Cinepocalypse: Trench 11; Animals

A period horror film and a Lynchian nightmare

I saw two films on the final two days of the festival, Trench 11 and Animals.

Trench 11

Trench 11

Canada. Directed by Leo Scherman. Starring Rossif Sutherland, Ted Atherton, Shaun Benson, Robert Stadlober, Karine Vanasse. 90 minutes.

As one of the bloodiest, most destructive, and most senseless mass conflicts of the last few centuries, World War I provides fertile dramatic fodder for horror narratives, and Cronenberg protégé Leo Scherman exploits it to maximum effect in his latest effort Trench 11. Rossif Sutherland (son of Donald) heads an excellent cast as Berton, a Canadian tunneler assigned to an Allied Powers taskforce, led by Brits and supported by Americans. Their assignment: investigate an apparently deserted warren deep beneath the German trenches, rumored to house the laboratories of a notorious engineer of chemical and biological weapons.

Scherman milks the dimly-lit, underground setting for all it’s worth, and once our team of “heroes” reaches the tunnels, the tension never lets up. He pulls no punches when it comes to grue (an effective mix of practical effects and CGI), but wisely uses the infected test subjects as an environmental hazard, not as the primary threat. The antagonists (only the deranged Reiner, a German weapons expert, qualifies as a villain) remain identifiably human, helping the horror work on multiple levels.

Bottom line: highly recommended for those who like their horror unremittingly grim.

Animals (Tiere)

Germany. Directed by Greg Zglinski. Starring Birgit Minichmayr, Philipp Hochmair, Mona Petri, Mehdi Nebbou, Michael Ostrowski. 95 minutes.

A relationship on the rocks turns into a surreal nightmare in Animals. Anna, writer of children’s books, heads to Switzerland with her husband Nick in a last-ditch attempt to save her marriage, but an automobile accident proves to be the first of a series of unsettling and increasingly bizarre occurrences. Meanwhile, Mischa, the young woman hired to look after Anna and Nick’s apartment finds herself stalked by a man who thinks she’s his ex-girlfriend.

Writers Greg Zglinski (who also directed) and Jörg Kalt pile absurdity on top of absurdity: events occur out of order, Anna loses time and appears in two places at once; the talking cat and the giant fork sticking out of the sea are two of the less inexplicable anomalies. The film exhibits a distinct Lynchian influence, although the climax at least provides something that could pass for an explanation.

Unfortunately, this style of film just isn’t my cup of tea: I found it too disjointed. (I think understanding the film uses what I call “wedding ring logic,” after the visual device the viewer should use to tell the Jake Gyllenhaals apart in Enemy. In other words, it requires me to notice things I don’t normally pay attention to.) It didn’t help that I found funny several elements the filmmakers seem to have intended as creepy. (The talking cat is at the top of that list.) On the other hand, fans of Mulholland Dr. and other Lynchian puzzle movies should find this one worth the watch.

Wrap-Up

Well, that’s it for the first Cinepocalypse. Unfortunately I was only able to catch about half of the new features offered; and scheduling conflicts forced me to skip several films I would have liked to see, such as Poor AgnesThe Lodgers, and especially Psychopaths (having to miss Mickey Keating joining forces with Larry Fessenden, Helen Rogers, Jeremy Gardner, and Matt Mercer hurts). And It Came from the Desert sucked hard as a secret screening choice. But other than Desert, I’m pretty happy with my spread of screenings.

Top Five (Non-Repertory) Movies of the Festival, as Far as I’m Concerned:

  1. Mohawk
  2. The Crescent
  3. Trench 11
  4. Applecart
  5. Housewife

Best Director: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

Best Writer(s): Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix, Mohawk

Best Actress: Kaniehtto Horn, Mohawk

Best Supporting Actress: Barbara Crampton, Applecart

Best Actor: Rossif Sutherland, Trench 11

Best Supporting Actor: Ezra Buzzington, Mohawk

Best Score: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

The Interior

No matter where you go, the universe is a total jerk.

The Interior

Canada. Directed by Trevor Juras, 2015. Starring Patrick McFadden. 80 minutes. 9/10

Recently, a friend of mine gave up his job, home, and girlfriend in New York, and (citing a struggle with “the practical necessities of modern life” and a feeling of being “isolated from the sun and trees”) relocated to Arizona to pursue his dream of living as a “hunter-gatherer.” I think my friend would find a lot of common ground with James, the twenty-something protagonist of The Interior, played by Patrick McFadden. James lives in a swank apartment in Toronto, but hates his soulless copywriting career and his narcissistic boss, finds no creative fulfillment as a rapper, and finds himself incapable of committing to his year-long relationship with his girlfriend. Bad news from his doctor about a series of nosebleeds and a bout with double vision turns out to be the last straw; soon afterward, we find him wandering the forests of British Columbia (the Interior of the title), there to live his life in peace and solitude.

He probably needn’t bother. Writer/director Trevor Juras approaches his feature début as The Blair Witch Project filtered through the sensibility of Samuel Beckett…or nihilist-horror author Thomas Ligotti. The narrator of Ligotti’s story “The Clown Puppet” described his existence as dominated by “the most outrageous nonsense,” something James can surely relate. Having abandoned the crushing modernity of city life for the solitude and simplicity of the majestic Canadian forest, he still finds himself plagued by absurd, petty inanity, the work of briefly-glimpsed forces whose only goal is to fuck with him. No matter where you go, Juras figures, the universe is a total dick.

Any horror-comedy tasks itself with performing a delicate balancing act, with The Interior laying out a more delicate goal than most, thanks to its absurdist sensibility. Overt gags (James’s doctor asks him if he’s stoned, the tip-off being the joint he holds just out of frame…later, he breaks into a vacation cabin and drinks a bottle of wine; he signs the apology note with the name “Jesus”) gradually become more subtle and sinister without losing their humor value. When a stranger visited James’s tent in the dead of night and poked its canvas wall with his (or her) finger, I found myself torn between the equally appropriate options of uncontrollable laughter or whimpering in fear.

Juras applies a distinctly minimalist aesthetic that takes “show, don’t tell” to its logcial extreme, making John Cage’s 4′33″ look like “Bohemian Rhapsody” by comparison. McFadden largely carries the film on his own as the only major performer for about sixty of the film’s eighty minutes; appropriately, the script assigns him, or indeed anyone else, very little dialog once we arrive at the Interior. Not that we really need it, as the immense, looming trees say what mere words can’t.

If there’s a weakness with The Interior, it’s in Juras’s stubborn refusal to provide a conventional structure, satisfying resolution, or even a sense that he knows where the story, such as it is, is going. Admittedly, this is rather the point of the whole exercise, but I expect most audiences will find themselves turned off by the whole approach. Those left over–including myself–will find themselves left with a beautiful enigma, something to be treasured.

Thanks to the Chicago Cinema Society for bringing The Interior to Chicago.

THE INTERIOR poster.

The Forbidden Room

Guy Maddin’s latest (in collaboration with Evan Johnson) often feels like an adaptation of a big book of Freudian dream interpretations.

Canada. Directed by Guy Maddin (co-directed by Evan Johnson), 2015. Starring Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Udo Kier, Gregory Hlady, Mathieu Almaric, Noel Burton, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, Amira Casar, Ariane Labed, Caroline Dhavernas, Karine Vanasse. 130 minutes. 8/10

2015 seems to have been a banner year for films seemingly designed to leave the viewer asking “What the Hell was that?” like Krusty the Clown after an episode of Worker & Parasite. We’ve already had the absurdist nightmare A Pigeon Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence. Now, Canadian Guy Maddin and collaborator Evan Johnson go on location in the human subconscious to bring us The Forbidden Room.

Things start with detailed instructions on how to take a bath, and gets weirder from there. A submarine crew trapped on their vessel with unstable explosives encounter a lumberjack (actually an aspiring lumberjack, or “saplingjack”) who appears suddenly and mysteriously, and relates a tale of attempting to rescue a beautiful woman named Margot from a gang of vicious thugs who worship a volcano. Margot, meanwhile, dreams of being trapped and amnesiac in a strange city, pursued by vampires. It’s something like an anthology film, which each story also serving as a narrative nesting doll for another story, and so on.

A few years ago I watched a movie called Anguish, which contains a scene in which people watch a movie about a guy watching a movie. That really impressed me, but The Forbidden Room goes so much deeper, until we get Udo Kier’s mustache–I am not even remotely fucking with you on this one–dreaming about a man whose cursed bust of the Roman god Janus causes his dark side to become manifest, kind of like Jekyll and Hyde, except in this case Hyde’s name is actually Lug-Lug.

Maddin seems to have a relationship with silent films and early talkies similar to the one Quentin Tarantino has with ’60s and ’70s foreign exploitation films, and he and Johnson take great pains to recreate that aesthetic in The Forbidden Room: sepia-toned or monochrome colorization, intertitle cards, obvious rear-projection backgrounds, adorably primitive SFX. Most importantly, their goal is apparently to replicate the oneiric quality of early motion pictures. When the Red Wolves sacrifice a tire to their volcano god, or when vampire bananas threaten Margot, these weird events actually do operate on a distinct form of dream logic based on the symbols of the subconscious mind. The film often feels like an adaptation of a big book of Freudian dream interpretations.

The end result is a big beautiful mess of a picture, almost always pretty to look at and to listen to, usually amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny, and featuring a sublime brand-new song from art-rock wisenheimers Sparks called “The Final Derriere.” On the downside, the proceedings are usually extremely hard to follow, and I didn’t find the overall film engaging enough to justify its two-hours-plus running time.

Then again, like the dreams it evokes, The Forbidden Room doesn’t seem meant to be easily followed. If I’m correct in my interpretation of Maddin and Johnson’s intent, the filmmakers achieved exactly what they wished with this film; enjoying it is the audience’s problem. The Forbidden Room is Art, and that’s how Art works.

THE FORBIDDEN ROOM poster.

Alléluia

A worthy effort which much to recommend it but little to actually love about it.

Belgium/France. Directed by Fabrice Du Welz, 2015. Starring Lola Dueñas, Laurent Lucas, Édith Le Merdy, Héléna Noguerra, Anne-Marie Loop. 93 minutes. In French, with English subtitles.

It’s an old story, and atypically for the horror genre, this time it’s actually a true one. Raymond Fernandez was a con man who seduced, then swindled, women he met through personal ads. Martha Beck started off a potential marks, but soon became his willing accomplice, leaving her two children to travel with him, posing as his sister and aiding in his schemes. In 1949, they murdered three people. Authorities captured them within months and executed them in 1951. The press dubbed them “lonely hearts bandits” and “honeymoon killers.”

Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz based the plot of Alléluia on the Fernandez and Beck killings. Gloria (played by Lola Dueñas), a lonely single mother, stands in for Beck: she meets her Fernandez, a grifter named Michel (Laurent Lucas), through an online dating site. Gloria’s passion for Michel doesn’t dim even after he bilks her for a large sum of money; instead, she leaves her daughter with her best friend and runs away with him. Like the real Beck, she poses as Michel’s sister. Also like the real Beck, while she professes to accept that Michel’s con requires him to romance victims, the thought of her lover sleeping with other women (which, of course, he does; even though, of course, he denies it) fills her with jealous rage. Which leads her to kill Michel’s marks.

I fear I may have given you a wrong impression of Alléluia at this point; you may assume, based on my synopsis, that it’s a psychological thriller. Nothing could be further from the truth. Du Welz and his writing partners certainly don’t seem particularly interested in exploring how a seemingly devoted mother developed into a jealous murderer. This probably doesn’t surprise you if you’re familiar with the film for which Du Welz is best known: Calvaire, a surreal horror film in which an itinerant singer (also played by Lucas) becomes the victim of a disturbed innkeeper who becomes convinced the singer is really his long-deceased wife.

Calvaire derived most of its power from the subtle implication that the characters had unwittingly crossed over into a reality that looks the same as ours but follows different rules which seem alien and insane to the ordinary human’s mindset. Alléluia isn’t quite so strange, although it certainly features its fair share of weirdness, most notably when Gloria bursts into a musical while chopping up the corpse of one of her victims. (Before meeting Michel, she had a job as a mortician at a hospital, so this is work she’s uniquely suited for.) In another scene, Gloria and Michel indulge in a naked fire dance; indeed, we see Michel perform dark rituals more than once, to help with his cons. (Another connection to the real-life killers: Fernandez claimed to have learned voodoo and black magick during a stint in prison long before he met Beck.)

The problem is that if anything, Alléluia isn’t weird enough, and there’s a hole in the film that the lush cinematography and the fine performances by Dueñas and Lucas can’t fill. As I said earlier, Du Welz doesn’t give the viewer a sense of what it is about Gloria and Michel that causes her to become obsessed with him. (Michel’s rituals seem so incidental to the plot that it only occurred to me days later that they might actually be working.) This void exposes the fundamentally repetitious nature of the plot. (Step 1: they select a target; step 2: Michel promises Gloria he won’t fuck the target; step 3: Michel fucks the target; step 4: Gloria finds out and freaks out; step 5: Gloria murders the target; step 6: repeat.)

As a result, Alléluia is a worthy effort which much to recommend it but little to actually love about it, at least for me. Others, particularly fans of Lynchian surrealism, might find more substance here than I do.

ALLÉLUIA poster

Horsehead

An art-horror film steeped in dream imagery that usually doesn’t fall too far down its own rabbit-hole.

France. Directed by Romain Basset, 2014. Starring Lili-Fleur Pointeaux, Catriona MacColl, Murray Head, Gala Besson, Fu’ad Aït Attou, Vernon Dobtcheff. 89 minutes.

It’s funny how coincidence often links the movies I review. For example, there was the week I reviewed Frank and Nightcrawler (each starring a Gyllenhaal sibling); I didn’t mean to do that. Here’s another example: in the last couple of weeks I’ve reviewed We Are Still Here (an homage to Lucio Fulci) for this site and The Nightmare (a documentary about nightmares) for Cinema Axis. Next up on the docket: Horsehead, a horror movie about nightmares with a visual aesthetic occasionally cribbed from Italian horror, and starring a member of Fulci’s early-’80s rep.

So here’s the deal: Lili-Fleur Pointeaux plays Jessica, a young woman returning home to visit her estranged family in the wake of her grandmother’s death. Relations with her mother Caitlyn (Catriona MacColl) remain strained, her dealings with her stepfather Jim (Murray Head) and family servant George (Vernon Dobtcheff). Jessica has always suffered from vivid nightmares, but a particular recurring dream of being menaced by a horse-headed monster takes on more meaning in her family home, and points to secrets long repressed. But her oneiric explorations take their toll on her body and mind.

Director and co-writer Romain Basset deals heavily with Jungian theory and other forms of symbolism in Horsehead: in addition to the titular monster, there’s a scary priest who talks with a voice similar to Pinhead’s, a bloody figure apparently meant to be the young version of Jessica’s grandmother, and more wolves than the first couple of seasons of Game of Thrones. Most of the time, Basset uses these symbols to communicate the story clearly; you should have no problem working out what’s happening if you’re paying attention.

Basset’s visual aesthetic is gorgeous and lush, borrowing heavily from the giallo color palette without going too far down a retro path. When combined with the film’s dark, creepy eroticism, Horsehead occasionally feels like a Cattet/Forzani production with the ostentatiousness dialed back a couple notches. Basset does fall down the rabbit-hole a couple of times, delivering too much pretty symbolism for its own sake–particularly at the climax, which he drags out about five to ten minutes longer than needed. But most of the time, it works, and you can either play along with the puzzle-solving or lose yourself in the visuals, depending on your mood.

Two strong supporting performances anchor the film’s exploration of dream imagery. Caitlyn is a complex character whose motives might be hard to understand or sympathize with, but MacColl (Fulci’s muse for the “Gates of Hell” trilogy) does a great job of balancing the character’s love for her daughter with a just as strong resentment towards her. George’s role in the plot leaves little concrete for him to do other than exposit, but Dobtcheff’s performance adds much to the character that remains unsaid.

It’s no wonder, then, that Jessica’s strongest relationship is with Jim, and Pointeaux and Head have a great father/daughter chemistry with each other. Overall, Pointeaux makes for an engaging protagonist during the dream sequences, when she’s on her own, but she’s not quite in the same class as MacColl and Dobtcheff in her scenes with them. (On the other hand, they’re brilliant and she’s still young, so it’s quite understandable.)

To bottom-line it, Horsehead is an enjoyable genre offering that should delight fans of a more thoughtful, more arty approach to the genre.

HORSEHEAD poster

Der Samurai

A weird, heavily symbolic “queer thriller” with a scene-stealing, raving and drooling lunatic at the center.

Germany. Directed by Till Kleinert, 2014. Starring Michel Diercks, Pit Bukowski, Uwe Preuss. 79 minutes. In German, with English subtitles.

If your experience with genre cinema has been too safe, staid, straightforward, and just plain normal recently, I’d like to introduce you to Till Kleinert, the first-time writer/director of Der Samurai. Prepare to meet your new bizarro German Jesus.

The plot is weird enough. Michel Diercks plays Jakob, a nebbishy young policeman whom nobody seems to take seriously. But when der titular samurai, a cross-dressing, katana-wielding maniac who might or might not also be a werewolf (Pit Bukowski) comes to town with a mad gleam in his eye and an urge to do his “Connor MacLeod on speed” routine, Germany’s answer to Barney Fife might be the only one who can bring the madman’s path of destruction to a halt.

But Der Samurai’s true strangeness comes in its thematic elements. The apparently symbiotic relationship between Jakob–a guy so repressed he makes Edward Woodward’s character in The Wicker Man look like Lady goddamn Gaga–and the “free and wild” (to quote Lovecraft) “samurai” suggests many metaphors and interpretations over the course of the film, not all of them mutually exclusive. Why does Jakob occasionally behave out-of-character? Is the Samurai even real? What connects either character with the wolf who menaces at town at night, for whom Jakob leaves bags of raw meat in the hope of sating its bestial, primal hunger?

Your guess is as good as mine. Kleiner provides a possible hint in his description of his film as “a queer thriller,” but he clearly wants the audience to make up its own mind. Each viewer might have a radically different idea of what Der Samurai is really “about.” Or they might just take everything at face value, sit back and enjoy the weirdness and violence. I’m not always the best with symbols or metaphors unless I’ve lived with a film for a few years, so that’s the route I took. At any rate, Der Samurai has the potential to inspire one hell of a variation on Room 237.

Moving on to the more concrete aspects of the production, Kleinert’s visual aesthetic very much impressed me–capturing perfectly the spooky, middle-of-nowhere feel that small rural towns often have in the wee hours of the night. Conrad Oleak’s haunting score adds to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the front half of the film does seem a bit overloaded with forest chases that drag on a bit too long.

Bukowski can’t help but steal the film with his antics as the title character, a larger-than-life figure with a boner to match. Those who like their psychosis with a side order of raving and drooling will love the samurai to bits. Jakob is significantly less interesting, but that’s the entire point of his character. Diercks pushes his repression very close to the line where the character stops being relatable, but never crosses it.

Der Samurai is obtuse and obscure but never, ever dull. There’s an audience out there waiting for it, to grab the film with its grubby little fingers and claim it as its own. If this is the sort of thing you dig, put it towards the top of your watch-list.

DER SAMURAI

Borgman

The film’s writer/director/star clearly intends the story to work on several levels, but I couldn’t shake the feeling something was getting scrambled between his brain and my own.

Netherlands. Directed by Alex van Warmerdam, 2013. Starring Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval. 113 minutes. In Dutch, with English subtitles.

What comes to mind when you think of elves? The assistants in Santa’s workshop? Ernie and his minions, living in a hollow tree and baking cookies? Okay, there’s a good chance you think of Orlando Bloom yelling “And my bow!” but I expect most people’s impressions of elves are benevolent and peaceful. Legendry paints them much differently. The fair ones are a dangerous folk, capricious and monstrous. You dare not cross them, for they will fuck you up.

A German variation on the word “elf” is alp, a malicious trickster demon similar to the mara (from which we get the word “nightmare”). The title character of Borgman, played by Jan Bijvoet, could be a modern-day alp. He lives in an underground warren in a forest, until one day, a priest leading an unruly mob drive him and his fellows out of their homes. In desperation, he makes his way to a nearby estate, and he asks the affluent residents Richard and Marina (Jeroen Perceval and Hadewych Minis) if he might use their bath. Not only do they refuse, Richard beats the living crap out of Borgman. In response, Borgman insinuates himself into the family’s life and dismantles it, brick by brick.

…or at least, I think that’s what’s going on. Writer/director/co-star Alex van Warmerdam clearly intends the story to work on several levels: the literal, the symbolic, and the political. Van Warmerdam assumes a distinctly European resentment of the bourgeoise on the part of the audience. He expects us to dislike the rich family because they’re rich, something that might not translate to American sensibilities.

If you don’t catch what goes on under the surface–for myself, I think I’m missing at least a couple more levels–what the film offers is an increasingly absurd thriller. We’re not talking Lynchian levels of weirdness (I had consistently heard Borgman described as “surreal” and expected something much, much stranger) but Van Warmerdam populates the film with characters who do odd things for reasons that are not readily apparent. Or, for that matter, ever apparent. The constant parade of quirk is entertaining enough, and there’s something darkly beautiful about Borgman’s mates’ method of disposing of corpses. But I couldn’t shake the consistent feeling that something was getting scrambled between Van Warmerdam’s brain and my own.

At the very least, the actors are entertaining to watch, particularly Bijovet, whose impish menace permeates every frame. He plays very well against Minis, the character Borgman has the most direct influence on, which is appropriate considering alps are generally thought to visit women. Richard’s characterization is a bit scant–remember what I said before about resentment of the bourgeoise–but Perceval fills the gap admirably.

When watching Borgman, I found it impossible to shake the nagging feeling that I was missing something (maybe multiple somethings) important. Something got lost in translation for me. Still, I found it enjoyable enough for what it was.

Borgman poster

Retro Review: Enter the Void

A bold, unique, singular, visionary work about terrible people I didn’t engage with doing terrible things I didn’t care about.

France. Directed by Gaspar Noé, 2009. Starring Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy. 143 minutes.

I think someone once said that his definition of a good television series was a show where you wanted to hang out with the characters every week. I don’t remember who said this, and I don’t remember the exact wording, but I’m pretty sure it was something along those lines. I don’t agree with that, from a personal standpoint. But I can extrapolate that definition to come up with one of my own personal rules, what Adam Cadre would call a “pattern of evaluation”: if I hate the symbolic process of hanging out with a group of characters, I’m going to hate the narrative, no matter what else it has in its favor.

Gaspar Noé’s 2009 effort Enter the Void has many wonderful elements, but none of them make up for it being an overlong, self-indulgent slog. The focal point of the film is Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an American expatriate living in Tokyo, where he takes drugs, deals drugs, and lives with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), a stripper with whom he has a suspiciously Freudian relationship. Oscar’s best friend rats him out to the cops and he dies in a confrontation so stupid it would have earned him a Darwin award were he not a fictional character. After that, his disembodied soul floats around, first seeing the immediate repercussions of his death, then reflecting on the events of his life. His parents died in an automobile when he was a child and he and his sister went to separate foster homes, and  later in life.  Then he went to Tokyo, started doing shitty things to pay to bring Linda to Tokyo, did other shitty things for his own gratification, lived in a state of more-or-less constant denial, and then died. Then he returns to the present and the long-term repercussions of his death. And this goes on for nearly two and a half fucking hours.

Hopefully the impression I’ve given you is that Oscar is a terrible person. I expect the whole “parents died in front of him” thing is meant to explain why he is the way he is and why he has such a creepy relationship with Linda, but emotionally that explanation is an equation that doesn’t add up. Basically, he’s an asshole living in a permanent state of denial, an endless cycle of buying, taking, and selling drugs. Whatever time is left to him, he spends lusting after his own goddamn sister. And everyone around him is just as bad.

The terrible performances only compounded the problem. Brown delivers each line in the same mumbly, dull monotone, and fails utterly to convince, a real shame considering he improvised most of his dialog. De la Huerta (a performer who readily admits she’s not an actress) conveys lust and histrionics very well, but is completely lost when Noé requires anything more of her. Cyril Roy and Olly Alexander (as Oscar’s friends) and Sara Stockbridge (as Oscar’s older, married lover) fare better, but their characters are such cyphers that I kept mixing up Roy and Alexander’s character’s names, and kept forgetting Stockbridge’s even existed.

Enter the Void has a number of positives in its favor. It’s often a breathtakingly beautiful film with one of the most amazing soundtracks I’ve ever heard, and not just because it features Delia Derbyshire’s sublime interpretation of Bach’s “Air on the G String.” It’s bold, unique, singular, visionary. Its director and co-writer, Gaspar Noé, doesn’t so much (to quote my review of Melancholia) challenge the audience as double-dog-dare it to keep watching. Between Void and descriptions I’ve heard of Irreversible without actually having seen it, it seems the guy doesn’t believe that art is by necessity a pleasant experience. Good for him. I respect that.

Unfortunately the bulk of the experience he offers in Enter the Void offers is too much time spent with awful people doing stupid things, and all the pretty pictures and interesting sounds in the world can’t give me my hundred and forty minutes back.

Enter the Void poster

Enemy

Enemy is one hell of a cinematic puzzle, offering much viewers who like combing a movie for clues to what’s actually going on. On the other hand, I found I didn’t care much about the characters or the story.

Canada. Directed by Denis Villenueve, 2013. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Melanie Laurent. 90 minutes.

I try to go into a movie knowing as little as possible as possible about it. Sometimes I’ll be familiar with a trailer–one of the nice things about the peculiar subset of film that I cover for the Gallery is that trailers aren’t as often plagued with the problems that those for mainstream movies have–and a log line, but that’s it. If something strikes me as interesting, I’ll do my damnedest to avoid press coverage and even discussions with other people.

Here’s what I knew about Enemy at the moment I brought it up on Amazon Instant Video: it’s about a guy who meets a double. The other guy seemed to be an actor of some sort, seemed inclined towards intimidation, and dressed like he lived some sort of glamorous life or something.

I figured it was going to be a fairly straightforward action-thriller with a SF element…you know, like Orphan Black would be if it were a movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal. After the existential antics of +1 and Coherence, that would be just the ticket.

That’s being said, let’s ponder the words of Karl Pilkington one last time (I’m not using this quote in doppelgänger movie reviews anymore):

“What would do me head in is…does he think the same way, look the same way…how would I know which one I was?”

—Karl Pilkington, when asked about how he would respond to meeting his own doppelgänger

Pilkington said that in a podcast episode he recorded with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Gervais and Merchant respond by opining that that must be the stupidest question ever asked: you know which one’s you because you know you’re you. To which I would have asked, “…or are you?”

I’ll get back to that later, maybe; right now, let’s get back to Enemy. The two Jakes are Adam Bell and Anthony Claire. Bell is a nebbishy (or at least as nebbishy as Jake Gyllenhaal is allowed to look) history prof who doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds fame). Neither appears all that interested in the other, and while they do seem to have a fair amount of sex, it doesn’t seem particularly satisfying.

Meanwhile, Anthony Claire is (as I surmised) an actor, working under the stage name Daniel St. Claire. He’s more confident and less unkempt than Bell, but otherwise the two are identical. He’s married to Helen (Sarah Gadon, Cronenberg’s latest muse; she starred his last two movies, his upcoming Maps to the Stars, and his son Brandon’s Antiviral). Their relationship isn’t much better than Adam and Mary’s, although it must be marginally so because Helen is pregnant and Anthony enjoys privileges at a local sex club.

So. Adam discovers he has a doppelgänger and tracks Anthony down. Their meeting leaves them both anxious, confused, filled with dread. How can this be possible? Even if they are somehow long-lost twins, it’s impossible for two people to be exact physical duplicates, even down to scars and choice of facial hair, right?

That’s when a certain thing happens, a shocking thing, a thing that insists I recontextualize everything I’ve seen so far. That thing is the image of a huge–we’re talking kaiju-sized–spider striding above the Toronto skyline. From that point on, it becomes apparent that not everything that appears on-screen is meant to be considered as “real” and it’s up to the audience to determine what, if anything, is actually happening.

Writer/director Denis Villenueve has constructed one hell of a cinematic puzzle, and Enemy has a lot to offer viewers who like combing a movie for clues to what’s actually going on. The problem I have with the film is that’s not how I play the game, I’m not constantly scanning the image looking for the key to understanding the scene. (One YouTube video purporting to explain Enemy states that you can tell which of the Two Jakes appears in a scene: he’s “obviously wearing a wedding ring” and is therefore Anthony. But I’m not the sort of person who registers wedding rings, in either images or real life, unless my attention is directly called to them, so I missed that vital clue.)

I tend to go for writing/story first, then visual aesthetics. I wasn’t much impressed with the former: while I enjoyed the Pilkingtonian (see, told you I’d get back to that quote!) essence of the quest to find the true nature of the Two Jakes, the characterization is so weak I didn’t find myself emotionally invested in the outcome. Mary is a complete cipher as a character; Helen isn’t much better, although I do like Gadon as an actress and she puts in a good performance here.

The look and the feel of the film are the main selling point to me. I’m not a huge fan of Villenueve’s work but I’ll give him that he’s got a great eye and a palpable feeling of dread oozes from every frame of the film. He clearly put a lot of thought behind the ideas. I just wish he’d done more work on the characters.

While I didn’t like Enemy as much as I wish I had, I respect Denis Villenueve for having the guts to make a film that demands the audience pay very close attention and use its brain. Sadly, it’s not quite my thing.

Enemy poster

A Field in England

When you watch a Ben Wheatley film, you know you’re going to get something a little different. Or, in the case of A Field in England, a lot different. Maybe too different.

United Kingdom. Directed by Ben Wheatley, 2013. Starring Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Richard Glover. 90 minutes. 6/10

Trapped on a battlefield of the English Civil War, the coward (Reece Shearsmith) hides. His name is Whitehead, and he is–or maybe was–the apprentice of a mighty alchemist. His master gave him a task–to capture and arrest a man who stole from his library–and he failed. Now he hides from the bloodthirsty mercenary hired to kill him.

Yet his life is fortuitously saved by Cutler (Ryan Pope), a disillusioned soldier in Cromwell’s New Model Army. He has no wish to return to his regiment, and along with two fellow soldiers, the coarse Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and the simple Friend (Richard Glover), decide to desert in favor of an evening of debauchery at a nearby alehouse. Whitehead has little choice but to join them, and hopes he may yet find a way back into his master’s graces.

Yet Cutler is not all he seems. After feeding Jacob and Friend stew spiked with hallucinogenic mushrooms (Whitehead declines, as he is fasting until his task is complete), he leads his three companions to a field and affects the bizarre rescue of the Irishman O’Neil (Michael Smiley). This is the man Whitehead seeks, yet he’s in no position to apprehend the thief.

In this field, O’Neil tells Whitehead, there is a great treasure. He wishes to claim it, and use it to pay off his many debts before absconding to the continent. Yet as powerful as his magic is, he must grudgingly admit that some of Whitehead’s gifts are superior. Whitehead will help him find the treasure. He doesn’t need to say what will happen to Whitehead and his companions once the treasure is found.

Whitehead has little to depend on if he expects to survive this ordeal. His powers are meager, and Jacob and Friend can offer little aid in their addled state. But beneath the apprentice’s feet lies a potent ally. Can he find it in time and save himself?

I have a strong feeling that A Field in England is going to be one of those heavily polarizing movies. Everyone who sees it is either going to love it or hate it. And predictably, I find myself somewhere in the middle.

Ben Wheatley’s segment of The ABCs of Death piqued my interest; Kill List and Sightseers cemented my fandom. He’s an original voice in the genre, with a keen eye, strong casting skills and an ability to work within a number of genres. (Kill List is a cross between a torture porn-ish crime thriller and The Wicker ManSightseers is a deeply unsentimental black comedy with a wide streak of social commentary.) He’s capable of accessible work (he cut his teeth directing television, and continues to work in the medium; in fact, he’s directing two episodes of the upcoming season of Doctor Who), but he’s not afraid to take risks or try weird things. Bottom line, you watch a Ben Wheatley film, you know you’re going to get something a little different.

Or, in the case of A Field in England, a lot different. The word “psychedelic” gets used a lot when describing it, and to be fair there are sequences like that and they’re the ones which most audiences will remember most. But even the word “psychedelic” makes the film sound like it’s going to be much less weird than it actually is. It’s one thing for a film to present a psychedelic sequence. It’s quite another thing to present said sequence in black and white, in 2014.

To Wheatley’s credit, most of the risks he takes works. The film’s tone is largely serious yet he casts comedic actors in the lead roles: Shearsmith was a member of the sketch-comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen, while Smiley is a former stand-up comedian and veteran of Spaced. Both are excellent, with Shearsmith perfectly embodying Whitehead’s obsequiousness and cowardice, with occasional glints of madness, while Smiley’s interpretation of O’Neil as an arrogant bastard is perfection. The rest of the cast is also strong, with Glover’s Friend being a particular highlight, and Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh making the most of a brief cameo.

The photography is also excellent. The germ of an idea that grew into A Field in England is Wheatley’s desire to film an entire movie in a single location, and despite the open expanse the field offers, the film often oozes claustrophobia from its pores (aided, apparently, by a jury-rigged camera lens that DP Laurie Rose describes as having “a focus of about a foot” and producing an image that is “super sharp, but everything that falls off behind it is utterly out of focus.”)

On the other hand, some of the production’s less conventional elements are hit-and-miss. The psychedelic sequence is appropriately mind-bending but goes on a bit too long and is likely to annoy audiences who don’t like strobing and flashing images. A musical number sung by Glover will delight you if you’re up for that sort of thing, but will drag the action out if you’re not. And, every so often, the actors will interrupt the action and hold their pose for a minute or so. I’m not sure what Wheatley is getting at with these sequences, and I found the effect rather like those ersatz “freeze-frames” that used to end episodes of Police Squad!

For better or worse, A Field in England is a film that demands the viewer’s complete attention, with several characters’ actions not making much sense without scrutiny of what has happened before. Unclear of what exactly was supposed to be going on during O’Neil’s “rescue,” I watched the sequence several times but finding myself no less confounded after each viewing. It was only after watching the film again from the very beginning that I was able to formulate a theory about what was going on, although there’s still several things I’m unclear on.

A Field in England is quite an accomplishment and I respect it for even existing in the first place, but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t try my patience. At a couple of points, only my faith in Ben Wheatley kept me from abandoning it entirely. I’m glad I didn’t, but I also can’t bring myself to blame viewers who do.

A Field in England poster