THE DEAD MAN (PEGGY AHWESH & KEITH SANBORN, 1987)
Peggy Ahwesh is a fairly well known filmmaker amongst Super8 aficionados. The Deadman, however, was shot on grainy 16mm film, and if you're familiar with the work of Georges Bataille, it follows his short story Le Mort fairly directly. Keith Sanborn translated the text from the French, and it's apparent that Sanborn's translation is not as accurate as more recent translations done by Bataille scholars, as much of Bataille's nuanced language (here on display within archaic intertitles) is compromised; simplified even.
And really, overall that is the problem with the film. All of Bataille's brilliantly profane ideas are simplified to somewhat naive transgressive images. All of the events in the story are depicted, but Ahwesh and Sanborn do little very little to take advantage of the medium they are presenting the story through. If you've not read the story, I would recommend reading it before (or even instead of, to be honest) watching the film. To reductively simplify; it tells the tale of Marie, who flees the house of the titular dead man, and ends up in a bar. She debases herself and presents herself as a sexual object to the people who populate the bar. A count visits and Marie is immediately struck by his resemblance to the dead man (which is mentioned quickly in a seemingly irrelevant intertitle; while in the text it is a key moment). The count and Marie go back to her house where the dead man still lays, and Marie dies, overdosing on pills (cutting her wrists in the original).
The story, like much of Bataille's work, shows great promise for a visual accompaniment. Which in reality makes the mediocrity of the film even more irritating, as it exists as a totally lost chance. The cast of the film is remarkably amateur, resembling outcasts from the Cinema of Transgression movement without enough awareness or pastiche to let themselves even exist as intentional caricatures, existing rather as just bad cliches themselves. The visual style of the film is muddy and flat, with none of the visually evocative language present in Bataille's text put on display. Everything is remarkably straight-forward, a simple, direct, text to image translation. The sound is also remarkably generic, for what could ostensibly be considered an experimental film. There is only one instance during which anything interesting happens on the soundtrack, but it's so incongruent with the rest of the film that it becomes worthless. The instance I refer to is a two minute scene where the filmmakers add a laugh track to sort of juxtapose a sense of detachment with the (supposed) emotional vapidity of the characters. It's ironic that a lack of acting actually manages to undermine what is supposed to be a lack of emotion, but it does. Really, it feels like a student film.
In an interview with Scott MacDonald, Ahwesh tries to explain that the film is meant to interpret the story of The Dead Man as "one long female jouissance, not a transgression at all." If that was her intention, she fails. While the one amiable thing about the film is it's lead actress, (Jennifer Montgomery, who eventually went on to make the nominally interesting film Art for Teachers of Small Children) the Marie of the film is the only thing congruent with the book, not the other way around. Marie is the only element that through her actions seems to inhabit the idea of drunken squalor, emotional catharsis, and an utter sense of letting go. It's too bad that the rest of the film can't keep up with her.
I suppose the film could be labeled as mildly worthwhile for those interested in seeing another almost verbatim screen adaptations of one of Bataille's texts (aside from the resent feature length film, Christophe Honoré's Ma Mere). But for those more interested in the ideas behind Bataille's texts, and for those already familiar with the stories, there's not much to see here.