Podcast #163: Donkey Skin (1970)

Welcome to Episode #163 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, Britnee, and Hanna discuss Jacques Demy’s anti-incest fairy tale musical Donkey Skin (1970).

00:00 Welcome

03:07 Exotica (1994)
08:50 Sling Blade (1996)
16:00 Demon Seed (1977)

21:50 Donkey Skin (1970)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Podcast #162: Field of Dreams (1989) & Dad Movies

Welcome to Episode #162 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss their dads’ favorite movies, starting with the Kevin Costner baseball fantasy Field of Dreams (1989).

00:00 Welcome

01:40 Crimes of the Future (2022)
08:22 Flux Gourmet (2022)
14:42 Brahms: The Boy II (2020)
19:56 The Shout (1978)

26:26 Field of Dreams (1989)
56:56 Seven Samurai (1954)
1:15:40 Dumb & Dumber (1994)
1:35:25 Tommy Boy (1995)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

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 Boomer made HannaBrandon, and Britnee watch Embrace of the Serpent (2015).

Boomer: “The world is full of fishes,” Theo says. “We cannot possibly end them.” 

“You have no discipline,” Karamakate says, shortly thereafter. “You will devour everything.” 

El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent) is a 2015 Colombian film about an apocalypse. It isn’t one which comes with neither the fire nor ice of Robert Frost’s poetry or the heat or cold death of the universe that is hypothesized by modern science, nor a dumb superhero movie sky beam, nor is it one of clashes between heaven and hell (although they each certainly play a role). The film is a fictionalized synthesis of two real-life accounts written by German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872-1924) and American ethno-botanist Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), embodied here as two separate men who are taken on a treacherous Amazonian journey by an Indigenous man named Karamakate, the ostensibly last survivor of a village that was destroyed by colonizers exploiting the natural resources of South America. Koch-Grünberg is reimagined as “Theo” (Jan Bijvoet), who, with his “liberated” manservant Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) approaches the young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) in 1909 and asks him to be his guide to the sacred yakruba plant, a fictional sacred plant with healing qualities that Theo hopes will save him from his unnamed, wasting disease. Although he is initially hesitant, Karamakate is convinced to join this endeavor when Theo tells him that he has seen other survivors of his same tribe. The character inspired by Schultes, Evan (Brionne Davis), appears to the older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) in 1940 and claims that he has never dreamed and hopes that the yakruba will heal this missing part of him, working his way into the Indigenous man’s good graces by claiming to be devoted to plants, although his true goal is to secure disease-free rubber trees for American manufacturing for the war effort. 

Readers who have never seen the film may be asking themselves how this can be an apocalyptic story, if the latest time frame envisioned by the film is nearly eight decades ago, but for many of us, that is ignorance born of privilege as the descendants of colonizers and settlers, who can denounce the violence of our ancestry but nonetheless continue to benefit from it every day. As Pam Oliver once said, “If your ancestors cut down all the trees, it’s not your fault, but you still don’t live in a forest.” To put it another way, the (unfortunately now inactive) IndigenousXca Twitter account once posted a statement that lives in my mind perpetually: “something I don’t think occurs to settlers is that Indigenous people already are living in a post-apocalyptic world.” For the peoples of the Western Hemisphere, invaders came from another world, pillaged their natural resources, committed mass genocide, and drove the last living remnants of a whole world from their ancestral lands into reservations. For mass media created mostly by and mostly for white people, this is a common “apocalypse” narrative, wherein we are meant to empathize with and cheer for our mostly white heroes as they defend themselves against invading Soviets (ex.: Red Dawn), machines of our own creation (ex. MatrixThe TerminatorBattlestar Galactica), and aliens (ex.: Independence DayWar of the Worlds). Because we’ve been fed American exceptionalist propaganda for our whole lives by that same system and, frequently, our educational institutions, this results in a kind of psychic disconnect wherein the same people who are cheering the heroes in those works for fighting back against colonization and genocide will also show up to school board meetings frothing at the mouth to make sure that their children never learn about redlining or that Aunt Gloria was actually one of the girls who screamed the n-word at Tessie Prevost.

The river on which Karamakate spends his existence is a post-apocalyptic world. That the men he finds in his old village greet him with “We’re toasting to the end of the world” isn’t an accident. The “world mover,” as he is called by others, has been so traumatized by living through the (ongoing) destruction of his world that he considers himself to have become a chullachaqui, an empty shell that looks like a person but who lacks a living animus. The throughline of Indigenous destruction at the hands of profiteers, priests, and plantation-owners who come to “save” the “pagan” peoples of the jungle from “cannibalism and ignorance” is at the heart of Serpiente as, alongside Karamakate, we bear witness to the scars of exploitation on both the land and bodies of the people thereof. This is made manifest in the film’s final scroll, which is dedicated to those South American Indigenous peoples “whose song we never knew.” This is made most manifest in a pair of sequences that both take place in a Spanish Catholic Mission, in both 1909 and 1940. 

In 1909, Karamakate arrives with Theo and Manduca, after the three of them have already interacted with a man, for all intents and purposes an enslaved man, who has been violently disfigured by those who run the rubber plantations, and we see Manduca’s own scars from his time on one. They discover that the mission, which is implied to be a former plantation, has one remaining priest, and that this place is essentially a residential school in all but name, wherein indigenous children are abducted, renamed, prevented from speaking their “pagan” language (this is the subtitled translation, but to my ear it sounds like they’re saying “lengua demoníaca,” which is literally “demon tongue,” which I have no doubt is historically accurate and extremely telling); when Karamakate tries to impart some of their ancestral wisdom that weaves together both myth and medicine, the children are beaten mercilessly by the priest. The Amazonian River in 1909 is a place of both scars and fresh wounds; by 1940, there is only madness and death. The now-adult population, which may be the same boys whom Karamakate had met 31 years before, have descended into a full-on cult with a Messiah and everything. The beatings of the priest have devolved into a series of ritualistic sacrifices and self-flagellation, and the self-proclaimed messiah seems to have continued the priest’s tradition of kidnapping children, if I’m judging the age of his “wife” correctly. This can only end tragically, which it does. 

That colonization is inherently the antithesis of conservation is also an omnipresent theme in Serpiente. Before accepting Theo’s proposal, Karamakate sets out a series of prohibitions by which he must abide. To the western viewer, these first appear to be mostly the kind of “superstition” that we dismiss out of hand, but are a complex interweaving of thoughtful conservation, medicine, and defense alongside the spiritual, in a way that means that extricating one from the other is an exercise in self-sabotage. At the film’s outset, we’re never given a reason that Theo mustn’t eat fish or other meat. Shortly thereafter, they encounter Tuschaua (Marcilio Paiva) and his people, who have a prior, friendly relationship with the explorer, and Karamakate is surprised to learn that they eat fish even when they shouldn’t do so until a specific seasonal time has been reached, indicating that there’s an ecological element to the proscription. This is further emphasized during the first encounter with the Spanish Mission; Karamakate warns the children that “one day, [the colonizers] will finish all the food in the jungle.” The fish are like the rubber trees which are like the yakruba, all resources that are renewable but not endless. “The world is full of fishes, we cannot possibly end them,” Theo later says, but he’s wrong; Karamakate understands that they must abstain until after the rains end because there has to be a balance, and that Theo “will devour everything.” Further still, when Theo breaks this proscription, not only does he fall physically ill, he is also unable to further accept holistic medical intervention, as his body will now reject it. It’s spiritual, physical, and ecological, entwined. Theo’s inability to follow these rules are a demonstration that, to paraphrase the proverb, there is no ethical colonization, even when relations are friendly. When Theo discovers that Tuschaua’s people have taken his compass, he decries that leaving behind this (to them) advanced technology will, in time, supplant and erase their Indigenous cultural knowledge of an “orientation system […] based on the winds and the position of the stars.” What he can’t see, but that Karamakate does, is that contact with Europeans has already begun to undermine them, as evidenced by their preparation of fish despite the season being incorrect. Theo may truly believe he’s doing the moral thing by attempting to prevent further cultural contamination, but the first dominos have already fallen, and to introduce Tuschaua and his family, possibly the last generation of their people because of the intervention of profiteers, to a technological advancement and then deny them its use isn’t a kindness, but a cruelty. 

At the mission, Karamakate sees a plaque (in Spanish, which he presumably cannot read, and thus this is solely for the benefit of the audience) endowed by the Colombian government, which thanks the violent colonizers for “[bringing] civilization to the land of cannibal savages and showed them the path of God” (emphasis added). When sharing his knowledge with the children there, he warns them: “Don’t believe their crazy tales about eating the body of their gods.” Decades later, those same children now not only believe these tales to an extreme, but then do in fact eat their Messiah. I think that this can be interpreted in several ways—that wickedness often reveals itself in the way that it projects its worst aspects onto the proverbial other (like when the same people who ~allegedly~ participate in interstate sex trafficking also unironically tweet out #disneygroomer because a media monopoly reluctantly and sluggishly took a stance against a law that in practice is definitively going to result in a surge of domestic violence and rampage familicide), or as a contributing narrative thread in the overall tapestry of the film’s conservationist thesis. Hanna, what did you make of this during your first viewing? Did you get a sense of that, am I plucking at strings, did you interpret it completely differently?

Hanna: What a great point! I think I basically had the same feelings as you. In addition to receiving the message of holy cannibalism through Christianity, the heart of the mission is founded on the belief that the children are “cannibal savages” being uplifted through God; under the instruction of the priests, there’s no way for the children to find meaning for themselves outside of that narrative. What kind of identity can you form when you’re assured that you’re fundamentally inhuman at the core, and the “righteous” path you’ve been assimilated into is violent at its core? I definitely agree with the projection aspect as well. Like Karamakate points out, colonialism is inherently cannibalistic; the dominant culture is actively devouring the bodies and resources of the colonized people, destroying their way of life and the ecosystem on which they depend. To deny and rationalize cannibalism, the colonizers convince themselves that their subjects are not only inhuman, but that they would have no hope of redemption without the mercy of “civilized” people; you’re not a cannibal if you’re not eating people!

I think Embrace of the Serpent is, by far, the most nuanced, honest, thought-provoking movie I’ve ever seen about colonialism and conservation. The film is shot almost entirely in black and white, which works well with the narrative shifts between 1909 and 1940 – it kept the two time periods tied together in my mind as one artifact, and the film almost reads like a marriage of two old pioneering documentaries that someone salvaged. There’s no hint of sentimentality here. The Amazonian jungle is lushly rendered (even without color) and beautiful images abound, but the film is unflinching in its depiction of violence, whether it manifests interpersonally, physically (self-inflicted or otherwise), or internally. I’m always entranced by films that seem to have a tactile temperature; they tend to be meditative, slowly dragging you down into a maddening dream or nightmare. This was definitely a nightmare, but especially because it’s a lived reality.

The two timelines vividly depict the ripples of alteration and destruction that invasion has wrought onto Karamakate’s community and the ecosystems that community depends upon. I agree that this is an apocalypse movie, and I think that (barring natural cataclysms) most apocalypses probably end up looking like this: a slow deterioration of life as it was until the old ways of existing are no longer possible. It seems pretty difficult to make a movie about colonialism that didn’t somehow feel like it was exploiting suffering for the sake of self-reflection, but Guerra apparently worked in close collaboration with Indigenous communities from the Amazon; I think the infusion of that perspective has a lot to do with the film’s success.

Like Boomer mentioned, the cultural exchange between the settlers or visitors and the Indigenous people is difficult to navigate; the contact has irrevocably changed the Indigenous people, but there’s no going back from that point, so withholding knowledge or trying to stem contamination is impossible and cruel. That being said, there are a few moments of true human connection that I really appreciated in this film; in one scene, Evan plays Haydn’s “The Creation” on his gramophone for Karamakate. It was hard to read Karamakate’s expression at that moment, but he seemed moved to me, and the music takes him back to a memory of Theo in his last days of sickness. The last scene of the movie involves an unbelievable gift from Karamakate marking the end of one civilization’s way of life, even in the face of a violent betrayal (the only scene with color in the entire movie). Brandon, what did you make of this ending? Did you feel any shred of hope for humanism and connection in spite of centuries of selfishness and violence, or did redemption die with the yakruba? 

Brandon: If we’re going to consider the present state of the Amazon post-apocalyptic, it’s difficult to read Embrace of the Serpent as anything but a tragedy.  If either timeline in the film were present-day, there might be room for hope, but we know that capitalist exploitation of the Amazon’s people & resources didn’t cool off after 1940.  The yakruba’s extinction at the end, although fictional, represents a wide range of decimated resources, and Evan represents a wide range of white colonizers responsible for that tragedy.  All Karamakate can offer him is a glimpse of the beauty & power that will soon be lost forever, in all its natural glory.

The film smartly undercuts a lot of its warmer, humanistic interactions in this way.  I’m thinking particularly of the sequence in which Theo & Manduca entertain a small tribe with a practiced song & dance routine around a campfire, a moment of communal delight that first warms Karamakate up to the idea of collaborating with white outsiders.  It’s the very next morning when Theo freaks out about his stolen compass, souring the possibility for positive cultural exchange with supposed ethical concerns about industrialized technology ruining locals’ more “natural” way of life.  There’s no way that interference from white outsiders won’t irrevocably change the local culture forever, so all Theo accomplishes is shielding them from any possible positive gains from the tragedy that will gradually consume them.  There cannot be any hope in these cross-cultural interactions no matter how personable & heartfelt they feel in the moment.

The sudden introduction of color at the end did make me think more about the film’s digi black & white cinematography.  The contrast between the deep shadows of trees and the sharp white voids of the sunlit sky is striking, but it’s definitely an unusual way of capturing the immense beauty of the Amazon on film.  Britnee, what do you think of the film’s visual style?  Does the sudden rush of color at the ending make you wish it had been styled differently?

Britnee: I thought about this for most of the film. Why would something as beautiful as the Amazon jungle be filmed in black and white? It wasn’t until the burst of color at the end that I understood that choice. As the Indigenous tribes and natural resources of the Amazon are destroyed, the Amazon loses its vitality. While the black and white imagery was stunning, it created a dreadful ambiance that really connected me with the emotions of Karamakate. Well, as connected as a white woman can be. I will never truly understand what it feels like to go through, as Boomer perfectly stated earlier, a post-apocalyptic tragedy. 

I had a couple of self-reflective moments while watching Embrace of the Serpent, but one that really struck me was during the scene where Karamakate asks Theo to get rid of all the luggage that is weighing them down during their journey. I stared around my room to look at all of the junk I’ve acquired throughout the years, and I couldn’t even imagine how it would feel to not value my possessions as much as I do. I associate memories with all of my belongings, but how would it feel to have the same attitude as Karamakate? I don’t really need all of this baggage to survive or maintain a high quality of life. I mean, I’m still probably not going to get rid of anything because I’m a garbage person, but Karamakate really hit me in the feels with that one.

Lagniappe

Britnee: This made me think of Fitzcarraldo, which we covered on the podcast a few years ago. The production of Embrace of the Serpent was definitely not as problematic though!

Brandon: We talked a lot about the evils of capitalism & colonialism here (always worthy subjects), but to me this registered most clearly as a condemnation of anthropology as a morally bankrupt field of study.  Theo’s attempts to interact with Amazonian locals without altering their way of life is pathetically misguided, as evidenced by the wide-scale destruction that follows in his wake decades later.   The real-life Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s research is a cornerstone of anthropological field work to this day, so that cursed corner of academia was never very far from my mind throughout the film. 

Hanna: Embrace of the Serpent was a difficult movie to watch and process, but I’m glad it exists. I really appreciate the director’s efforts to make a piece of art that honors and includes the perspectives of Indigenous communities, and from my perspective, he did a great job of honestly reckoning with the destruction of Indigenous life and the loss our world experiences (and will continue to experience) as a result.

Boomer: Unfortunately, the IndigenousXca Twitter account stopped posting some time ago, and the bio now indicates that it’s an archive for posts made from the account Oct. 23, 2014 – Dec. 3, 2020. In a post on the associated blog from March 2021, entitled “Social media burn-out, it’s not just you,” the author writes that this has a lot to do with the stresses of being very online and that it became overwhelming. The author’s personal Twitter, however, is still active, and you can go follow her now and keep up with her thoughts on contemporary politics, which are always insightful and thoughtful.

Next month: Britnee presents White of the Eye (1987)

-The Swampflix Crew

Podcast #161: Fatal Instinct (1993) & Genre Spoofs

Welcome to Episode #161 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of genre spoofs, starting with Carl Reiner’s erotic thriller send-up Fatal Instinct (1993).

00:00 Welcome

02:10 Inland Empire (2006)
06:50 The Northman (2022) & Men (2022)
18:45 Pleasure (2022)

24:30 Fatal Instinct (1993)
49:25 This is Spinal Tap (1984)
1:04:00 The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991)
1:19:05 Black Dynamite (2009)

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

– The Podcast Crew

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

Episode #159 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Song Remains the Same (1976) & Concert Films

Welcome to Episode #159 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of classic concert films, starting with Led Zeppelin’s stoner odyssey The Song Remains the Same (1976).

00:00 Welcome

03:23 The Northman (2022)
06:01 The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)
08:34 Con Air (1997)
12:37 Bullshit
13:54 Smooth Talk (1985)

18:53 The Song Remains the Same (1976)
34:49 Sign O The Times (1987)
47:25 Depeche Mode 101 (1989)
1:06:17 T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Episode #158 of The Swampflix Podcast: Perfect Blue (1997) & Anime Basics

Welcome to Episode #158 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of classic anime films, starting with Satoshi Kon’s technophobic psych thriller Perfect Blue (1997).

00:00 Welcome

00:48 Ambulance (2022)
04:40 Aline (2022)
15:40 The Fear (1995)
20:40 Catwoman: Hunted (2022)

23:40 Perfect Blue (1997)

48:40 Princess Mononoke (1997)
1:04:46 Akira (1988)
1:17:50 Vampire Hunter D (1985)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: Oliver! (1968)

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 Hanna made BrandonBoomer, and Britnee watch Oliver! (1968).

Hanna: My Movie of the Month pick began with a grave mistake. My intention was to introduce the crew to one of the first musicals I ever watched, which held a prized position in my family’s VHS collection: Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968), the film adaptation of the stage musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s serialized novel Oliver Twist. I’ve probably seen it at least five times, although not since I was 10 or 11. Roman Polanski made his own Oliver Twist adaptation in 2005, and for some ungodly reason, I somehow melded his version with the Reed musical; I proceeded to tell many people (including the Swampflix crew) that Polanski’s version was one of my childhood favorites. I finally picked it for the Movie of the Month, so James, Brandon, Britnee and I settled in my apartment on a rainy Tuesday to dive into Oliver. After puzzling over basic elements of the film (including the lack of musical numbers, the jarring difference in tone, the striking unfamiliarity of the lead actors, and the realization that I was only 12 when the Polanski version came out), I got the sneaking suspicion that I had picked the wrong movie; after the first fifteen minutes passed without a single song, I was finally able to admit my mistake, but everyone agreed to finish the film anyway. Two days later we settled in for Oliver!, which I (thankfully) found to be just as delightful as I remembered. I’m honored to have undergone this Oliver journey with those that accept me in spite of my absolutely awful memory and sense of time.

The musical basically follows Dickens’s serialized story, which brings the viewers on a tour of the various social classes in early 19th century England. We start off at a workhouse, where Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), a waifish orphan boy with a voice like a velvety little petal, is ousted from a workhouse after meekly requesting more gruel at dinner. The owner of the workhouse, Mr. Bumble, auctions Oliver off as an apprentice to the lowest bidder, who happens to be an undertaker. Oliver eventually escapes to London, where he immediately falls in with a dashing young pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild); his crew of cheerful thief children; and their adult ringleader, Fagin (Ron Moody). The child thieves have a rickety old hideout in the upper levels of an abandoned building, but their den is downright cozy; Fagin puts Oliver to bed in a torn-up basket and a couple of ratty blankets, which looked extremely inviting all things considered. It would be a child’s paradise if not for the looming presence of Bill Sikes, a horrific character played by an (unfortunately) extremely hot Oliver Reed. Bill is accompanied by the kind, ill-fated Nancy (Shani Wallis), who is responsible for 50% of my interest in this movie as a child. The bulk of the film’s tension rests on who is in possession of Oliver, and whether he’ll finally get the chance to join a happy household. At various points throughout the movie he’s sold, arrested, adopted, kidnapped, forced into burglary, and kidnapped again; apart from the stolen fineries of wealthy Londoners, he’s the hottest commodity in the film while doing basically nothing that isn’t at the behest of someone else’s will.

I think this is a great musical! The sets are big and beautiful, and a few numbers (namely “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?”) have that old Hollywood scale of extras that makes you think, “This scene was expensive!” The majority of the songs are absolute bangers; they wormed themselves into my brain many years ago and, like little sleeper agents, unfurled themselves effortlessly as the film went on. I think the thing that struck me the most was that this film makes poverty-stricken 1820s London seem like an absolute ball; I really wanted Fagin to be my grandfather and live a little life of crime when I saw this as a child. It’s especially striking after seeing the Polanski adaptation, which is absolutely mired in the muck of that period. Police dutifully trot around the city; little chimney sweeps burn their sweet little trousers; life is pure joy! Nancy’s relationship with Bill is probably the harshest aspect of the musical, and it’s also my absolute least favorite part to watch. Brandon, do you think the cheer of the musical takes away from the point of the film? Should Reed have made me feel worse for these little orphans, or do you think the musical had a balance of glee and gruel?

Brandon: I don’t have any especially strong opinions about Oliver!‘s duty to maintain the grueling tone of the Dickens source material, but I get the sense that Polanski does.  His 2005 adaptation is not only more faithful to the narrative beats of the novel, it’s also a deliberate corrective to its feel-good interpretations like Oliver! and Oliver & Company.  If Polanski has a discernible “take” on Oliver Twist, it’s that audiences need to be reminded of how brutal the original story was, despite its recent cheery revisionism.  As a result, the 2005 version is absurdly grotesque, almost laughably so.  Every single image is aimed to discomfort & disgust, to the point where it’s just as difficult to take seriously as the song & dance numbers in the family-friendly adaptations he was bucking against.  The conflict between form & content in the 1968 musical is much more genuinely engaging.  The circumstances of orphan life in 19th Century London are just as brutal, but the song & dance numbers are a pure delight, and there’s something oddly charming about Fagin yelling “Shut up and drink your gin!” at a room full of pipsqueak children, when that should register as a horrifying act of abuse.  What’s hilarious about Polanski being bothered by that cheery incongruity is that Oliver Twist already had at least two dark & gritty updates in 1996’s Twisted and 2003’s Twist, so his 40-year-old grudge against the musical just feels like another old man complaining about nothing.  And since anything that irks that particular old man is a cosmic good, I almost wish that Oliver! was even more saccharine just to irritate him further.

I am not sure if Oliver! is wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s certainly one of the two.  There’s something perverse about a big-budget Technicolor spectacle being composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, as if the form and the narrative are too directly opposed for the movie to function in any sincere way.  When orphans sing about starving on a pure-gruel diet, or when their caretakers sing about selling those orphans away for a pittance (so as not to waste more money on precious gruel), it’s hard to resist chuckling at its self-conflicted tone, even though what you’re watching is objectively depressing.  However, as Hanna already noted, the scale of its musical set pieces is massive.  It may all be a swirl of slightly varied browns, but there are often hundreds of performers filling that sooty frame, singing & dancing their workhouse lungs out.  It’s not at all skimpy when doling out its extravagant song & dance numbers either (unlike how the orphanage doles out its servings of gruel).  The first hour is practically a sung-through musical, offering very few words of spoken dialogue between the show-stopping musical numbers before it settles into a more traditional movie-musical rhythm.  Britnee, did you have any particular favorite songs or musical moments buried in that extensive songbook?  Were you at all disappointed when the movie dropped its sung-through format to include traditional spoken dialogue between those songs?

Britnee: Our accidental watch of Polanski’s Oliver Twist had me a bit concerned about watching Oliver! a few days later. How could such a grim story be converted into an enjoyable musical? Would the songs be just as dull as the setting? I was put at ease when the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” kicked the film off. All those dirty little paupers lining up for gruel in the most Broadway way possible? I was immediately hooked! It was so catchy and so much fun, and thankfully, the other musical numbers followed suit. I truly enjoyed each and every one of them, but my favorites are “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” and “Who Will Buy?”.  

The catchiness and quirkiness of “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” was such a good time, and it made me really enjoy Fagin’s character. Fagin in Polanski’s Oliver Twist was horrible. He was cruel and easy to dislike, but dancing, singing Fagin was the life of the party. As for “Who Will Buy?”, that was a damn masterpiece. It almost felt like a movie within a movie, and it had me so invested in all the happenings of that neighborhood. Right when I thought the scene was wrapping up, another singing group would come in and add another layer into the number. And most importantly, as the youth would say, the song slaps.

I think there was just the right number of songs peppered throughout. Not one segment of the film was more song heavy than others, which kept me excited and really held my attention. This is the sooty brown musical of my dreams! Something else worth mentioning is the beautiful set design. How the dirty London streets and filth surrounding the characters could look so gorgeous boggled my mind. Boomer, what are your thoughts on the set design? Were you as fascinated with it as I was, or did it seem too Broadway for a film?

Boomer:  I might be the worst person to ask if something is “too Broadway,” because as someone who generally hates traditional musicals, I’m usually the first person to want to skedaddle the moment a half-pint starts warbling in a soprano—it’s been ten years since this happened, which is long enough that I’ll admit it, but I once left a live stage production of South Pacific during intermission despite being there in a professional capacity. I’ve professed before that I dislike musicals in general and often in principle as well, but that non-traditional musicals sometimes manage to pierce that veil (as demonstrated by my previous MotM nominations London Road and True Stories) in addition to a couple of traditional musicals that somehow manage to warm the cockles of my cold, dead heart. I think that this one manages to slip in under the radar a little for me for several reasons. Firstly, the music is actually pretty good, and I don’t feel secondhand embarrassment for the lyricist with regards to their being forced to craft dialog and exposition into certain meter and rhyme scheme; I was surprised to discover that “I’d Do Anything” came from Oliver!, as I’d always assumed it was just an old standard, but it’s actually rather lovely in this context. Secondly, it’s very evocative of two traditional screen musicals that I actually do enjoy: 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1967’s Doctor Doolittle, both of which I loved as a child. For the former, it’s mostly that era of musical-making, where there’s a huge budget and the effects are largely practical, plus the similarity in musical styles overall; for the latter, it’s the staging. It might be a stretch to call a film that casts Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit “traditional,” but other than the presence of Muppet actors, the film takes itself fairly seriously, and that’s evident in the set design there just as it is in this movie, so I guess my answer must be “yes.” There might be something Pavlovian about my unconscious mental arithmetic of Dickens + musical = a good time because of the sheer number of times I’ve seen Michael Caine go flying through the air with Gonzo and Rizzo attached to his housecoat, but I actually enjoyed this one, and it kept my attention for almost all of its prolonged runtime.

I was not party to the fateful viewing of Polanski’s adaptation, and I won’t defend him, but I will say that I can see why there would be a desire to push back against the lyrical good times being had in this film. I’ve softened over the years with regards to my need for historical accuracy (I’d probably be more forgiving of, for instance, the Converse high tops in Marie Antoinette in 2022 than I was in 2008), but there is something to be said about the necessity of historical veracity. The thing is, Industrial Era London was horrible, possibly one of the worst times to be alive in human history outside of being directly involved in war. Poverty was rampant, the streets ran brown with human waste, sovereignty was presumed divine, and the gentry was landed. Dickens’s novels and writings were actually fundamental to encouraging empathy for the downtrodden and encouraging philanthropy in the same way that Sinclair’s The Jungle was a foundational text in the actualization of food safety (although that was not the latter author’s goal), and I can understand being annoyed at this film, which depicts chimney sweeps as just silly little dudes as opposed to children performing dangerous labor. When white supremacists prattle on about the treatment of the Irish when trying to invoke whataboutism with regards to historical injustices that continue into the present day, the inhumane circumstances of Victorian England are rarely discussed, but only because white supremacy as it exists in the contemporary United States actually exists to reinscribe current systems of power between labor and aristocracy that aren’t terribly different from their own goals (as seen by state-level Republican-led efforts to rebrand child labor as “employment of minors” and damage the laws that prevent kids from being taken advantage of by employers). When I was first reading everyone’s thoughts prior to meditating on my own response, my knee-jerk response was “Actually, depicting this with the brutal reality of that era would be the correct choice,” but the longer I sat with that idea, the more I kept thinking about “Oom-Pah-Pah” until music filled my mind so that it blotted out everything else. So for once, I’ll just enjoy the party and not be a pooper (until you get to the Lagniappe section below, I suppose). 

Lagniappe

Boomer: For my money, the best version of “I’d Do Anything” is this one by Fall On Your Sword, the same folks behind “Shatner Of The Mount.” 

I’ll also add that Oliver! is no Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind when it comes to whitewashing historical atrocities for the sake of storytelling, since not even the worst elements of life under Victorian aristocracy compare to chattel slavery, but I’ll end with a reminder that we can’t get too comfortable about such things and should always inspect them. Birth and Gone are products of their time, but we are never free of that kind of historical revisionism and it’s vital that we never get too comfortable with it, now more than ever. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice initiative is a great place to start, as it calls out lies in children’s literature, like Henry Cole’s Unspoken and Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The minimization of historical sins, like characterizing “Harriet Tubman [as] a very strong woman who left her farm without permission,” are part of the fascism playbook. Oliver! might get a pass, but there’s still work to be done. 

Brandon: This was an educational experience in several ways, but the factoid from my Oliver! research that’s haunted me most was learning it was one of Michael Jackson’s pet obsessions.  Apparently, Jackson befriended Oliver!‘s Mark Lester when they were both child-stars of the late-1960s, which led to persistent tabloid rumors that Lester was the sperm-donor biological father to Jackson’s children.  A rumor that Lester himself has confirmed in interviews!  It almost sounds too weird to be true, until you remember that Jackson was also so obsessed with the David Lynch film The Elephant Man that he attempted to purchase the real-life John Merick’s bones for his private collection (a bizarre venture that The London Hospital Medical College thankfully did not indulge).  These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.

Britnee: Swampflix needs to declare the first week of March as Oliver Twist Week, committing to watch a different version of Oliver Twist every year to commemorate the occasion. There’s a buttload of Oliver Twist movies out there, so we could keep it going forever!

Hanna: Taking the Oliver! of my childhood and Polanski’s faithful adaptation into consideration, I’m really drawn to and impressed by the longevity of Dickens’s original story of innocence attempting to navigate a filthy, horrifying world. I didn’t even realize how many Oliver Twist interpretations there were until Brandon kindly brought them to my attention. So, cast my vote in favor of Oliver Week so we can delve into all its many permutations. I’m glad that the Swampflix crew enjoyed meeting this sweet little orphan.

Next Month: Brandon presents The Music Lovers (1971)

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #156 of The Swampflix Podcast: In the Cut (2003) & 2022’s Best Director Nominees

Welcome to Episode #156 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of genre films from this year’s Best Director Oscar nominees, starting with Jane Campion’s 2003 erotic thriller In the Cut. Enjoy!

00:00 Welcome

00:38 Oliver Twist (2005)
04:10 Radhe Shyam (2022)
07:00 Turning Red (2022)
10:45 Master (2022)
15:10 Deep Water (2022)
21:00 Parallel Mothers (2022)

28:25 In the Cut (2003)
46:25 Duel (1971)
1:02:30 Dead Again (1991)
1:14:45 Asako I & II (2018)
1:29:00 Hard Eight (1996)

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

– The Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: Tatie Danielle (1990)

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 Britnee made Hanna, Brandon, and Boomer watch Tatie Danielle (1990).

Britnee: I’ve always had a fondness for mean old ladies. When women age into their 70s and 80s, there’s a social expectation for them to be sweet and nurturing. A frail, wrinkled woman with a loose grey bun carrying a tray of fresh baked cookies for visitors is the “sweet old lady” image that we’re all too familiar with, and I truly hope I never fall into that mold. My great grandmother was one of my favorite people because she was known for being a rude, gaslighting troublemaker. As she aged into her 80s, she would complain about her self-diagnosed diabetes while sneaking cake at any chance she got, and she would tell everyone how her children didn’t want to take care of her while they were waiting on her hand and foot. And she would say it all in French! I’m so glad that there is a film that captures her essence (in a more exaggerated way): the 1990 French black comedy, Tatie Danielle.

Auntie Danielle (Tsilla Chelton) is the ultimate mean old lady. She’s an elderly widow who loves to torment just about everyone who crosses her path, especially her elderly housekeeper, Odile (Neige Dolsky). Auntie Danielle calls Odile “a whore” while making purposeful messes for her to clean up, steps on flowers she plants in her flowerbed, and guilts her into getting onto a ladder to dust a chandelier, which is the last thing she ever cleans as she falls off of it and dies. With no one to help with her day-to-day routine, Auntie Danielle divides her estate between her great-niece and great-nephew, then moves to Paris to live with her great-nephew and his family. She brings her shenanigans with her, and they eventually begin to realize what a terror she is. When they have guests over, she implies that she is neglected. She refuses to eat her great-nephew’s wife’s cooking, but she sneaks pastries at any chance she gets. When taking her great-nephew’s youngest son to the park, she abandons him to find sweets and makes her way back home without him. These are just a few of the increasingly horrible stunts that she pulls.

Her family desperately looks for someone to stay with Auntie Danielle while they go on a family vacation in Greece, and at the last minute, Sandrine (Isabelle Nanty) shows up to save the day. Auntie Danielle soon realizes she’s met her match as Sandrine doesn’t put up with her shit. At all. The two gradually bond through a very bizarre love-hate relationship that is unexpectedly heartwarming and a blast to watch.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Auntie Danielle’s bad behavior? Was it hard to watch or did you enjoy her cruel antics just as much as I did?

Brandon: There are a lot of things that are hard to watch in this movie, but most of them have to do with larger cultural circumstances of elderly abuse & abandonment.  Since visitations from her family are rare enough to be a major event and she spends most of her alone time commiserating with a portrait of her dead husband Edouard, you get the sense that Auntie Danielle got to be this awful purely through her isolation from the world outside.  As she’s shuffled off to apathetic nursing homes or the care of a physically abusive grannysitter (who does eventually become her friend after a couple harsh slaps to the face), it’s clear that the elderly have plenty of good reasons to be sour & misanthropic.  Because she’s an intensely spiteful little shit, she often weaponizes everyone’s sympathy for her frailty & isolation in old age as a way to punish her supposedly ungrateful family, posing herself in a wrecked, shit-smeared apartment where the only available sustenance is cans of dog food so that they look like total monsters (a set piece that’s so visually over-the-top in comparison to the rest of the film that it could’ve doubled as an art installation).  Her spitefulness being a result of culture-wide cruelty & disinterest in the elderly does make the film a tough watch in patches, especially once you realize how much better she can be as a person by simply making one friend, Sandrine.

All that said, yes, I was delighted by Auntie Danielle’s cruel antics.  With the exception of a few casually racist, homophobic, and misogynistic insults she tosses around just to inflict maximum harm, it’s fun to cheer on her miserable misbehavior.  Tatie Danielle often plays like the geriatric counterpoint to Problem Child, wherein the titular scamp is such an absurdly awful little shit that you can’t help but cheer on their misanthropic pranks.  The main difference is that Problem Child is an 80min Hollywood comedy that’s scored by endless replays of “Bad to the Bone”, while this is a two-hour French film with an ironic air of buttoned-up sophistication. Both are great, though, and both rely on the humor of their antiheroes transgressing against ageist expectations of proper social etiquette.  If the POV character was Auntie Danielle’s nephew or wife, this might’ve been a nightmare comedy of manners about how careful most adults are to not hurt the feelings of their sour, Conservative elders despite receiving none of that consideration in return.  Instead, we see the world through Auntie Danielle’s beady little eyes, and so it’s fun to watch her expertly fuck up the daily lives of her boring, phony family.  I was particularly delighted in how much disdain she shows in her great-grandnephew despite him being an adorable cherub of a child – abandoning him at a public park so she can enjoy some ice cream in solitude.  Delicious.

If there’s anything that justifies Tatie Danielle‘s pretentions as a sophisticated European drama, as opposed to a wide-appeal goofball comedy, it’s in Auntie Danielle’s uneasy friendship with Sandrine.  They have a very complicated relationship as bitter kindred spirits that transcends the generational warfare of every other character dynamic, and it’s the one part of the film that does not play into its Problem Child for Miserable Old Biddies novelty factor.  Hanna, what did you think of how that relationship develops and where it goes?  What would the movie be like without it?

Hanna: I loved Auntie Danielle’s relationship with Sandrine! I thought it redirected the tone of the film in a really interesting, refreshing way. The first 45 minutes or so are chock full of her passive-aggressive and outwardly aggressive barbs, and I assumed the film would follow a straightforward escalation of interpersonal violence between Auntie Danielle and her ill-prepared friends and family. I was as shocked as she was when she met her match, and there’s a special kind of joy that springs up from their commiseration as cruel, selfish women (I could not stop laughing when they abandoned that poor dog on the street). I also love how their relationship shows a real element of tragedy in Auntie Danielle’s character. Although she’s delightful to watch, she’s not all that sympathetic, and I couldn’t really relate to her beyond an exercise in wish fulfillment of my most petty urges and grievances. Once she finally does find a kindred spirit (beyond her deceased husband) in Sandrine, she isn’t really sure how to extend herself beyond giving money to Sandrine and monopolizing her time, which ultimately drives Sandrine off. Auntie Danielle seems like the kind of person who needs exactly one friend, then sabotages any relationship she forms as soon as the other person shows any interest in anything besides her. As strange as it may sound, it was kind of touching to watch a real desire for connection wrapped in jealousy creep into her petulant nastiness.

I also thought that Sandrine’s character gave a little glimpse into who Auntie Danielle may have been (or wanted to be) as a younger woman. Like Britnee mentioned, it was inspiring to see a model of feminine expression that was totally divorced from the feminine ideal of compassion and selflessness, and I appreciated the fact that we got a representation of that kind of freedom across two generations. Of course, bad manners can also isolate you from the world until you find your rotten soulmate. Boomer, do you think Auntie Danielle is a subversive model of womanhood that we should strive for? Does this film damn Auntie Danielle and Sandrine’s bad behavior, or offer it up as an appealing alternative?

Boomer: I think that, overall, I had a very different reading of the film than everyone else. I should note right out of the gate that, even as a child, I couldn’t stand Problem Child, Clifford (the 1994 one with Martin Short, no big red dogs in sight), Dennis the Menace, or any other movies that were about monstrous children, with the sole exception of Drop Dead Fred. When I was a kid, because we lived in a trailer that was pretty far out in the country and therefore outside of any real restrictions on fireworks, my parents hosted a church gathering for New Year’s Eve when I was 5 or 6. We were pretty poor at that time, and there were probably about 5 families, all with at least one kid, and I remember with great clarity the way that the kids from church—all of whom lived in real houses and had real closets full of name brand non-Big Lots toys, and who didn’t have to share half of that space with a Rainbow D4C—absolutely destroyed my tiny bedroom and the very few things that I owned and cherished and which weren’t hand-me-downs from my older cousins. There was bed jumping and book tearing, one of them shot an arrow into my wall with a toy bow, and a precious balsa wood model that was a gift from my grandmother that Christmas and which she and I had built together was smashed into a dozen pieces which were then ground into the cheap, ugly carpet. It was an utter nightmare. To me, there’s nothing funny about seeing children engaging in wanton (and costly) acts of destruction, and I know that without context that makes me sound like an insufferably stodgy old coot, but I think the fact that I actually enjoyed Drop Dead Fred both as a kid and in my most recent viewing just a couple of years ago illustrates something about me: the destruction that Marsha Mason’s mother character in Drop Dead Fred has to deal with is deserved. She’s a horrible mother: restrictive, cruel, and criminally unfit, up to and including killing a child’s imagination because she tracked mud into the house, and then later dragging her now-adult daughter to a child psychologist when she exhibits unusual behavior. All John Ritter wanted was a family, and all Charles Grodin wanted was to marry Mary Steenbergen, which is totally reasonable. 

What’s strange to me, then, is that I find Auntie Danielle to be, well, not sympathetic, but at least fun to watch. We actually know very little about what her life was like before the film starts, other than that at some point in the past she was married, she has not only the wealth that her stately home manifests but also her stipend from her husband’s military service, and that she employs a maid, whom she regularly abuses. Anything else that we suppose about her life prior to that point is purely assumed and projected, and at this moment we’re all bringing to the table our own lived experience of COVID purgatory, which I think is coloring those perceptions and presumptions in a way that’s altering our feelings about Danielle and her situation. Of course, my reading of Danielle is also purely speculative, but I don’t think that there’s any real indication that she was ever a nice person, or that her temperament is the result of being isolated. To me, her disdain for her family reads as innate and not retaliatory; she mentions in passing that they rarely come to visit, but she doesn’t bother reading the mail that they send her, and despite being perfectly fine until almost the moment that they walk through the door, she retreats to bed and pretends to be ill in order to hasten their departure. Her neighbors seem to be on friendly enough terms with her servant Odile and ask after Danielle, so she could have a social life if she wanted, but she’d rather ruin pretend to be nice and then mock her neighbors behind their backs with snide faces. She destroys Odile’s hard work with the flowers and also torments her by interrupting the older, dottier woman in the middle of a thought until she completely disrupts anything Odile may be thinking about. Danielle pesters the poor woman about cooking something for the family but also makes the process of doing so as difficult as possible by acting like a petulant child every step of the way by delaying the grocery trip for as long as possible, hiding the grocery money in her pocket (and accusing Odile of stealing it), refusing to get out of the car at the bank, and then encouraging her dog to bite the elderly maid. Their conversation about Danielle’s continual pestering about the chandelier indicates that she’s been giving Odile a hard time about the fixture for some time, indicating to me that she’s been trying to make this “accident” happen for a long time. She’s cruel to the point of monstrosity, needling her niece about the fact that her younger boyfriend is a commitment-phobe, lying about her food tastes so that she can find fault in everything that Catherine cooks and causing her to fret about the possible deleterious health issues that could be causing Danielle to lose her appetite (while secretly gorging on pastries), and even spying on their marital relations. I don’t see any indication that she was ever a nice person or that there’s even a reason that she is the way that she is. 

She’s just evil and she loves it. And I loved watching it. 

I would fundamentally disagree with the statement that Danielle’s family is phony, however. As noted above, I’m normally only able to stomach this kind of thing if the person whose life is being ruined had somehow earned karmic retribution, but that’s not the case here. I find her treatment of them despicable in the abstract despite being comical in action; beyond all of the people Danielle mocks or passive-aggressively torments in passing, we spend a lot of time with this family, and while I won’t argue with the point that her nephew’s family is dull, they seem completely genuine and well-meaning to me. They certainly are boring, in an Anna Karenina “All happy families are alike” way, and there’s a different version of this movie where they’re dissatisfied with the banality of their urban lives and their cantankerous aunt comes and shakes them out of their doldrums, but Tatie Danielle is not that movie. The parents have an active, fidelitous sex life, and they take no issue with their older son’s exploration of traditionally feminine art forms or try to police or interfere with the closeted activity that is going on under their noses. The younger son never acts like a spoiled brat or expresses frustration about having to give up his room for Danielle and only wants to spend time with her. I even interpret their loving treatment of their elderly family dog as an explicit metaphor for both their willingness and suitability to take care of an aging loved one to the very end (especially in comparison to Danielle’s willingness to send her well-trained dog to live with someone else, without a backward glance or even another thought). It’s not their fault that Jean-Pierre has the misfortune of being the one of the last two living relatives of a woman who gets off on making other people miserable. 

I’d also fundamentally disagree with the concept that anything that happens to Danielle in this film is abusive or uncalled for; although I had a moment of abject horror in the moment when Sandrine slaps her across her face, as it’s a shocking act of violence, Danielle’s behavior to that point—not merely thoughtless but actively unkind, dishonest, and child-endangering—earned that small measure of recompense, and more. I do find it odd that Sandrine, the biggest foil to our villain protagonist, appears so late in the film, arriving right at the 65-minute mark, at which point we’ve spent nearly 40 minutes in the Billard family home (Odile’s tragic fall happens at minute 25 precisely). When she did, I started to think that this film would simply be a kind of picaresque of this delightfully awful woman ruining the lives of all who have the bad luck to touch her, but instead Sandrine gives her a taste of her own medicine. When she seems to fret over the treatment of the elderly in nursing homes, but it also seems like a proverbial light bulb is going off over her head, because she immediately starts to manipulate the emotions of everyone around her by reciting those horrors as if they are happening to her when she is the abuser: she lies to her family about how Odile treats her, including supposed physical beatings, and then sets the woman up to injure herself; she expresses worry about being abandoned in her later years, then abandons both a preschooler and an elderly dog in the park, with only one of them making it home; she destroys the Billard apartment with feces and fire and eats dog food solely so that she can turn public sentiment against her unlucky family on a societal scale. And the moment she finds herself in a home, it’s not the staff there who are cruel to the little old ladies (although they probably could stand to do a little less daytime grab-assery), it’s Danielle who menaces the other septuagenarians. 

Danielle is an artist and her medium is hate, and I don’t think that the film damns or praises Danielle or Sandrine, and I’m not sure it would work if it really did either. Danielle’s hard to live with, but that makes those of us in the audience instinctively want to stay on her good side, so when we’re alone with her in a scene as she makes faces at a closed door or behaves like a child, we feel like we’re in on the joke and on the inside of that mean girl bubble. It would be impossible to take a person of such intense hypocrisy and callous malice and make that person aspirational in a completely unironic way, but by keeping us on the inside of that bullying for so long, it makes it harder to condemn her either, especially when she has a genuine emotional connection for what’s likely the first time since Edouard died, if not the first time in her life. It’s more documentarian than that, and it makes no moral judgments. I’ve certainly said a lot about how detestable her behavior is, but I also couldn’t look away or stop laughing. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: When Catherine answers the telephone, she takes off her massive clip-on earrings. This happens a lot, and she always makes it look so elegant. Cracks me up every time!

Hanna: As much as I liked the twists this story took, I was all in for the passive-aggressive biddy relationship between Auntie Danielle and Odile in the beginning. I would have loved to see a version of this movie that starts when they move in together and escalates into old lady mayhem.

Boomer: I actually don’t think that Danielle ever loved Edouard. This is probably my biggest presumption about what we’re supposed to think about Tatie Danielle’s life before the film starts, but I think that they married when she was very young and he was perhaps … not. The vignette photograph that Danielle has of him looks positively Edwardian; I did some research to see if I could determine if he was wearing a uniform from WWI or WWII, since Danielle doesn’t specify, but I can’t be certain. This painting is of a French officer’s uniform and is dated 1940. Assuming that Danielle, like her actress Tsilla Chelton, was born in 1919, and given that she has no more recent pictures of him than 50 years prior, it seems like Danielle married a man in his 30s or 40s when she was twenty or so, and he died shortly thereafter. My personal headcanon is that Danielle has simply had half a century to forget that, when he was alive, she hated him and got her jollies making him unhappy, too. 

Brandon: For the first half-hour of this, I was starting to worry that the social isolation & systemic cruelty of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was making me as miserable & misanthropic as Auntie Danielle.  I could hear my own constant, cynical complaints about how stupid & ugly the world has become echoed in her hatred for every human being in her eyesight.  Then she joked that her family member was “silly” for “dying of the flu” in response to news of a lethal viral outbreak, and I was reassured that I’m actually not this terrible . . . yet.  Once I get callous about COVID deaths, I’ll know I’m in trouble.

Next Month: Hanna presents Oliver! (1968)

-The Swampflix Crew