Back in 2013 I almost killed myself hurrying from a London Film Festival showing of Denis Coté’s Vic And Flo Saw A Bear on the South Bank, to Albert Serra’s Story of My Death in Leicester Square. Given the title of Serra’s film, it would have been an ironic way to die, though the irony in this case was restricted to the fact of my disappointment in the thing.
Serra had shot 400 hours of footage for his (award-winning) Casanova meets Dracula epic, but I was left wondering if he had chosen the right two and a half hours for the finished product (which still felt like it was 400 hours long).
On the other hand there was something appealing about the dapper Serra himself, the kind of madly pretentious yet funny auteur I sometimes think should be the only people allowed to make films.
And so it seemed time to give him another chance – and I was delighted to have the opposite experience with Pacifiction, which I enjoyed more than I can quite account for. Or believe.
Rejecting grubby historical settings for something closer to a holiday brochure, Serra sets his latest in the present, on a Polynesian island. Here a white-suited Benôit Magimel plays High Commissioner De Roller, keeping his fingers in as many pies as possible and generally acting like he secretly owns the place.
When sightings of a submarine and the arrival of a French admiral (Marc Susini) conspire to suggest that French nuclear testing is about to resume on the island, he endeavours to find out what is going on. And eventually, he does. Well, maybe he does.
This time, according to Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, Serra shot 540 hours of footage. What he has chosen to include in the 2 hours and 45 minutes that made it through isn’t big on linear narrative, or any kind of narrative – what is happening is often obscure, or perhaps taking place in the discarded footage.
But if much is hidden from us, so it is from De Roller too, and the film manages to convey his situation very effectively. Essentially, despite his pretensions to wielding power (and his colonial oppressor’s costume), he is impotent in the face of larger political forces intent on enacting policies which, as far as we can tell, are totally insane.
In the same way, we are held captive by Serra’s bold yet oblique vision, and Artur Toft’s cinematography, which gives the colourful skies over Tahiti a coldly forbidding sheen, as if they merely prefigure (SPOILER ALERT?) an even more colourful nuclear blast.
A scene set on the ocean, where De Roller observes surfers from a boat amidst crashing waves, is especially transfixing – the sense of a vast destabilization is hard to escape, and we understand that just to be alive is to be at the mercy of forces we have no control over. Perhaps the ocean’s depths are analagous to Serra’s unincluded footage – we only see the surface, but the other stuff he shot is down there, exerting its influence.
The waters in Brandon Cronenberg’s latest are tamer, but, so it seems, capable of endless reflection. Not that the titular pool is anything more than set dressing (and metaphor) here.
Rich tourists staying in a secure compound in an impoverished country pay for injuries inflicted upon the local populace with their deaths – except, should you happen to inadvertently run over and kill a local, as James (Alexander Skarsgaard) does here, the authorities can, for a fee, create a duplicate version of you, which can be executed in your stead.
This process, which seems less scientific than magical, is seized upon by the more decadent tourists – like actress Gabi (Mia Goth) as a way of enhancing their pleasure, or at least alleviating their boredom. To that end they recruit James, a failed novelist, into their ranks, as much to torment him, it seems, as for his benefit.
Once he has been caught up in a deliberate assault on the locals, utterly humiliated, and finally driven to batter a feral version of himself to death for the entertainment of Gabi and her cronies, he finds it difficult to go home, though his fellow tourists slide back into their ordinary lives with alarming ease, exchanging airy banalities on the bus back to the airport.
James is left to brood, as the rainy season closes in. This might show a real depth and sensitivity or it could be exactly the kind of empty posturing that, so we have heard (via a sneering Gabi), ruined his first and only (so far) novel.
In the same way we might wonder at the shallowness or depth of the film itself, which sees Cronenberg Jr. channelling some of his father’s influences and adaptations (Ballard, Naked Lunch) without escaping from his shadow (though why would he want to?)
Infinity Pool is the perfect title, suggesting both a narcissistic involvement in surface reflection and the hidden possibilities beneath. Though James’ battering of his own ‘reflected’ face to a pulp, suggests that there’s less to the notion of depth than meets the eye.
As with a lot of the elements of this film, the title is obscure, though as it turns out there is quite a lot of water in this film, even though it is mostly set in the desert. The water may even be imaginary, despite having been captured on camera in a film that starts off in conventional found footage horror mode.
In the way of these things, it purports to be the contents of a few memory cards from a digital camera, the only clue to what became of four young people who went out to the desert to film a music video.
The film spends a lot of time on the build-up, to the extent that you start to wonder if it is a build-up.
Then, once we reach the desert, mysterious booming noises in the night and the appearance of an axe-wielding figure herald an extraordinarily chaotic second half depicting what could be a Biblical or ecological apocalypse or a (group?) psychotic meltdown possibly triggered by some sort of local contamination from a military experiment.
There is a lot of screaming and shouting (is this the only horror film – outside of Abbott and Costello maybe – where a character actually says: ‘I want my mummy’?); some shrieking snakes whizzing about (or are they tentacles, or sections of gut?) and a lot of blood. And some sort of flood.
At a certain point we have to question whether the camera can actually be recording what must surely be hallucinatory, unless the very fabric of reality has been ripped apart, which is a possibility. Almost anything seems to be a possibility. How much footage did Banfitch shoot for this?
The conceit of the found footage horror film is that there is never quite enough coverage – the limitations around what we can see or hear are part of what creates the necessary tension and mystery.
This holds true here, along with, somehow, the complete opposite – there is too much going on, an overload of information that can’t readily be processed. The result is perhaps more confusing than terrifying, though director Robbie Banfitch can’t be faulted for not pushing the boundaries, even to the point of collapse.
The fact that he is playing the (video) director himself within the film introduces a self-conscious element to mess with our heads further: at the end he cuts off his penis and walks away from the camera with his guts hanging out in what could be a mock-auteurist mea culpa in the spirit of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Certainly – if we can be certain of anything now – the director’s companions are now merely heads on sticks, and nobody else is there to take responsibility for the atrocity. Not that the film is an atrocity itself exactly – or if it is, maybe an atrocity needn’t be a bad thing.
Comparisons have been made to Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink – a rather more disengaged and dreamy experimental horror film. This is the kind of experiment that’s more likely to blow up in your face; indeed, that would probably be a sign of its success. So the question of whether it has ‘worked’ or not almost seems beside the point, along with the meaning of the title.
What are ‘outwaters’? A geographical feature or a meteorological phenomenon? Or bodily fluids? – there are hints of a rebirth here. Or tears? Are we witnessing a catharsis, personal or ecological, or both? If so, it isn’t one the viewer can easily share in, but Banfitch, any more than Albert Serra, doesn’t seem to be in the business of making things easy.
BEAU IS AFRAID
Neither is Ari Aster, whose latest film is said to be a ‘deconstruction’ of his previous work, the ‘elevated’ horror films Hereditary and Midsommar though I wouldn’t say that either of them were perfectly constructed in the first place. Still, if you allow for the possibility that a deconstructed horror film is one that doesn’t work, maybe this one succeeds. If I’d liked it more, it would have failed.
Beau Is Afraid consists mainly of the sort of nightmarish scenes that would, in a normal horror film, have ended in the protagonist waking up screaming. Here, there is no such escape for our mumbling, isolated hero (Joaquin Phoenix), who lives alone in an exaggerated version of the kind of crime-ridden, corpse-strewn city neighbourhood that features in Alan Arkin and Jules Feiffer’s 1971 film Little Murders.
The first indignities we see him suffering are Kafkaesque notes under the door telling him to turn down the music, even though he isn’t playing any.
When he loses his keys and has to prop his apartment building’s door open so that he can go out to buy water, all the street’s undesirables take the opportunity to invade the building, as if sucked in by a vacuum, and end up trashing his apartment, while he cowers on the fire escape outside, unable to get back in (in one of the film’s more amusing details, we see that amid the chaos, some of the invaders are doing the washing up).
Such disasters serve to delay his attempt to visit his (monstrous) mother (Patti Lupone), a visit which subsequently becomes a journey to attend her funeral after her head is crushed (or so he is informed) by a falling chandelier.
Hit by a car, he is ‘rescued’ by a middle-class couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan), who install him in their teenage daughter’s bedroom, much to her disgust.
Their overbearing hospitality (an ankle bracelet is involved) suggests that he is intended as a replacement for their late son, a soldier – they are already hosting a hopelessly psychotic veteran called Jeeves (Denis Menochet) – but this forced ‘idyll’ comes to an abrupt end when the girl swallows blue paint and Beau is blamed for her death by her hysterical mother, who, after Beau takes off, sends Jeeves in crazed pursuit of him.
A sort of respite occurs when Beau runs into a group of travelling players in the forest, and absorbed in a play they are putting on, which seems to echo his own experiences, drifts into a self-reflexive fantasy sequence which ends with a tearful reunion between the now ancient protagonist (as ‘played’ by Beau) and his three sons.
The real Beau, however, has always avoided sex, having been told by his mother that he comes from a line of men who expire at the point of orgasm (and conception); thus, his three sons, as one of them points out, can’t really exist, and so the fantasy collapses, as does his identification with the character – soon thereafter, Jeeves runs in and massacres the troupe with a machine gun.
The failure of this process of identification is at the heart of the film, a film whose very title suggests a certain impenetrability – Beau is afraid, but what about us? How are we meant to feel?
It’s as if Beau has usurped the passive, anxious horror film viewer’s place, then is displaced himself. If the ‘game’ for a cinema audience is to try on new identities and escape our own situations, this offers us a protagonist who seems to have no identity, and whose attempts to ‘project himself’ into the world around him are doomed.
From the beginning Beau is presented with a series of possible other selves which he can’t or won’t inhabit – he is not the inconsiderate neighbour identified by the notes slid under his door; he is not a suitable replacement for a couple’s dead son, and neither is he the monster the mother assumes is responsible for the death of their daughter. When he eventually does take his seat as part of an audience, that experience too is disrupted.
Of course horror films don’t provide us with unadulterated escapism. We routinely identify with characters who are under threat but there is something dishonest in our identification – we bounce back and forth between our identification with a frightened protagonist and our awareness that we are sitting safely in our seats. Beau Is Afraid makes us aware of the fraudulence implicit in the arrangement: it spoils our fun.
But to what end?
Nightmarish without being dreamlike (an achievement in itself perhaps) Beau’s journey is essentially an interior one, and it ends at home. Gaining his mother’s house after the funeral, Beau gets to survive a sexual encounter with his childhood sweetheart Elaine (Parker Posey) and prove his mother wrong about the family history. But it’s Elaine who dies at the point of orgasm, while Beau’s mother – who, it transpires, faked her own death – looks on.
Lots of horror movies, notably certain gialli, feature dislocated heroes whose situations evoke castration anxiety, but most allow their heroes some degree of (illusory) agency, and few go as far as this one, where it turns out that Beau’s mom is keeping a giant cock and balls up in the loft, which presumably represents Beau’s ‘lost’ masculinity.
Beau’s reunion with it doesn’t go well, since it is now very angry, and capable of killing Jeeves by stabbing him in the brain with a well-aimed tentacle.
Here is a diagnosis of Beau’s plight which fails to offer any catharsis: he is a split self, whose more aggressive ‘masculine’ aspects have been so thoroughly repressed that there is no longer any possibility of reintegrating them into his psyche – well, maybe if he had a decent therapist, but the one he has (Stephen McKinley) is in league with his mother.
So Beau flees from the giant penis and the viewer is left to wonder if the film has finally tipped over into camp, and whether, in fact, that was where it should have been all along.
Not that there isn’t humour here, but often it is the kind of humour you congratulate yourself for spotting. The mise en scene (impressive as it is) is too calculated to give it room to breathe. Comedy needs to find the perfect distance from its characters – you need to be able to sympathise with them, yet laugh at their misfortunes.
Aster clearly sympathizes, and even identifies with his suffering hero, while as writer/director he is also the author of his misfortunes and a controlling figure like Beau’s mother. And he knows this. It’s the kind of contradiction that might have been fruitful, but here he seems too close and too far away at the same time, which infects the film with a creeping paralysis.
(Would a different kind of performance have worked better in the main role? Someone less thoughtful and anguished than Joaquin Phoenix? Kevin James? Is it a problem that even Aster’s deconstruction is too ‘elevated’?)
Horror too requires distance. In David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, a character recalls telling Alfred Hitchcock that ‘the key to fictitious terror is partition or containment: so long as the Bates Motel is sealed off from our world, we want to peer in.’ On the other hand ‘a film that shows the world is a Bates Motel’ would be unbearable.
In many ways this is that film. It has plunged us into the heart of the morbid mother/son dynamic right from the start: an ominous scene depicting Beau’s birth, from his point of view, soundtracked by panicky/angry shouts from his mother.
The film ends with Beau drowning in a cave – a womblike space, but cold, grey and forbidding, deprived of any notion of comfort. It’s as if his – and our – journey hasn’t gone anywhere at all, even though a lot has, on the face of it, transpired.
Perhaps my problem with the film, which in many ways I admire, stems from the fact that Aster has disrupted my enjoyment. His deconstruction has been successful. After all, I probably have more in common with Beau than Aster has. Though I won’t go into details.
But Beau Is Afraid seems less like a deconstruction than an elaborate, but hollow, construction – a folly, painstakingly assembled but all too ready to be pulled apart by commentators with a better grasp of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva than I.
It’s normally a concern that such treatment might ‘kill’ an artwork – here you might hope for the reverse: that it will breathe life into a film that hasn’t quite enough of his own. For all of its surface incident, Beau Is Afraid feels dead in the water.