Movie Review: A Rebours
Can a film by itself be considered an act of terrorism?
Of course, one can film an act of terrorism, but that’s not what I’m asking. Cinema Abattoir, the transgressive film series out of Montreal run by Pierre-Luc Vaillancourt, is known for trafficking in challenging and disturbing material, but with their latest DVD compilation, A Rebours, they’ve released their most punishing collection of short films yet.
A Rebours is a direct assault to the frontal lobe, an exercise of extreme imagery so intense, it leave the viewer feeling violated, not just via the senses the way a film can affect a person, but physically brutalized. If there were a DVD to transform its audience into a mass of jelly quivering in the corner unable to speak, to feel, to think, to be human, it’s this one. Nothing resembling humanity or “normal” society exists on this DVD. A Rebours creates its own universe and forces the viewer to live in it at gunpoint.
Here are the perpetrators:
Washing Machine, dir. Ca Ca Ca. This film starts off innocently enough. A nice couple put a load of laundry into the titular machine. But that clean set up leads into a dirty, dirty little film when said washing machine is connected to a massive S&M machine. A woman is strapped in and her entire body vibrated until it looks like her teeth are going to spin right out of her head. The man strapping the woman in is Cinema Abbatoir’s own Pierre Luc Vaillancourt. And if you ever thought while watching a DVD compilation of short films, “I wonder what the curator of this DVD looks like taking a shit?” then your questions are answered here. The film is a chaotic swirl of degradation, including the above actions, plus the smearing of and licking off of food from the body. A traditional, normal act — the washing of laundry — is turned into a depraved tableau of impious behavior filmed in glorious sepia tones.
Man Spricht Deutsh, dir. Filmgruppe Chaos. A break in A Rebours‘ hedonism is provided in this brief film in which a loop of an old Ernest Borgnine-looking man putting coins into a bar payphone is repeated and manipulated. The film stock is charred and brittle and decaying, as if it had been sent to Hell to be processed. Electronic blips pop and snap on the soundtrack. We never know who the man is calling, as if this is the playback from a signature point in his memory, endlessly recalling the moment he should or shouldn’t have made that damn phone call.
Sacre-cœur de Satan, dir. Serge de Cotret. A woman dressed in sexy lingerie performs unspeakable acts upon herself with a crucifix. Yes, like in that scene in The Exorcist. Except, here the action is played out not in continuous motion, but as a series of slides, with the cutting in of a swastika every couple of frames. The woman is in a frenzy, as if she is cursing God while defiling herself with Christianity’s most cherished icon. As the woman comes to satisfying herself, there are more cutaways to other, abstract shots of swastikas and pictures of Hitler, giving the impression that the sexual frenzy is coinciding with the terrible destruction during WWII. Plus, the orgy between the woman and the iconic figure is steeped, bathed and immersed in a sea of intense red, symbolizing the fire and blood that comes with both war and sex.
Yellow Fever, dir. Frederick Maheux. This film starts off as a nice, pleasant train ride through a post-apocalyptic Hell. Footage taken from out an actual train window has its colors reversed and manipulated so that the land is in B&W while the sky burns a fiery red. Then, like on most lazy train rides, the mind starts to wander and suddenly the landscape is replaced by clips of Asian women in porno videos, then a montage of cartoon mouths cut out of magazines, followed by deteriorating pictures of Asian women in bondage. The final images are so warped and degraded that the women look like zombies, with their faces covered with deep wounds and burns. All the while, the soundtrack is a constant, intense hammering of static and voices pulled from the ether. While the intended eroticism of these images is still abundantly clear, their sexual appeal is replaced by a repulsion of the deformed, as if their is an anger towards these pictures that they were once arousing.
J., dir. Solomon Nagler & Alexandre Larose. Old footage — or at least it gives the appearance of being found footage — of a woman comforting a child and whispering into a lover’s ear is converted into a harsh B&W where the faces are completely blown out while all backgrounds are encased in shadow. It is assumed this is the same woman, or maybe the woman with her lover is remembering a time she was being comforted as a child. The instrumental music on the soundtrack is heavy and sad and slow, as if these are sadly sweet moments recalled from memory. Perhaps that was the only time the woman has experienced tender moments in her life, and even then the memories are shadowy and not detailed.
Passage, dir. Karl Lemieux. This is the first narrative film I’ve seen by experimental filmmaker Karl Lemieux, but even then there’s still a dreamy quality to the way the story unfolds not unlike his more abstract work. Two young men and two young women drive along a rural road through farm country. There is no speaking in the film, so we don’t know what anybody’s relationship is to each other, who is a couple and who isn’t. Perhaps, none are. We don’t see them arrive, but suddenly all four are in a hotel room, dancing and kissing and getting sexy with each other. They have paired up, but soon two of the men are on just one of the women, while the other girl retreats to the bathroom. She stays in there, looking at herself in the mirror, feeling unattractive, while who knows what is going on amongst the threesome in the other room. At last, all four are back in the car and the left-out woman gets her final revenge, showing everybody that she doesn’t need any of them in order to feel pleasure, for which the others resent her. It’s really beautiful how Lemieux lets the relationships morph and mutate without a single word passing between any of the actors. Seeing their interior emotional processes working is much more meaningful and moving than any dialogue could convey.
Hymn to Pan, dir. Francois Miron. This film is a cubist interpretation of the filming of a documentary of a dance. As a woman swirls, twirls and gyrates in a cavernous brick-walled room, there are two camera rolling. One films just the woman dancing, while the other films the first camera and the woman. There is a lot of motion, most of it jumbled and cut up; plus, as the woman moves, both cameras are twisted sideways and that-a-ways and upside-down. We see the woman’s feet, her legs, her face, her torso, but never together and never in the order that a body flows together. And the music, by the industrial band Coil, isn’t catchy or at all danceable. The music inspires the jerkiness of the editing, but not the motion of the dancer.
Dream of Samara, dir. Usama Alshaibi. This is a technicolor religious pilgrimage, with a slow VHS video degraded pan up a large monument in which travelers circle their way to the pinnacle. The distorted video is a hyper-fluorescent rainbow of reality. There is a hint of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain to the proceedings, even though that film’s colors have a somewhat muted quality.
Satan Bouche un Coin, dir. Jean-Pierre Bouyxou. This is an underground film from 1968 and is very “underground” in the classic sense. There is a hint of narrative to the absurdist tableaux that unfold on-screen and the tape splices are extremely noticeable during the rapid-fire editing sequences. Several debauched scenes unfold and, although, they’re not cohesively tied together, they feel as if they are all happening concurrently in the same house. A devilish figure fondles a woman dressed only in panties and stockings, only to have the tables turned later on. Another man tries to make love to statue. And a completely nude woman writhes on the ground while she is sprayed with a reddish-brown liquid, perhaps inspired by the actionist painting films of Kurt Kren. The film is a bit titillating and humorous and it can clearly be seen how older films like this paved away for the extreme debauchery found in modern transgressive filmmaking. It’s a nice mixture of fun and seriousness, lightness and darkness, humor and absurdism. Plus, the classical organ music is a refreshing departure from the industrial soundtracks in the newer undergrounds.
Dead Man II: Return of the Dead Man, dir. Aryan Kaganof. This is a difficult film, to watch and to review. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful artistic exercise from the always inventive and brilliant Aryan Kaganof. On the other, its a catalog of overly offensive debasement by bodily fluids. The opening scene is one so revolting I’ve tried my best to block it out of my mind and would really not like to recall it for you, the reader of this review. Maybe that’s a bit unfair of me, but it’s clear Kaganof meant it as an opening punch right to the solar plexus that will divide an audience: Those who will stay and those who will run out in horror. I did stay and, remember, I did say that the film is a beautiful artistic exercise. The film is gorgeously shot in an old bar full of degenerates. They drink while Waco burns. Into this place, which I took to be the afterlife, an elderly man, presumably the eponymous title character, enters to witness as much ennui as there is obscenity. It’s also a place where a woman urinating off of a bar triggers a horrific memory of an assault back among the living. The dead man becomes resigned to his fate, much like the viewer must become resigned to the terrible visions thrust upon him. Lots of films tackle the issue of life after death, but this is one of the most wondrous, complicated visions of it. And lots of filmmakers try to take on the title of “provocateur,” but few take it to the level that Kaganof brings it in Dead Man II.
(sans titre), dir. Lucia Fezzuoglio. Old B&W film stills, mostly featuring close-ups of women, flare up and shimmy and shake while what sounds like a ready-to-erupt volcano rumbles on the soundtrack. The women have a pious, praying look to their faces, as if begging for God’s mercy or forgiveness.
The Other American Dream, dir. Enrique Arroyo. This is a brutal, horrific film of a young woman being held hostage in a moving car. The film is one, continuous take shot from a dashboard video camera, so the quality of the image is degraded and washed out. The landscape that passes by outside the windows is over-exposed and blown out. So, our attention is focused exclusively, at least visually, on this girl. She is young and defiant. It isn’t clear if she’s an illegal immigrant, but the man driving the car, whom we don’t see for a very long time, is a man of authority, perhaps a police officer driving her somewhere. The girl has come to America for a better life, but she has fallen into drug addiction and prostitution. To the viewer, she is clearly a prisoner, although through her attitude we can see she believes she will be able to get out of this mess. She’s gotten out of worse before, she believes. We understand this even though she doesn’t talk much. The man does the majority of the talking. She will escape her fate by granting sexual favors on her captor. But, he overpowers her, completely brutalizes her and tells her that what he’s giving to her is one-tenth the horror she will endure from the men he is delivering her to. The terror is palpable and all too real. Is this video found footage from somewhere or a carefully scripted and realistically acted fictional film? Well, best not to reveal, but I will say this film, or this footage, really rattled me to the core.