Friday, October 14, 2011

The New Flesh, Revisited

Don't Look Back (2009, directed by Marina de Van) takes on the shifting identities of an unstable woman and literalizes them on screen on the bodies of the actresses. This is a very Cronenbergian idea, and this film plays the same kinds of games with shifting realities as one finds in movies like Videodrome and Naked Lunch. Like those films, this is a visceral "body horror" movie, though one with a sheen of a high gloss A-list European film. If you're going to make a body horror movie, I suppose it doesn't hurt to have the bodies of Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci on which too enact your psychodrama. That its lead actresses are among the most beautiful people on the Earth makes the mutability of their flesh all the more creepy to watch. That they turn into each other over the course of the movie, is perverse enough, but the special effects that accompany the transformation are singularly disturbing.

The film follows Jeanne, a travel writer who is bored with her work and wants, instead, to write a novel. The novel has an ulterior motive, though, because Jeanne doesn't remember anything that happened to her before the age of eight and she hopes the novel will unlock those memories. Unfortunately, as she begins to write the book, things around her begin to...change. Her husband, her children, her mother, they all seem like they're becoming stranger to her. Worse, she's becoming a stranger to herself, and soon she actually finds herself changing into another woman. That other woman has no more anchor to her reality than she does, and she pursues the clues she finds in photographs toward her identity. Unfortunately, she begins to change back...

It's difficult to know what's real and what's imagined in the first act of Don't Look Back. The movie makes so many subtle changes in its early going that it never gives the viewer a steady place from which get her bearings. When the movie finally divulges its secrets, it seems a lot less subversive than one would hope from its Cronenbergian beginnings. The end of the movie turns into a standard Gothic "return of the repressed" narrative built around a childhood trauma. Unfortunately, the movie has torpedoed this with an early narrative that doesn't play fair with the audience. The end of the film seems entirely too benign after the horrors of its first half, and its transformation into a bittersweet quasi-ghost story seems unearned to me. Your mileage may vary.

Still, that early going carries a jolt. There's a period during this part of the movie where our two lead actresses inhabit the same body, and this is one of the creepiest special effects I've ever seen. The movie is a showcase, too, for its lead actresses, and regardless of my disappointment with the soft landing at the end of the movie, this is well acted by two genuine by-golly movie stars, and part of the joy of watching movies is watching actors, to say nothing of astonishingly beautiful women. The willingness of the filmmakers to deform the flesh of its leads is gravy. The movie itself is good looking, too. Marina de Van gives the film a high gloss polish. It's a film where all the rough edges come from the story itself rather than the way its presented. It goes down easy and never drags. In spite of its influences, this is neither an art film, nor a genre film (strictly speaking), so much as it is a commercial film. The surface polish is part and parcel of this. What cognitive dissonance and psychological discomfort the movie manages to inflict on a viewer is all smuggled under the surface. Its central horror--the dislocation of one's very identity--is one that easily exists in this context. And if, ultimately, it doesn't have an instinct for the jugular, well, that's okay, because it still goes down smooth.

Current tally: 14 films

First time viewings: 14

My internet has been unreliable today, so a light round-up of links:

The Vicar of VHS returns with his take on [•REC]2.

Meanwhile, Tim over at The Other Side gives Let Me In a chance.

Bob over at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind has another challenge diary, including thoughts on Mad Love, The Man in the Attic, The Amityville Horror, and Martyrs.

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