Lagniappe Podcast: Diabolique (1955)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss H.G. Clouzot’s widely influential horror-noir Diabolique (1955).

00:00 Welcome

01:58 The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
03:50 The Blair Witch Project (1999)
07:55 Firestarter (1984)
12:32 The Dark and the Wicked (2020)
14:25 Candyman (2021)
16:50 RRR (2022)
21:00 Blood Simple (1984)
25:37 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
32:00 Men (2022)
40:11 Turning Red (2022)
43:35 Petite Maman (2022)
44:45 Vortex (2022)

49:10 Diabolique (1955)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Men (2022)

There’s been a lot of recent pushback against the suggestion that A24 has an overriding “house style.”  Younger film nerds who were raised on a cinematic diet of Disney-owned studios like Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm can go a little overboard transferring their fandom of boardroom-directed brands to auteur-driven distributors like A24 & Neon, but I don’t know that they’re entirely wrong to do so.  Some of A24’s unified “house style” is an illusion generated by their brand-conscious marketing & distribution strategies (which are truly admirable in the way they lure broad audiences into seeing niche-interest art films).  I can’t deny that their in-house productions often share common tones & tropes, though, even if that’s only a result of selecting which projects to fund, as opposed to dictating what directors deliver in the final edit.  For instance, I’m confident I would’ve guessed what studio produced the “A24 Horror” film Men before I would’ve guessed which frequent A24 employee directed it.  Alex Garland is usually reliable for a chilly sci-fi creepout (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs), not an atmospheric folk horror with a blatant 1:1 metaphor behind all its grotesque imagery.  That’s glaringly recognizable A24 territory, even if general praise for the studio as a corporate auteur can be a little silly.

With Men, Alex Garland updates The Wicker Man for the post-Get Out era and ends up making his version of mother! in the process.  Jessie Buckley stars as the Big City outsider intruding on the strange, insular customs of rural Brits, tethered to her London homebase only through daily Facetime calls with her sister (who provides Lil Rel-style running commentary and eventual rescue).  The small-village cult she stumbles into worships at the altar of Misogyny.  The villagers are so unified in their hatred of women that they all share the same actor’s CG-applied face (Rory Kinnear’s), making the title Men shorthand for Yes, All Men.  This is a purely allegorical exercise.  Buckley’s terrorized heroine might be from a real-world London, but the countryside village where she vacations is outright Biblical in its heavy-handed visual metaphors, complete with a first-act reference to forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  All of the men (or, more accurately, all of the man) in her vicinity blame her for their own moral & behavioral shortcomings, violently punishing her for their own sins.  Each variation of Kinnear represents a different misogynist archetype, from schoolboy mouthbreather to clueless microagressor to repressed incel to base, hateful animal.  In their sickly presence Buckley realizes that all men are the same, all men are creeps, and their pathetic, self-hating abuses against her are not actually her fault, no matter how deftly they’re excused (which is where the allegory echoes beyond the borders of the village to resonate in her real-world social life).

It’s difficult to parse out which aspects of Men are personal to Garland as an auteur vs. which aspects result from the expectations & standards of A24 Horror as a brand.  It’s a useless distinction in a lot of ways, since I appreciate both the director and the studio for consistently bringing provocative genre films to the American multiplex.  The reason I mention it at all is because Men is near impossible to discuss as a standalone work.  Most of the conversation around it focuses more on broad genre trends than it does on this movie in particular, guided by individual audiences’ personal appetite for yet another atmospheric, allegorical horror with blatant social messaging.  Regardless of the way Men participates in the macro trends of A24 productions or modern horror at large, I do think it’s clear that Garland is exploring something personal here.  It’s an anguished, pathetic expression of guilt about the misogyny lurking in all men—even the “nice” ones—that gets stunningly cathartic in its go-for-broke climax, releasing all of the film’s slow-winding tension in a slimy, disjointed fit of body horror.  If you want, you can continue to track the central metaphor in that grotesque display through the ways one form of misogyny (to borrow a term from Genesis) begets another.  It’s also just a broadcast of ugly, difficult-to-stomach impulses direct from Garland’s psyche, which is the exact kind of personal art I’m always looking for at the movies.  I find it strange that Garland stepped outside his home realm of sci-fi to exorcise these particular demons, but I hope enough people appreciate the effort that he feels it was worth the risk.  It’s a great, squirmy little horror film no matter where it fits in the larger cultural landscape or the director’s own catalog.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: The Music Lovers (1971)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1971’s The Music Lovers, is a biopic of 19th Century composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.  Most of my biographical knowledge of Tchaikovsky comes from this over-the-top distortion of his life, which mostly fixates on his volatile marriage to a fantasy-prone nymphomaniac.  A closeted homosexual, Tchaikovsky pursues a traditional marriage with the manic, insatiable woman to the detriment of his own sanity, inviting director Ken Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares to spill onto the screen in spectacular ways that match the explosive piano jolts of Tchaikovsky’s music.  His violent compositions & barely closeted homosexuality land him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play, meaning the film is so indulgent in its fantasy sequences and stylistic expressiveness that it’s foolish to form any concrete historical or political conclusions without further research.

Ken Russell was the master of turning real-life, historical artist’s lives into fodder for his own auteurist idiosyncrasies, from Lord Byron in Gothic to Franz Liszt in Lisztomania to Oscar Wilde in Salome’s Last Dance (which is what originally inspired me to track down The Music Lovers in a previous Movie of the Month cycle).  He did not own a total monopoly on the practice, though.  There are plenty of other directors who used loose-with-the-facts biopics of famous composers as inspiration for over-the-top, high-style pictures with little historical connection to those musicians’ lives.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more composer biopics gone wild.

Amadeus (1984)

Miloš Forman’s libertine biopic of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart doesn’t quite match the unhinged, sweaty mania of Ken Russell’s composer “biographies”, but it’s likely the closest you can get and still win a Best Picture Oscar.  Amadeus is wonderfully, extravagantly lewd, especially for a mainstream production. It characterizes the composer as a shrill, ridiculous fop whose fame at an early age stunted his emotional maturity — like so many fallen Disney Channel stars.  According to its stats on Mozart’s child-celebrity accomplishments, he had composed his first concerto by the age of 4, his first symphony by 7, and his first opera by 12.  It is not a birth-to-death biopic, though, so we do not see these adolescent accomplishments.  Instead, Forman delivers a character study of Mozart as a fully grown, immature lush whose undisputed musical genius does nothing to impede his love of sex, booze, and fart jokes.  He drinks himself into total delirium just like Tchaikovsky does in The Music Lovers, but for most of the picture he’s more of a hedonistic party boy than he is a self-hating sad sack.

While Amadeus indulges in the same “ecstatic truth” approach to historical storytelling as Ken Russell’s comparable biopics, it never totally detaches from reality in any decisive way.  Mozart’s bifurcated nature as a musical genius and a ludicrous fop is solidly grounded in a decades-long rivalry with his fellow composer Antonio Salieri, who cannot stand that his professional competition is a drunken jester whose music is “The Voice of God.”  That rivalry is fictional, but it’s not exactly a Ken Russell-style break from reality.  It does offer the film a bitter source of comedy, though, especially as Salieri’s frustration with Mozart’s ease in exquisite compositions starts to resemble Frank Grimes’s one-sided rivalry with the clueless Homer Simpson.  Forman has self-indulgent fun with Mozart’s life & music—historical truth be damned—which is the core tenant of all of Russell’s own biopics.  Lisztomania never had a chance at winning a Best Picture Oscar, so we might as well celebrate the closest the industry would ever get to that kind of anomaly.

Immortal Beloved (1994)

Candyman & Paperhouse director Bernard Rose attempted his own Ken Russell style biopic in Immortal Beloved, which portrays Ludwig van Beethoven as a temperamental rock star who took his anger over his own hearing loss out on the world at large.  Immortal Beloved delivers even less feverish Ken Russell theatrics than Amadeus, despite the surrealism of Rose’s iconic horror films.  It’s a little too restrained to match the fantastical heights of The Music Lovers or Amadeus, but it’s still a relatively fun, volatile period drama on its own terms.  That’s because it fully commits to the mystery genre structure that Amadeus only toys with as a convenient launching pad.  At the start of Amadeus, Salieri claims he murdered Mozart, but the 161min flashback that follows proves that confession to be figurative (and, again, fictional).  For his part, Bernard Rose fixates on a line in Beethoven’s actual last will & testament that refers to a mysterious “Immortal Beloved” that historians have never successfully identified.  Rose claims his own research and resulting Citizen Kane-inspired screenplay conclusively identified this Immortal Beloved that has been so elusive to Beethoven biographers for centuries. That claim, of course, is insane, but it’s the exact kind of unhinged energy directors need to bring to their projects if they plan to outshine Ken Russell in any way.

Unfortunately, Immortal Beloved also participates in the lowliest form of art: the Gary Oldman acting showcase.  Oldman plays Beethoven as a tortured creative genius and an excuse to don some dinner theatre old-age stage makeup.  Acting!  At least the movie’s adherence to Citizen Kane story structure allows for many points of view on Beethoven’s violent abuses.  Enough of his acquaintances report that the composer was “a terrible man” & “a scoundrel” that there’s nothing cool or romantic about watching him trash hotel rooms like a geriatric rockstar or cruelly insult the people who work to keep his life afloat.  Hanging out with a drinking, farting Mozart in Amadeus is a lot more fun, but there’s enough mysterious intrigue & proto-Sound of Metal dramatics in Rose’s take on Beethoven to make Immortal Beloved worth a look.  Besides, Rose’s conviction that he solved the case by processing it through mainstream screenwriting conventions is just objectively hilarious.

Paganini Horror (1989)

Both Amadeus & Immortal Beloved play around with the biographical details of their respective composers to up their own entertainment value, but neither can claim to go as off-script as the cheap-o Italo slasher Paganini Horror.  There were real-life rumors Antonio Salieri maintained a bitter rivalry with Mozart, even if those rumors have been proven false by historians.  Beethoven’s final will did refer to a mysterious “Immortal Beloved”, even if Rose’s claims to having uncovered that enigma’s identity are ludicrous.  Luigi “Star Crash” Cozzi’s Paganini Horror is working with even an even flimsier scrap of historical inspiration than either of those pictures, though.  Apparently, Niccolò Paganini was such a virtuoso violinist that it was rumored he sold his soul to Satan for the talent, earning him the nickname “The Devil’s Violinist”.  That’s all the real-world inspiration Cozzi needs to resurrect Paganini’s ghost on the set of a “Thriller” rip-off music video shoot, modernizing his musical devilry in the most direct, literal way possible.  Now, there’s a Ken Russell-style disregard for the respectability of real-world logic & historical fact.

Paganini Horror is basically off-brand metalsploitation, trading in the genre’s hair metal soundtrack for classical compositions and cornball 80s pop.  While filming a promotional “video clip” for their new single (a modernized recording of a lost, cursed, Paganini composition, of course), an all-girl rock band accidentally summons Paganini’s ghost, who hunts them one-by-one with a novelty violin knife.  They trade myths about Paganini’s signature on a literal contract with Satan, or how the musician used his wife’s intestines as strings, and you can still hear “the screams of his poor bride” today.  We don’t get to see much of that, though.  We get loopy music video clips & dream sequences where the devil’s violinist chases buxom new wavers around an abandoned castle.  Apparently, the production couldn’t land the full financing needed to stage all of the gore gags in the original script (co-written by Daria Nicolodi as a mockbuster version of a Klaus Kinski Paganini movie that never materialized), so they replaced the gnarlier details of those kills with more loopy dream sequences.  It’s a fun, detached-from-reality schlock novelty as a result, never quite reaching the euphoric highs of a Ken Russell art film but often reaching for the weirdest indulgences possible in a movie about a real-life historical figure, fictionalized beyond recognition.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #160 of The Swampflix Podcast: Wild at Heart (1990) & Heartthrob Nic Cage

Welcome to Episode #160 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Hanna discuss movies that cast Nicolas Cage as a heartthrob leading man, starting with David Lynch’s Wizard of Oz homage Wild at Heart (1990).

00:00 Welcome

01:08 Here Before (2022)
04:45 Field of Dreams (1989)
11:50 John Wick (2014)

20:50 Wild at Heart (1990)

40:10 It Could Happen to You (1994)
56:25 City of Angels (1998)
1:12:49 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2004)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Vortex (2022)

Vortex is, by default, the most emotional Gaspar Noe film.  The eternally juvenile director usually only needles his audience for a single emotional response (shock), but his latest is unusually vulnerable & sentimental.  It’s still not an easy sit.  Euro art cinema veterans Dario Argento & Françoise Lebrun play an aging couple with rapidly declining health, suffering from heart attacks and dementia, respectfully.  Alex Lutz plays their frustrated adult son who is helpless to ease their suffering, both because of the inevitability of death and because of the day-to-day complications of his own life as a drug addict and a recently divorced father.  It’s a miserable display, but Noe doesn’t dwell on his characters’ pain & suffering the way you might expect him to.  There’s a sweetness & warmth to the doomed trio’s unstable life together that you won’t find in previous Noe films.  Climax felt like a career-high watermark for what his usual style can achieve, so it’s for the best that he followed it up with something new, something newly subdued.

Of course, Vortex would not be a Gaspar Noe film without a flashy visual device for the director to brandish for his audience’s awe & exhaustion.  In this case, he bifurcates the frame into De Palma-style split screens for the entirety of the runtime, isolating the geriatric husband & wife in two separate, cramped 4:3 boxes.  Like with all Noe films, you’ll either find the split-screen visuals to be a distracting gimmick or a stunning visual translation of the themes, depending on your generosity towards his intent.  There are moments when the choice feels purely arbitrary, like when Argento sits opposite Lebrun at their breakfast table, his arms stretching impossibly long across the screen like Mister Fantastic to comfort her.  Often enough, though, it feels like a genuine meditation on the way two people can live entirely separate, lonely lives in a shared space, something many long-term married people can relate to whether or not they’re nearing hospice.  Although the split-screen framing provides a rigid structure for the picture from nearly start to end, Noe does keep the moment-to-moment action fresh by having the three main characters swap frames whenever they’re in close proximity. It’s a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure experience where the whims & attentions of the audience dictate the shape of the movie they’re watching.  Noe also maintains his deafening sound mixing (this time applied to pedestrian noises like typewriter thuds, coffee percolators, heavy breathing, and urination instead of the usual sex & drugs & rock ‘n’ roll hedonism) and his thoughtful opening credits artwork (this time including contributors’ years of birth along with their names) to make his auteurist throughlines unmistakable even as his themes & subjects soften.

Conceived after he survived a near-fatal brain hemorrhage in 2020, it’s clear Noe’s pondering his own mortality here, along with the universal, devastating inevitability of declining health.  Watching an elderly couple strain to prop each other up as their hearts & brains wear out is a vivid enough reflection of that existential crisis, but I got the sense that the failings of the human body is not all that’s bothering Noe.  I’m not even sure it was his main concern.  He seems to be much more fixated on his characters’ connection to clutter & physical media than their connection to their physical bodies.  Argento plays an author & film critic, Lebrun a psychiatrist.  Their home is overflowing with books, movies, knickknacks, photographs, and other assorted junk – all evidence of a long life lived.  They’re often less concerned with suffering or dying than they are with being separated from their stuff, an anxiety that Noe grapples with sincerely & severely.  Even the shops near their apartment—groceries pharmacies, book stores, etc.—are cozy spaces cluttered with long-lingering objects from an old world that will vanish as soon as the people guarding over them expire.  Vortex is light on dialogue but never feels quiet, as the spaces it weaves through are impossibly noisy in their collections of cherished, worthless objects. 

If you want an excruciating nightmare about the practical, gradual ravages of dementia, Haneke has you covered in Amour.  If you want a heartfelt sensory immersion in the daily experience of the affliction, you already have The FatherVortex rests somewhere between those two distinctions, both brutally frank about the ugliness of a failing body and warmly sentimental about the loneliness & confusion of old age.  This might be a for-fans-only proposition as a result, as it’s more interesting as an evolution in Noe’s career (and the career of fellow director Dario Argento, who has never acted in a leading role before) than it is a contribution to the dementia drama as a genre.  It worked remarkably well for me in that context, even as someone who despised both Amour and most of Noe’s early provocations.  It also reminded me to clear the clutter in my home every few years going forward, so no one will have to deal with my dusty comic books & thrift store DVDs after I die.

-Brandon Ledet

Petite Ourse

In the opening minutes of the coming-of-age fantasy Turning Red, I was crushed by the stomach-pit realization that the movie was Not For Me.  Overwhelmed by the sugar-rush hijinks of the soon-to-be-ursine heroine introducing all of her goofball friends & personality quirks in rapid, smooth-surface CG animation, I nearly ejected the DVD and rushed it back to the library in panicked defeat.  I’m mostly glad I stuck it out.  I understand that Pixar is respected as the current high standard of children’s media, but I’m too disconnected from the comedic sensibilities & visual artistry of modern computer animation to distinguish the gold from the pyrite.  It all looks & feels the same.  Still, I did appreciate Turning Red as life-lesson messaging for little kids, who are ostensibly Pixar’s target audience even if they’re not the pundits tweeting hyperbolic praise for the studio.  The last couple Disney animations I remember watching (Coco & Encanto) taught kids to obey & forgive Family at their own expense; Turning Red directly conflicts that poisonous wisdom, encouraging children to rebel & grow into their own individual selves no matter how uncomfortable it makes their parents.  It also frankly discusses menstruation and the other bodily changes of puberty, which feels remarkable & commendable for a film with such a young target audience (even if they’re discussed through the same talking-animal fantasy device that accounts for most modern mainstream animation). Both of these life lessons—that your personal autonomy & chosen community matter more than your family’s wishes and that the daily functions of your body are nothing to be ashamed of—inspired mini online nontroversies among Conservative parents when the film first hit Disney+ a couple months ago, which is how I know that it’s a special work even though it superficially resembles so much mediocre #content in the same medium.  Turning Red might not be For Me, but I respect that it’s a genuine good in the lives & brains of the young people whom it is for.

I normally wouldn’t criticize a film I didn’t expect to enjoy from the outset, but there is one moment from Turning Red that has stuck with me in the way it recalls the premise of a recent film that was For Me.  Throughout Turning Red, a 13-year-old mama’s girl struggles to distinguish her own personality from the expectations of her supportive but overbearing mother, an already complex dynamic that’s further complicated by both the mother & daughter transforming into gigantic red pandas when they get too emotional.  Within their climactic panda fight that threatens to destroy downtown Toronto (or at least ruin a well-attended boy band concert in downtown Toronto), they finally connect on an intimate, honest level – meeting in a calm, psychic space represented by a dense forest.  In that forest, the daughter encounters a younger version of her mother when she was 13 and emotionally struggling, comforting her until she regresses from her angry panda state.  That moment is strikingly similar to the latest Céline Sciamma picture Petite Maman, in which an 8 year old girl meets & comforts the 8 year old version of her own mother in the woods behind the mother’s childhood home.  The mother-daughter dynamic in Sciamma’s film is more distanced than combative, but the conflict is resolved in the exact same way first-time director Domee Shi approaches it in Turning Red.  If I were a more well-rounded audience (or, more likely, if I were just a parent), I’d be able to enjoy Turning Red & Petite Maman as unlikely sister films that happened to approach generational bonding & maternal conflict through a similar time-travel fantasy device.  Instead, that momentary flash of Petite Maman-style calm in Turning Red only further contrasted Shi’s style against Sciamma’s in my mind, and it only made it clearer that my preferences are heavily weighted to the serener end of that scale.

Petite Maman is quietly magical & emotionally complex.  It’s not Sciamma’s best, but it does touch on everything that makes her work great (especially the observational childhood growing pains of Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood, and My Life as a Zucchini, as well as the tragic limitations of time in Portrait of a Lady on Fire) without ever making a big show of it.  While Turning Red frantically runs in circles making sure every image & moment is exciting! wacky! and fun!, Petite Maman isn’t in a rush to say or do anything.  A young girl magically time-travels to become close friends with a younger version of her mother, but the resulting events of that miracle aren’t especially flashy nor thrilling: play acting, making crepes, having a sleepover, decorating a tree house, etc.  I’m not saying that low-key, understated approach is inherently better or more virtuous than the frantic talking-animal hijinks of Turning Red; it just happens to be my tempo.  That’s likely because it calls back to a calmer style of live-action children’s media from my youth like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and The Secret of Roan Inish that doesn’t have many modern equivalents in a post-Pixar world.  It’s funny that the one moment when Turning Red slows down to match that tempo, it happens to depict a scene straight out of the woodland mother-child time travel premise of Petite Maman.  I don’t know that most kids would have the patience to sit with that quiet, unrushed magic while reading subtitled dialogue for the length of a feature film (only a slim 73 minutes in Petite Maman‘s case), but it’s nice to know that it still exists somewhere in modern mainstream children’s media, even if only for a brief reprieve.

There is no reason to pit these two movies about magical mother-daughter relationship repair against each other.  Even Céline Sciamma sees the value in Domee Shi’s more chaotic, hyperstimulating storytelling style.  In a recent LA Times interview, Sciamma acknowledges that “Pixar’s latest resonates with Petite Maman as a part of a matriarchal mythology finally coming to fruition in cinema as more women are able to tell their own stories.”  She says, “A film about the libido of kids is so politically bold.  And [Turning Red is] so tender in the release it gives to kids about friendship, about their hearts.  It’s an important film.  If I had seen it at 10 years old, it would have been my favorite film.  I would have been obsessed with it. […] I’ve already seen it three times.  I keep telling people to watch it, especially if you have a kid in your life.”  Personally, I’m surprised that I made it through Turning Red just the once, but I do agree that its political boldness & emotional tenderness is commendable.  That same interview also notes that Sciamma’s film almost resembled Turning Red even more, explaining, “Initially Sciamma was certain Petite Maman should be an animated feature.  The locations and otherworldly aspects, she believed, would lend them to be hand-drawn.  Also, she thought, an animated version could prove more democratic for children if dubbed to avoid subtitles.”  I’m glad that she backed away from the animation sphere, even though it would have been more accessible to younger audiences.  Not only does Sciamma’s insistence that Petite Maman works better as a tangible “ghost story with real bodies” ring true, but if there were a hand-drawn animated feature out around the same time as the sugary CG hijinks of Turning Red, I would have been a much, much harsher in my contrarian comparisons of their merits & themes.  I should likely stop trying to see the magic most audiences see in Pixar, since I’m just not getting it, but if Sciamma is among its enthusiasts, the problem must be with my eyes & ears, not the content.

-Brandon Ledet

Here Before (2022)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Here Before is a psychological thriller about a depressed woman who becomes awkwardly fixated on a nearby mother/daughter duo, triggering a flood of fragmented, fraught emotions surrounding her own relationships with her children.  Like The Lost Daughter, it premiered to positive reviews in 2021, praised for the performances of its central cast and as a promising debut for its director.  Since Maggie Gyllenhaal obviously enjoys more name-recognition cachet in the industry, Stacey Gregg’s own unraveling-mom psych thriller followed a much slower, quieter distribution path, newly available on the library-subscription streamer Hoopla instead of receiving an immediate awards push from the global behemoth Netflix.  As a result, their thematic overlap plays to The Lost Daughter‘s favor, which got there first & louder, but the eerie feeling of having been . . . here before does mirror the latter film’s premise in an interesting way.

In this particular mom-on-the-verge thriller, Andrea Riseborough plays an Irish suburbanite who’s grieving the loss of her young daughter when a new couple moves in next door with a child that looks & acts remarkably like her.  The neighbor child even shares memories & daily habits with Riseborough’s child, as if she were possessed by the daughter’s ghost.  Obviously, Riseborough cannot ignore this phenomenon, which has effectively brought her daughter back to life after a year of heartbreak, and she gradually wedges herself into this young stranger’s life in a way that makes everyone around her deeply uncomfortable.  The story twists & disorients from there, teetering between supernatural horror & communal-gaslighting conspiracy depending on its scene-to-scene whims.  Like with The Lost Daughter, the movie’s strengths lie more its performances & discomforting parental dynamics than it does in its plot, but Gregg’s film concludes with a much more satisfying genre payoff than Gyllenhaal’s.

Even putting Here Before‘s coincidental Lost Daughter parallels aside, it’s not exactly unique in its purpose or tone.  There’s plenty of Atmospheric Horror About Grief out there, especially of the post-Hereditary variety.  Only this one has Andrea Riseborough at center stage, though, and she carries the genre’s tension as expertly as you’d expect.  Rebecca Hall got her own acting showcase in the genre with The Night House.  Sandra Oh got hers in Umma.  Riseborough’s been given plenty of room to show off her range in the past (especially in Possessor, Mandy, and Nancy), but it’s still incredible to see her stretch her legs here.  The way she alternates between scowling at her living, knucklehead teenage son and smiling nervously at the ghost-child who’s replaced her dead daughter is nightmarishly volatile, winding tension so tight it’s incredible her face doesn’t tear in two.  Gregg matches her efforts without outshining them, except for in a music video nightmare sequence that momentarily tips the slowly building dread into true brain-melt terror.

Here Before is a low-budget, 80-minute chiller that’s entire allure is for horror fans already familiar with Riseborough’s talents as a performer.  I’m doing it no favors by comparing it to a Hollywood adaptation of a best-selling novel, produced by three well-established actresses who each received Oscar nominations for their efforts (including Gyllenhaal for Best Adapted Screenplay).  Still, I’d say it’s a more wholly satisfying movie than The Lost Daughter, while sharing many of its themes & saving graces.  It’s a shame fewer people will see it.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Music Lovers (1971)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch The Music Lovers (1971).

Brandon: The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is awful to watch. Daily doomscrolls of the latest atrocity footage from Ukraine have been a weight on our hearts & stomachs for months, so it’s understandable that Westerners distanced from the conflict feel the urge to do something to help, however small.  People are being weird about it, though.  Recalling the xenophobic “freedom fries” days of post-9/11 America, there has been a recent online push for “cultural boycotts” of all things Russian, often punishing the lives & work of Russian people for the actions of the Russian government.  It’s a modern Red Scare reboot that has US bar owners dumping Stoli vodka down the drain and EA Sports removing digital representations of Russian teams from their video games – symbolic gestures that do nothing to ease the suffering of Ukrainian people but do a lot to fan the flames of Slavophobia. 

The strangest example of these cultural boycotts I’ve seen in the past couple months was from, of course, a rando on Twitter.  In response to the tweet “banning all things russian is so bizarre and it will definitely trigger an increase in xenophbia against russian (and slav) immigrants”, the rando replied “Don’t think that matters now , I can’t even listen to Tchaikovsky without feeling sick”.  That is obviously not the most unhinged exchange I’ve seen on that platform, but it’s still an odd sentiment.  It’s also one that’s been echoed in real-world actions, with multiple philharmonic orchestras around the globe removing Tchaikovsky symphonies from their programmes.  I really only know two things about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s place in Russian history: he was disregarded by contemporaries for not being nationalist enough in his music (embracing influence from Western outsiders in his compositions), and his cultural importance is still often downplayed by Russian musicologists because he was homosexual.  I’m not sure how boycotting a dead, gay Russian iconoclast is supposed to ease the suffering of modern Ukrainians, but I also was never clear on how a “freedom fries” culinary rebrand was supposed to protest France’s opposition to our own government’s invasion of Iraq twenty idiotic years ago.

To be fair, I’m missing a lot of cultural context here, since most of my biographical knowledge of Tchaikovsky comes from Ken Russell’s over-the-top, loose-with-the-facts biopic The Music Lovers (starring Richard Chamberlain as the 19th Century composer).  The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova (played by Glenda Jackson), whom Russell portrays as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife, as he is anchored to the extreme right end of the Kinsey Scale, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist throughout the film. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, and his wealthy stalker/patron. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship with a longtime male lover reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the climactic sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.

Russian state-sanctioned homophobia is still alive & well in the 2020s, so it’s unlikely that a cultural boycott on Tchaikovsky’s music is an effective way to stick it to Putin & The Kremlin.  There’s something genuinely heartbreaking in The Music Lovers about Tchaikovsky’s urge to fit in with heteronormative society by pursuing “spiritual relationships” with women in search of “marriage without a wife,” even as Russell finds lewd, lurid joy in the conflict.  Tchaikovsky’s violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play, and I’m not convinced he would’ve had any easier of a time living & working as a gay man in the country’s modern era – especially considering the legal troubles of contemporary iconoclastic artists like Leto director Kirill Serebrennikov (who incidentally has a movie titled Tchaikovsky’s Wife premiering at this year’s Cannes) and the punk band Pussy Riot.  Then again, Russell’s Tchaikovsky biopic is so indulgent in its fantasy sequences and stylistic expressiveness that it’s likely foolish to form any concrete historical or political conclusions without further research.

Hanna, how useful or trustworthy do you think The Music Lovers is as a historical biography of Tchaikovsky?  Do you feel like you learned anything about his place in Russian culture from the movie, or do you think it excels more as an excuse for Russell to indulge his own volatile creative impulses?

Hanna: Per Roger Ebert, “The Music Lovers is totally irresponsible … as a film about, or inspired by, or parallel to, or bearing a vague resemblance to, Tchaikovsky, his life and times”. Truthfully, I really didn’t know anything about Tchaikovsky before watching The Music Lovers, and I was doubtful that any part of the film could serve as a remotely reliable biography until after following up on some of the key points online. I think that Ebert is technically correct in his assessment of the film, but I don’t care! It was a pure Russell festival of opulent indulgence, and I was totally into it.

I read up a little bit on Tchaikovsky immediately after returning from Brandon’s watch party (emphasis on “a little bit”), and from what I could glean, the skeleton bolstering The Music Lovers is more or less accurate (e.g., his very compelling patron relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, his disastrous relationship with Antonina, the trauma of his mother’s death from cholera). However, Russell has draped this skeleton in an absolutely thrilling, garish, psychosexual drama. I’m not sure that I learned anything about Russia from this movie, and I don’t think I ever felt a strong “Russian” identity in the film. In fact, I had to continuously remind myself throughout the movie that the film was based in Russia as the actors accosted each other in British accents. The Music Lovers also mostly focuses Tchaikovsky’s ill-fated marriage to Antonina and the period of creative stagnation and isolation that followed, so I always felt like it was more concerned with Tchaikovsky’s mental landscape than anything else; I never had much of a sense of the Russian society surrounding Tchaikovsky during the middle stretch of the movie, except maybe during the Swan Lake performance, where he’s awkwardly wedged between his wife and Count Chiluvsky, surrounded on all sides by members of the Russian art crowd. I’m a passive fan of Tchaikovsky’s music so I had a vested interest in learning about his life, but I found myself more drawn to the hazy dream and nightmare spaces that Russell conjured than the historical, cultural, or objective details of Tchaikovsky’s life. I’m thinking especially of Tchaikovsky’s long stay in von Meck’s “small” cottage, which was an especially evocative, mist-laden affair detailing a distant queerness and eroticism that transcended the historical moment (although it had all the dressings of the period, which were an absolute pleasure to behold). The train car (pure nightmare!) and Tchaikovsky’s apartment (so lush! so pink!) are equally hard to leave behind. At the same time, his mental landscape was, of course, directly informed by the politics of his time, so it’s impossible to separate them completely.

Boomer, I know you’re a fan of Russell’s comingling of high-falutin sensibilities and gaudy mayhem. Personally, The Music Lovers scratched that itch perfectly, and delivered some genuinely moving human moments along with it. How does this stack up for you in the Ken Russell canon?

Boomer: Oh no! Reports of my knowledge of Ken Russell movies are greatly exaggerated! As an adult, I’ve only seen Altered States many times and Salome’s Last Dance the once, although I have extremely vivid memories of Lair of the White Worm during HBO’s free preview weekend when I was far, far too young for it. Within my limited experience (as a viewer and hearing Brandon talk about them on our Lagniappe episodes of the podcast), however, I can confirm that his films are generally disinterested in attempting to adhere to the confines of realism. It’s rare, even among the most talented directors, for the creator to forsake the concept that the camera is objective or an observer and instead make something that attempts to capture the subjectivity of feelings. It’s not real, surreal, or hyperreal: it is simply unreal, but is somehow universal as a result. Altered States has this as its text: that the altered, uh, states of human consciousness are just as real as the one we “agree” is reality. In Salome, it’s all about the play within the film; both are fiction, but the viewer is expected to preferentially conceptualize one as “reality.” In the former, this is done for horror, in the latter it is done for comedy, and in The Music Lovers, it’s done for transcendence. 

During the first scene in which Tchaikovsky performs at the piano, I was absolutely captivated by its minimal dialogue and the flights of fancy and fantasy that the various listeners feel as they attend. Similarly, music critic Deems Taylor describes how Fantasia begins with impressions of the orchestra and then moves into more abstract concepts as the music “suggest[s] other things to your imagination,” and that’s often the draw of classical music and the live performances thereof, at least for me. I go into our Movies of the Month with as little foreknowledge as possible, and when it comes to films that have a minimal pop culture footprint (like this one, although it certainly deserves better), that means that I go into these completely blind. Starting at the nine minute mark, it indulges in twelve minutes of people attending a performance and the vision of what the music means to each of them, and although each imagines a different scene, all of them are suffused with an almost palpable yearning, a longing for the romance of familiarity and simplicity, of excitement and newness, and of a time irretrievable. Maybe I’m just dense, but I hadn’t even put together at that point that our lead was Tchaikovsky. (The title card, which reads Ken Russell’s Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers, is both completely accurate and somewhat impenetrable, on purpose).  I would have been perfectly satisfied if the whole film had simply been people listening to Tchaikovsky compositions and then having rapturous daydreams. That it leaves that conservatory hall and surveys much larger sections of the lives of others is icing on the cake. 

Britnee, every time I engage with a text that’s about a creator—a movie about a playwright, a book about a painter, a comic about an illustrator—there’s a little light that goes off in my head that tells me to look for the way in which the person creating that text is commenting upon the act or process of creation. Not every work that meets that criteria is necessarily being used by the author to talk about their work or the work of others, but it’s a pretty common rhetorical and narrative device. For me, when I apply that perception filter to The Music Lovers, what that part of my brain wants this to be is a story about the death of creativity as it relates to being in a relationship; that is to say, it feels like something that would  have been created by someone who, in their personal life, was feeling creatively stifled by their partner. I can’t find any evidence that this was the case for Russell here (he and his first wife had been married for thirteen or fourteen years at this point and would remain so for another eight or nine, and he was making a film nearly every year during this time with no apparent writer’s block), but I wonder if you got that same feeling, or if you felt something different. In other words, what, if anything, do you think Russell is saying about being an artist? 

Britnee: While I’m a fan of his movies, I don’t really know that much about Russell as a person or an artist. That’s embarrassing to admit, so shame on me. All I know is that he’s some sort of perverted genius. As the audience journeys thorugh the tortured life of Tchaikovsky, I have to admit there were times that I questioned what was the biographical component of Tchaikovsky versus what was the influence of Chamberlin versus what was the personal touch from Russell. Tchaikovsky struggled to live a truly authentic life, so what did that mean about his art? All of what he longed for was put into his musical creations. Russell’s films are known for being beautiful fever dreams, but I’m sure that he had his fair share of hardships (hopefully not as much as Tchaikovsky). I think he’s trying to remind us all of the struggles that artists endure to give us something that makes our lives more enjoyable. There is always pain lurking behind something beautiful. I didn’t think that Russell was trying to say something about how relationships can hinder the work of an artist, but now that I’m thinking about it, that seems pretty likely considering that the romantic relationships in film were what stopped Tchaikovsky from creating. And yes, it seemed to be more personal than just an exaggeration on a historical fact. I definitely want to give this another watch with this in mind!

Speaking of relationships, I was absolutely fascinated with Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Madame Nadezhda con Meck. I was ignorant to this prior to watching The Music Lovers, so I was completely enamored by it on the initial watch. The horniness between the letters and visits to her estate without her physical presence had me so giddy with excitement. It was so kinky and so dramatic!

Lagniappe

Boomer: Above, Brandon mentioned four women who governed Tchaikovsky’s life—Nina, her mother, sister Sasha, and Nadezhda von Meck—but we’d be remiss to not mention the fifth: Tchaikovsky’s own mother. Her death haunts the composer for his whole life, literalized by Russell on screen as we see Tchaikovsky as a child witnessing her traumatic death at the hands of physicians attempting to treat her cholera, and those images reappear throughout his life. That Tchaikovsky’s life is in the shadow of such personal and intimate tribulation lends the whole thing an air of not just tragedy but inevitability. 

Hanna: I have a plan to mine the world of media to discover the truth about Tchaikovsky! To start, this weird little Disney mini-autobiography from 1959 is lacking in emotionally charged train-car seductions and (of course) absolutely refuses to acknowledge Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, but I think the childhood sequence still captures his passionate, manic energy and dependence on platonic female relationships.

Britnee: I’ve loved every Ken Russell movie I’ve ever seen, so I’m on a mission to watch them all! I’m probably not going to come out of this the same. Thank god for therapy.

Brandon: As this is his third entry in our ever-expanding Movie of the Month canon (after Crimes of Passion & Salome’s Last Dance), I believe we should declare Ken Russell as Swampflix’s official MVP.  Before he loses this blog-historic lead to the likes of Mario Bava or Tobe Hooper (who both have two MotM selections to their name), I say we all join in Britnee’s mission and rebrand this feature the Ken Russell Movie of the Month, sinking forever further into the madness of his filmography. 

Next Month: Boomer presents Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

-The Swampflix Crew

Maîtresse (1975)

Why is it that every movie about a dominatrix follows the same trite storyline where the hardened, leather-clad woman in charge softens the moment she finds a romantic partner who can lower her defenses?  From corny, vintage domme media like Body of Evidence & Exit to Eden to more modern, thoughtfully considered dramas like Dogs Don’t Wear Pants & Pvt Chat, every feature-length depiction of a dominatrix’s love life I’ve seen is framed through a macho “I can fix her” POV.  That tradition apparently dates at least as far back as 1975’s Maîtresse, in which a young, bumbling thief (Gérard Depardieu) falls in love with an experienced dominatrix (Bulle Ogier) despite being baffled by her profession, then schemes to break her “free” from the lifestyle.  It’s up there with Basic Instinct as one of the more nuanced, subversive movies about sexually dominant women that I can name, but it still plays directly into the dominatrix romance’s most tired cliché.

What’s funny about Maîtresse‘s narrative phoniness is that director Barbet Schroeder is obviously proud of its Authenticity in every other metric.  His in-your-face, documentarian approach to Authenticity can be a little tiresome, like in moments when a horse is slaughtered & drained for butcher meat on-camera, or when the titular mistress nails one of her client’s dicks to a wooden board in full surgical detail (a stunt thankfully performed by a real-life professional, not Ogier).  It’s an incredible asset to the film’s mise-en-scène, though, especially in the dominatrix’s play dungeon.  Schroeder hired a professional domme to ensure the legitimacy of the kink scenes’ props & practices.  The camera’s awed pans over the mistress’s tools of the trade or her clients being dressed in lingerie and ridden like horses (some, apparently, clients of the sex worker hired to oversee the shoot, getting off on the humiliation of being filmed) are electric in their documentation of vintage BDSM play.  I somehow doubt that real-life dominatrix was also consulted for the story beats of the central romance, though, which is a shame.

To be fair, Maîtresse does directly challenge the macho POV of its in-over-his-head protagonist.  Depardieu plays a real mouthbreather, a thug who’s visibly intimidated by the whips & leather gear he finds in the play dungeon he burgles before wooing the dominatrix who owns it.  For her part, Ogier’s mistress character clearly explains to her new thief boyfriend that she is no damsel in distress, saying “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.”  He attempts to “rescue” her from her comfortable, voluntary sex work routine anyway, and every drastic knucklehead action he takes on her behalf only makes her life worse.  Although the story is framed through the thief’s POV, he is introduced to the audience picking his nose on his motorcycle, undercutting whatever brutish cool he could possibly convey with the same dipshit goofiness that makes the thieves in Mandibles so laughably ineffectual.  Maîtresse may participate in the same “I can fix her” trope as every other dominatrix romance I’ve ever seen (Hell, for all I know it may have been responsible for creating it), but at least the central relationship in this specific example is dramatically complex.

This is essentially the story of two mismatched tops struggling to dominate each other, both barreling towards ruin because they won’t do the obvious thing and break up.  I’m always a sucker for stories where characters are compelled to repeatedly do things that are obviously going to kill them just because it makes them super horny; this version is even somehow refreshingly sentimental in its romance . . . when it wants to be.  Karl Lagerfeld’s fetish-fashion designs for the dominatrix’s wardrobe also afford it some wonderfully vivid imagery.  Genital torture & horse deaths aside, Maîtresse is commendable.  It’s only when I stop thinking about it as an individual work and consider it instead in the larger continuum of how dominatrices’ inner lives are portrayed (or ignored) on-screen that I’m disappointed it didn’t transgress in even more pointed, narrative ways.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Arrebato (1979)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the recently restored cult curio Arrebato (1979), a trippy not-quite-horror picture about addiction to movies & heroin.

00:00 New Orleans Abortion Fund

07:05 The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
09:05 Scream (1996)
14:55 Movie of the Month
18:05 Intermission
25:15 The Batman (2022)
32:45 Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022)
38:45 Raising Arizona (1987)
46:00 Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2022)

49:50 Arrebato (1979)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew