Out of This World: Surrealist Films at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2018
Innovation often derives from a deep knowledge of the past, be it a reinterpretation of the classics or loosely based representations of them. Postmodern art seems redundant and worn out. So it’s no surprise then that new cinematic expressions arrive in the shape of allegory and neo-baroque aesthetics. Two films from the 47th edition fit the description and fulfill IFFR’s promise of showcasing challenging, stylistically revitalizing avant-garde cinema. Bertrand Mandico’s debut feature, The Wild Boys, and Rustam Khamdamov’s return, The Bottomless Bag, combine surrealistic images with references from the classics in literature and painting to create the kind of original works that I expect to see in Rotterdam.
Set at the beginning of the 20th century, The Wild Boys takes place on the island of Réunion where five spoiled offspring of the bourgeoisie commit a crime for which they are sentenced to reeducation. After raping and killing their teacher during an unusually eroticized scene from Macbeth, the teenagers embark on the Captain’s ship where they are humiliated and kept hostage. The Captain gives them a taste of their own medicine, acting cruelly and displaying an aggressive masculinity expressed through barbaric behavior. In a surprising turn of events that include some of the boys rebelling against the Captain while others betraying the group and surrendering to his manly charms (one of the boys is fascinated by the Captain’s impressive tattooed penis), they reach the very place meant for their rehabilitation — a magical island — that ironically is a hedonistic paradise. However, this is not a typical heavenly retreat but a living organism with lascivious plants where Dr. Severine, a man magically morphed into a woman, conducts her studies on the effects of the hormonal island.
The Bottomless Bag goes even farther back in time, with its plot set in the 13th century during the reign of Alexander II. Based on Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove,” a short story that inspired Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the Russian director replaces the samurai with the czar’s son, yet maintains a similar narrative structure in which various characters provide an alternate, contradictory version of a murder in the forest. The film bares a homonymous name with story no. 295 from Arabian Nights, with a courtesan lady instead of Scheherazade telling the czar three different tales about his son’s murder. The price for her storytelling is to include a crime that reoccurs in each of the three stories. Within this frame, the prince and princess are riding in a forest where they meet a villain. Like in Rashomon’s story, the bandit confesses to the crime, followed by the princess and then the prince.
With black-and-white cinematography, both films resemble a retro aesthetics rooted in fairy tales, yet neither is a bedtime story. As with his previous shorts, Mandico shot on film, giving Wild Boys a grainy image that’s similar to amateur Super 8mm seen in the 1970s, and that he alternates with short vibrantly colored scenes. He embraces the kitsch of a bygone era of cinema, conveying a lecherous atmosphere full of mystery that’s closer to a Lynchian nightmare. Furthermore, the director doesn’t shy away from flamboyant hipster imagery with shiny diamond-like skulls, hinting at Damien Hirst’s tasteless work, and using double-exposed shots. Many of the ship scenes are depicted using rear-projection without even bothering to hide it. In fact, he perpetually questions the existence of his fictional worlds. In “Y a-t-il une vierge encore vivante?” (2015), he showed a figure in front of a rear-projected image of a man periodically sticking his tongue out as if to lick the figure. In an extra-diegetic scene, one of the characters even acknowledges the film technique by asking another whether a cliff looks like the Captain. On the other hand, in Khamdamov’s film, the whites are overexposed and combined with beautiful scenes in which light filters through pine trees. He alternates the interior, high-contrast images with scenes featuring soft light emanating from symmetrical water reflections or from the glowing halo of the princess’ hair and jewelry.
The classics influenced both directors, most visibly in their manner of depicting women. In Khamdamov’s work, the princess resembles silent-era stars like Greta Garbo with her tweezed, thin eyebrows. The director doesn’t care about faithful historical representations, his princess looking more like a Byzantine representation of the Virgin Mary, dressed in church brocade. The Bottomless Bag’s narrator, a maid, exudes old Hollywood decadence, like an aging Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950). In contrast, the main feminine presence in The Wild Boys, Dr. Severine, is an androgynous beauty in a powerful white pantsuit that’s reminiscent of Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic 1960s Le Smoking tuxedo or Katherine Hepburn’s trousers. Played by muse Elina Löwensohn, the director’s depiction of womanhood is of an arrogant beauty emancipated, for the film features surprising transformations of male sex organs.
While the motif of a remote island can often be found in literature and cinema, in The Wild Boys it is a catalyst for mankind’s most hidden and promiscuous desires. Emerging from the tradition of adventure novels like in H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau or Robinson Crusoe, the island hosts fantastic creatures such as a human-faced lion and a one-breasted boy. Mandico’s imagery includes elements that suggest an avant-garde equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, with plants secreting bodily fluids, fruits looking like hairy testicles, aroused grass, and vigorous trees. On the other hand, the fantastical elements in The Bottomless Bag could very well be borrowed from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, as the props include people with mushroom hats doing gymnastics in the forest, a slow-moving bear on two feet, and some weird black spherical UFOs in the sky. With all of the boys’ characters played by women, Mandico uses this setting as a pretext to question the power struggle between the sexes and to expose unforeseen strengths in sexual identity. Probably the most obvious literary influence, apart from William S. Burroughs’ identically named work, is The Lord of the Flies, a classic about the monstrosity emanating from a group of teenagers on a deserted island. However, here cruelty originates in machismo and sexist behavior rather than social forms of organization. In a scene that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), the five protagonists — similarly dressed in white shirts and wearing grotesque masks — are filmed from low-angles that emphasize their power while they rape their teacher before killing her. Moreover, in a trial in which the boys plead their innocence, two Adonis-like guards frame them, each menacingly holding a bog arum. The flower, an evident symbol of female sex organs, is a recurrent motif in Mandico’s work, which display a long list of autonomous perverse plants that offer stimulation. In his fantastic universe, there is no distinction between objects and humans; each of them are part of an organic world composed of rich visual ornamentation. On the other hand, to Khamdamov Mother Nature is asexual, with the Russian folkloric symbol of Baba Yaga, a mythical forest woman providing wisdom.
While Mandico relies on carnal desire to the point of promiscuity, his imagery consisting of phalluses, Khamdamov prefers to add an edge of mysticism to the film’s eroticism. For Khamdamov, the act consists of ecstatic oral fixations that focus on the satisfied gaze of the princess while she seductively sucks on the rogue’s fingers. Khamdamov depicts the prince tied to a tree naked, with an arrow in his chest like in Renaissance representations of Saint Sebastian. He helplessly assists in the princess’ surrender to the rogue who attacked them. Akin to Caravaggio’s iconography, which is rendered in a dreamy chiaroscuro, the prince is like a symbol for the erotic pleasures of pain. Similar to the paintings, his face doesn’t reflect the agonies of his body. Rather, he shows suffering gracefully in a way that his beauty and pain are separated from each other. According to Khamdamov’s adaptation, it is not clear who actually killed the prince. The director combines Asian philosophy with European heritage in order to demonstrate the falsehood of any story and to question any claim of truthfulness. While both movies attribute female voice-overs to their plots, Mandico alternates the first-person narration with a detached perspective and diegetic scenes, while Khamdamov prefers an extra-diegetic narrator. In fact, the royal couple never voice their lines but only silently move their lips while other characters seem to have more autonomy. The courtesan starts her stories by investigating each corner of the palace, as if the stories originate there. The tales begin with the courtesan cutting the wallpaper and peeping into another dimension through a Pinocchio paper nose. Ironically, like the lying little boy, the courtesan is a fraud with limitless stories in her bag to deceive the duke. Like the bottomless bag that can carry the world in it, each story is equally true and false.
A mixture and approximate association of eclectic elements from literature, art and even previous films interest both directors, as their focus is on the sum of these layers and their reinterpretation. Even if their plots originate in the real world, they borrow allegorical fragments that, when taken together, access a higher level than logical understanding. Like the surrealist masters, in both Mandico and Khamdamov’s work, the images are an inspiration before storytelling; the form precedes the content. As with Jean Cocteau, both Khamdamov and Mandico do not resort to genuine adaptations and references but re-created phantasmagorical worlds that overlay reality. Both films are conceptual works made in distinctive universes that are organized according to their own laws. Ultimately, the beauty of both Mandico and Khamdamov’s works resides in the intricate maze of acknowledged artificiality that paradoxically creates authentic cinema.