Movie Review: FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
I was first introduced to the work of Carlos Atanes via his short film compilation DVD Codex Atanicus, which featured a trio of surreal shorts filled with wild characters, garishly colored sets and non sequitor plots, all produced with an intense manic energy. However, Atanes’ first feature film, FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) — released in 2004 — is a complete stylistic turnabout.
The surrealism that governed Atanes’ shorts is here reduced to brief little flourishes, all color seems to be sucked out of 3/4 of the film, the plot is fairly straightforward and the main character stumbles through the movie like a cross between a somnambulist in early avant garde trance films and Being There‘s Chauncey Gardener.Yet, the change in approach is totally complimentary to FAQ‘s themes and plot, which adds up to a highly successful film. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the shorts of Codex Atanicus, I found Atanes’ first feature a much more thought-provoking and satisfying experience.
The film takes place in a vaguely futuristic dystopian milieu like in 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, except here the oppressors are a female group called the Sisterhood of Metacontrol. They bombard Paris with a steady stream of megaphoned announcements advocating a strict separation of the sexes. Men and women can and do live together, but touching is strictly forbidden and each sex is encouraged to not let the other influence their lives.
Now, here’s where it gets a little tricky. Is Atanes offering a misogynist diatribe against the feminization of Europe? (The director is Spanish, but the film is in French.) Or is he just providing a different basis for a repressive government than the usual patriarchies one typically finds in dystopian fiction? Personally, I’m going with the latter since the film does feature a strong, independent woman in the second lead and nothing in the Codex Atanicus would suggest a misogynistic nature in Atanes’s background. But it’s still a risky move for a male writer/director to take.
Actually, that strong female in the second lead is seen struggling with her independence. Although Angeline (Anne Celine Auche) pledges her uterus to the Sisterhood, she still lives with Nono (Xavier Tort), a man whom it took me about half-way through the movie to realize he hadn’t spoken a single word — and he doesn’t speak during the other half, either.
Angeline takes a time out from her job as a marine biologist studying the mutations that live in the overly polluted oceans to go on vacation with Nono in a remote cabin in the countryside. But, just before they leave, Nono is approached by two male members of a resistance cell who oppose the status quo by making “pornographic” videos and dispersing them via the Internet. However, in a world in which touching is forbidden, then men and women fully and partially clothed doing nothing but touching each other becomes pornography. And it’s these Internet videos where Atanes gets a chance to display the crazy, colorful surrealism he mastered in his early shorts.
For the rest of the film, working on an obvious low budget, Atanes does a great job of building a plausible futuristic world, mostly just by filming in disparate, incongruous locations. The action moves from a run-down urban domicile — it looks more like a factory than an apartment — to a woodsy cabin, to a dried up desert, to a disgusting prison/courtroom to an 18th-century style mansion. Nothing really futuristic about any of those locales, but as Nono mutely navigates a world with familiar places, it all ends up looking similar to yet completely divorced from our current reality.
Also, not only is Nono unable to voice his reaction to this nutty world, but he’s basically emotionless. He’s never given a chance to release what’s inside him either through his voice or any other kind of expression, vis his eyes, hands, etc. But at the same time he’s the most able to successfully resist the Sisterhood’s oppressive values. Those who think they are leading an active resistance, i.e. the pornographers who flaunt their breaking of laws, end up missing the point. The best way to resist is to entirely divorce oneself from participating in either option, neither following nor breaking the law, and just do one’s own thing completely independent of the larger world.
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