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🎬 #12 With Love, Viewer Discretion is Advised
Happy April Fool’s Day. This week on Video Shop I’m doing something a bit different. In honour of April Fool’s day I’m only recommending one film. And it’s a film that was released just at the end of last year to general audiences. You’ll have heard a lot about it - it won last year’s Palm D’Or and it’s only the third film directed by a woman to do so. You'll probably remember people talking about how shocking, violent and extreme it is. How people were fainting and vomiting in the screening rooms. These are the kinds of descriptions that grab people’s attention but what you'll see beyond the extreme is a surprisingly tender story of unconditional love. A film that might have ‘gore’ as a descriptor but feel beyond the slippery viscera and glistening body horror and you’ll grasp an emotional story of transformation. Something that is truly shocking - that which you weren't expecting, to be moved by something billed as gruesome, sickness-inducing, horror.
2021 Dir Julia Ducournau
Why am I recommending this as the only film this week? It’s the kind of film that sells itself and that you’ll hear a lot about if you search the title. The reason is that it surprised me. I didn’t read anything going into it but I had seen the controversy and the trailers. Which are the best kind of trailers that don’t reveal anything about the film other than mood, maybe. So I went in expecting something just extreme and gory and I found something that certainly ticked those boxes but was also something quite lovely. Something unexpectedly and unconventionally sweet - as a critic pointed out, it’s either ‘the most fucked up movie ever made or the sweetest movie ever made.’ I think it’s an amalgam of those two - because to get to the sweet you need to go through the pain and transformative power of the not so sweet.
If I described the film in a few lines you’d think this sounds ludicrously mental so I’ll refrain from too much of that. Ostensibly, the plot involves a woman who has a titanium plate in her head who goes on the run and finds real human love that she’s been lacking all her life. In many ways the two main characters are on a neon lit highway, destined to collide with each other eventually. And in that collision they get exactly what they need from the other. Their lives changed forever.
Ducournau, pictured above checking the framing of a shot on Titane, has created a messy, beautifully modern allegory. A violence-fuelled quest ending in that rare comfortable love that enables the revelation of someone’s true identity, the only way that sense of security and judgement free kindness can. It’s a kind of hybrid-metal love child of Winding Refn and Cronenberg but with way more heart. I didn’t expect to be so taken by it, I expected it to be ‘extreme’ ‘cool’ and ‘challenging.’ But almost a week on from seeing it - I’m still thinking about it, feeling warmed by it, rather than repulsed by it. Another reason I’m suggesting it as my only film to watch this week.
It’s a genre film that uses the stylistic tropes of body horror to reveal raw emotion underneath. In a way it’s a ‘straight-forward’ story and I mean that as a compliment. But it’s the manner in which this story is brought to life that is special. The fact that Ducournau was able to create something so bold, so original but also something that is much more than what it seems on the surface is kind of a miracle. She deftly wrangles so many elements into one simple cohesive whole at every turn, and she does so in an effortless yet gripping way. There is a wonderfully satisfying symmetry to the storytelling that rewards rather than leaves us empty.
It can be easy to let the gleaming visuals take you away from the story - but the cinematography by Ruben Impens has the opposite effect. Yes, it’s beautiful and seductive as the film is, but gradually the artificial lights of the car shows fade, and we are more immersed in ‘real, natural’ light or night, whatever the scene calls for. A literally ray of light replaces the glow of neons and fluorescents.
The production design leads us on a journey through a masculine world, a kind of brutish fantasy of mechanism. Indeed the many wince inducing moments come from the tactile feel of the violence. As if a mechanic was altering, poking and prodding the underlying chassis of a car, but applied to the sweaty, boney, sinews of the human body.
The score is a grinding, purring, cacophony that mimics the sound of car engines - the clutch of metal against metal and rubber vibrating against slick tarmac. Indeed it’s the duality of the score - the mimicry of a hidden violent act that lies in the inner workings of a benign car engine that is the most powerful metaphor for what the film is. A simple car engine - what’s essentially a series of controlled explosions harnessed in a hot metal prison, the outcome of the same violent action - can result in two opposing forces. A grinding clash of horrific energy or shift gears and suddenly we’re plunged into a state of peaceful humming, enough to lull a baby to sleep. It’s this that makes the film most impressive - there is a a dramatic gear shift from one thing to another. But yet it all feels like the same vehicle, we’ve just changed lanes.
There are lots of easy comparisons to the body horror master David Cronenberg but in many ways this is a body romance. Both characters seek to alter their bodies, hide or show what they might have underneath - the love for the body and its many forms is vividly on display. It’s an intoxicating mix of the brutal and soft, the macho-mechanicism and the squidgy.
Which brings us to our two leads. Vincent Lindon pictured above and the star of the show Agathe Rouselle. Who like the director, has the weight of the entire film on her shoulders, her strong frame, supporting something so vast that few others would be capable of carrying it. She creates a character so strong and believable that you instantly go with the more fantastical elements of the story. You trust in the reality of the film navigated by her path as a character.
Vincent in many ways is the reflection of her character - he looks strong but inside is tender to a fault - the fact that his body is transforming too is the thing that binds them together. He is welcoming, accepting and loving - all the things associated with ‘the mother’ which he doesn’t look at all like.
I urge you to seek out the film. These are the kind of films we need to see - that remind us of what a film can be. How they only have to follow their own internal logic to show us something that we weren’t expecting, something in this case that is yes, very hard to watch at times, but if you stick with it - can show us something brilliantly bizarre and beautiful.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 48 minutes of my precious life watching this? See something you haven’t seen before while laughing with panic and horror, wincing, feeling way more than you expected in this body horror human car mash-up transformer of a love story from the new master of French Extreme cinema - Julia Ducournau.
*Stream for free on Mubi, or for a small rental fee on Amazon, YouTube, Apple, Curzon or Sky*
Fact: This is only Julia Ducournau’s second feature film - after her much lauded Raw from 2016.