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DEERSKIN

Horror films have fielded some unlikely ‘monsters’ over the years and director Quentin Dupieux has already supplied a notable one with 2010’s Rubber, whose ‘villain’ was a spare tyre. His new film explores the malign potential of a jacket.

Filling it out, and giving the film some emotional and comedic heft, is Jean Dujardin, playing Georges who, having seemingly given up on his life, flees to a remote mountain village and makes an excessive emotional (and financial) investment in the (deerskin) jacket in question. He not only wears it, he talks to it and believes that it talks back to him, revealing its aspiration to become the only jacket in the world, and enlisting his help in realising its wild ambition.

It’s silly, yes, but the fringed jacket (soon joined by matching deerskin trousers and hat) with its cowboy-film associations, embodies just the kind out of outmoded and fantastical elements of masculinity that you would expect to haunt such a mid-life crisis as Georges is clearly having.

Soon he is implementing a strategy of ‘disappearing’ the world’s jackets one by one, getting people to remove theirs and put them in the boot of his car, telling them that it’s for a film. He duly films them, then drives off with their jackets still in the boot.

This encourages another fantasy – that he’s a film director. Having talked himself up in this regard to barmaid Denise (Adèle Haenel), he accepts her offer to edit his footage – footage which becomes more interesting to her when Georges’ jacket-disposal methods start to embrace murder (committed with a blade from the fan in his hotel room).

Despite the carnage, nobody seems to notice that anyone has died and Georges meets his own end, when, after throwing a rock at a gawping local boy, he is shot by the boy’s father – at which point Denise dons the jacket (and, perhaps, its dreams of world domination). It’s a #MeToo kind of ending, and an abrupt one to a short, scrappy kind of film that feels like it was made up as it went along.

In that sense it is at least true to its protagonist, and Dujardin brings a certain wounded innocence to the role of Georges. Word of mouth apparently caused this showing in NFT1 to be sold out, though I wonder if such enthusiasm was entirely justified. The film, like Rubber, has a kind of opaque zaniness that isn’t genuinely bonkers or deceptively clever but somewhere between the two – it’s not quite intelligent or stupid enough. But it is likeable and Dujardin is a good deal more charismatic than a spare tyre.

THE ANTENNA

More offbeat horror in this Turkish film wherein the caretaker of an apartment block  oversees the installation of a satellite dish on the roof, all the better to bring sinister government messages to the occupants. It’s clear right from the start that all is not going to be well when the man installing it falls to his death – subsequently the aerial starts oozing black slime, which soon permeates the entire building.

At first writer-director Orçun Behram’s film leavens its bleakness with deadpan humour centred around Mehmet the meek caretaker (Ihsan Öhnal), but as it gets more ominous it starts to feel overbearing. The film focuses on a number of the tenants, including a nervous little boy and a teenage girl plotting to escape from her family and make for the city. But it soon starts to feel like everyone, or at least everyone in Turkey, is pretty much doomed.

Various forms of oppression – cultural, economic and above all political – are being evoked here, but the omnipresent black goo bubbling out of the walls seems a drearily inadequate way of representing them. There is quite a good scene where the father of the girl plotting to leave eats steak contaminated by the black slime dripping from the ceiling, but his subsequent transformation from forbidding patriarch to out-and-out monster is just too obvious.

Later everyone seems to lose their faces, presumably a symbol of conformity to the new regime, but although it looks eerie enough – technically, it’s a well-made film – the progression from black slime to erased faces lacks some sort of internal logic. You’re aware of the film makers working very hard throughout to establish a sense of creeping dread, but worrying so much about technique that they fail to notice that the slow burn they were meant to be sustaining has gone out.

THE LODGE

Perhaps there’s room on the market for a self-help book: How To Keep Your Slow-Burn Horror Film Alight. The Lodge might have benefited from it – this is the new film from Goodnight Mommy directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, a Hammer production (though their luridly enjoyable debut might have made a more suitable one).

Nevertheless this begins well, with our two child protagonists, brother Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and sister Mia (Lia McHugh), having to cope with their mother’s suicide and, subsequently, its indirect cause, Dad’s new girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough), who was brought up in her father’s religious cult and was its only (traumatized) survivor when it imploded.

Left alone in the titular snowbound holiday home with the kids – who are unsurprisingly resentful at the attempt to replace their beloved mother – Grace starts to fall apart when all their possessions (including her anti-psychotics) disappear, causing Aidan to express the theory that they have all died and are now in the afterlife.

Had this turn towards the supernatural been more convincing the film might have worked, but although Grace falls for it, the viewer is not so readily beguiled and it seems pretty clear that some sort of trick is being played on her, probably by the kids (which proves to be the case). This causes much of the film’s eerie fascination to drain away, as if a not-particularly-taxing puzzle has been substituted for a mystery.

Whether the fault lies in the directors’ failure to create an otherworldly atmosphere or in a script (by Franz and Fiala with Sergio Casci) that is overly determined to spell its ideas out I’m not sure, but I suspect that if the ‘afterlife’ idea had been left to emerge of its own accord, instead of being vociferously promoted by Aidan, the trick might have worked on the audience too.

The performances are fine and the film rallies somewhat for the grim ending. There’s also a pleasing irony in the idea that the kids’ cruel trick manages to create the demonic stepmother they initially feared. But the tension has melted away.

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Something similar happens to The Lighthouse, also showing at the festival, though I saw it on general release. This has Willem Dafoe’s ‘wickie’ Tom and Robert Pattinson’s apprentice Ephraim arriving on the New England coast in the 1890’s to man a lighthouse for four weeks. Ephraim is understandably oppressed by the bleak landscape, by his onerous workload, by his superior’s hostility and refusal to let him near the light (which comes to take on a mystical allure for him), by a malicious seagull, and by the groaning of the foghorn (and its echo in Tom’s unrestrained farting).

In fact, there’s not much he isn’t oppressed by, though luckily the film is not without a sense of humour, even if it struggles to emerge through the solemn mise en scène.

Soon Ephraim is hallucinating mermaids and generally going off the deep end, and while the two men come to an understanding before the month is out, the arrival of a storm, indefinitely extending their stay, sends them into an alcohol-fuelled downward spiral, and it all ends as badly as you might expect.

Robert Eggers’ first film, The Witch, got my goat a bit with its obsession with ‘authentic’ – distractingly so – historical dialogue, and he’s up to the same thing here, with Eggers and his co-writer (his brother Max) plundering the works of Herman Melville and Sarah Orne Jewett for the film’s period flavour.

However, there are only two characters in The Lighthouse, and one of them (Pattinson’s) doesn’t say much, so it isn’t such a problem – and Dafoe makes of his salty old sea dog, who could easily have drifted into the realms of self-parody, a credible and powerful presence, and manages his dialogue very well (although a couple of unduly long sentences nearly get away from him).

Even if the dialogue had come across as overly literary it might not have mattered, since this is a far more stylized film than the The Witch. Every shot from DOP Jarin Blaschke is a moody monochrome masterpiece, strikingly composed and bleakly ravishing. Yet there’s a sense that so much attention has been lavished on individual images that the bigger picture has been neglected.

Certainly, at about the time the storm comes in the tension seems to dissipate rather than build, and the feeling that there is nowhere left for the characters to go becomes the film’s problem as much as theirs. Ephraim has a back story but it isn’t (as Tom points out) very interesting, and doesn’t lend much substance to his descent into madness.

By the end, after all of the grimly impressive imagery and the violent climax, the film feels less consequential than Deerskin. Quite where it has all gone wrong is hard to say – it’s tempting simply to point out that there could be such a thing as trying too hard. But perhaps Eggers hasn’t quite worked out what kind of film this is meant to be – horror film, allegory, dark psychological study, black comedy.

Not that it can’t be all of these at once, and not that a film maker necessarily needs to know what their film is about before it is made. But if they don’t know then it seems to me that the direction should go with the flow, to accommodate all the different possibilities. Instead, a painstakingly constructed and rather stiff ‘masterpiece’ has been prematurely erected, and the flow has dammed up.

Or is it me? This has generally gone down well with the critics, though their largely positive reaction seems mixed in other ways – some of them think it’s terrifying, others an ‘uproarious’ comedy. Perhaps it all depends on the audience you see it with. There wasn’t much uproar going on in the ICA on a Friday afternoon.

But I described Eggers’ first film as ‘promising’ – and as far as I’m concerned he still is.