Flames (2018)

“I love you, but I think you’re a really terrible person.”

One of the reasons the documentary & the essay film are becoming one of the most exciting forms of cinematic expression in recent years is they’re accepting the blurred line between reality & crafted narrative as a feature instead of a bug. Recent titles like Faces Places, Rat Film, Swagger, and The World is Mine are entirely unconcerned with distinguishing documented truth from the manipulated fictions necessary to tell a linear story, which has opened the medium up to a looser, more exciting kind of creativity. Usually, though, the question of what’s reality & what’s manipulated fiction only has an effect on the film as a finished product, not on its subjects as real-life people. The incredible, heartbreaking, fascinating thing about the recent documentary Flames is how that dynamic is dangerously flipped around. A collaboration between two filmmakers & conceptual artists documenting the rise & fall of their own romance, Flames presents a scenario where not being able to tell what’s genuine & what’s performance art can have emotionally devastating effects on a real-life relationship. Instead of reality being manipulated to change the course of the documentary, the film forces its own narrative gray area on the real-life relationship of its subjects, changing their fundamental dynamic in a way that cannot be measured or reversed. Instead of merely manipulating audience perception, the filmmakers manipulate their own understanding of what’s even happening in their own lives, turning the already volatile emotional powder keg of a passionate romance into a daily terror of bruised egos, questionable motives, and petty acts of self-serving cruelty. It’s deeply fascinating, but also deeply fucked up.

Artists Josephine Decker & Jeffrey Throwell attempt to document the entirety of their romantic life together, from start to end. This mission statement and a commitment to raw honesty make the project a kind of imitate exhibitionism. Snippets of their days drifting through political protests, basketball games, relay races, and other public events are frequently interrupted by much more private activities like unglamorous, unsimulated sex and crying alone in bed. The full sexy, goofy, passionate, combative, overwhelming spectrum of young love is on full display as the couple enjoys the early honeymoon period of their romance. The editing matches the energy of that excitement with rapid-fire interjections of detail-obsessed imagery, all culminating in an impulsive getaway to series of islands in the Indian Ocean. What’s interesting about the film, structurally, is that it continues to document their relationship long after the heated breakup that concludes that trip. Even though their romance technically only lasts eight months, the film documents a full five-year process of letting go & detangling. The broken condom & marriage proposal crises of their earliest stages give way to slower, more melancholy montages of two intensely linked people gradually drifting into separate spheres. The relationship isn’t truly over until early fights are relitigated for closure in therapy & editing room sessions that try to make sense of exactly what happened between them, the result of which is the movie itself. Unsurprisingly, the very act of bringing the remove of an art project collaboration into such an intimate exchange is significant to their ruin, as the camera’s presence raises issues of trust & obscured motives that are an absurd, immeasurable strain on an already nerve-racking experience. The movie doesn’t end until both artists are so sick of each other that they can’t stand to spend another minute collaborating on the doomed thing that keeps them tethered together, long after the exciting sweetness of that early love has soured.

Questions of what’s genuine and what’s performance aside, Flames is intoxicating as a pure sensory experience. The cameras are a hodgepodge of affordable digital technology, but the disparate images they capture of swimming dolphins, raw egg, unembarrassed sex, under-the-cover sock puppetry, and galactic air plane cabins amount to an impact that far outweighs those means. The images’ juxtaposition has a cumulative spiritual effect I haven’t seen accomplished on the screen since 20th Century Women, but I’m sure there are more forgiving Terence Mallick fans who catch that feeling far more often. The overall tone is one of menace & decay, though, even when the relationship is supposedly going well. One sequence in particular that details the world’s most horrific strip poker game had me crawling out of my skin more than any recent horror film I can name. Flames’s emotional honesty is a self-deprecating one. This is a film that knows its own existence had a negative, almost evil impact on a real-life experience and that no documentation of spontaneous beauty or tragic humor could ever make up for the emotional chaos it’s caused. I’m excited about the mixture of documented truth & performative fictions in the current state of the documentary as an art form, but Flames serves as a harrowing warning of how that dynamic can cause real world damage in a subject. Even more so than documenting the full life of a romance from fresh passion to embittered rot, the film is fascinating as an indictment of its own existence as a doomed thing that should have been abandoned in its earliest stages. In a strange turnaround of our usual dynamic, the impetus isn’t on the audience to determine how we are being manipulated, but on the filmmakers to unpack how they’ve manipulated themselves.

-Brandon Ledet

The Love Witch (2016)

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fourstar

campstamp

I understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by intentionally “bad” movies. Forced, manufactured camp value can often feel cheap & disingenuous, especially when the filmmaking it supports aims lazily low in its overall sense of ambition. Accusations of taking the low road and making an intentionally “bad” movie are certain to accompany Anna Biller’s erotic horror comedy The Love Witch, but the film is far from lazy in its ambition & attention to craft. The Love Witch carefully recalls the cheap sets, rear projections, absurdly stilted dialogue, and half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s. Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. Besides writing, directing, and editing The Love Witch, Biller is also credited with the film’s set & costume design. She exhibits a godlike control over her visual palette, crafting an intricately detailed work packed with occult paintings, pentagrams, potions, candles, jars, lingerie, and intensely-colored make-up. She elevates the depths of lazily decorated schlock to a new high standard of meticulous visual artistry, a kind of personalized, auteurist ambition that’s often missing from “bad”-on-purpose cinema. More importantly, though, Biller uses this backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch is more than a comedic exercise in camp-minded nostalgia; it’s also a beautiful art piece with an unforgiving political bent.

Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, the titular witch, who finds herself in constant trouble with the law for her deadly seduction of men. Elaine uses “love potions” & “sex magic” to lure men into her dangerous web of lust & overwhelming devotion. She doesn’t exactly murder her suitors & side flings in cold blood. Rather, the men she seduces just aren’t physically or spiritually capable of handling the immense pressure of true love & genuine emotion that accompanies her supernatural mode of romance. Their bodies crumble while trying to reconcile a basic human experience the women around them handle with grace on a daily basis. The Love Witch airdrops legitimate feminist criticism into its cartoonish narrative in this way. There’s plenty of inane banter played for laughs, like when Elaine babbles about “parapsychology” or explains that she first wanted to become a witch because she “wanted to have magical powers.” What’s striking, though, is the way these camp cinema callbacks are interrupted by lines like, “Men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way,” and “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

The Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of, one where time-traveling cellphones & feminist ideology appear as if they’re a natural part of the territory. The film is eerily accurate in its dedication to recreating cheap horror erotica, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. It plays exceedingly well with a crowd; the raucous audience I saw it with was enthusiastic and treated it like a midnight movie despite it being an early evening screening. Beneath all of the film’s gloriously bad visual art, eye-melting costume design, and absurdly overstated dialogue, however, it’s a surprisingly dark, quietly angry political piece. The men of The Love Witch range from selfish crybabies & power-hungry rapists and the way the film undercuts & subverts their privilege & control is surprisingly pointed for something so deliberately silly & narratively slight. Mixing in a little sugar to sweeten the medicine, the film appears to be an intentional exercise in dimwitted, oversexed schlock, but that “so bad it’s good” facade is only one layer to a work that’s much more visually & politically fascinating than it initially appears to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Love (2015)

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three star

Browsing through John Waters’s Top Films of 2015 list (which included personal favorites Tangerine & The Diary of a Teenage Girl! whoo!), I was reminded of a film I was once mildly interested in, but had since completely forgotten: Gaspar Noé‘s Love. I’m not typically a fan of Noé‘s work. His provocateur tendency for shock value & Max Landis-levels of insufferable public persona usually keep me away from rushing to check out his work. Waters has a way of getting me to scope properties far outside my comfort zone, though (Alvin & The Chipmunks: Road Chip comes to mind). His blurb for Love made the film feel near impossible to resist: “The first Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival to show hard-core heterosexual rimming—in 3-D, no less. Thank God for Gaspar Noé.” With a byline like that from The Pope of Trash himself, I figured Love was worth a gander no matter how little patience I have for Noé’s personality.

Love is an erotic drama featuring not one, but two overriding gimmicks: 3D & unsimulated sex. Whether the film is a heartfelt indie drama that approaches high art in its fearless depiction of human sexuality or a well-manicured HD porno with a nice soundtrack is mostly up to the audience. Director Gaspar Noé certainly didn’t distance himself from the porno accusation. He was quoted before the film’s release as saying, “With my next film I hope guys will have erections and girls will get wet.” Sounds like porn to me. In modern film naked breasts are plentiful, but erect penises are . . . hard to come by. Whether or not Noé is aiming for pure shock value, you have to admit that there’s something unique about an art house drama that not only starts with an unflinching depiction of mutual masturbation in its very first frame, but also features an erect penis twice ejaculating directly onto the camera lens (“in 3-D no less!”). However, it’s difficult to claim that the film purely exists for titillation. Only 15 or so minutes of the film’s 135 minute runtime are hardcore sex (though those 15 minutes obviously make a massive impact) and the drama that surrounds that pornographic material is far too sad to be sexually stimulating. The truth is, of course, that Love exists somewhere between those two extremes, high art & cheap porn, and that push & pull is partly what makes the film an interesting work.

The trouble with Love, unfortunately, is that its central drama isn’t nearly as engaging as its hardcore 3D sex gimmick. Noé positions himself as something of an indie circuit carnie huckster here: he promises the greatest show on Earth with a cavalcade of fleshy delights, but once you’re in the tent he has already separated you from your dollars & has very little pressure to deliver the goods. Our fearless protagonist in this particular 3D sex circus is a selfish asshole of a film student emotionally stuck between two women he doesn’t deserve: the mother of his child & an ex-girlfriend he cheated on to produce that child. When he discovers that his ex (who has a history of self harm & substance abuse) has been missing for months, he takes a drug-addled trip down memory lane, ignoring his current family unit so that he can mentally relive his glory days of vicious break-ups, drug-fueled arguments, and, of course, rampant forays into sexual bliss & discord that he experienced with the one who got away. He imagines that his life would’ve been better if he never split with his now-missing ex, but never takes personal responsibility for how shitty things turned out, when it was most certainly his fault. Worse, his disregard & negativity towards his current relationship shows the pattern repeating itself and when the mother of his child spits “Take care of your past while I take care of your future” it’s all too apparent where their own romantic bond is heading. The sad thing is that he’ll probably regret that break as well & find anyone but he person responsible, himself, to blame for it. His negativity & selfishness are purely toxic. God help anyone who loves him.

It’s just as difficult to pinpoint exactly how you’re supposed to feel about Love‘s protagonist as it is to decide where the film falls on the art/pornography divide. He’s a selfish ass, prone to sexist remarks like “Living with a woman’s like sharing bed with the CIA” or calling the supposed love of his life variations of “whore”, “cunt”, “bitch”, etc. He also uses transphobic language in a scene that felt like it would’ve been uncomfortable as far back as the 90s, but even Noé himself has referred to the actress in that scene as a “tranny” in his interviews. Gaspar Noé aligns himself so closely with the protagonist that it’s impossible to separate them. Murphy is an idealist film student who wants “to make movies out of blood, sperm, and tears” & “make a movie that depicts sentimental sensuality.” I’m not sure Love accomplishes either of those goals (except maybe the part about the semen), but those sentiments really do feel like a mission statement directly from the horse’s mouth. The question is if Noé is living out his own romantic bitterness on screen here or skewering himself for indulging in that bitterness & self-absorption in the first place. I don’t have an answer,but I will say that this aspect of the film isn’t nearly as interesting as its salacious carnie gimmickry. Its story is pitifully thin, drawn out, and overlong. No matter what Noé was trying to say with his romantic navel-gazing, what he ended up proving was that the least interesting thing about Gaspar Noé films is Gaspar Noé himself.

By all means, Love shouldn’t be a likeable film. Its director is something of a self-indulgent ass. Its acting isn’t anything special, which is a major problem for a romantic drama built on emotional performance. Its dialogue can be laughably awful, especially in Murphy’s internal monologues that include statements like “I’m a loser. Yeah, just a dick. A Dick only has one purpose: to fuck. And I fucked it all up.” Ugh. Its electric guitar solo soundtrack often spoils the mood of its erotic moments with unbearable cheese. Themes are drilled home in obvious, self-congratulatory ways, such as when a title card explains the definition of Murphy’s Law (because the protagonist’s name is Murphy! get it?!). Still, Noé sets this paper thin, self-indulgent narrative to an interesting enough visual language that it’s impossible to brush it off entirely as an empty exercise. Beds are colorful voids playfully shot form above as the hardcore sex sessions they host play out in a frank, striking manner. The film’s drug use isn’t particularly interesting by its mere existence, but they do lead to interesting psychedelic images made of flashing lights & 3D ejaculate that afford the film a unique look. The same dream logic of haunting memories that elevated the relatively week narrative of the VHS slasher Sorority House Massacre work their wonders here in an interesting way as well. A tour through a European swinger’s club is treated with the same sex  church reverence as the gorgeous Atlanta strip club sequence of Magic Mike XXL. The stark, alternating lights of dance clubs & bedrooms can be downright hypnotic. Love might be riding on the novelty of its hedonistic 3D sex gimmick, but it does it well enough not to lose your attention before the credits roll.

If Gaspar Noé was trying to break any special sort of ground here, I don’t believe he accomplished his goal. Much like history’s first 3D feature film, Bwana Devil, Love talks a big game about delivering a one of a kind spectacle, but ultimately ends up feeling like so, so many works that came before it . . . just in 3D. I’m not sure, for instance, that the world needed another indie drama about how monogamous jealousy & fear of polygamy can ruin long-term relationships. That story’s been told before with much more interesting nuance in its character & narrative beats. As far as the hardcore, unsimulated sex goes, 2014’s French sex thriller Stranger by the Lake indulged in the same pornographic impulses, but had a lot more to say about the push & pull between lust & companionship. I honestly believe that John Waters has made the best case for Love’s position as a groundbreaking work of cinema. It truly is “The first Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival to show hard-core heterosexual rimming—in 3-D.” That much is true (although it’s possible Mr. Waters mistook some of the film’s cunnilingus for rimming). Even if that’s all the film accomplished I still enjoyed moments where it desperately reached for more, Gaspar Noé‘s obnoxious personality notwithstanding.

-Brandon Ledet