Facing the faceless: two gems from the ’60s

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Tanin no kao (The Face of Another) – Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan, 1966
Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) – Georges Franju, France, 1960

And so it happens that you sometimes watch two films in a row that deal with the same topic. Like horribly disfigured people who fall into the hands of ambitious doctors striving to give them back a face and a sense of normal life. The Japanese pic delves into existential territory and moral questions of identity with a super-stylized visual grace that easily rivals Bergman’s Persona, while the Frenchie sends chills down your spine as an exquisitely lyrical horror where Edith Scob’s every single gesture feels like dainty white lace and satin ribbons. Everything about her has the air of a porcelain ballerina trapped in a creepy music box from hell. How does one act so expressively with literally no face? We may never know.

It’s hard to miss the (supposedly unintentional) nod to her character here in Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s monument of bonkers where the same Scob plays the limousine driver and puts on a very similar mask when leaving the garage in the final scene. Cinema can seem at times like a living being whose distant tissues communicate in oh so subtle ways.

Now, body horror is an elusive concept that’s much too handy to abuse. Let’s just call these two a pair of films that will elegantly get under your skin. And stay there. For days. Eerily. Uncomfortably. No pun intended.

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On lobsters, dystopias and mathematical cinema

When Greek cinema’s leading sicko Yorgos Lanthimos sets up to make a film about the peer pressure, the shallowness and the compromises surrounding dating and relationships, you’d kind of expect to have your guts cut open with an unsterilized scalpel and no anaesthesic. Fortunately for some, unfortunately for others, this isn’t the case with The Lobster.

If you’d take away Lanthimos’ signature dry acting and matter-of-fact random acts of (self) violence, The Lobster could easily be a popcorn movie for singles who want to have a weekend laugh at the local mall cinema. Does it mean the best known author of the so-called Greek Weird Wave is going mainstream? Don’t know, don’t care, what interests me is this: does Lanthimos’ uncomfortably clever absurdity only work when inconspicuously infiltrated into this very reality, and turns into intellectual masturbation a cold, conceptual thesis when set in a hypothetical near future? Does clinical, rational cinema only work when it raises questions only to throw you back out in the cold to deal with them yourself, but not when it gives you the answers? Of course it does. As one of the film’s characters skilfully instructs us, it’s much more effective (and fun) to plant the seed of doubt than to use the gun yourself.

I still remember the open heart surgery that was Kynodontas (Dogtooth): this is real. This is happening. This is reality for some people. This is where evil exists in this world. Stylized, conceptualized, highlighted and all, it felt real. It stuck with me after leaving the cinema like dried out blood stains on white cotton.

Apart from the deliciously vicious Léa Seydoux and a brilliant scene where she leads a subversive hostage situation together with “the loners”, The Lobster remains a clever, pehaps even enjoyable a-to-b mathematical demonstration served with some humour and some violence. Fortunately for some, unfortunately for others.

Interior, wilderness

A cryptic mystique finds its way inbetween the folds of slow-paced, seemingly stark films of Lithuanian director Šarūnas Bartas. Souls transcend bodies and take hold of a whole room, be it as mist or, perhaps, as indoor gardens – a recurring theme of his work from the ’90s. Souls that cry for something higher in The Corridor and Few of Us, souls that take over in the absurd, baroque fable that is The House. The outer world drenched in the inner. Thou shalt not try to understand, but only experience.

Stills from the films:
KoridoriusThe Corridor – 1994 (top)
Mūsų nedaugFew of Us – 1996 (middle)
NamaiThe House – 1997 (bottom)

About a peanut

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Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power. 
– Oscar Wilde

Long before his 2014 Palme d’Or, Nuri Bilge Ceylan was already a savvy puppeteer of interhuman intricacies. And nothing shows it better than a teeny tiny peanut falling on the floor in his 2006 film İklimler (Climates)

In stale shades of brown and yellow and familiar flesh, edible props unleash a subtle menagerie of silent demons, as a man whose life has lost both control and passion rummages through said life’s trash bin in search for some last scraps of any of the two. Does he find any? Are we supposed to dislike this man for what he is doing? Are we supposed to “empathize” and feel sorry for him?

Does it even matter?

I guess sometimes it’s not the grand outbursts of on-screen emotion that drill into your soul and make you lie awake at 3 a.m. examining and overanalyzing everything as you wonder how the hell did your life get where it is, but the small, seemingly meaningless details – you know, the kind of stuff when, were it a cheap sitcom on tv, you’d take the chance to check your phone for any new emails. Just as much as sometimes it’s not gravity that makes peanuts fall on the floor, but raw, calculated mastery.