On today’s list – German teen horror flick Der Nachtmahr, lowbrow Danish comedy Men & Chicken, low-temperature Icelandic drama Virgin Mountain, and Red Leaves, a tale of the Ethiopian immigrant community in Israel.
Der Nachtmahr (d. scr. AKIZ)
The second feature by German hipster-artist AKIZ (apologies for the pigeonholing but come on) is prefaced by tongue-in-cheek on screen warnings in the Gaspar Nöe/William Castle mode to, on the one hand, beware the upcoming heavy strobe effects, and isochronic tones and binaural frequencies (no, me neither) but, on the other hand, to turn that shit up.
Formalities out of the way the film slams us straight into the middle of the action, with three teenage girls including our heroine Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) speeding into the night in an open topped car towards a drug-fuelled pool party soundtracked to ear-splitting techno and metal. A friend takes a snapshot of Tina and uses an app on her phone to morph her into a mutant homunculus in a jar that she previously snapped in a school biology lesson. Tina freaks out at the sight – maybe oddly, given that when a boy at the party offers to show her something really sick on his phone, and then shows her footage of a teenage girl crouched motionless on a dark country road in darkness, creepy enough in its own way, who then gets mowed down by a car travelling at high speed, she barely reacts. Maybe she’s trying to look cool, maybe she’s a bit zonked on pills, coke and vodka-Red Bull. Probably the latter, given that after a while she appears to be finding the party as assaultively intense as the imaginary viewer the pre-roll warning had in mind, and begs her friends to take her home, at which point, things start to get weird.
Without going into too much detail, not because there’s really a lot of plot to spoil, but because Der Nachtmahr is a woozily disreputable pleasure that benefits from being experienced without too many preconceptions, a lot of that weirdness derives from the reappearance of that glass-jar homunculus and its puzzling relationship with Tina, and the film’s refusal to explain anything, or to commit to any one of its possible registers or narratives. While the film’s lurches from monster-movie scares to Lynchian surrealism to a peculiar tenderness indebted to both E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Basket Case might seem superficially gauche, there’s method there – and in the end, the film reflects its heroine, pulled in every direction by emotions she can barely process or control (and which, refreshingly, the film doesn’t blame on her drug use), met by a wall of incomprehension from her parents and friends alike, and ultimately given a moment of defiant feminine triumph. Indeed, Der Nachtmahr’s many aesthetic rough edges (Shall we light this scene properly? Nah, just whack the fucking gain up. Video noise is cool! Does it matter that Kim Gordon can’t act? Dude, it’s Kim Gordon), when taken in the context of its often considerable technical accomplishment, read like a punkish assertion of (probably ersatz) outsider status, and the same may apply to AKIZ’s narrative and thematic strategies. You think all this doesn’t add up to much, or mean anything? Well, that’s for squares, grandad.
In case there’s any doubt here, I dug the shit out of this movie. – Indy Datta
Red Leaves (d. scr. Bazi Gete)
There are shades of both Make Way for Tomorrow and King Lear in Bazi Gete’s debut feature Red Leaves. Meseganio (Debebe Eshetu) is an ageing Ethiopian immigrant living in Israel who we first see standing at his wife’s grave. At the family feast later that day, the old man drops a bombshell – he has decided to sell his house and will instead spend his remaining years living with his offspring. That, after all, is the Ethiopian way, although none of his children seem particularly pleased by this idea. The tensions that follow are given added weight by the clashing of cultures. Everything Meseganio does is rooted in the history and traditions of his people, but the generation that grew up in Israel have different values and see the world in a completely different way. The old man chastises them for using their mobile phones on the Sabbath, he renounces one of his daughters for dating a non-Ethiopian man, and he gets involved in the marital tensions between his sons and their wives.
Gete skilfully sets up contrasts between these old and new perspectives in a number of ways. A key scene follows Meseganio as he and some old friends buy a goat for slaughter and prepare the meat for their feast in a traditional way, while another striking moment has one of Meseganio’s sons attempt to impose an Ethiopian tradition on his own teenage son to impress the old man. The most impressive thing about Gete’s measured direction is how he maintains a certain distance with his camera early on and before gradually getting closer to Meseganio as he feels increasingly isolated against his family. Debebe Eshetu’s commanding central performance as this very difficult but ultimately sympathetic protagonist is mesmerising, and the intimate, lingering shots of his bewildered eyes and the deep lines on his face late in the film possess a raw emotional power. The sight of this once proud and powerful man wandering the dark streets looking lost and vulnerable is a potent image of a fading patriarchy. – Philip Concannon
Virgin Mountain (d. scr. Dagur Kári)
The Icelandic title of Kári’s film is Fúsi – also the name of the film’s protagonist (played by Gunnar Jónsson), a very large man who has never had sex. So that’s where the terrible English-language title comes from. Fúsi works at the airport as a baggage handler and lives at home with his mother. Bullied by his co-workers, his only social outlet is wargaming with an old friend (a family man whose kids want to join in, but aren’t allowed to touch the adults’ precious toys). Things change when mum’s latest boyfriend, tired of not having any privacy, not unkindly buys Fúsi a course of line-dancing lessons to get him out of the house, and in the hope that he might meet a nice girl.
Fúsi is paralysed by anxiety at the thought of any of this, but does eventually take the plunge, wearing a suit and tie, his only even vaguely suitable clothes. Inevitably, a woman (Sjöfn – Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) does show interest in him, although she’s not the uncomplicated nice girl Fúsi or we might have been hoping he’d meet, and her erratic behaviour towards him is soon obviously only a small glimpse of how troubled she is.
Virgin Mountain – if we have to call it that – is nicely made, with credible performances, its fair share of indie-schmindie charm, and no small degree of acuity when it turns its eye to the supporting characters, like the co-worker who tries to make up for his bullying of Fúsi by including him in a lads’ night in, only to find himself incapable of doing something he considers nice for his colleague without also, even unconsciously, needing to humiliate him. (side note: later in the film Fúsi gets some much nicer (East European immigrant) workmates who invite him to the pub… to watch Aston Villa v Fulham. BATHOS)
The problem is in its portrayal of Fúsi, who the film’s scheme requires to be not only sexually inexperienced but effectively asexual until Sjöfn’s interest in him awakens his libido. While acknowledging that human sexuality is highly complex and individuated, and that we’re in a moment where that is being rightly acknowledged to a probably unprecedented degree, it surely isn’t the case that Kári (also the director Noi Albinoi and Dark Horse) sees Fúsi as, say, demisexual, but that it is essential to the scheme of his story that Fúsi is a clean, uncorrupted slate, his character uncomplicated by how he might, in reality, have dealt with his thwarted sex drive. The same was, of course, true of Steve Carell’s character in The 40 Year Old Virgin, but at least Judd Apatow didn’t ultimately require his hero to be a saint, which becomes Fúsi’s fate – as he progressively more and more unselfishly gives more of himself and makes ever greater sacrifices in his attempt to fix Sjöfn (and endures continuing slings and arrows elsewhere, while never showing even a flicker of anger) – or suggest in the end that, whether or not he is loved by another person, his path to self-respect and happiness is through such self-erasing, asexual saintliness. Because that would have been, y’know, bollocks. – Indy Datta
Men and Chicken (d. scr. Anders Thomas Jensen)
Men & Chicken (only Jensen’s fourth directing credit, although he has been a fearsomely prolific screenwriter for two decades) is the story of two semi-estranged (which is to say that Gabriel, played by David Dencik, the outwardly more normal of them can’t stand the sight of Elias -Mads Mikkelsen, letting his freak flag fly – a behaviourally challenged pathological chronic masturbator, but just can’t get rid of him) brothers who, when their father dies, discover that he was not in fact their biological father at all. Their biological father – a disgraced geneticist – is, it transpires, still alive and living in a disused asylum on an island so sparsely inhabited that the mayor desperately begs any visitors to settle there so that his town won’t be literally removed from the maps by the authorities.
Elias and Gabriel soon discover that their father is, in actual fact, dead, but has left them three further brothers, all played by well-known Danish character actors, recognisable despite the layers of latex used to depict their various congenital deformities, including the hare lips they share with Gabriel and Elias, who live in the asylum according to their own baroque rulebook, sexually communing with the equally deformed animals they share the asylum with, and only dreaming of women.
The middle section of the film is given over to a volatile, and frequently uproarious mix of extreme character and physical comedy – I was never happier, watching this film, than when the five brothers were whaling on one another like the Five Mutant Stooges – but when Jensen needs to resolve the story, the horror of the closing revelations sits uneasily with the comedy, a tension that can only be resolved by an evasive fantasy coda. Men and Chicken is worth seeing, though, for Mikkelsen’s performance if for no other reason. I admit here to having not yet seen Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal television show, but nothing in my previous exposure to him prepared me for how unhinged and how funny he is here. – Indy Datta