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Movie Review: Codex Atanicus

Movie poster featuring woman putting weird object in her mouth

If “codex” means code and “atanicus” is a play on director Carlos Atanes‘ name, then the title of this DVD collection of three of his short films must imply that watching them will let us understand the inner workings of the filmmakers’ mind. Good luck!

Atanes proudly follows in the footsteps of fellow Spanish surrealist filmmakers Luis Bunuel and Fernando Arrabal and has crafted a trio of bizarrely demented short films that eschew comprehensible plots, character motivation and just plain logic. They’re also all a hell of a lot of fun.

These are somewhat “old” films, produced between 1995 and 1999. Atanes has also directed several other short films and has since moved on to direct features. Given the timeframe in which these three particular shorts on the Codex were made there is a kind of “end of the millenium” fever running through them, which may be why Atanes has released them together. Each film features a virulent strain of pessimism and frustration in which the future holds very little hope.

Metaminds & Metabodies (1995): The first short on the DVD has pretty much two concurrent storylines running together. The first involves a performance in a bar in which a woman with her hair tied up by barbed wire first being berated by a hairy, shirtless man, then by the rest of the male bar patrons. Another man watching the performance tries to get money out of another guy who snorts cocaine off of a naked, deranged woman who escaped from a mirror.

Metaminds plays like a cross between a surreal Bunuel set-up with a John Waters sensibility that includes lots of gore, grotesque punishments and vomiting. (Waters used to make it mandatory that he show at least one person throwing up in each film.) Each character in the film is a wild, crazed person operating at extreme states of panic and disorientation. The short also brings up the theme that Atanes will follow up on of characters unable to go anywhere. The one bar patron while demanding his money from the coke fiend is trapped by a half-closed door. If only he could get through that door, maybe he could make physical demands for the cash, but he’s unable to move and for no good reason as there’s really nothing preventing the door from opening all the way.

Morfing (1996): The main character of Atanes’ next film is Atanes himself. We first meet him at an archery range/bar where an excited woman, Diana, hopes to land a job working for a living legend, i.e. Atanes. The director, however, is much more interested in killing himself than making another film. After a disastrous visit to a film financier, Carlos and Diana are lost in a maze filled with violent, disreputable behavior. Diana also confronts actresses from Carlos’ earlier films who all impugn his manhood.

While the film is apparently about Atanes’ struggles with his creative processes what we really get a sense of, now that we’re two films into the DVD, how especially gifted Atanes is with creating unique physical spaces in which to house the bizarre action. His sets are extremely colorful and chaotic, as if they are perfect outward manifestations of the mind. In Metaminds, the lines dividing performance space, audience seating and mirrored reality are all intricately blurred together. For Morphing, the cluttered, narrow hallways that Carlos and Diana navigate that are filled with garbage, crowded shelving, blowing paper, hanging lights and not to mention bloodied bystanders and a poetry-spewing molester, are a great metaphor for navigating the detritus of one’s own mind to produce a creative work.

Welcome to Spain (1999): The final film isn’t a very warm welcome. As the film begins, we find Atanes the director at his most sedate. After the wild antics of the previous two films, the story of a young man meeting his dead father at the airport and driving to their apartment home is positively relaxing. That is, until about halfway through the film and the young man is stuck in a stairwell with another man grabbing at his pants. They are soon joined by two women and lots of tugging, pulling, kissing, force feeding and blood spewing goes on.

The entire rest of the film is played out wordlessly in that struggle on the stairwell. It’s an extremely tense sequence. You hope that the main character you started the film with makes a break for it. I won’t say if he ultimately does or not, but the staircase fight goes on for an exceedingly long period of time. Not too long. Atanes knows how to keep the action moving and up the stakes, whether it’s introducing a bowl of food spiked with nails or a naked breast into the mix, to keep the struggle consistently entertaining and moving forward, even though the characters are oddly stuck in one spot.

For more about Carlos Atanes, please visit his official website.

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