The second day at the Paris International Fantastic Film Festival was filled with a lot of — pardon my French — WTF moments. It leaves one wondering whether David Cronenberg had anything to do with today’s program.
It turns out the Canadian director was clearly an influence and thanked in the closing credits of Ink, the short film screened before the first competing film du jour and worth a mention. Written and directed by Glasgow-based horror journalist Andy Stewart, this sinister and horrific story features a young loser in Glasgow who is so desperate for some ink that he’s willing to go to extreme lengths to get tatted up and transform himself into an ambulatory work of art. Instead of going to the local tattoo parlor like a normal person — well, the shop owner shoos him away — he has a more, um, unusual method. He spots a tattoo he likes, he takes out his box cutter and cuts the patch of skin out of the person, before wrapping it in a newspaper and heading home. He then endures the agony of carving out his own skin in order to sew the stolen tattoo on his own body. No pain, no gain, right?
There could be a kinship with the protagonist in Andres Torres‘s Bag Boy Lover Boy, which premiered in France as part of the official competition.
I should’ve known something was up with this guy when he killed flies to feed them to his carnivorous plant. Albert (Swedish actor Jan Wachter) is used to handling meat, working the night shift as a hot dog vendor in a food truck in the Lower East Side. He is also a loser, the potential victim of a high school bully, the dude who’s seemingly nice yet still waters run deep. Could his crooked teeth be a metaphor of his twisted mind? He just stands there. He doesn’t even flinch when two patrons complain about the lack of hygiene as he drops a hot dog to the floor and puts it back on the grill. During the confrontation, he meets fetish photographer Ivan Worthington (Theodore Bouloukos), who is so fascinated by the slow-witted Albert that he returns the following night and offers him a job. Albert trashes it. He does not seem too bothered about his banal life but only aspires for more when he sees his love interest Lexi (Adrienne Gori) getting all flirty with a young photographer. So he fishes out of the trash the business card that Ivan had given him. Albert thinks Ivan will teach him about art, when in reality the well-known photographer is merely interested in his freakish physique for an art series that he is convinced will catapult him as the next Great American Photographer. Wanting to impress the down-and-out Lexi, the delusional young man goes thinking he’s going to be a photographer in no time, leave his hot dog job and become a celebrated artiste when he can’t even take a Polaroid. During the photo session, featuring a hot girl in lingerie, he is so wooden that I wanted to penetrate the screen and personally place his hands on her tits. He seems to show a sign of life when Ivan asks the girl to place a plastic bag over her head and Albert to pretend to choke her.
But Albert does not like modeling. He wants to be like Ivan. When the latter goes to work on a fashion shoot in Milan, he accidentally leaves the studio’s keys with Albert. His big break. This charmless freak with the annoying nasal voice manages to lure unsuspecting, usually intoxicated, women off the street to the studio with promises of a modeling career. And the only lesson in photography that he has retained is the plastic bag over the head. When the girls refuse to stay still and panic about the bag, he reenacts his photo session, chocking them for real and photographing them dead and even partaking in necrophilia. Because Albert also discovers sexual pleasure in the process. And you could say that he begins to earn some money from his photography by selling hamburgers on the food truck. His special recipe. He even grinds the meat himself… after each photo session with a dead body.
While the story is original and carries potential, conspicuous gaps in the screenplay pop up. Its dark humor is scarce or not crafted enough. It is, however, unsettling, mainly due to Jan Wachter’s performance.
Rarely have I felt relief sweep over me as when closing credits of The Duke of Burgundy began to roll. Not of terrifying fear, but of boredom. Peter Strickland‘s film, also in competition, makes up visually where it lacks in story. It continues the theme of this year’s festival, love in its most unexpected forms and how it can devour you.
Sidse Babett Knudsen, star of the Danish series Borgen, plays Cynthia, a lepidopterist, or one who studies butterflies and moths. But inside her home, she is an entirely different specimen, a middle-aged manor dominatrix who partakes in a daily S&M role-play with her live-in younger girlfriend, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna, who also played in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio). They reenact the same scenes each day: Evelyn acts as a maid who gets punished by the cold and cruel lady of the manor. But is she really the submissive one? The young woman actually scripts their daily reenactments on index cards, detailed to a tee. The only time they are themselves is when they attend one of their entomology lectures. They love each other but the butterflies in Cynthia’s stomach are no longer aflutter. She gradually becomes bored with the same old game and, frankly, so do I. It is like a broken record: the same scenes and lines are repeated over and over and the spectator just wants something to happen. Anything. Like Evelyn suffocating in the box Cynthia locks her in — even that is detailed on Evelyn’s index cards — but the thrill is gone. And this is where the plot line finally thickens. Like some of the creatures they study, the two women begin to devour each other, until the final reenactment where the dominatrix becomes submissive and the roles are reversed. Or finally apparent.
While the plot line is rather thin, it does tackle typical relationship issues: age difference, infidelity and boredom. And if you’re expecting a handsome duke to come and seduce one of them, you’ll be disappointed to know that The Duke of Burgundy is actually a butterfly that is found in the UK and on a rapid decline. Much like the lovers whose biggest fear is losing each other. Strickland plays on the lighting and shadows with densely layered images and wide shots and uses the swarms of moths and butterflies as one of the many symbolisms and metaphors of this film. Yet somehow they make the film seem more like a pastiche of a 70s Euro lesbian fetishism movie.
At least I now know what a lepidopterist is.