Climax (2019)

It’s finally come to pass: notorious edgelord Gapar Noé has gotten bored of trying to piss us off and is now trying to dance his way into our hearts. The fucked up thing is that it’s working. Climax is the first feature film from the shock-peddling prankster that I’ve ever enthusiastically enjoyed, and it feels like that reconciliation is the result of a direct invitation from the creator. Noé changes nothing about his usual schtick in this provocation du jour either, at least not in terms of content. Climax is still the cruel, obnoxious, try-hard shock fest that Noé has been delivering over & over again throughout his career, complete with juvenile interest in hard drugs, gore, and sexual assault. The only real difference is in the tone & rhythms of the packaging. A constant dance beat propels Climax‘s pacing so that it’s more of a party than a grueling torture sesh. The sexual assault is largely implied rather than graphically lingered on for eternal minutes. It’s also the first film I’ve seen from Noé that could be comfortably categorized as Gay, rather than Homophobic. Most significantly, Climax is packed to the walls with dancing – gorgeous, infectious, horrific dancing. It’s as if Noé kept audiences waiting in the line outside his club for decades while only a few in the inner circle partied within, but now everyone’s invited to the dance floor to celebrate his fucked-up happening. The music hasn’t changed, but the atmosphere is much more accommodating.

Climax wastes no time announcing itself as pretentious smut, bursting out of the gate with structural shenanigans meant to disorient the audience. As its title cheekily promises, we open with the climactic end of the film, complete with closing credits. We’re then treated to an introductory collection of VHS interviews with the film’s cast of dancers, DJs, and choreographers set against a decrepit warehouse wall & framed by stacks of cassette spines through which Noé admits upfront the cinematic influences on what you’re about to see: Possession, Suspiria, Salò, Dawn of the Dead, Un Chien Andalou, etc. As performers with names like Serpent, Psyche, Daddy, and Dom audition for a spot in the film’s central dance troupe, this prologue begins to feel like a mid-90s matchmaking service produced by the good folks at Videodrome. Once those salutations are doled out, the film stops in its tracks yet again to watch the troupe perform a routine they’ve been rehearsing for several days in a rural, isolated gymnasium before the audience arrived. It is a spectacle. Long, swooping, full-bodied takes of modernist dancers exhibiting their craft stretch on into a hedonistic mania, slapping the screen with more death drops than Paris is Burning before finally rolling the opening credits in a strobelit visual assault. While the audience is bewildered in that drunken, disoriented state, it becomes apparent that someone among the dancers has spiked the sangria with an overdose of LSD. Their behavior becomes erratic and increasingly violent – devolving into the same hedonistic ugliness Noé always indulges in while the dance beat pounds in the background for hours on end.

Climax is one of the ultimate examples of a genre I like to call the “Part out of Bounds” – horrific sideshows where guests at a party recognize the vibe is turning darkly uncivil, but they all feel compelled to see it through anyway. Up until now, my personal experience with Noé’s filmography has itself been a party-out-of-bounds story. As a huge sucker for pretentious smut & over-the-top genre cinema, I’m continually lured in to check out his latest provocations, only to be punished by the edgelord posturing found therein. The difference is that my experience at the Gaspar Noé party finally reached a breakthrough with this picture, where I learned to let go & have a “good” time, mostly thanks to the host’s increased interest in accommodating his audience. For the LSD-poisoned dancers in Climax, the party only gets worse – devolving into terrible sex, horrific violence, and horrifically violent sex. Your personal response to this pretentious, obnoxious, “French and fucking proud of it” smut will vary wildly depending on how much interest you tend to have in the type of edgy, over-the-top art-schlock Noé usually traffics in. If it’s something you have absolutely zero patience for, the movie will alienate you early & often – leaving you just as miserable as the tripped-out dancers who tear each other apart on the screen. If, like me, you’re always curious about what Noé’s up to but never fully connect with the fucked-up party therein, you might just find yourself succumbing to the prurient displeasures of DJ Daddy and the killer sangria.

-Brandon Ledet

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New Orleans French Film Fest 2019, Ranked & Reviewed

Of the two local film festivals operated by the New Orleans Film Society, New Orleans Film Fest is both the longest-running and the most substantial. The 29th Annual NOFF, for instance, screened hundreds of films all over downtown New Orleans last October, of which we were able to cover 10 features (and a few shorts). We’re only seeing an insignificant fraction of the films screening NOFF every year, making a festival-wide recap something of a Sisyphean task as amateur bloggers.

NOFS’s annual New Orleans French Film Fest is a different matter entirely. The entirety of French Film Fest is located at a single, beautiful venue: The Prytania, Louisiana’s oldest operating single-screen cinema. In past years, we’ve been able to see an average of a dozen features at each French Film Fest, which is a fairly substantial percentage of the 15-20 pictures that screen there. All films are at least partially French productions, most are shown in subtitled French language, and the large majority of them never see domestic big screen distribution outside of the festival. I see some of my favorite releases of the year at French Film Fest too; last year’s Double Lover ranked near the top of my favorite films of 2018. There are also typically at least two screenings a year that I’d comfortably call all-time favorites after just one viewing, especially in retrospective screenings from auteurs like Agnès Varda & Jacques Demy. New Orleans French Film Fest is the smaller, more intimate festival on the NOFS calendar, but its manageability is more of a charm than a hindrance and I’m starting to look forward to it more every year.

That’s why it’s a little disappointing that we had to scale way back at this year’s festival. This year, French Film Fest arrived at the boiling point of Mardi Gras season. It had to compete with a surge of drag shows, parades, and all other sorts of Mardi Gras mayhem that flooded New Orleans’s social calendar in its one-week run. As a result, we were only able to schedule four screenings during the festival, only a third of our usual attendance. Still, I was very pleased with our four selections, and I look forward to catching up with a few titles we missed as they pop up on VOD throughout the year.

James and I will be doing a more exhaustive recap of our experience at the festival in early April (along with this week’s PATOIS Film Fest), but for now here’s a ranking of the few films we’ve seen that screened at the 2019 New Orleans French Film Festival. Each title includes a blurb and a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

La Belle et la Bête (1966) – “I cannot deny the visual splendor & fairy tale magic of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête; it’s every bit of a masterpiece as it has been hyped to be, just a gorgeous sensory immersion that defines the highest possible achievements of its medium. What I didn’t know to expect, however, what its reputation as the defining Beauty and the Beast adaptation had not prepared me for, was that it would be so deliriously horny. La Belle et la Bête is more than just a masterpiece; it’s a Kink Masterpiece, which is a much rarer breed.”

Yellow is Forbidden (2019) – “The ambition of Guo Pei’s work and the importance of her outsider status in the fashion industry are enough to trigger an emotional response on their own merits, but what makes Yellow is Forbidden a great film is the way it attempts to match that significance in its own mood & artistry. It feels less like an academic document of a culturally significant artist than it does like a swooning, dizzying trip to a fine art museum where the designer’s work is on magnificent display.”

The Nun (1966) “This is a grim prison sentence of a motion picture, a harsh reminder of the punishment that awaits anyone born a woman under the ‘wrong’ circumstances. Although it’s never as overtly, sexually blasphemous as later arthouse nunsploitation pieces like the Ken Russell classic The Devils or the recent sex comedy The Little Hours, it’s not difficult to see why the Catholic Church pushed to have The Nun banned upon its initial release. Any brief flashes of joy, light, color, or relief detectable in the film are quickly stamped out by exploitation, guilt, and misogyny, all in the name of serving God and the Church.”

The Image Book (2019) – “What Godard is trying to say with this assemblage is anyone’s guess. He makes a somewhat clear-eyed distinction between the decadent wealth of the West and the war-torn poverty of the Middle East, but the narration itself is too loosely philosophical to put too fine a point on what he’s saying. Mostly, what comes through is the sadness & anger of an old man who’s getting weary of watching the world burn with no sign of substantial change to come, a frustration he’s eager to pass on to his (mostly Western) audience as punishment. It’s a bleak political treatise that supposes its audience is unworthy of any cinematic pleasure, even the comfort of a clear thesis or narrative.”

-Brandon Ledet

Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France

Typically, when we discuss French Cinema as a hegemony, we’re talking about creatively adventurous arthouse pictures that follow in the tradition of the French New Wave movement that arrived in the rebellious days of the 1960s. France’s more frivolous screwball comedies & trashy genre pictures tend to land far outside our radar, whereas the USA globally exports so much of its pop culture glut you’d be forgiven for assuming our own cinematic landscape was comprised entirely of Transformers sequels & Paul Blart Mall Cops. What’s even more unclear to Americans, besides what purely commercial modern French cinema looks like, is what, exactly The French New Wave was bucking against in the 1960s. Like with modern commercial comedies & trashy crime pictures (think All That Divides Us) that don’t make it to American shores with any significant impact, France’s stately, pre-New Wave cinematic past is an export lacking any kind of an immediate hook to draw in contemporary American audiences.

The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series box set Claude Autant-Lara—Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France is a major exception to that generalization, but not for any concerns of content or craft. Its four escapist-entertainment features directed by Claude Autant-Lara during the German occupation of France in WWII have enough extratextual, cultural value to earn a prestigious spot in the Criterion Collection canon, something that’s usually reserved for the rebellious New Wave brats who sought to challenge Autant-Lara’s traditionalist approach to filmmaking. They’re also, for the most part, frivolous romcoms, charmingly so.

Claude Autant-Lara is not one of the artistic & political rebels we usually associate with French Cinema. In fact, in the 1980s he was disgracefully booted from his position in the European Parliament after exposing himself as a hard-right Holocaust denier, which is more than enough to justify labeling him as The Enemy. Still, there is a kind of defiance to making escapist entertainment in the face of military occupation, or at least there is a value to the comfort it could provide. Either way, the truth is that you would never assume that wartime context watching the films in this set if you weren’t told to look for it. The real draw of the pictures is actor Odette Joyeux, who is endlessly lovable as the lead performer in each film, a mischievous persona who’s bigger than the rigidly formalistic pictures that (barely) contain her.

Autant-Lara’s escapist romances are (with one major exception) handsomely staged, genuinely funny comedies, even if they are nested in an overly well-behaved French Filmmaking past. The most this set’s wartime context benefits it is in affording the films an imperative for contemporary audiences to revisit them as cultural objects, though all we might find is a glimpse at the status quo the French New Wave later subverted.

For individual reviews of each film, follow the links below or check out our podcast discussion of the entire box set.

Le Mariage de Chiffon (1942) – “Set in the pre-War past of the aristocratic 1910s, Le Mariage de Chiffon chipperly offers pop entertainment escapism though romance & humor, a much-needed distraction for German-occupied France. The hotel settings, mistaken identities, and absurd misunderstandings of the classic comedy structure are prominent throughout, but in a distinctly charming way. This is a genuinely, enduringly funny picture, thanks largely to Joyeux’s hijinks as Chiffon.”

Lettres d’Amour (1942) – “Odette Joyeux, who stars in all four of the films in this box set, is a joy to watch as the stubborn leader of a minor rebellion. Her comedic timing is perfection and the jokes are surprisingly fresh despite being 60+ years old. The costuming is exquisite, and the setting is picturesque.”

Douce (1943) – “If all the films in this set are meant to be understood as escapist entertainment, Douce is one meant to satisfy the most morbid of Parisians, ones who’d prefer a weepie over a farce. It’s just as handsomely staged & playful as Autant-Lara’s other German-occupation romances, but its overall effect is exceptionally grim for that context.”

Sylvie et le Fantôme (1946) – “Before writing, directing, and starring in the ‘Monsieur Hulot’ films, a youthful Jacques Tati incorporates his signature graceful slapstick physicality into the co-titular role of ‘le Fantôme.’ As the only real ghost in the film and the only one not wearing a bedsheet, he pirouettes unseen around the living with his adorable side-kick, a floppy incorporeal spaniel also known (in my heart, at least) as Puppy Ghost. In my opinion, this film should be famous for Puppy Ghost rather than Tati, but you should decide for yourself.”

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman

Romantic Pranks in Parisian Twee

In our initial conversation about our current Movie of the Month, the maniacal twee romcom Love Me If You Dare, CC suggested that one of the reasons she had such a strong affinity for it as a teen is that she happened to catch it before she saw Amélie. That stipulation is a reasonable one to note if you consider the films in tandem. Arriving two years before Love Me If You Dare and achieving much more visible international acclaim (including five Oscar nominations), Amélie provided a blueprint for much of the latter film’s basic quirks & structure. An ungenerous reading of their parallels could even define Love Me If You Dare as a direct Amélie rip-off, given the alarming overlap of their broader details: the intense absinthe-green color correction, the whimsical fairy tale romance that starts in childhood, the tragically deceased mother lost in that childhood, the emotionally distanced father who miserably stayed behind, the female leads’ waitressing jobs at Parisian cafes, etc. Even the coincidence of these overlaps could be dismissed as being the basic building blocks of early-aughts French twee (an aesthetic partly established by Amélie director Jean-Pierre Juenet in general, not just in that picture in particular). What really links Love Me If You Dare to Amélie, though, is the two films’ shared premises of profiling chaotic, prankish adults who hide their romantic feelings for each other behind a childish game that goes on for far too long. However, watching the two films back to back, I do believe Love Me If You Dare manages to justify its own existence beyond merely echoing the accomplishments of Amélie before it. Only, it does so by reimagining a version of Amelie where the central couple aren’t good natured pranksters, but rather total monsters whose romantic games endanger the world around them.

In Love Me If You Dare, the young couple at the center avoid expressing their romantic vulnerabilities for each other by instead focusing on The Game: a lifelong competition of one-upmanship where they trade a cookie tin back & forth that gives them authority to issue an escalating set of dares to each other. As they get older, the dares become increasingly destructive to the point of being lethal, a trajectory that challenges the most extreme boundaries of the romcom genre. The titular character of Amélie similarly hides her feelings for a mysterious beau through a prankish game of one-upmanship; the difference is that her version of mischief is largely harmless to the other citizens of Paris. The young lovers of Juenet’s film play their flirtation as a quiet, mostly private game involving trading discarded photobooth strips left around the city by strangers instead of directly talking to each other. Amélie herself does pull pranks on other, unsuspecting people outside this game – but mostly to their benefit. She helps her father break out of his hermetic life by sending him traveling photos featuring his stolen garden gnome in exotic locales. She helps lonely, elderly people outside her family rediscover their connection to larger social worlds by unearthing precious objects from their past: lost childhood relics; forged letters from dead lovers; homemade VHS montages of found-footage cinema; etc. She even plays matchmaker for an unlikely couple in her café, extending a kindness to others that she won’t afford to herself. The most harmful her pranks get is in her gradual, repeated gaslighting of one local merchant – swapping his shoes for smaller sizes, salting his whiskey, replacing his toothpaste with foot cream – as righteous retribution for his abuses towards his disabled employee. The juvenile pranksters of Love Me If You Dare are so obsessed with each other & themselves that they cause widespread, horrific damage to the world around them without hardly taking notice. By contrast, Amélie spends too little time focusing on herself and instead pranks the outside world with absurdist kindness. These are directly opposed paradigms, making for two drastically different tones – no matter the overlap in details.

Even though Love Me If You Dare & Amélie overlap in a significant portion of their broader details, the specificity of Amélie’s more minuscule, microscopic touches are so manicured & specific that they could never be copied outside a direct remake. The film has a fetish for specificity, zooming in on mundane human experiences like the indent lines pillows leave on faces, the feeling of plunging fingers into cool sacks of grain, and the nervous release of cracking knuckles & popping bubble wrap. By contrast, Love Me If You Dare revels in the broad & the external, following a bombastic, ill-advised relationship’s exponentially violent escalation to the point where it feels like the entire world might end if no one puts a stop to it in time. It’s clear to me, then, that Amélie is the superior film of the pair, whether or not it’s the one you happen to catch first. There’s a very peculiar, detailed, dark-magic energy to its fairy tale rhythms that’s enduringly endearing, trafficking in a hyper-specific, hermetic world that still feels unique & intimate no matter how often it has been echoed in its twee-tinged decedents. Love Me If You Dare’s chaotic misanthropy doesn’t allow for such intimacy, but rather terrorizes its audience by perverting the twee romcom template into something cruel & unpredictable. It’s less a photocopy of Amélie than it is a darkest timeline inversion of that film’s romantic-pranks premise into something deeply sinister. These two films use their respective love-game antics to show what it’s like when twee French whimsy is used for Good vs. when it’s used for Evil. They may exist in the same color-saturated, overly-manicured, early-aughts Paris, but their philosophical worldviews are polar opposites, making for two drastically different experiences.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison to the violent attractions of Heavenly Creatures (1993).

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #78 of The Swampflix Podcast: Fyre Docs & American Movie (1999)

Welcome to Episode #78 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-eighth episode, Brandon & Britnee contrast & compare this year’s dueling Fyre Festival documentaries: Fyre Fraud & Fyre – The Greatest Party That Never Happened.  Also, Brandon makes Britnee watch the cult classic documentary American Movie (1999) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week (PATOIS Film Fest Edition) 3/21/19 – 3/27/19

The Broad Theater is the MVP in local cinema this week (as they often are), hosting the 15th year of PATOIS: The New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival. According to the festival’s official listing, PATOIS will “include new and classic fiction films from Senegal and Zambia, experimental short films from New Orleans, and documentaries highlighting social issues concerning law enforcement violence, immigration, transgender liberation, and gay refugees from Syria. Countries featured in this year’s festival include Palestine, Senegal, Syria, Zambia, Greece, Turkey, and the United States.”

Here are the few screenings at PATOIS we most recommend, as well as a few other films you should seek out on New Orleans big screens this week.

PATOIS Film Festival Selections at The Broad

Touki Bouki (1973) – “A pair of lovers, Mory and Anta, fantasize about fleeing Dakar for a mythic and romanticized France. The film follows them as they try to scavenge and hustle the funds for their escape. A 1973 classic of African Cinema, Touki Bouki conveys and grapples with the hybridization of Senegal.” Screening Sunday 3/24 at 4:30pm. 

I Am Not a Witch (2018) – “When 9-year old orphan Shula is accused of witchcraft, she is exiled to a witch camp run by Mr. Banda, a corrupt and inept government official. A hit at over 50 international festivals, I Am Not A Witch is a must-see for anyone interested in new African Cinema and contemporary female filmmakers.” Screening Saturday 3/23 at 5pm.

Betty: They Say I’m Different (2018) “Explosive 1970s funk pioneer Betty Davis changed the landscape for female artists in America. She was the first, as former husband Miles Davis said, Madonna before Madonna, Prince before Prince. An aspiring songwriter from a small steel town, Betty arrived on the 70s scene to break boundaries for women with her daring personality, iconic fashion and outrageous funk music. […] Creatively blending documentary and animation this movie traces the path of Betty’s life, how she grew from humble upbringings to become a fully self-realized black female pioneer the world failed to understand or appreciate. After years of trying, the elusive Betty, forever the free-spirited Black Power Goddess, finally allowed the filmmakers to creatively tell her story based on their conversations.” Screening Sunday March 24 at 7pm.

New Queer Stories – “Short films by queer and trans people of color.” Screening Saturday 3/23 at 7pm.

Other Films Screening in New Orleans

Us Jordan Peele follows up his instantly iconic debut feature Get Out (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2017) with what looks to be a surreal freak-out about doppelgangers & bunny rabbits.

Climax – Gaspar Noé’s best film to date is an over-the-top arthouse horror about a group of contemporary dancers whose wrap party turns violent when someone among them spikes the sangria with an overdose of LSD. This movie is as #edgy & obnoxious as anything else Noé has ever done, but it also features more death drops than Paris is Burning, so it’s an automatic A+. Playing only at The Broad & AMC Elmwood

Cruel Intentions (1999) – Returning to theaters for a single-week run to commemorate its 20th anniversary, this Dangerous Liaisons riff sparked the mildly-kinky sexual awakening of countless Millennials in my exact age range (not to mention converting us into hopeless, lifelong Placebo fans).

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – The Old Hollywood staple that made James Dean a star and sold millions of dorm room posters everywhere. Screening Sunday 3/24 and Wednesday 3/27 as part of Prytania’s Classic Movies series.

-Brandon Ledet

Pledge (2019)

I typically despise torture porn as a genre, as I’m sure most people do by now. You’d think that even the “torture porn” label itself would inherently be read as an insult, but there is certainly still an audience out there somewhere for the early-aughts onslaught of grimy, macho sadism with poorly aged nu-metal soundtracks, fluorescent lighting, and pitch-black emotional cruelty. The major thing that always kept me from joining those heartless gore hounds in their appreciation for the genre myself (besides its usual sickly-green color correction) is the way it treats its characters before they’re tortured. Most torture porn premises involve watching archetypes you’re goaded to hate as soon as they’re introduced get their comeuppance at the hands of a cruel sadist with a vaguely defined moral code the victims have supposedly violated. This dynamic is especially grotesque when the victims are scantily clad women with beautiful supermodel physiques (as they often are), adding a bonus layer of misogyny to what was already a grotesque affair. The recent Kickstarter-funded horror cheapie Pledge is a shockingly successful subversion of all these glaring faults in the traditional torture porn dynamic. Not only does the film sidestep the genre’s usual misogynist tendencies by making its basic themes about toxic masculinity; it also takes the time to make its central torture porn victims relatable, pitiable nerds you actually have an affection for before turning around to torture them for a solid hour of gore-splattered mayhem. As a result, its prolonged, grisly deaths are genuinely unnerving, if not outright heartbreaking. On a more superficial level, Pledge also arrives as a welcome subversion of the torture porn genre by ditching the sickly green fluorescent aesthetic of the early aughts in favor of a more muted, realistic color palette. The result is much easier to look at & ingest than the genre’s typical fare, which only makes the cruelty on display more lingeringly effective.

Conceptually, there’s nothing especially fresh or novel about Pledge’s college campus rush-week-from-Hell premise. If anything, the film feels a few years late to the table, as the fraternity-rush torture porn gimmick was already tapped in higher profile arthouse projects like GOAT & Burning Sands. What makes the film exceptional is the extremity & specificity of its execution, not so much its themes or setting. Three hopeless, virginal nerds fail to gain acceptance into any of their college’s fraternities, as the gatekeeping bros therein instantly clock them as weirdo outsiders. Admittedly, the boys are sexually overeager & immature in a way that’s off-putting, even if true to life. They’re still not your typical torture porn victims, though, as (besides not being horned-up, half-naked women) they’re actually kind of charming in their ineffectual nerdiness. That’s why it’s tough to observe them being lured by women & liquor to apply as rushes to a creepy, isolated frat house with severe Society undertones. Once the pretense of the fraternity being legitimate is dropped, the film loses a lot of its more distinct character development touches in favor of increasingly cruel gore gags. By the time it slips into that full-blown torture marathon, however, we’re already attached to the poor little worms. It’s genuinely heartbreaking to see them still express reluctance to quit pledging to the “frat” after they’re forcibly branded, fed rancid roadkill, whipped, and disfigured by rats, as if it’s all worthwhile for their only shot at a healthy social life. The movie makes broad gestures to characterize their tormenters as part of a larger, cultish conspiracy network of the well-connected elite, but what’s more important is those villains’ basic features as handsome, all-American bros. With quaffed bangs and names like Maxwell Peterson III, the villains of Pledge are wealthy trust fund brats with a sadistic streak and an infinitely wide safety net backing up their brutish behavior. The purpose of their cruelty isn’t nearly as important as the perversely gleeful ways they express it and how easily they get away with it.

Last year, the killer clown slasher Terrifier was a frustrating reminder of just how flawed yet interesting the torture porn template can be. That film represented the pros & cons of the genre in irreconcilable extremes: fantastic practical effects gore artistry & pointlessly cruel misogynist violence. Pledge fixed my problems with that film, keeping the impressive low-budget gore effects but finding a purposeful use for the violence with far less icky gender politics. Pledge isn’t perfect, of course. Its opening sequence unnecessarily hints at the upcoming violence in a way that lessens the surprise of its extremity; the back half gradually drops the fraternity hazing gimmick to become more of a generic slasher; the conspiracy network paranoia feels disappointingly undercooked; etc. For a crowdfunded horror cheapie in a genre I usually have no energy for, however, it’s a shockingly successful, impressively upsetting watch. I can’t say that it will change your mind on the torture porn genre if you’ve always found the prospect of it entirely meritless, but I do think it’s an exceptional example of its ilk – a nasty little picture that overcame my own genre biases to wrench out my admiration & disgust in equal measure.

-Brandon Ledet

Lords of Chaos (2019)

“Based on truth, lies, and what actually happened,” Lords of Chaos is a half-fictionalized profile of the infamous Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, joining the ranks of other aggressively subjective, post-modern biopics like GoodFellas; Love & Mercy; Elvis & Nixon; and I, Tonya. Directed by a former black metal musician (Swedish music video auteur Jonas Åkerlund, formerly of Bathory) and based on an eponymous book detailing the real-life events it depicts, Lords of Chaos should carry an air of authenticity to its true-crime recollection of Mayhem’s rise-to-power and spectacular downfall. Instead, it takes great liberties in its selective memory and revisionist history for the sake of making a larger point about the type of shithead metal nerds it’s lampooning, whether or not they resemble the real-life people whose names are attached. In particular, Lords of Chaos is a little too forgiving to Mayhem “mastermind” Euronymous, the POV protagonist played increasingly humanely by Rory Culkin. It’s also guilty of going light on the Nazi rhetoric vocalist Burzum infused into black metal’s core philosophy, a grotesquely fascist self-contradiction in a movement supposedly built by anti-establishment subversives. Personally speaking, though, historical accuracy has never been something that’s prevented me from enjoying a movie as long as it has something true or interesting to say, which is the idea at the heart of the subjective, post-modern biopic. In this case, that truth comes in the form of a darkly funny true-crime satire about how hardline shithead metal nerds are mostly just trust fund kids with loving parents & purposeless suburban angst. It zaps all the supposed Cool out of the church-burnings, murders, and animal cruelty of black metal lore to expose them as the edgelord posturing that they were. And as lightly as it treads on Euronymous’s own faults and the seriousness of the movement’s Nazism that Burzum helped foster, it’s very clear in condemning them for escalating that edgelord behavior by preaching hateful rhetoric for the sake of “fun” & self-promotion.

The genius of making a film about Mayhem in the first place, of course, is that the band’s “break-up” story involves a spectacularly violent murder that made worldwide headlines. On its surface, the film is a tragic true-crime dramedy about a Norwegian teen’s ascent from the suburbs to self-made heavy metal legend. In that regard, Lords of Chaos reads as a toothless, formulaic, immorally misguided canonization of an over-glorified troll – which is how most pro critics have assessed its merits. For me, Mayhem’s story itself is only a convenient, sensational platform the film exploits to stage its true intent: broad, brutally unforgiving satire of gatekeeping edgelord teens in the black metal scene & beyond. There isn’t much difference between the “dark, evil” trolls of this film and the brand-building influencers of Instagram today, especially considering how many of the online contingent’s stories end at horrific meltdowns like Fyre Fest, Japanese suicide forests, racist-slur controversies, and criminal indictments for fraud. They spout hateful, destructive rhetoric for the press it gets them as shock value peddlers to boost record sales, then are horrified to discover that their most dedicated fans actually take their word as unholy gospel. Satanism, Nazism, and advocation for murder are less their personal philosophy than they are an opportunity for angsty teens to piss off their loving, supportive parents. The black metal musicians of Lords of Chaos aren’t selling a new pop music subgenre so much as they’re selling a lifestyle brand. Their quest to define the difference between “true metalheads” & “posers” becomes increasingly, darkly hilarious as they’re all literally posing for pictures & press. The only zealot who takes the philosophy seriously (Burzum) ends up being the trigger for their tragic downfall, so they’re effectively destroyed by their own edgelord posturing & verbal bullshit. Lords of Chaos does for the 1990s black metal edgelord what the Tim Heidecker picture The Comedy did for the 2010s Brooklyn hipster: costuming itself as a fan & a participant only to tear the entire enterprise down from the inside.

It’s impossible to tell whether the affectation is sincere or satirical, but one of the more amusing impulses Lords of Chaos pursues is in disguising itself as the kind of hyperviolent horror media its subjects would watch for entertainment. Their headbanging parties are shot with the fish-eye lenses & low-fi camcorder immediacy of 90s skateboarding videos & MTV footage. The pummeling blastbeats of their performances are illustrated with quick-edit montages that flash jump-scare horror imagery like a strobelit haunted house. In their spare time, the fascist trolls of Lords of Chaos watch gory splatter comedies like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, which the film itself matches in the intense practical gore of its own murder scenes. However, unlike in a Dead Alive, the real-life murders are not at all cartoonish or fun to watch. The camera uncomfortably lingers on the brutal displays, recounting each ugly stab & slice in grotesque misery. Similarly, the heavy metal party footage is comically undercut by the godawful sex, cheery suburban homelives, and image-conscious corpse paint posing that define these cruel nerds’ day-to-day, pathetic personae. Even the supposed badassery of their penchant for burning churches is soured by the churches in question being centuries-old structures of fine art majesty, not just provincial boxes with a steeple attached. Aesthetically speaking, Lords of Chaos matches the philosophical con-artistry of its subjects; it’s dressed up like “terror incarnate,” but just below that surface is something miserably, pathetically uncool. Whether that was the film’s intent is irrelevant at this point, but my personal reading of it as a satire leans to that bait & switch as being purposeful & weaponized.

As much as I appreciated Lords of Chaos as a post-truth biopic & an edgelord satire, I’m not at all shocked to see that most pro reviews of the film have been tepid at best. Spending two hours with these miserable, hateful shitheads is a thoroughly unpleasant experience, even though they are consistently the butt of a righteous joke. Whether or not Åkerlund could’ve been tougher on specific characters who were even worse shitheads in real life, I greatly enjoyed watching him give all gatekeeping black metal edgelords everywhere a collective noogie. It’s the exact fate these lowly nerds deserve.

-Brandon Ledet

Greta (2019)

The camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a dual career revival for its two stars – Bette Davis & Joan Crawford – who had aged out of Old Hollywood’s cruelly small window of use for the in-their-prime actresses, despite their incomparable talents. While the surprise high-profile success of Baby Jane did lead to more roles for the two late-career titans, though, it also typecast them for dirt-cheap genre work far below their skill level, all because Hollywood deemed them too old to be fuckable. Davis & Crawford spent the rest of their careers as sadistic nannies, axe-wielding maniacs, and black magic hags – creepy old ladies who were literally, lethally demented. Baby Jane spawned an entire subgenre later coined as the “psychobiddy” thriller or the ”Grande Dame” horror or, most crudely, “hagsploitation.” Other notable actresses got roped into the genre as it continued to make money on the drive-in circuit: Shelly Winters in What’s the Matter with Helen? & Who Slew Auntie Roo?; Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling; Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest; etc. If there’s anything the once-respected British director Neil Jordan accomplishes in his recent cheapie Greta, it’s in reviving the psychobiddy genre for the 2010s, allowing his titular star Isabelle Huppert to chew scenery the way Davis & Crawford had in similar relics of hagsploitation past. The cultural context around Huppert’s casting has changed drastically since the days of the post-Baby Jane psychobiddies; the actor has been allowed to be complex, compelling, and sexy in plenty of better projects in recent years in a way Davis & Crawford weren’t at her age. Still, it’s crystal clear that Huppert is working within the hagsploitation paradigm here. She’s not even emulating the classier end of the genre like Baby Jane or Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte either; Greta is more on the level of the Bette Davis pic The Nanny or Crawford’s Strait Jacket: the really trashy shit.

While I am overall positive on this picture as a campy delight, I should be clear upfront; Isabelle Huppert is Greta’s only saving grace. In the film’s earliest scenes, before Huppert’s old-biddy cruelty enters the frame, goings are tough. Between Chloë Grace Moretz’s non-presence as a naïve country bumkin in the big city (even though she’s originally from the small podunk town of Boston?) and Neil Jordan’s severely unfunny misestimation of how young women talk & think, the first half hour of place setting is a cringey bore. Even the early scenes of Moretz & Huppert forming and unlikely intergenerational friendship (and surrogate mother-daughter dynamic) after a chance meeting in the vast anonymity of NYC are alarmingly limp. It isn’t until Moretz discovers that the pretense of their initial meeting – a luxury purse Huppert “accidentally” left on a subway train, luring strangers to return it to her – was a deliberate scam that Greta finally comes alive. The remainder of the film is exponentially more fun as Huppert gradually escalates from clingy grifter to creepy stalker to kidnapper to full-blown murderess. The dialogue never improves as the stakes are heightened, but Huppert brings life to the material through the stubborn will over her over-the-top performance. Watching her flip tables, menacingly “teach” piano as a form of torture, get carted away on a stretcher like Hannibal Lecter, and shout disciplinary epithets like “This is a bed of lies!” to her Misery-like victim is a perverse, persistent pleasure that overpowers the dialogue’s more glaring shortcomings. If nothing else, there’s a whimsical little dance she does – like a child’s improvised, freeform ballet recital – in her violent showdown with veteran Neil Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea that is A+ delirious camp and alone worth the price of admission. I don’t know that I would readily describe Greta as a great movie so much as a great performance, but like with Tom Hardy in Venom, Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss, or any number of over-the-top psychobiddy performances in its own genre’s spotty past, the film is the performance. Thankfully, nothing else matters here, because Moretz & Jordan could have easily dragged the material down if Huppert weren’t such a spectacle.

The trick of appreciating Greta as a psycobiddy revival is in affording Huppert’s performance enough time to fully heat up. I wouldn’t blame anyone for bailing during the film’s fun-vacuum prologue, but those who leave the film early will miss out on the joys of watching one of our great living actors indulge in some over-the-top cartoon villainy once she’s afforded the space. There’s even comfort in the fact that, unlike with hagsploitation titles of the past, Huppert has not been locked out of landing more substantial work in better pictures because of her age, which is how the psycobiddy was born in the first place. This is more of a trashy detour for her than a professional dead end, which makes it all the more fun to watch her indulge in a bit of vicious camp at the expense of her wet noodle collaborators, as opposed to feeling embarrassed for her the way we were when the great Joan Crawford was typecast as an axe-wielding maniac despite her legendary cinematic pedigree.

-Brandon Ledet

The Nun (1966)

Usually when an older film resurfaces in digital restoration, it means brighter colors, shaper lines, a renewed vibrancy. Such joys are sparse, if at all existent, in the new digital scan of the 1966 French New Wave political screed La Religieuse (The Nun). That’s not to say the restoration itself is lacking in any technical achievement or attention to detail; The Nun is given a new, bellowing potency in its restored form – both in the refreshed patina of its imagery and in the thunderous effect of its sound design. The lack of vibrant color and lush imagery in the restoration is more a result of the material it’s servicing. This is a grim prison sentence of a motion picture, a harsh reminder of the punishment that awaits anyone born a woman under the “wrong” circumstances. Although it’s never as overtly, sexually blasphemous as later arthouse nunsploitation pieces like the Ken Russell classic The Devils or the recent sex comedy The Little Hours, it’s not difficult to see why the Catholic Church pushed to have The Nun banned upon its initial release. Any brief flashes of joy, light, color, or relief detectable in the film are quickly stamped out by exploitation, guilt, and misogyny, all in the name of serving God and the Church. I watched the new restoration of The Nun in a crowded theater at this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest, but it felt as if I were locked in solitary confinement for all 140 grueling minutes of it, which may as well have lasted 140 years.

Director Jacques Rivette is generally understood to be one of the more cerebral, surreal artists of The French New Wave, but that reputation doesn’t come into play too frequently in this instance. His most experimental, challenging impulses surface in The Nun as a dissociative approach to sound design. Story-wise, Rivette remains relatively faithful to Denis Diderot’s 18th Century novel of the same name. Roaring winds, deafening church bells, disorienting thwaps of arrhythmic jazz: the soundtrack of The Nun is pure auditory madness. It places the audience in the overwhelmed, dissociative mind of its protagonist in the exact same way modern auteurs like Josephine Decker still establish first-person POV in the 2010s. As the titular nun is starved, isolated, forced to kneel in repentance for vaguely-defined “sins,” and sold by her parents into a life of perpetual boredom, the audience is miserably in sync with her. Sometimes, a harsh edit will mimic her disoriented sense of time as she loses track of the clock & calendar while also losing sense of her autonomy & self. Mostly, we’re left to rot within the grim, grey walls of her cell as a Kafkaesque battle for her freedom unfolds in locked rooms far offscreen, away from her control and our observation. As overwhelming & figurative as the sound design can be, Rivette holds back substantially in the potential mental escapes offered by verbal or narrative experimentation. It’s an artistic restraint that emphasizes the constraint in freedom suffered by its protagonist – locking us all away to die alone in misery right along with her.

French cinema legend Ana Karina stars as the titular, tragic nun. Her story is meant to be reflective of many unmarried, unwanted young women of her era: locked away in a convent for her family’s convenience. Born out of wedlock to parents with at best moderate wealth, she’s treated as a burden that weighs her family down; she can’t make a life on her own without a husband, and the circumstances of her birth render her unmarriable in “decent” society. Her trips to the altar to take vows as God’s bride, under protest, read as funeral marches. She pleas to her parents not to sacrifice her to God from behind prison bars, causing great public scandal. Her birth mother coldly requests, “Do not poison my life any further” and gradually breaks down her resistance to taking vows as a nun, an act she cannot remember once it is done. From her birth mother’s cold indifference to her mothers superior’s varying modes of tyranny, she’s never allowed an inner life or independence. Across two convents and countless authority figures’ rule, she’s tortured, coddled, groomed for rape, consoled, pitied, shamed, and silenced – all while prisoner to a religious cause she was forced to assume under duress. And everyone around her has a nerve to contextualize her path as God’s sacred plan.

For all the shame, confinement, physical abuse, and sexual grooming that awaits Ana Karina’s reluctant nun, the greatest tragedy of the film is the way The Church extinguishes her inner life before it gets to fully develop. She’s allowed no feeling, no emotion, no dreams, no desire. When asked how she’s getting along in the convents, she replies only “I obey my fate” and “Time passes.” There’s a soul-crushing emptiness to her perpetual boredom that weighs heavily on the tone of the picture. Any brief promises of relief from a seemingly kind priest, lawyer, or mother superior who might break her free from her vows or allow her to explore her own inner life are quickly stamped out as those authority figures reveal their true selfish, lustful desires for her – purposes that offer no personal ambition or autonomy. In The Nun, being born a woman under the “wrong” circumstances is a life-long prison sentence – a mandatory sacrifice of self to others’ piety, lust, and vanity. It may not be an especially pleasant sit and it’s understandable why The Church might bristle at its political implications, but it’s a true account of a very gendered, widespread form of human misery experienced by countless women across history – one the film replicates almost too vividly.

-Brandon Ledet