Saturday, March 22, 2008


I first read about director Alain Jessua in FAB Press's Eyeball Compendium, in which he's described as the "Orson Welles of French cinema[...] he made a big splash, critically and commercially, with his first two features, but then seemed to lose his way and has never really fulfilled the promise he once showed." However, I of course derive much more pleasure out of Welle's later, less polished, less "canonical" films, so I made a mental note to check some Jessua films out.

Jessua is virtually forgotten in discussion of cinema today, and completely unknown in the US. His only film with a domestic DVD release is the 1984 horror-comedy Frankenstein 90, released by Anchor Bay around 2002, only to find itself once again quickly forgotten.

Traitement de Choc is most notorious (although, that's a relative word in this instance) for the fact that famed French actor Alain Delon appears in a rather extensive full frontal nude scene. That seems to be what it's initial selling point was, even being imported and released in the UK by Anthony Balch as Doctor in the Nude, which, in the context of the film itself, seems rather absurd, but hey, I'm sure it sold a few more tickets that way.

The film itself is a fairly conventional dramatic thriller, but it's moral positioning (done in a not-totally-heavy-handed sort of way) and genre elements make it stand out. The story follows Helene Massan's (Annie Giradot) visit at Dr. Deviler's (Delon) "rejuvenation" facility, a closed community which is three parts spa and one part mad-scientist laboratory. At the clinic, Helene encounters a group of vapid, rich men and women who convince her that after the treatment she will feel infinitely better, and that she will be "one of them." Being "one of them" seems to imply nothing more than lounging around a pool sunbathing, frolicking naked on the beach, and talking about how great it is to look and feel young. Nothing of substance constructs the group's relationship, but that's partly the point.

Eventually Helene begins to question some of the facility's techniques, especially as members of the Portuguese help she grows fond of repeatedly get sick and disappear. She later starts sleeping with Dr. Devilers and soon has access to some of the facility's secrets. However, nobody else seems to care about anything other than how they look.

Parts of the film found me thinking of Luigi Bazzoni's Footprints, as well as Robbe-Grillet's L'Immortelle, and occasionally Frans Zwartjes' Pentimento. The first two are evoked due to the first half of the film featuring the female protagonist wandering around by herself, interacting more with the architecture of the facility than the other patients. The latter comes from the interiors of the treatment facility: cold, unresponsive metal and international style white decorate the intensely modern buildings.

One of the more interesting elements of the film is Helene's fairly ambiguous moral stance. She's even asked, several times throughout the film, what is is exactly that she's after. She's obviously after some sort of answers, but she's not quite sure why. On one hand, she clearly feels bad that something is happening to the Portugeuse workmen--but on the other, she is insistent on recalling her physical and mental "youngness" (due only to the fact that she was recently dumped, for the first time ever, for a younger woman). The conflicting interests of Helene help to ease what appears to be Jessua's conviction of the bourgeoisie: he is not flat out condemning them in a heavy handed way (as many political genre films tend to do), rather, the protagonist (whom we inherently identify with as viewers) is placed in a position of confusion. By the end it becomes clear that the treatment is "questionable" (to say the least), but we also understand the desire for youth, a desire that undoubtedly exists in some shape or form in all human beings.

Helene's moral positioning is challenged even further as she takes a plane ride with Dr. Devilers, and he flat out tells her that he finds his patients ridiculous. He states that he would prefer to live with "the so-called savages," but his attempts to do just that have failed due to his outsider status: in this context, he is the other. And so he is now dependent on the wealth brought to him by his wealthy clients.

The climax of the film brings all of the sensational elements that one would hope for in a genre film, and Jessua's creativity doesn't disappoint. It's a fairly abrupt ending (in terms of narrativity), but a bizarre coda posits even the police as shallow, vanity obsessed individuals who place the self over the group, ending the film on a fairly depressing note.

Overall, the film isn't perfect, but is still a very worthwhile watch, if only for the fact to understand how you can make a subtle politically charged film that remains compulsively watchable and entertaining.

Friday, March 14, 2008


"I had to do something that was a horror films, but at the same time I wanted to destroy horror films."

-Kiyoshi Kurosawa, taken from a talk given after a screening of Loft at Yale University

Loft is a very peculiar movie. It maintains Kurosawa's trademark eye for atmosphere and horror, yet, as occasionally happens, it feels like a very disjointed film. I don't necessarily find this to be a bad thing, but when sitting down to write about a disjointed film, I find it more difficult to organize my thoughts into something coherent. And coherency, well, that's what one hopes to accomplish with a review. Coherency is also something the movie itself wants to accomplish, and surprisingly, it does.

At least, in a very indirect way. The movie is an odd hodgepodge of terror, atmosphere, melodrama, and subtle comedy. In some ways, the movie is a response to the current state of the Japanese horror film--at least, the Japanese horror film as viewed by the Westerner. A couple of weeks before watching Loft, I had the pleasure of viewing Sion Sono's Exte: Hair Extensions, which maintains a totally different tone from Kurosawa's film, but also subtly ridicules the array of omnipresent cliches that abound in contemporary J-Horror. While I think Sono's film succeeds more in calling attention to the sorry state of J-Horror while still delivering an intelligent and entertaining film, Kurosawa's film works better divorced from the satire. It's there, and it's done fairly well, but if the satire is the only thing the viewer fixates on in the film, he or she is missing out on a lot.

Before I segue away from the satire; it is worth discussing. Most of Kurosawa's satire in the film isn't so much straight up satire in the vein of Month Python or popular television, rather, it's more a subversion of the archetypes that permeate J-Horror, revealing why exactly it is that these cliches are lacking. The long haired ghost, which exists as the most present archetype known to Western audiences, is present in the film. But the "ghost" doesn't move jerkily, is rather just another character on screen, and Kurosawa allows the ghost to remain present uncomfortably long once she has been revealed. By allowing the (expected) source of terror to remain on screen, the terror is diffused and any emotional response the character/signifier would elicit is crushed.

As Jerry White points out in the chapter on Loft in The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear, Kurosawa also subverts archetypes by allowing his female protagonist (his first since 1992's Guard from the Underground) to, through a lack of anchored identity, take on all the roles generally offered to females in J-Horror: the victim, the monster, and the hero. These roles are ostensibly established by three characters (Reiko: the hero, the mummy: the monster, and the ghost: the victim), but all there characters have overlapping personalities-they are essentially three parts of the same whole. By collapsing all of these archetypes into a single character (who, let's face it, in the scope of the movie is an empty shell, a simple signifier for Kurosawa's ideas) he reveals the lack in depending upon the archetypes.

But aside from the subversion of cliches, the film is also a narrative. The story finds Reiko struggling to churn out a pop-romance novel to satisfy her publisher. She moves into a house in the middle of the country to get some peace and quiet. She discovers her neighbor is a scientist working on a mummy. Her publisher goes nuts and tries to kill her. She falls in love. A dead girl pops up. All this implies, of course, is that there is a narrative in the film, the narrative is far from straight-forward.

As usual in a Kurosawa film, the progression relies on the creation and sustenance of atmosphere. Atmosphere, which Kurosawa is always wildly successful at building out of location, is what propels the film forward. There is no central conflict (well, we think there is at first, but that central conflict is utterly abandoned half-way through) to carry the narrative, so we have to give ourselves over to ideas and aesthetics. Also as usual in a Kurosawa movie, it is the atmosphere that makes the movie worth while: sound and image work together so well in the film that it's impossible to not be totally absorbed into the locations on display. Several abject "jump shock" scenes make perfect use of the natural light and old house that Reiko is living in, and the heavy atmosphere manages to approach a climax without plummeting immediately afterwards. The intense atmosphere is sustained throughout the entire first hour and a half of the film.

And that's when things change.

Out of nowhere, Reiko and Yoshioka begin speaking to each other as if they're living in a Douglas Sirk melodrama: music swells, and the two run to each others arms professing their love for one another. An empty grave lies in the background. It's jarring: in the same way "jump shocks" work within the realm of generic J-Horror, this change is constructed to be surprising. From this point on, Reiko is no longer the films center; she's thrown to the background and Kurosawa's camera starts to linger on Yoshioka instead. An attack mars their brief foray into the land of emotions, and soon everyone is back to their apathetic and empty selves.

But, it is the fact that these characters are completely empty and apathetic that allows this melodramatic interlude to occur without distorting the film into something incoherent: when you have nothing, the first chance to attach yourself, fill yourself, achieves a sense of epic proportions. The overly dramatic scene really fits perfectly with the rest of the subtle, understated, and almost silent film. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis. Kurosawa's realization of that is wonderful, and the cinematic approach to his revelation is even more impressive.

If there's anything that needs to be said about the film it's this: in an interview Kurosawa mentioned the film being an "experiment in terror." And for that, I applaud. Loft doesn't get tied up trying to maintain itself in an overdone, unnecessary plot. One of the primary perks of making films is the ability to both establish emotions and inspire emotions in fairly straightforward way (when done well)--and that is what Kurosawa does here. It's an experiment in atmosphere, and experiment in applying theory to practice, and overall it's a stunning aestheticized experiment. A fulfilling one, at that.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


aka Vampiros Sexos

While the Cinema of Transgression movement had peaked in the mid-1980s with the work of Richard Kern and Beth B., across the Atlantic, director Carl Andersen began making films clearly in the same vein in the late 1980s. His debut film, I Was a Teenage Zabbadoing... (full title: "I Was A Teenage Zabbadoing And The Incredible Lusty Dust-Whip From Outer Space Conquers The Earth Versus The 3 Psychedelic Stooges Of Dr. Fun Helsing And Fighting Against Surf-Vampires And Sex-Nazis And Have Troubles With This Endless Titillation Title") is clearly situated within this movement, combining Vampire archetypes with hardcore sex all set to a soundtrack of post-punk and no-wave music.

In this hour long, starkly lit black and wide feature, plot takes a sidestep to the depiction of angsty counterculture, fights, obsessive sex, and lusty vampires. What little plot is found follows, apparently, "A female vampire from the planet Arus [who] tries to vampirize the descendants of Dr. Fun Helsing."1 The vampire infects her first victim by way of "infected" olive oil (?!), and then the vampire virus spreads itself via sex and biting. This all takes place among 20 something kids clad in black and leather, who hang out at a bar (The Video Teque) and don't really do too much with their lives other than fuck.

For being what could be considered an ostensibly empty plot, the film moves at a rapidly entertaining pace, with occasional bouts of humor (as two characters are driving along the street on their hunt for the vampires, they keep passing couples fighting for no apparent reason). Parts of the film also are tailor made to fit the excellent music that's decorating the scenery, but the film plays these "music video" scenes in a way similar to the aforementioned Cinema of Transgression, never delving into something that seems out of place (in the way quite a few contemporary straight to video horror flicks do).

It's remarkably trashy but stylish; a perfect visual accompaniment to the no-wave music scene that prevailed in America (and to some extent, Europe)--far more fitting, in my opinion, than many of the films of Nick Zedd (who authored the Cinema of Transgression Manifesto).

There are, however, two particularly interesting elements of the film that merit mention. The first is a particularly potent twenty second scene where two of the main vampires get into a brief fight as one of their soon to be victims plays an acoustic song with lyrics about dancing in the background. It's bizarrely poetic in a very low-rent sort of way that totally fits the tone of the film. The second interesting element comes by way of what the vampires are weak against: instead of garlic and crucifix's, the vampires cannot cross the border of--wait for it-- Tarkovsky films! It's a bizarre jab that once again fits the punk spirit that pervades the rest of the film.

My main point of interest to the films of Carl Andersen, aside from the fact that they're delightfully entertaining and earnest in a way that most cinema has forgotten about, comes from the fact that ever since seeing Andersen's most notorious film, 1990's Mondo Weirdo, I've been a bit obsessed with the band that does the soundtracks for what appears to be his entire oeuvre, Model D'oo. There's a track that I absolutely love from Mondo Weirdo that also appears in this film, albeit in a stripped down version. Regardless, liking the music of the soundtrack significantly helps to enjoy the film.

1The intertitles of the film are in German (I think), so the "details" provided in this sentence come via the Vampyres-Online website.