, with only two genuinely French feature films: Philippe Barassat’s Les Dépravés and Albert Dupontel’s 9 mois ferme (Quentin Dupieux and Marina de Van having shot theirs with English-speaking casts). This year’s winners were Yuri Bykov’s The Major (for the Nouveau Genre award), Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (for the Audience award) and Adan Jodorowsky’s The Voice Thief (for the Short Film award). As usual, besides the official selection and the innumerable unreleased films, the festival also had its share of rarely seen curiosities, notably thanks to the cartes blanches given to Albert Dupontel and former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, as well as the tributes to actresses Martine Beswick and Caroline Munro, and a focus on production designer Stephen Sayadian. On Sunday 15 September, the closing day, the weirdness of the festival was enhanced when it experienced a major breakdown in the computer ticketing system. The resulting chaos was handled good-naturedly without any blunders or complaints, thus proving how exceptional the festival is, not only because of its eclectic, comprehensive and international selection, but also thanks to a loyal, supportive and enthusiastic audience.
Read our 2012 L’Etrange Festival coverage by Nicolas Guichard here.
Wrong Cops (Quentin Dupieux, 2013)
Quentin Dupieux’s latest feature builds on a shorter version of the story shot in 2012, which focused on Marilyn Manson’s role as David Dolores Frank, a victim of corrupt cop Duke’s harassment. The feature version is articulated around Duke, who deals drugs concealed in dead rats (and later in dead fish) and has to get rid of a neighbour’s body, whom he accidentally shot while aiming at David Dolores Frank. He talks Sunshine, a colleague and client of his who owes him money, into disposing of the body. While digging a hole in his backyard, Sunshine discovers a bag containing $13,000. As the news spreads, another ‘wrong’ cop successfully blackmails him out of the money to pay for her nose job…
These are but a few protagonists in this Short Cuts-esque ensemble film. French critics like to describe Dupieux’s movies as filmic UFOs, but Wrong Cops has a much tighter and coherent plot, where everything falls into place in the final graveyard dénouement. Though one might be tempted to see Wrong Cops as Police Academy for an audience with a good sense of humour, the film is actually quite subversive in presenting the police force as the only threat to society, surrounded by innocent and/or dumb people. I wonder if this may be the meaning of a shot that recurs throughout the film: the revolving lights of a police car in focus while the rest of the street and background remain a blur.
Watch the trailer for Wrong Cops:
La torre de los siete jorobados (Edgar Neville, 1944)
Presented as one of the ‘Pépites de l’étrange’ (Weird Gems) by Gaspar Noé (Irreversible), La torre de los siete jorobados (The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks) is a masterpiece of pre-Jess Franco, Spanish horror cinema, and actually the only one of that period. Based on a novel by Emilio Carrere, Edgar Neville’s witty film tells the story of a ghostly justice meted out against a pack of hunchbacks who run a counterfeit money press in an underground synagogue. Heavily, though fruitfully, influenced by German expressionism (see the staircase of the inversed tower) and Hollywood genre films of the 1930s (see the Gothic streets of Madrid), Neville cannot resist injecting more wit into the story than there is in the original novel. The best example is the apparition of Napoleon’s ghost, who comes to the wrong apartment and complains that whenever occultists raise a ghost he is always the one to be conjured up.
This beautiful and well-performed film also has a darker side to it, not so much because of its Gothic setting, but because of its director’s less laudable activities at the time. Although a friend of left-leaning poet Federico Garcia Lorca, composer Manuel de Falla and Luis Buñuel’s, as well as of Charles Chaplin’s during his stay in Hollywood, Neville became a champion of General Franco’s propaganda and The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks takes on an additional meaning when decrypted in this more dubious context. Still, it is definitely a gem to be (re)discovered.
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)
The screening of Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer was one of the major events of the festival, having already scored eight million viewers in Korea, and standing as the biggest-budget offering in the selection at $40,000,000. The impressive aesthetic and technical aspects of the film show money well invested, but the radical changes in the plot reveal a lot about its director’s vision as well as about the 30-year gap since the creation of Jean-Marc Rochette’s French graphic novel Transperceneige. Only the main idea remains from the original graphic novel: a lonely train running across a frozen planet, carrying the last of mankind on board, and a hero making the arduous trip from the bleak tail to the privileged head of the train. Exit the solo adventure, exit the love story, exit the plague. The dark pessimism of Rochette’s black and white illustrations (created in the 1980s during the Cold War period, when a third world conflict leading to the end of civilisation was still on everyone’s mind) gives way to much more optimistic, sunny, pure white, snowy mountainscapes, contrasted with the usual modern horror-lore: insects, grimy dirt, sadistic punishments, cannibalism, etc.
The climactic weapon unleashed in the graphic novel becomes a double-edged remedy against global warming in the film, and the rebel/prisoner Proloff turns into revolutionary leader Curtis, manipulated by two arch-conspirators, Wilford and Gilliam. The most regretful feature of the film is the fact that Joon-ho cannot resist Hollywood sirens, and builds the film up into a series of violent encounters punctuated by some irritating slow-motion sequences, indulging in bladed bloodletting, reminiscent of Oldboy and Gangs of New York in its use of hatchets and axes. The scene where all the combatants suddenly suspend their heated confontation as the train has to break through a series of ice blocks on the railway, before resuming their hostilities as if nothing had happened, is perhaps one of the worst of the film, verging on (or plunging into, according to how well disposed you are) bathos.
Rochette actively contributed to the film, sketching all the drawings made by one of the characters throughout the story, which probably explains his unrestrained enthusiasm about this adaptation. Yet, for all its flaws, the film is far from being a failure. The cast is brilliant, and all-in-all the plot is well above the usual Hollywood fare of the Elysium or Pacific Rim type. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there are rumours that Harvey Weinstein intends to cut down the film and add a voice-over for the US release.
Watch the trailer for Snowpiercer:
Freak Orlando (Ulrike Ottinger, 1981)
Screened as part of Jello Biafra’s carte blanche, Freak Orlando is one of those rarities that is hard to classify. A famous German artist, as well as a painter and a sculptor, Ulrike Ottinger has directed some ninety films and, like Alejandro Jodorowsky, insists on having control over the whole process, from filming to editing to production. In the words of Jello Biafra the film is a ‘confusing mystery’ that ‘makes El Topo look like Disney’. Bearing only a remote resemblance to Virginia Woolf’s story, the film spends most of its time conjugating the figures of transgender, starting with bearded women straight out of Tod Browning and carrying on with hermaphrodites and transvestites. Ottinger seems to be exorcising her inner and outer demons, the latter being Christianity, fascism and consumerism.
There are moments of grace in the film, like the song of the crucified St. Wilgefortis performed by Else Nabu, or the French Siamese twins episode, and of course the illuminating presence of Delphine Seyrig. Yet, it seemed to me that part of the charm the film may have exerted on Biafra, who saw it one night on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg’s red-light district, not understanding any German, may have come from the context. Sadly, three decades later, watching the film in a comfortable Parisian cinema with no substance to stimulate your reception, the mystery no longer works.
Europa Report (Sebastian Cordero, 2013) Europa Report is named after one of the moons of Jupiter, to which an international space mission travels to search for possible extra-terrestrial life. The film takes the form of found footage, miraculously transmitted from the spaceship after a long period of lost contact. Unlike Cannibal Holocaust and other Blair Witch Project(s), Europa Report achieves a perfect match between its genre and chosen setting, as a spaceship is definitely a place where every inch of space is monitored. Particular care was brought to the verisimilitude of the technology and the result is very convincing. Similar care is found in the editing, for in order to create and maintain the tension throughout the film, the Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero opted for a non-linear timeline with several levels of flashbacks and flashforwards, as well as later comments from the space agency on earth. All this is fortunately made clear by the adopted CCTV convention, which constantly displays the time codes of the mission.
Although Cordero does not seem willing to build on the philosophical and scientific reflections that the premise of the film might have allowed – as in most recent science-fiction films, we are quite far from Kubrick – he proves that good science fiction can do without expensive digital special effects and offers us a much more intelligent and effective story than Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. There is one fly in the ointment, though: the final image of the film cannot help revealing what has caused the death of the crew.
Watch the trailer for Europa Report:
Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam, 2013)
Alex van Warmerdam returns with Borgman, which masterfully plunges into the uncanny without ever fully acknowledging the supernatural dimension of the plot. Indeed, Camiel Borgman (played by Jan Bijvoet, recently seen in Alabama Munro) might well be the devil, as suggested by the Bible-like quotation opening the film: ‘And they descended upon earth to strengthen their ranks.’
The feeling of something otherworldly is introduced from the opening scene, in which two hunters, accompanied by a Catholic priest, hunt down Borgman and his followers, who are living in underground shelters in the forest (reminiscent of the Black Man in Warmerdam’s The Northerners). On the run from them, Borgman arrives at an upper-middle-class house asking for a bath and gets sorely beaten by the owner, while the wife takes pity and shelters him. From then on things go wrong, and we soon realise that Borgman is definitely more than just a tramp, as he turns into a literal night-mare, such as pictured by Henry Fuseli. Once again, in his very idiosyncratic style, Warmerdam combines social criticism of the bourgeoisie with mystical angst, leaving the audience to weave the threads of interpretation as they please.
Watch the trailer for Borgman:
Festival report by Pierre Kapitaniak
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews