Canada. Directed by Éric Falardeau, 2012. Starring Kayden Rose, Davyd Tousignant, Emile Beaudry. 99 minutes.
Laura (Kayden Rose) lives alone, her daily routine interrupted only by bouts of rough sex with her abusive boyfriend Antoine (David Tousignant), the unwelcome advances of her lecherous neighbor Julian (Émile Beaudry), and the occasional futile attempt to create a sculpture. In a word, Laura is miserable.
“I’ve lost the urge to do it,” she tells Julian, after an unsatisfying evening of “lovemaking.” She doesn’t just mean sex–she means everything.
She doesn’t think much of the first bruise; Julian had been particularly…forceful the night before. But the bruise doesn’t heal. Just the opposite, in fact: it seems to multiply. Soon bruises cover her body.
And that’s not all. When she washes her hair, she pulls a clump of it away from her head. Her fingernails fall off. Sores bloom on her skin; maggots breed inside them. Her body becomes weaker.
Her physical state doesn’t seem to scare her. Truth be told, she barely seems to care about it.
Her apathy towards life is no longer a symptom of depression or a sign of a spiritual malaise. For Laura, “dead inside” is no longer a metaphor. It’s a disgustingly literal description of her body as it rots and decays.
I’m a sucker for body horror. Sit me down in front of a movie about some poor schlub turning into a human-insect hybrid or slowly rotting away from the inside out and I’m happy as a clam. Which doesn’t mean I entirely shut down my capacity for critical thinking when I watch a movie like Thanatomorphose. Or that there aren’t right and wrong ways to do body horror.
Many observers have compared Thanatomorphose to last year’s Contracted, a film with a similar premise. Both films feature troubled female protagonists in one-sided, abusive relationships who both find themselves decaying as if they were corpses. Both films connect the process of death with sexuality. Both films trade on taboos against female biology and sexuality to generate audience unease. Both films spend an awful lot of time in the bathroom. The directors of both films even share the same first name.
But the similarities between the two largely stop there. Contracted’s structure is, for the most part, that of a standard modern horror film. With Thanatomorphose, writer/director Éric Falardeau clearly aims to make something decidedly non-standard. In doing so, he makes a number of stylistic and substantial decisions that make the film hard to watch in a way that ordinary gore simply can’t achieve.
The narrative is directionless and meandering; it’s just one thing after another until the film is over. And it moves from thing to thing at about the same pace that Los Angeles traffic moves at 5pm on a Friday evening. Every so often, Falardeau punctuates the proceedings with a dream sequence, usually so heavily processed that it’s nigh-impossible to figure out what’s going on.
For that matter, it’s also often nigh-impossible to figure out what’s going on even when Falardeau isn’t masturbating over Adobe After Effects because the entire production is under-lit. I think there’s a sequence in which Laura pulls one of her own fingers off, takes a Polaroid of it, then sticks it in a jar and tapes the photo to it. But it’s hard to tell for certain. And it’s a comparatively long sequence, too: two or three minutes of trying to figure out what all those black-on-black blobs are doing to each other.
But even if I did know for certain, the characters are so underdeveloped and underwritten that it’s exceedingly difficult to care what happens to them. They’re barely one-dimensional. Most of the time they’re effigies who exist only to suffer abuse or inflict it. I kinda get this with Laura, but the character development Antoine and Julian receive can be summed up, respectively, with the phrases “Grrr misogyny!” and “Grrr rape culture!”
Hell, neither the dialog nor the credits identify the characters by name. I had to get those from the official website.
By the time they start to exhibit personalities, it’s too late. I don’t mean “too late for the characters” because they’re about to die; I mean “too late for the viewers,” most of whom have wandered off during the previous 80 minutes of film.
The thing about this is, I can see–or at least I think I can see–what Falardeau is getting at. Dimly-lit scenes are more atmospheric and creepy. Laura’s apathy alienates the audience, but it’s also built into the point of the character and the movie. The pace is slow to make the experience of watching even more grueling and unpleasant. Actress Kayden Rose, in the lead role, spends roughly 95% of her screen time entirely nude because, well, we’ve got to show off all this makeup and effects work. (Yes, she’s cute, but keep your pants on. After about an hour, her comely visage will cease to matter.)
I’m not going to lie to you: this film is a long, hard, frustrating slog. But I can’t think of any ways to “fix” my issues with it without taking away from it the things that make it what it is. A better-lit, pacier version of Thanatomorphose with relatable characters entirely violates the film’s point.
Or at least, that’s what I hope.
Falardeau clearly has ambitions beyond making yet another gore- and nudity-filled exploitation flick. It’s hard to judge, objectively, whether he hits the mark,. Personally, I didn’t like it and would be hard-pressed to recommend it to, well, anyone really (the one exception maybe being John Bruni), thus the two-star rating. But I do respect it for existing in the first place. Regardless of whether I enjoyed it, horror exists so that Thanatomorphose may be called into being, and the genre would be lesser without it.
Just don’t ever ask me to watch it again.